Over spring break I was driving back from a day of skiing with a friend of mine, engaged in a conversation ranging from politics to whether or not I had done a good job resetting my recently broken nose. It was one of those conversations that jumped around and was full of inside jokes that old friends have. I imagine if a stranger had been in the car with us, they would not have laughed as often as we did, and might even be a bit lost at times as to what exactly was so funny. It is perhaps why it struck me as odd when told me he had no idea what I was talking about in the middle of a point I was trying to make. I was using the metaphor of comparing a Sargent and a Captain to illustrate my point. That is where I lost him; he did not know the difference between them. While neither of us had served in the military, my father had, while his dad was a priest. The conversation then turned to how growing up the son of a marine vs. a priest, had led to me knowing about military ranks and perhaps seeing the world in a slightly different way than a son of a clergyman would. The point being, that the military world is different (to what degree is certainly arguable) then the civilian one. So in what way are emerging technologies and social trends affecting the military? Will the soldier of the future carry an iPad into battle with them? Will video games prove an effective training tool? Will cell phones and digital networks change the battlefield of tomorrow in a similar way to what radio did in the past?
The May 2, 2011 Business Day section of the New York Times had an article on the cover titled “Keyboards First. Then Grenades.” With another article on the back page titled “A War Training Platform From an Unlikely Source”. The articles discuss the changing attitudes in the military toward everyday civilian devises such as smart phones along with the apps that go with them and video games, as well as what role they should play in America’s military. Looking at the military’s attempt to embrace today’s technology, one can’t help but feel like they are just a little slow, albeit eager in adopting it. The old saying “today's war is fought with last war’s weapons” comes to mind. At the heart of this issue might be the simple fact that there are no young Generals. It takes time to work one’s self up the chain of command, and older generations tend to be less proficient or experienced with computers. This of course will change over time.
Parallels of changing trends in military technology can be drawn throughout military history. In World War II, command of a battleship was held in the highest esteem even though it's effectiveness had been surpassed by the aircraft carrier in strategic value. Napoleon Bonaparte was at first an artillery officer, which was seen as a less distinguished area of the army, then say the cavalry or infantry. Established norms are often held in higher regard then new and unproven methods. This of course is not without merit. There is a legitimate reason for a military commander to be wary of the unsecured and unencrypted methods cell phones use to communicate. Just recently it was discovered that enemy combatants were monitoring the unencrypted video feeds from aerial drones in real time, with off the shelf Russian software no less. This sort of technology blunder has occurred throughout the history of warfare. During the Russo-Japanese war, commanders attempted to use radios for communication, including artillery targeting and correction. But their enemies quickly discovered that they could block these transmissions simple by holding down the transmit button on their own radios. This was perhaps the first time electronic jamming had been used in warfare. Perhaps there are legitimate reasons for military commanders to be wary of untested gadgets in their planning and preparation.
“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones”. This quote of Albert Einstein is a grim warning, but also illustrates a key fact about technology and warfare, namely that it is ever changing. So what role should video games play in the military? Should they be used and are they effective? Perhaps it is a little too late for that question, seeing that they have been used for years. And I am not talking about America's Army or Full Spectrum Warrio”. One would be hard pressed to find any pilot that did not owe part of their training to flight simulators. They offer a cheap and safe method to train unskilled new pilots. Perhaps the reason they are not often included in the discussion is that they are used to train skills that an individual would likely not already possess. The Air Force cannot assume that all its pilot recruits have logged hundreds of hours in the air prior to turning 18. A first person shooter style game such as America's Army is not training a person how to run around, kneel, or lay down. Hopefully a soldier knows how to do that before joining up. Nor does a person become a better shot with a rifle by respectively clicking a mouse.
But there are surely other ways a video game can be used in making a soldier more effect on a battlefield. Geographic navigation is one example. I have been to New York City at many points throughout my life, but I have not spent so much time in “The City” that I would claim any great understanding of navigating in it. Most of the time when I am in New York, I travel using the subway or by cab, with little thought to learning the geography of the city. I just follow the signs to the museum or whatever spot where I want to take touristy pictures. But after playing Grand Theft Auto 4, I can say I certainly feel a bit more confident making my way around New York City. When I was playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City a friend walked in to tell me that dinner was ready. As a person with zero interest in video games, it shocked me when he looked at the screen and asked “is that Miami?” It shocked me even more when he sat down and enthusiastically helped me navigate around “Vice City” pointing out all the hot spots in a game he had never played about a city I had never been too.
While I cannot claim to have ever been in the military or commanded troops in battle, I will admit that I prefer to play Warcraft and Command & Conquer with the “Fog of War” option turned off. I hope it is not too much of a leap then to assume that information is important on a battlefield. Like the radio did in the 20th century, the use of smartphone technology and digital networks will shape the battlefield of the 21st century. While radioing map coordinates is certainly an effective system of plotting geographic position, wouldn’t it just be easier if your boss sent you a map with “You are here ->” to your smartphone? And on that map he can also put “you need to go here ->”, “bad guys here -> and here->”, “minefield here ->”, and “awesome taco stand here ->”. Or maybe the internet is just making us all lazy and stupid.