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The line between sports and war has always been uncomfortably thin. It’s a cliché of aristocratic military lore that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton—but like many clichés, it contains more than a kernel of truth. In our frenetically digitized mass society, meanwhile, we casually understand that combat presented as harmless fun in the guise of sports, video games, and television probably goes a long way in softening the military’s image. But in plumbing the deeper nexus that connects our dizzying varieties of competitive leisure to the deadly serious business of combat, Lenoir and Caldwell do more than call out the clumsy PR initiatives of today’s Pentagon. While of course noting the crucial conflicts of interests in, say, the Pentagon’s notorious payoffs to the National Football League, Lenoir and Caldwell write that the real work of sanitizing Pentagon operations for public view resides in making the work of war seem mundane and familiar: “Routinizing war is important for a globalized capitalist empire,” they write, “and … implicit in this process is the understanding of war as a project with not only military but also ideological and political dimensions.” In particular, they observe, video games and television are indispensable to the challenge of “habituating civilians to perpetual war.” How this relationship between modern entertainment and war has developed over time and grown baroquely syncretized via the new economy of omni-digital gratification forms the fascinating nucleus of the book.

In stunningly short order, the Pentagon set about exploiting the obvious training implications offered by console gaming. In 1980 the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) set about appropriating the Atari game Battlezone and repurposing it as a revolutionary new training system called Bradley Trainer. That program’s success next prompted the engineers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to create the Simulator Network project (SIMNET, in Pentagon-ese). The breakthrough concept in SIMNET was to sidestep the costs of building physically realistic simulators—which had initially proved more expensive than the vehicles they were meant to simulate—by scaling the program to console users.

Here was one of the first self-conscious iterations of the military-entertainment complex—and Lenoir and Caldwell highlight the recruiting gains encoded in the innocuous-seeming logic of the Pentagon’s new virtual gaming platform. SIMNET operated on “selective functional fidelity rather than full physical fidelity”—i.e., experientially simulating a cockpit rather than recreating a cockpit replica. And that was just the first-order breakthrough: “The vehicle simulator was viewed as a tool for the training of crews as a military unit, thus emphasizing collective rather than individual training.”

By 1990, the nascent personal gaming industry was working on a revolving-door basis with the engineers at DARPA. Talent, money, and (especially) ideas now moved promiscuously back and forth between a growing industry hungry for the attention of consumers and a Pentagon looking for renewed purpose in the waning days of the Cold War.

The Great Simulation and Modern Memory
As this civilian-military synergy hardened into the post-Cold War status quo, simulator software morphed from a savvy bit of cost-saving hackery into a virtual raison d’être. Presiding over this shift was the recalibration of Pentagon strategy known as the “Revolution in Military Affairs.” The RMA, like the simulation boom, was partially a response to shrinking budgets—it was, however, much more than a cost-containment tactic. RMA—which incidentally was rooted in the Cold War speculations of Soviet strategists such as Nikolai Ograkov—was a reorientation of American military force away from the giant land wars of the past and toward ever greater reliance on high-tech gadgetry. Not only are key tech innovations such as precision-guided missiles and laser-targeting software cheaper than carpet bombing, they’re also less wantonly destructive of human life, making them an easy sell to political leaders and civilian supporters. The lead thinkers behind RMA promised to cut down on the massive numbers of casualties entailed in fully industrialized “total wars.” But in order to close the sale, Pentagon officials needed to direct their resources to the real-world prototypes for a new generation of virtually engineered and executed warfare.

The new doctrine found its ideal test lab in the First Gulf War. In that long-ago conflict, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster—now better known as President Trump’s obsequious (but now dispatched) National Security Advisor—deployed a new battery of sophisticated digital gadgetry to disable Soviet-built Iraqi tanks in what came to be known as the Battle of 73 Easting. It was such a resounding success, Lenoir and Caldwell tell us, that “[a] few days after the battle the military decided to capitalize on the Battle of 73 Easting to bolster future SIMNET training.” That’s right: in a prophetic sort of positive feedback loop, digitally enabled battle was now furnishing the raw material for digitally simulated military training. Data was gathered on the battle. Participants were interviewed. The 2nd Cavalry helped DARPA recreate the battle vehicle by vehicle. SIMNET eventually turned the Battle of 73 Easting training simulation into a sort of inverse Kobayashi Maru—the fictional Starfleet simulation notorious for being impossible to defeat—in which, despite a series of different programmed outcomes, it’s almost impossible to lose.

It was, in short, a model of digital-age vertical integration: exactly what the military wanted. And to speed along this happy synergy, the strictures governing DoD procurement policies were relaxed. Here, too, an adjustment to financial procedure concealed a much broader, and far-reaching, cultural shift. “The shift in procurement policy led to a loosening—even erasure—of the boundaries between military contractors and the commercial sector,” Lenoir and Caldwell write. “As a result, many important technologies in the area of networking, simulation, virtual reality, and AI moved from behind the walls of military secrecy into the commercial sector; and, even more important, technology began to flow freely from the commercial sector, particularly the game industry, into the military.”

The conduit was now so wide open that by 2004 we had such games as Full Spectrum Warrior, “a successful product of a collaboration among the military and game and film industries,” and America’s Army, in which SIMNET founder Jack Thorpe “saw … the same potential offered by Ender’s Battle School and envisioned a perfect military Battleplex providing a lifelong learning environment for combat decision leaders guided by proactive pedagogy and combat simulators.”

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Scott Beauchamp, “War Games.The Baffler. No. 39, April 30, 2018.

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