"It's such a huge change from when I enlisted," Williams explains. "When I was in, even the really simple radio we used back then was intimidating to a lot of new soldiers. Today's soldiers train on digitally-encrypted radios that seem straight out of science fiction."
Technological aptitude is not the only area modern soldiers seem to have an edge. Modern soldiers are more familiar with weapons and equipment - both from their own military and the opposing forces - before they ever enter combat.
"These guys come into the service and they've already played games like America's Army," says Williams. "So they recognize the weapons both of the U.S. and insurgents before they actually see them in real life, and most of them are pretty gung-ho, caught up in the hero mentality."
Apart from the difference in their training, modern soldiers are also more exposed to the strain of heroism that comes from pop culture. Movies, songs, books and videogames all extol the virtue of being the brave soldier who achieves victory while facing incredible odds. Combat is graphically (though not necessarily accurately) portrayed, so soldiers no longer enlist with little or no concept of what they might encounter. It's on the big screen, the computer monitor - even the nightly news.
Bridging the Gap
With modern soldiers experiencing simulated combat much more viscerally than soldiers of previous generations, do they fare better than their predecessors? Or are they worse off because movies and video games convince them that the most reckless actions are often the most heroic?
"Sure, [soldiers] have better training today," says Williams. "But 'battlefield Darwinism' still holds true." That is to say, when a soldier comes under fire for the first time, their training doesn't guarantee their survival. Even after repeated exposure to simulated combat, a soldier can still freeze up or make bad decisions. Success is still a matter of being alert, making smart choices and adapting to the battlefield.
What videogames can offer to new recruits is the opportunity to learn how to make better choices and work together with their fellow soldiers. A game like America's Army has levels specifically designed to teach players how to act in teams and squads in order to carry out missions that require cooperation. Furthermore, the game teaches players to be cautious and not charge recklessly into danger - you can't just charge a group of enemies and pop a medkit to regain your health. America's Army even gives some basic instruction in rules of engagement: Shooting an innocent non-combatant can land your avatar in a Fort Leavenworth jail cell.
Becoming an effective soldier takes time, training and a great deal of experience. And while videogames will never replace real-world conditioning, they have the potential to greatly aid soldiers in their development. As technology progresses, soldiers may be better prepared mentally to deal with combat. Emotionally, however, they will still need to draw on their own courage - a courage that cannot be learned from any game, no matter how realistic.
Shawn Williams is a veteran and the Service Officer for VFW Post 7294, and considers his military experience training for the coming zombie apocalypse. When not killing zombies, he kills time blogging at NeenerNeener.Net.