The measure of a good bar isn’t the depth of the beer selection or the amount of designer fabric and black paint the place boasts. It’s really about feeling comfortable, which usually means people are drinking – a lot. Laying down that ruler, the Ogden Street Station in Denver is a good bar. Or at least it’s filled with very drunk people on a Friday night.

I’d followed some friends there in search of a little karaoke and a few end-of-the week laughs. When the bartender sloshed my order of good bourdon into a shot glass it was clear people came to this bar to get drunk. A very intoxicated girl carried on the can-can of consumption celebrating her 21st birthday by trying to set my pal up with her Aunt Pam. “She works at Lenscrafters,” she oozed.

Then the big guy in the pink shirt cornered me.

His beer waving in his dancing hands, I got his life story: A military brat, went to an all male college and was a former Marine. He loved his sales job but was ready for life’s next big challenge – an MBA. With visions of waiting in line for a driver’s license or being stuck in a traffic jam, I counterpunched in an effort to bring the conversation back to something interesting.

“Ya know, I’m writing a story that deals with the military.”

In the striptease of saloon conversation, I gave him the OK to let it all hang out. He told me how much he loved his country and how proud he was to serve. Then, leaning forward with the menace of a guy that’s at least 220 and built like a vending machine said sternly, “But that doesn’t mean I support this administration. That doesn’t mean that I’m in favor of what they are doing.”

Then his face fell as he explained how much respect he had for the people in combat, the soldiers that were serving in the line of fire.

So I asked the question.

“How do you feel about a guy like me who never did serve?”

Without a beat, he pinned me with a stare said flatly, “Well, to be honest, I kind of resent that.”

Without anger and with very few words, he told me what I already knew – I’m a coward. The only thing that makes this weight a little lighter is that I live in a country of cowards. Being a coward in America is like wearing black clothes at a Nine Inch Nails concert – it’s not just a fashion statement, it’s a uniform.

Worst of all, like all the Emo kids who think acting deep means that you actually have anything inside your hollow pubescent chest, the modern American coward thinks they’ve got it all figured out. They don’t call it cowardice; they call it the “American Dream.” And only Americans seem to mix up that this dream is just the fantasy of becoming rich and famous. The American Dream is the hallucination of ultimate leisure, of fast cars, early tee times and hot wives spread out across lush backyard BBQs from sea to shining sea.

Suiting up in Kevlar armor to gun down teenage terrorists in dusty mudbrick cities on the other side of the planet doesn’t sound like, well let’s just say it, any fun.

So we live in the era of the coward. When this particular moment in history started and when it will end seems a lot less important than recognizing that, despite our proclamations to the contrary, we are a nation of the fearful, guided by paranoia and generally shy away from anything smacking of bravery.

Somewhere along the way we replaced actual courage with fey patriotism. We turned into a country filled with flag-waving, gung-ho Patrick Henrys that support the troops by standing safely behind them while discouraging our own kids from signing up for a hitch. In the ruthless calculus of self-interested capitalism, a thousands deaths and a few thousand mutilated young bodies seems a fair price to pay for freedom – as long as Billy can finish his degree and land that coosh consulting job so he can buy mommy something nice on her birthday.

In a civil society that has come to be ruled by the boardroom, heroism is just another department in a different corporate division. And more and more, it’s someone else’s problem.

Uncle Sam Wants You
Since the person I was scheduled to interview about the America’s Army game wasn’t there, I didn’t have much choice. Hurry up and wait. Isn’t that the Army motto?

“Sure, I can wait for bit,” I cooed to my PR contact.

It’s something you learn after years of tromping through the Electronic Entertainment Expo as journalist. Reasonably, you could assume you attend the most important videogame show of the year to see product. But everyone knows while stumbling through the expo’s existential torpor waiting for something interesting to happen, the real task is to make friends with product managers and publicists. These are the people that make your journalistic life more like happy or more like hell, depending on the circumstances.

So I waited.

Sitting on the floor in the Army’s massive marketing display was an olive drab, radio controlled car, or mini-tank. Maybe it was used to find bombs. Or maybe for fighting midgets. Maybe it was the Army’s entry in the BattleBot competition. It looked mean.

“You interested in the Talon?”

“Uh, er, I’m just waiting for my appointment to show.”

“Well, let me help you,” said the soldier. “Major Bret Wilson,” he introduced himself with a friendly handshake. “While you’re waiting, maybe we can talk.”

Major Bret is a Deputy Director for the Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis at the United States Military Academy at West Point. In that role, he is one of the guys behind the America’s Army game. And that’s what’s I’d come to talk about. So, what the hell? Let’s talk.

“It’s kinda loud in here. You wanna go outside?” he asked.

Huh? Leave the expo? Step outside the sense-deadening audiovisual assault of the show floor? Disarm the marketing machine? Back away from the schwag and porn stars dressed as gaming characters. Leave the Talon? Go outside?

What the hell. It was the most interesting thing that had happened all day.

Out on a convention center loading dock, I squinted in the sunlight and stared at the crates. Wasn’t E3 all about the flash and bang of BIG sound, BIG graphics and BIG concepts? If so, it was all news to Major Bret. He just wanted to help me understand why my government had spent millions of dollars to develop a videogame.

“The America’s Army game is a way to bring heroes back into the message,” he smiled. Confident. Honest. Major Bret wanted me, the civilian citizen, to understand. He wanted me to understand what he knows. And he wants you to understand too.

We need heroes. Real heroes.

Some people think Lance Armstrong is a hero. I do not.

I think Lance is some super freaky human like the Flash or Wolverine. And maybe if he used his powers to battle super villains and malevolent space aliens, I’d change my mind. Maybe if he had a Bat Cave and a boy sidekick, I’d think differently about him. Maybe if he would just break up with Sheryl Crow I’d give the matter some consideration.

But when I look at the facts, I don’t see the hero part.

Fact: Lance rides a bike really fast, for a really long time.

Fact: Lance had cancer, got very sick and somehow didn’t die but lost some of his manhood in the process.

Fact: Lance sells yellow rubber bracelets to help support cancer research and is generally an inspiration to those afflicted with the disease.

Let’s run these facts through the hero analyzer and see what we come out with.

That Lance rides a bike is not a qualification for being a hero. He may be the greatest athlete of his kind in the history of great athletes. Little kids may put posters of him on their walls and grown men very well may shave their legs and slip into form fitting Lycra to take a tool around on a bike that cost more than their car. Whatever. These are not the elements of a hero. If so, Sporty Spice is a hero for pushing girl power and exercise. And I’m just not willing to go there.

The word you’re looking for isn’t “hero.” It’s “role model.” And people – often fans of heavy metal – have proven that role models can model some pretty tasteless behavior and sense of fashion. Thanks to the darker elements of the metal genre, there are still countless young men that think dirty black t-shirts, long greasy hair and a pre-pubescent beard stubble make you look evil.

So I have no problem with Lance as a role model. But riding a bike does not earn you heroism unless you are being chased by zombie Nazis while delivering life serum to starving children during a particularly difficult mountain stage.

That leaves cancer. And this is where people point when eagerly looking to canonize St. Lance. But let’s be honest about this. Surviving a horrible disease does not make you a hero. You might be brave, and you might be generous with how you share your fading strength. Maybe you can find lightness and humor in your darkest moments and share those with the world. These are all noble things. They just are not the qualities of the hero.

The reason is because not wanting to die is not heroic. It’s normal. It’s natural. It’s like ducking when you hear a loud noise or getting off a city bus when a shirtless hobo carrying a pair of nunchucks gets on.

And as positive as it is for Lance to become the patron saint of rubber bracelets, let’s not go Mother Teresa on him just yet. Remember, this is a rich guy giving a little back to the community. We don’t call Bill Gates a hero for funding inoculations across the globe. We just figure it’s better he does that with a few hundred million dollars than build a sex palace on the moon. Really, I don’t think of myself as a hero when I drop a couple of bucks in the Salvation Army can at Christmas either.

Heroes, in case we’ve forgotten already, are the guys running UP the stairs in a burning building when everyone else is running down.

An Army of Fun
There are two things worth noting about the America’s Army game.

The second most interesting thing about the game is that it’s fun. This is interesting because we assume that the government can’t do anything right – at least not as well as the private enterprise of the free market. So, people are surprised to find that AA is good enough that you’d actually think about spending a few bucks to buy a copy. Which leads us to the most interesting thing about the America’s Army game: It’s free.

Finding free games isn’t that much of a trick in the era of the Net. Between easily available porn and Flash games, it’s a wonder that U.S. office productivity hasn’t dipped below that of Turkmenistan’s.

What makes AA a novel freebie is that the government could box up this baby and sell it at Best Buy. It’s a polished shooter game with a distinctive Army stamp.

For example, characters in the game say things like “Range walk,” which presumably is something real drill instructors yell at real recruits. If you do stupid things like say, shoot your commanding officer, you’ll loose rank and even end up in the brig. (Which is probably something more squad-based online games should consider.) And you can’t do anything smacking of science fiction, like a rocket jump or single-handedly dispatch a half dozen bad guys with an M-16 in one hand and a pistol in the other. The America’s Army game is like a Tom Clancy’s game, just with all the Tom Clancy hyperbole stripped out.

The reason AA doesn’t get piled in the dozens of other contemporary, first-person shooting titles is because like Linux, you don’t have to pay to play. Both the little operating system that could and the government’s own best-selling videogame are products most notable because they are given away. And people find it hard to imagine that anything worth having could be had without a hitch.

So what’s the hitch?

The Army can be kind of coy about this, and, frankly, anything they do that costs millions or even billions of dollars. But I think it boils down to this: The Army would like you to spend a little less time thinking about the pick up work they do for the Bush family and a little more about heroes.

Be All You Can Be
Somewhere in the Pentagon is the guy who worries about people who are not in the Army. His job is to think about the people who the Army protects, who the Army hopes will continue to pay them their substantial allowance for fatigues and cruise missiles and will also be willing to encourage their sons and daughters to spend some time in that most excellent overnight camp known as military service.

These days, though, it sucks to be this guy.

Thanks to a war that nobody really wants to be in, but no one seems to have the slightest idea how to get out of, the Army is missing its recruitment goals by hundreds of thousands of enlistees a year. Politics aside, the arsenal of democracy is running out of floor staff. McDonald’s has less trouble staffing the fry station than the Army has putting butts in state-of-the-art combat vehicles.

Even worse, since Vietnam, and maybe even as far back as Korea, Americans have come to think of the Army as the tool of the current administration. Hate Johnson’s Asia policy? Blame the Army. Hate the Bush Agenda? Blame the zealots in the Pentagon.

What the Army needs is a PR campaign, a way to reach out and touch America and convince people the Army matters, to help them understand that Democracy with a capital D depends on a healthy and effective military. The public needs to understand a subtlety and the Army knows full well that Americans gobble up subtlety the way the Saudi research solar power.

This new message is that the Army is not just a tool of the current administration, although it is proud and happy to do the job it was asked to do. But even though they may be at the beck and call of a George Bush or two from time to time, sooner or later they’ll be taking marching orders from someone else, someone democratically elected into office. The Army of Democracy depends on this – a sort of removed objectivity about getting into whatever scrap, conflict, dust up or flat out war they are asked to enter. This is how democratic armies should work. Because armies that start asking questions start with “Why this war?” but inevitably end up posing the much scarier, “Why are we taking orders from a bunch of civilian chumps? Shouldn’t we just be running the show? I mean, guys, don’t we have ALL of the tanks?”

The delicate fabric of democracy depends, in part, on the willingness of the Army to play the role of big, dumb and loyal Doberman. But now the pet needs to play seeing-eye dog for an increasingly confused master.

In order to lead the American public in the right direction, you have to move delicately. You have to focus on simple concepts. “Foreign affairs,” for example, is out because it already violates the law of simplicity by using two words. Instead, how about “Hero?” And how do you plan to deliver this marketing ordinance? How about by using a medium known for its massive appeal with young males, tendency to avoid complicated messages and its hurdy-gurdy of reason-confounding multimedia? Why not make a videogame about heroes?

The last time the military had a really good story to tell was when Tom Cruise was in the starring role. “Top Gun” proved that military propaganda was alive and well. And whether or not the Navy needed a bunch of popcorn munching recruits queuing to suit up for air combat, you can bet the Navy brass enjoyed the attention. Not since the Lee Marvin slipped into an SS Officer’s duds in “The Dirty Dozen” has military uniform looked so cool.

Today our images of soldiers are of dusty men and women with goggles propped on their helmets and tired looks on their faces. Our cultural cache of military snap snots includes Lynndie England with cock-eyed cigarette in her mouth and finger pointing at a hooded prisoner’s cock. Uncle Sam used to point at the public and make a demand of service. These days, we just point and laugh. Or maybe cringe.

Even when the military does something we like, say by finding Saddam, the joke seems to be on them as they haul a homeless tramp out a hole. Our search for decent villains seems as hopeless as our search for heroes.

As a nation, we’ve become so thirsty for images of heroism that some of us hauled off and elected yet another actor to govern California. It seems they remember he did something heroic. Never mind his most notable heroic act happened while wearing a loincloth and involved giving a giant snake god a tonsillectomy with a broadsword. At least it left the smell of heroism in the air.

But where Hollywood has reconstructed the hero as a new kind of fiction, the American Army has captured a little bit of a complicated truth in the imaginary world of their game. If a little bit of the pride, a little sense of the real heroes who understand that to serve their country means to serve a greater good, can come from a videogame, then the game serves a higher purpose.

And that’s something you can raise a glass to in any bar.

David Thomas is the founder of the International Game Journalists Association. He also provides commentary and criticism at buzzcut.com.

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