Since primitive man first drew crude stick figures on cave walls depicting struggles with massive prehistoric creatures, mankind has always glorified and been enthralled by stories of battle. While we award prizes for efforts toward making peace, we also idolize the warriors of our society and glorify them in every medium possible. From oral history to written tales to movies to videogames, legends of brave soldiers in violent clashes have always stirred something within us.
Of course, stories never do the reality justice, no matter how well they presented it. No one will argue that the portrayal of the landing at Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan isn’t visceral. It is gritty, violent and extremely graphic, full of exploding body parts and soldiers engulfed in flames. Yet most viewers don’t dwell on the soldiers that are killed – instead, they focus on the soldiers that make it through that hellish battle and continue on to search for Private Ryan.
That’s because in our minds, we’re picturing the “me movie” – we are the stars of our own film. When bad things happen, we expect the heroes to pull through victoriously because we identify with them. This is particularly true of modern soldiers that encounter combat for the first time. As the portrayal of war in movies and videogames has become more realistic, the eventual shock of reality that soldiers experience the first time they engage in combat can be offset by their previous immersion in battle simulators.
In many ways, this is an advantage. The modern “green” soldier has better preparation for actual combat than that of any period in history. Yet this prior exposure can also be a liability. With their experience of videogames and movies dictating their expectations, young soldiers can rush headlong into dangerous situations without truly understanding that there aren’t any respawn points in real life.
The Classic Soldier
Charlie Wenger was a 19-year-old electrician fresh out of high school when he was drafted in 1942 to serve in the U.S. Army. Today, he is famous for the 1945 photograph by Carl Mydans that shows MacArthur making landfall on the Luzon Island of the Philippines with three other soldiers. Wenger is the garish young soldier with a pistol on his hip and a grimace on his face as they wade through the waves to the shore.
“He asked me who was in charge,” Wenger says. “I said no one was – and MacArthur told me I better get him to someone that was in charge!”
Wenger had never seen a war movie prior to being drafted and had no idea what was in store for him. Not even his training really prepared him for the experience of combat, and what training he had was more in preparation for grueling marches than squad tactics.
“We didn’t really do much training,” Wenger says. “All I seem to remember is marching all the time in basic training. I trained on the 37mm anti-tank gun. We were supposed to knock out the machine gun nests, but when we got to the islands, we couldn’t get [the cannons] through the jungles so we never used them!”
Wenger had only fired a rifle a few times at a rifle range before he was drafted. He was not trained with the weapons he would actually be using in combat, let alone any enemy weapons or vehicles. Boot camp did not cover any advanced tactics; it was a brief eight-week introduction to the mental and physical conditioning soldiers would need to survive. Servicemen in that era learned what they needed to survive on the front line or else they went home in a box. Wenger became an experienced soldier in the fierce jungle combat of the Philippines and met plenty of young recruits who didn’t know what to expect – and never got a chance to learn.
“Once in a while, I would lead a group of replacement [soldiers] to our company,” Wenger recalls. “And then a week later I’d carry them back.”
Soldiers from World War II used pure guts and sheer determination in place of the tactical training recruits receive today. During one mission, Wenger led 100 unarmed Filipino recruits in a pack train on a long march to deliver supplies to a forward camp. Along the way, they were ambushed by Japanese soldiers that opened fire on the unit and raided the supplies. When Wenger made it back from the front of the marching convoy to where the attack happened, he didn’t hesitate – he charged after the three enemy soldiers as they tried to escape with the stolen supplies. Despite being outnumbered, Wenger attacked their position with only his Thompson machine gun and brought all three of them down, an act that earned him a Bronze Star.
“You just did what you had to do,” Wenger says. “And if it came down to them or you … well, that’s usually an easy choice.”
The Modern Soldier
“The insurgents were firing from the other side of the bridge,” Sgt. Sinque Swales told the Washington Post in February 2006. “We called in a helicopter for an airstrike. … I couldn’t believe I was seeing this. It was like Halo.”
Swales, a combat engineer who served in Iraq with the 276th Engineer Battalion, represents the modern soldier: technically proficient, well-equipped and trained in military tactics long before ever entering boot camp.
“Soldiers that come in today aren’t like the soldiers from when I joined,” says Master Sergeant (Retired) Guy Williams. “They’ve been playing these videogames since they could hold a joystick. Technology doesn’t intimidate them in the slightest.”
Williams has been retired from the active military for several years, but still works as a consultant for the military and regularly travels to Iraq, Afghanistan and numerous overseas locations to lend his expertise and help train younger soldiers. Most of his enlistment was spent in the Rangers, where he helped train the new generation of Special Forces.
The military usually designs its equipment with a “lowest common denominator” mentality – the idea being that any piece of equipment should be useable by the most technologically-impaired soldier. But in an era when everyone has a cell phone and at least a passing familiarity with the Internet, even the least tech-savvy soldier is now better prepared to handle complicated equipment.
“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.