Sun, Apr 24, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Military trainers call in Hollywood

Some of Hollywood's top creative talents in film and video technologies are helping the US military to train for the problems of war in the 21st century

By James Vernini  /  THE GUARDIAN , Marina Del Rey, California

I magine yourself, one balmy morning, on patrol in the Sadr City section of Baghdad. You and your US army unit advance along abandoned streets strewn with the burned-out shells of cars. Minarets peek out over dingy apartment blocks. Suddenly, a young Iraqi boy appears in the street. You halt, guns raised.

"Milk!" he yells, holding aloft a jug.

You give him a few dinars. Pressing on, you find a dead horse lying in the street. One of your men reminds you to be careful of improvised explosive devices. But your suspicions aren't piqued until you notice a pile of decaying steers nearby. This suggests something especially lethal, you surmise. And sure enough, not far away, you and your unit come upon a dubious warehouse. Entering it, you find a stash of anthrax. WMDs, at last!

Such are the vicarious thrills of Every Soldier a Sensor, a video game which was demonstrated for me recently. I was not in Iraq, but rather in an air-conditioned theater at the Institute for Creative Technologies, a think-tank that designs simulation programs and games for soldiers. It is funded in large part by the Pentagon and run by the University of Southern California.

ICT is housed in a nondescript tower in Marina Del Rey, California. Its casual offices, thought up by a Star Trek production designer, look on to the Pacific Ocean. They are full of animators, graphic artists, video game designers, artificial intelligence researchers, engineers, screenwriters and directors emigrated from Hollywood.

If the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned of nearly a half century ago has turned into a military-entertainment complex, as certain theorists like to assert, then the ICT is surely one of its most laid-back new outposts.

During the 1990s, Hill explains, the army came to two important realizations. The first was that, in the media and Internet age, its operations abroad were subject to public scrutiny as never before. The second: in a new era of urban combat and asymmetrical warfare, leadership decisions in the field were originating farther and farther down the chain of command. Young soldiers would have to be trained in more than just riflery and marching in unison.

Hill then unveils ICT's latest offering to that end: an interactive learning program called Army Excellence in Leadership (or AXL -- everything at ICT has an acronym).

The first part consists of a short film, Power Hungry. The setting is Afghanistan. An impatient young American officer has been assigned to oversee a delivery of food relief. He must deal with forbidding terrain, limited resources, confusion within his own ranks, and a pair of treacherous Afghan warlords named Omar and Muhammad. The situation deteriorates, guns are drawn, and Omar ends up nonchalantly shooting one of his own hungry tribesmen.

In the second part, a digitally animated head appears in the corner of the screen to quiz the player on the movie. The player, in turn, can ask the talking head questions, and then pull up characters and grill them as well. Hill summons Omar and inquires after his motives. Omar gives a facetious-sounding response. I suggest asking: "What do you think of the American presence in Afghanistan?"

Omar's reply to this is, on the whole, rather evasive, but at one point he launches in to a subtle point about the clash of cultures in the Afghan war.

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