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Kids Learn That Killing Is Fun at the Army's Lethal New Theme Park

The Army's new recruitment tool lets high-tech video game centers desensitize, condition, train and even enlist America's youth.

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His T-shirt, by the way, is part of the First Infantry Division apparel collection, the Army's first officially licensed line of clothing, on sale in the AEC and at Sears. Made in China. Available in boys sizes.

Despite the AEC's 13-year-old age limit, underage exiles are welcome to come for the free movies. Or to "Dining Army Style," featuring MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat)  smorgasbords. Otherwise, they can watch -- through the center's glass front from the video arcade or the skateboard palace, both directly opposite the AEC -- while their older brothers compete in the Xbox tournaments.

A provision of No Child Left Behind, one of the first pieces of legislation proposed by the Bush administration, forced schools to open their doors to recruiters and provide contact information for students as young as 11.

J.E. McNeil, executive director of the Center on Conscience & War, calls such marketing tactics "an illegal tool in the recruiting arsenal" and a "violation of international law."

The Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, ratified and signed by the U.S. Senate in 2002, categorically forbids the Pentagon, or the militaries of any of the other 124 signatory nations, to attempt to recruit children 13 to 16 years old. The Pentagon simply chooses to ignore it, and Congress has neglected to enforce the treaty. (A meticulous documentation of the Pentagon's recruiting tactics explicitly directed at children can be found in a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union, Soldiers of Misfortune.)

Staff Sgt. Kevin Haver is a recruiter, a 25-year-old native Philadelphian, pumped up, tightly wrapped in his uniform, and one of a score of active-duty soldiers currently assigned to the AEC. He's taciturn at first. Having ascended to the warrior class, he has learned to despise and distrust all that is not military. Or at least, to act that way.

Haver has completed five deployments (including two to Iraq and one to Afghanistan), and he describes them defiantly as "the most fun I've ever had."  My question about stress gets a dismissive snort. He's a "flexible kind of guy."  Being home is nice enough, but it's too laid-back. He misses the high energy, the focused activity, and especially, the comradeship.

In fact, here at the center, it is laid-back -- nothing like the heavy-handed recruiting tactics that have caused so much public outrage over the past few years. Soldiers are standing around talking, watching TV. Some of Haver's buddies even jumped on the sims with me, inflating my scores. The place is filled with kids, but they are all playing games, ignoring the soldiers, who ignore them in turn.

"It's not a recruiting center," insists Ed Walters, the Army's first official chief marketing officer.

It is so, Ed.

For the past two years, the Army has proudly claimed to have met its recruitment goals. The economic crisis, unemployment, expanded educational benefits, grossly inflated enlistment bonuses, an array of medical, moral and criminal waivers, and relaxed weight, height, age and education requirements all make that achievement look considerably less impressive. The Army’s efforts have cost more than $4 billion a year, but a recent rash of recruiter suicides in Texas suggests that the ongoing stress of meeting quotas is becoming intolerable for some.

It seems the Army has come up with a unique strategy for the future: automation. For $4 billion, they could build half a dozen experience centers in every state and let the machines desensitize, condition, train and even enlist America's youth.

The Pentagon has been enjoined by both by national lawmakers and international institutions to stop pandering to children. When children's bodies are invaded, we call it statutory rape. Do we have a tidier phrase for the invasion of their minds?

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