The U.S. Army has retreated, or so we think.
It’s June 19 and Robert Smith, sweaty and sporting a Phillies cap, has just marched to the Franklin Mills Mall with about 20 peace activists.
To claim victory in their battle against the Army Experience Center, a 14,500-square-foot recruiter-run marketing project created by the U.S. Army that allowed children as young as 13 to play war-centric video games on one of 79 gaming stations featuring X-Box 360s and life-sized Humvees, Black Hawk and Apache helicopters with simulated rifles.
“Most of all, we need to thank those kids who said ‘no’ to the Army Experience Center’s recruiting mission,” says Smith, staff coordinator of the Swarthmore-based Brandywine Peace Community, an anti-war group involved in almost two years of protests, arrests and vigils inside the Northeast Philadelphia shopping mall. Their main beef with the AEC? That the video games glorified killing.
Just nine days before the planned protest, the Army announced through a press release it had planned on closing the $12 million center by July 31, though its two-year lease wouldn’t officially end until November. “The marketing and outreach lessons learned and interactive technology will be studied for the best application to nationwide recruiting applications,” the release stated.
The protesters re-branded the march as a celebration, and many activists we spoke to assert that protest pressure became too much for the AEC.
But that’s just not the case. The enemy has other plans.
Since closing five smaller recruiting stations in Philadelphia and opening the AEC in August 2008, recruiting in Philadelphia has been up 15 percent. Now, the AEC’s video-game equipment—used for entertainment but more so to entice children and teens to sign up for service—is being sent to smaller recruiting stations across the country. The purpose of this, the Army says, is to make way for 21st-century recruiting.
“We’re now going to see how we can move it out of one center and get it around the country,” says Brian Lepley, public affairs officer at the U.S. Army Accessions Command. “This is how young Americans are used to receiving information. They can summon it when they want to and that’s the type of outreach we want to import through new recruiting stations.”
So, like it or not, video-gaming yourself into [insert country we’re at war with here] is here to stay.
Since opening, more than 40,000 visitors have passed through the AEC’s doors and at least 236 have been recruited.
But Lepley says recruiting wasn’t the goal of the Northeast station. (Interested teens weren’t turned away, either). “The center didn’t have a recruiting mission,” he says. “The point of the place was for younger Americans, and even older Americans—because vets and other people walked in there—to learn about the Army.”
Tim Kearney isn’t buying it.
The former candidate for state representative of the 172nd District, which covers the Northeast, says the Army was trying to target working-class and lower-middle-class teens.
“You’ll notice the Army didn’t put the Army Experience Center in Society Hill or Chestnut Hill or Lower Merion,” he says. “They’re trying to recruit people from the Northeast. There’s a real class warfare aspect to the AEC and where they decided to locate it. They’re horribly, horribly misusing people.”
Not quite, says the Army.
“Protestors can say what they want,” Lepley tells us. “They weren’t part of our decision process. We didn’t consult them.”
Maybe not, but questions about the Army’s mission remain. Why did it build a $12 million (which came from taxpayers) center, not use it for recruiting, and then close it two years later? It seems like a whole lot of money just to “determine the most effective tools for public outreach.” Despite repeated questions and calls for comment, we never got the answer.
As far as the gaming equipment, Lepley says it will take four months to disassemble and remove, and will then go to two new stations in the Philadelphia area. The locations haven’t been finalized, but Lt. Col. Chris Belcher, of the Army Recruiting Command, says there will be one on Cottman Avenue and one in the Levittown area. These “21st-century” recruiting stations will likely have about three gaming stations each, as well as an interactive career-navigating system.