Friday, February 18, 2005


XBox Soldiers in Iraq

I came across this article by James Dunnigan on StrategyPage, and it got me thinking about this new type of soldier who fights the war in Iraq and the broader, Global War on Terror. Dunnigan rightly acknowledges the advantage in skills and aptitude these later than X generation young people bring to the fight. Likewise, he observes that the games themselves are one of the few distractions available to soldiers, with other more traditional (and morally questionable) escapes off limits.

But you know, it isn’t just the younger soldiers, and the phenomenon goes beyond just hand and eye coordination or the degree of stress relief.

Today’s soldier is in many ways more versatile and incredibly better supported than soldiers of previous eras. (Some of the old timers would say spoiled rotten, but I don’t want to digress on that point.)

First off, we are the best equipped soldiers in the history of the world, and pound for pound we tow hundreds of pounds of baggage and equipment. Equipment alone, we’re stocked for 4 seasons from one climate extreme to the other. (Ask Mrs. Dadmanly how much that means stored away in the basement because I’m in the Middle East and thus don’t need my Pacific Northwest stuff.)

The $87 billion appropriation that got this all started (I know there’s been more since then) paid for something called Rapid Fielding Initiative (RFI). This translates into all the cool and pretty necessary equipment GI Joes and Janes had been buying on their own, now given to troops as they head in country. It includes the Individual Body Armor (IBA), new Kevlar helmets, Wiley X sunglasses, lots of gortex and polypro and fancy sleep systems and the finest in athletic and sports wear that could be converted to military purposes. And the Joes and Janes pretty much love the stuff.

Then you can add in the modern office – and everybody except the strictly combat arms infantryman or tanker (and even some of them) works out of some kind of office, which means computers and printers and scanners and even network routers and switches and wireless routers, etc.

And that’s strictly speaking just the equipment.

When you work in all the personal gear and possessions the soldier brings along, we are talking some real poundage. As a National Guard unit, our average age started out at about 38 (its lower now because of all the Active Duty fills we took in to reach full manning). You’d think we were all kids, with all the DVD players, iPods, Xboxes and Playstations, laptops and wireless devices.

Clearly, we went a little overboard, loading 28 connexes to come over here. Loading bags, we started telling some of the guys, “she isn’t going to be able to breathe in the baggage hold!” Some of the oversize duffels we loaded were the size of small house trailers. But that’s the way the new army is, in any Combat Service Support unit.

Some theorists talk about the modern battlefield somehow filling all three dimensions and then some. It’s like all the old ways of thinking about conflict and war and combat have to be rethought.

Day after day we do our Army jobs without any outbreak of violence, or any need to engage an enemy. But, randomly, in very isolated occurrences, sudden hostilities may thrust any of us in any segment of the Army (combat units or combat service support) into violent response. We need to prepare, to be ready to respond with deadly force, achieve fire superiority, stabilize situations and neutralize threats. But most of the time, and most of us in Iraq, won’t experience that directly, although we may be nearby, or hear about it.

And you’d think that need for rapid response would mean we’d be lighter, less tied down, always in a combat mode. But that’s the funny part: with every evolution of equipment or tool or technique, the soldier is actually better prepared and able to be more alert, while at the same time able to go about his or her day to day job without anywhere near the level of anxiety or risk of injury or death, precisely because of technological advances.

And I think that’s where this odd phenomenon originates, that today’s soldier is allowed and in some ways encouraged to make him or herself at home wherever they are. The soldier already owns the technology that can instantly reconnect him or her to their family and friends, they can bring (almost all) their hobbies with them.

There are still some guys who will play cards (sometimes Spades but usually Texas Hold ‘Em, thanks World Series of Poker). And some will still go to the gym. But everyone has their DVDs, CDs, iPods, online music libraries in the thousands and thousands, laptops, and wireless.
Really, it’s no different than the GI who in WWII dragged around a phonograph or Victrola so he could listen to his favorite band or hear his wife’s voice. Or the fellas that spent more time looking for good furniture or hidden hooch (beer or wine) or other pursuits any time they had 5 minutes off.

These guys just have more available at the push of a button. If there’s one thing as true today as it was any time in the past, if there’s a simpler or easier or faster or smoother way to go, Joe and Jane will find it.

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