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Playing with propaganda

Editorial by Bruce Wark


Military recruiting ads have come a long way from those First World War posters showing a stern Uncle Sam pointing a bony finger and yelling, “I WANT YOU for the US ARMY.” Nowadays, the US military has created an action-packed video game called America’s Army to entice young adults to sign up for the bloody, imperial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. America’s Army enables its 7.6-million registered players to experience the thrills, chills and kills of combat. And all they have to do is click a button in the game menu and an Army recruiting website pops up. “But video games can’t—or can’t yet—convey the human cost of combat,” Time magazine warns. “They pass along the adrenaline rush, the thrill of the fight, and leave out the rest. Games are supposed to be fun, but war isn’t.”

War isn’t fun? Tell that to Canada’s military recruiters. Last month they launched a $3 million ad campaign that depicts military life as a gritty but bloodless docudrama. The ads are running on TV, on the internet and in movie theatres. One 90-second spot shows three young airmen leaping from the skies to rescue a sexy woman stranded in the Rockies. In Afghanistan, soldiers wielding assault rifles kick in doors to free a cute female hostage. Others conduct a fierce gun battle. Rapid-fire images flash on the screen: a navy ship on the high seas, missiles, a tank, a burning car. On the sound track someone hammers a metal drum. Dogs bark. A synthesizer whines. Phrases appear. “Fight Fear. Fight Distress. Fight Chaos. Fight with the Canadian Forces.”

The ads are designed to attract 18- to 34-year-olds to “over 100 exciting full-and-part-time careers” in the armed forces. But they also remind all Canadians that our military is not only about disaster relief, humanitarian aid or search and rescue. As more Canadian corpses come home from Afghanistan, the ads tell us that the military is also in the business of helping our rich NATO allies fight a dirty war in a far off land few of us have ever seen. The ads reinforce the official government line that we’re fighting to rebuild a shattered country, bring democracy and peace to a long-suffering people and free girls and women from centuries of oppression.

Unfortunately, those lofty goals are receding fast. A report released in April by the Council on Foreign Relations criticizes the US and NATO for putting Afghanistan “on life support, rather than investing in a cure.” It was written by Barnett Rubin, a highly respected scholar at New York University. Rubin argues that five years after the US started dropping bombs, things are getting worse, not better. He points to the growth of an increasingly deadly insurgency with sanctuaries in Pakistan; the ineffectiveness and corruption of Afghanistan’s warlord-dominated government and the immense power of drug traffickers to dictate who runs the country. Rubin writes that Afghanistan is close to being the poorest country in the world, one beset by hunger, disease, illiteracy and the continued repression of women. While the US and NATO spend $15 to $18 billion a year on combat missions that have killed thousands of Afghanis, annual international development aid averages only about $2.5 billion.

Rubin recommends substantial increases in aid not tied to immediate elimination of the poppy crop. Poppy eradication further impoverishes farmers, he argues. Crop substitution will take time and patience. So too will integrating Afghanistan both politically and economically into its region. Rubin calls for sustained efforts to resolve the country’s long-standing conflicts with Pakistan, conflicts which fuel the insurgency that is killing Canada’s soldiers. His report makes it clear that achieving our goals in Afghanistan will take more than high-tech military equipment and the will to keep fighting. It will also take more than simplistic propaganda slogans reinforced by slick ads. The real fight in Afghanistan is against our own ignorance.

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