My battalion commander, Lt. Col. Michael Kurilla, gave the directive that my squad leaders, platoon sergeant, and myself had heard countless times: my platoon was to cordon and search a neighborhood that intelligence
had indicated might be the whereabouts of a high value target.
As our vehicles navigated to the neighborhood through a busy marketplace, an improvised explosive device detonated, and the vehicle became immobile. Then we started taking small-arms fire, and headquarters started peppering
us for an immediate situational report. We started taking casualties, and I lost communication with one of my squad leaders.
Thankfully this was not an actual patrol in Afghanistan or Iraq. We were in the simulation training center at Fort Lewis, in Washington State, where soldiers undergo virtual reality training on battlefield scenarios.
An instant giveaway that this was not a typical army mission was the temperature of the building, kept at low temperatures to cool the numerous computers which were required to run the simulation.
At first my soldiers smirked when my platoon sergeant told them about this training event. Given that we were still waiting for our weapons and vehicles to return from Iraq there were few other training opportunities,
and when the training was finished there were valuable lessons learned. For example, my battalion commander was able to glean some insight into the inner dynamics within my platoon, and my squad leaders were able
to show the new privates how the platoon operated.
The military has experimented with video games and virtual reality for many years, and perhaps one day in the not-too-distant future the science fiction of “Avatar” will
While at West Point, the Academy and the Army introduced a video game, America’s Army, and encouraged cadets to play the game and to give feedback. The video game was initially
envisioned as a recruiting tool, but many soldiers continue to immerse themselves in the online game even after they complete basic training. One of the biggest hobbies and distractions of soldiers deployed is playing
video games with war themes such as America’s Army, Call of Duty or Medal of Honor.
A platoon sergeant told me in a half-serious, half-joking tone that he felt these battlefield video games honed his soldiers’ “abilities to shoot, move, and communicate.” He actively encouraged
his soldiers to play these games during their off time.
Despite the usefulness associated with virtual training, everyone in the military knows that there is no replacement for real training. Commanders frequently say that units have to “train as you fight.”
Additionally, virtual reality cannot mimic the Murphy’s Law associated with even simple tasks such as starting and maintaining a vehicle, or ensuring that one has good communications with higher headquarters.
Nonetheless, scenarios conducted in virtual reality have their allure because they can be good for the military’s budget. No real jet fuel, ammunition or equipment is consumed. Moreover, there are some lessons
that can be imparted in virtual reality that pay dividends in reality. For example, pilots in training are often required to spend hours in virtual scenarios in order to become accustomed to flight controls. For
this reason, most of the cutting-edge virtual reality technology is in training pilots.
Video games are being used by the military not just to recruit and train soldiers for conventional skills, but also to help soldiers to learn cultural sensitivity and to help soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Virtual reality is used not just at the tactical level but also at the strategic level. In 2002 the military ran an exercise, Millennium Challenge, which
involved both virtual reality and live exercises. This blend of reality and video game sought to simulate the United States fighting a Middle East adversary, presumably Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. As chronicled
in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink,” the exercise was halted and the rules of the game altered in order to favor the United States military. Most likely, the $250 million exercise was used as a study
for an actual war.
As virtual reality seeks to mimic reality, aspects of warfare seem to be moving toward the level of detachment
associated with video games. For example, Air Force pilots operating aerial vehicles such as Predators and Reapers can now fly these drones while stationed stateside, within driving distance of their families.
In “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card, the protagonist believes he is being trained with virtual reality scenarios in order to defeat his adversary. Little does he know that his decisions made under
the guise of virtual training are being carried out in reality, and that he was deluded by his superiors to believe it was simply training in order to ensure that victory was not hampered by the frailty of human
Virtual training and this blend of reality-virtual will not only test the limits of human technology but will also raise moral issues and rules associated with the laws of war.