In his book Virtuous War, political theorist and United States military chronicler James Der Derian identifies the opening of the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) in 1999 as a founding moment in the emergence of what he names the military-industrial-media-entertainment network Explicitly committed to strengthening the synergies of the entertainment and defense industries, the US Army allocated 45 million dollars for the first five years to the University of Southern California to create a research laboratory dedicated to the development of advanced simulations. Der Derian proposes that “[b]y its very task and potential power to create totally immersive environments—where one can see, hear, perhaps even touch and emotionally interact with digitally created agents—the ICT is leading the way into a brave new world that threatens to breach the last fire walls between reality and virtuality.
What should we make of these “fire walls” between the real and the virtual? In exploring the archival remnants of FlatWorld, a flagship project at the ICT (2001‒7), my aim has been to attend critically to the imaginaries that are realized in the simulation’s figurations of places and (raced, gendered) bodies, as well as through its storylines. This is part of a wider project to understand how the distinctions between the real and the virtual are elided productively in technoscientific military discourses, in the interest of recovering differences that matter.
A central challenge for military simulations, as conceived by their sponsors and those for whom they are designed, is the achievement of “realism” or verisimilitude between the simulation’s figurations and sites of projected operation, their inhabitants, and potential events that might occur there. It is to address this challenge that the special effects know-how of the entertainment industry is called.
In 2006, with funding from the US Office of Naval Research, the FlatWorld project was elaborated as the Infantry Immersion Trainer (IIT), aimed at training Marine Corps in preparation for deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Installed in a large, abandoned tomato factory in Camp Pendleton in California, the simulation’s promise was “to inoculate the Marine rifleman from the sights, sounds, smells, and chaos of close quarters urban warfare while enhancing his ability to make correct legal, ethical, and moral decisions under the stress of combat.” First used by the Marines for training in November of 2007, the press-media was invited to “embed” with the Marines in a demonstration training exercise combining “live action role players” and “virtual Iraqis,” projected onto holographic screens, to create interactive battle simulations..
In the larger project of which my engagement with the FlatWorld archive is part, I focus on the military concept of “situational awareness,” and more specifically with the requirements of “positive identification” and “imminent threat” that underwrite the canons of legalized killing. I’m thinking about the trope of “situational awareness” through related questions of intelligibility and identification, and more particularly through a frame inspired by Judith Butler’s theoretical analysis of recognition’s generative agencies. In Bodies That Matter, Butler suggests that the intelligibility of the body includes always its “constitutive outsides,” those unthinkable and unlivable bodies “that do not matter in the same way. “Bodies that do not matter in the same way” takes on further resonance in the context of simulation, as another sense of bodies differently materialized. FlatWorld’s distinction between “us,” who are actual, and “them,” who are virtual, plays as another layer of intelligibility and identification that works in a complex dynamic with other readings of “us” and “them,” which are so central to the operations of war. At the same time, we begin to see how the bodies of “us” immersed in virtual environments are transformed, while “their” virtual bodies are also reiterative and generative of actual ones.
So, I close with a question, which sets up my research agenda: How can we think simulation and actuality together through their resemblances—their real, corporeal connections—and articulate their crucial differences, particularly when it comes to acts of wounding and killing? If the construction of the enemy is not a singular or determining act but rather a process of reiteration, how might we re-conceive “training” from training the body in recognition and response (the current conception of “situational awareness”), to training as itself productive of the entities to be recognized? Seen as another mode of reiteration, simulation is, then, deeply implicated in performing the realities that it cites.