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Shutting Down the Army Experience Center

From the popular America's Army video game.

From the popular America's Army video game.

Killing is fun -- and life is cheap at the Army Experience Center at the Franklin Mills Mall in suburban Philadelphia.

"This is so cool!" This is so cool!" The enthralled 13 year-old kept repeating as he squeezed rounds from his M-16, picking off "enemy combatants" while perched on a real Army Humvee.

We're in the new Army Experience Center in suburban Philadelphia and the young teen, who doesn't look older than 11, was obviously impressed with the Army's killing machines. "I just came to the mall to skateboard in the skate park across the hall but everyone said this was pretty cool. I just had to try it and its great!"

Video games offer the perfect segues between childhood innocence and institutionalized killing. That's why the Army opened the Army Experience Center, a one-of-a-kind, 14,500-square-foot "virtual educational facility" in August of 2008. Although the Army says it's not about recruiting, all 20 soldiers stationed at the mall are active duty recruiters.

The Army will run the Experience Center as a pilot program for up to two years when it will decide whether to launch them nationally, like so many Wal-Marts. Early reports regarding the success of the program indicate that the Army Experience Center is able to attract the same number of recruits as five traditional recruiting centers in the area surrounding Bensalem, the Philadelphia suburb where Franklin Mills Mall is located.

With the unemployment rate of Bensalem, Pennsylvania steadily rising from 3.8% in December of 2006 to nearly double that rate today, the military chose an excellent location for the pilot program. Although the Army Experience Center cost more than $12 million to design and construct, the recruiters on duty explained that the Army is "giving back" to the community by preparing students for the high school equivalency test. The center includes 20 PC work stations where recruiters provide GED instruction for free.

lthough most of the youth at Franklin Mills Mall seemed generally pleased with the shooting experience offered on the Humvee, the Black Hawk, and on the America's Army video game, avid gamers in their late teens are critical of the America's Army video game, at least compared to other popular killing games like Viking on the PS3 where gamers can hack their enemy to death with an axe, or Nintendo's Mortal Kombat where blood and intestines seem to hit the screen. Teens also complain that America's Army is unrealistic because good guys and bad guys can exchange point-blank automatic weapons fire for ten seconds before anyone goes down.

Youth and adults enjoy the killing games at the Army Experience Center at Franklin Mills Mall in Philadelphia.

Youth and adults enjoy the killing games at the Army Experience Center at Franklin Mills Mall in Philadelphia.

Generally, however, the Army's killing game is fun for the teens in Philadelphia, especially because it's at the local mall and it's free.

The 14,500 square feet of retail space is laid out in several distinct sections, each attempting to sell the Army. Youth are impressed when they examine the Global Base Locator which highlights Army bases throughout the United States and around the world. The Career Exploration Area, using the same name as the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery Career Exploration Program, ASVABCEP that operates in 11,900 high schools across the country, lets visitors use its touch-screen technology to learn about 179 different Army career fields. This is where recruiters might engage youth in discussions of their interests to gauge possible career paths. For instance, if a teen explains that his favorite pastime is playing in a rock band, the recruiter might describe an Army career as a Bass Guitarist. If a potential recruit expresses interest in graphic arts, for instance, recruiters at the Army Experience center might suggest a job as a Multimedia Illustrator.

Of course, the Army is first and foremost about killing -- and the Army Experience Center is part of that mission. None of the recruiters at the center or their literature mention that soldiers in the Army may be killed in action or may be required to kill others, but the Army has a different spin. "The Army is not all about boots and guns," explains Army Major Larry Dillard, Army Experience Center Program Manager. "We want to give people the opportunity to experience the Army for themselves, so they have an understanding of what soldiers do, and they can be proud of their service."

The highlight of the Experience Center is the Black Hawk Simulator in which participants take a virtual tour through an Afghan mountain village while shooting at enemies who are trying to sabotage a U.S. medical convoy headed to a field hospital. "We're the good guys trying to bring medicine to people and the bad guys are trying to stop us from giving medicine to the sick and dying because they hate our freedoms." At least that's the way 13 year-olds in Philadelphia who've had fun "blowing people away" explain it.

"We're the good guys and they're the bad guys." - a 13-year-old boy in Philadelphia:

"We're the good guys and they're the bad guys." - a 13-year-old boy in Philadelphia:

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The virtual shooting ranges and video games are an abomination that cheapen life and blur the lines between virtual killing and the real thing. We are outraged by this development. We see it as a dangerous escalation in the militarization of American society and we vow to shut it down.

Please join us on Saturday, May 2. We're simply encouraging people to show up early at the mall and spend some time shopping. Franklin Mills Mall Directory. We don’t want people to actually buy anything – We just want them to look like they’re “shopping.” In fact, there are discussions about organizing a boycott of Franklin Mills Mall after the publicity generated by this action.

At 2:00 pm people will emerge from “shopping” and converge on the Army Experience Center. It may not be wise to congregate into large groups before the demonstration or wear clothing that would suggest your participation in the protest. We think it's possible for hundreds of us to arrive at the mall without being detected. And it is a free country, sort of.

In America today, privately owned spaces like shopping malls are not generally considered to be public property like streets, sidewalks and public parks. It's a real problem for 1st Amendment enthusiasts because, well, because many of today's public spaces are…private.

Malls pose a special challenge for purposes of 1st Amendment activity. Generally, in Pennsylvania, if the owner of a mall doesn't want protesters, they have the "right" to demand that we leave. In February, 2009, 50 of us suddenly appeared at the Army Experience Center with large labels on our clothing that said, "War is not a game." The police and mall security were very cordial and repeatedly asked us to leave. After about 15-20 minutes of negotiating with officials, the "freeze action" dissipated. We made our point. No one was arrested and everyone was pleasant.

Franklin Mills Mall is owned by a huge multinational corporation, Simon Property Group, Inc., NYSE:SPG . Headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana, SPG is the world's largest retail outlet owner. It owns or has an interest in at least 380 properties in the United States comprising more than 258,000,000 square feet in 39 states. Simon Property Group also holds interests in 52 malls around the world. Maybe we're out on a limb here, but Simon is probably more concerned with protecting the rental income from its tenant, the U.S. Army, than protecting our 1st Amendment Rights. David Simon, co-owner of Simon Property Group, is an Army veteran. Simon says, "Shop!" And part of what he's selling is the Army. Simon, however, is not our primary adversary. We're targeting the Army. We're simply going to convince Melvin Simon and David Simon that leasing to the Army is a bad idea and we intend to affect their bottom line until the Army goes.

So where does all this leave us?

We can enter the Army Experience Center and cause a great big fuss at 2:00 pm until we're asked to leave and then we can take our time to get out. We'll go to peacefully and artistically express our indignation at this abomination. Some are planning on singing. Some will unfurl banners, some will chant and some will cry. There's talk of a die-in. We are people of peace. We're nonviolent. The Army is Shock and Awe, Abu Ghraib, recruiting lies, a thousand rapes, and cool video games.

Immediately after the action, we have a location picked out for a demonstration on public property -- on the street -- right outside of Franklin Mills Mall where we have the "right" to peacefully assemble.

We demand the Army close up shop at Franklin Mills Mall and we're determined to block the expansion of this monstrosity in malls across the nation. We will be successful in this campaign because we'll bring in enough protestors to attract national media attention. Simon will get the message that leasing to the Army was a mistake and other retailers will learn from his miscalculation. If he doesn't close it down, we'll return in greater numbers.

The demonstration being planned for 2 pm on May 2, 2009 at Franklin Mills Mall has been endorsed by Code Pink Women for Peace, World Can’t Wait, Student Peace Action Network, SPAN, Peace Action Montgomery, Next Left Notes, American Friends Service Committee - Youth & Militarism Program, Staten Island Chapter of the Movement for a Democratic Society, Gray Panthers, NYC Network, AfterDowningStreet.

Let us know if we can add your organization.


Pat Elder

Pat Elder serves on the Steering Committee of the National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth, NNOMY. A dedicated pacifist, Pat is involved in several national campaigns centered on administrative and legislative challenges to reverse the militarization of the nation’s high schools. He has figured prominently in the recent spying scandals involving the Maryland State Police and the Department of Homeland Security. Pat lives in suburban Washington, DC and works locally with Peace Action Montgomery.

Republished with permission from