By Jim Gourley
Best Defense military culture correspondent
For those that missed it, September kicked off the marketing campaign for the upcoming video game Call of Duty: Ghosts. It is the 10th installment of the popular game series, which began on the European battlefields of WWII and now proposes a dystopian future in which Americans fight for survival on their own soil. Tom asked me if I wanted to write about it, but I had trouble deciding what more there was to say that hasn't already been covered. At any rate, I was somewhat more interested in recent commentary on the streak of militarism in the Crossfit craze. That's when it occurred to me that there were striking parallels in these two apparently diametric recreational pursuits. Whether couch potato or fitness fanatic, there are indications that there is an existential fascination among Americans with all things military. Why?
The intuitive answers would be an increased awareness of the military due to heightened media attention and an increase in the number of military members throughout the country. Intuition fails us in this case, however. In fact, according to the best estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau and Department of Veterans Affairs, the total number of American veterans has dropped from 26.4 million in 2000 to 22.6 in 2011. Despite the increases in the overall size of the military in the last decade and the "surges" in Afghanistan and Iraq, the number of combat veterans of America's current wars only exceeded the remaining population of WWII veterans in 2011, crossing the 1.3 million mark. Furthermore, when one accounts for the total increase in U.S. population over the last decade, veteran representation in America has gone down from 12 to 7 percent. The increased presence of the military in the American consciousness is not a product of any increased physical presence.
Nor is it likely that it comes as a consequence of news reporting. According to the Pew Research Center, coverage of Iraq as a percentage of all reporting dropped precipitously between 2007 and 2009. Except for a minor spike to 9.5 percent of coverage in late 2009, Afghanistan has consistently languished in news obscurity. Though not a perfect metric for comparison, Call of Duty has been a more popular search term on Google than "Iraq," "Afghanistan," "Troops," and "Veterans" since late 2007. Perhaps even more telling is another comparison: On a comparative scale, Call of Duty receives an interest score of 13, while "war" scores 59. "Peace" only receives a score of 10. Even when news coverage overwhelmingly shifted to the economic crisis, search terms such as "economy" and "Wall Street" failed to be more popular than "war." Only the 2004 and 2012 presidential elections manage to be more popular, and only in the month of November. Against pop-culture related items, "Gangnam Style" and "Miley Cyrus" just barely managed to beat "war" for a month apiece. Interestingly, Cyrus seems to have benefitted from the fact that the shenanigans that generated her hype occurred in August. Strangely, July and August consistently mark the yearly low-point of popularity for "war" in Google searches.
Though it is difficult to say if all this leads to any conclusions, it indicates that Leon Trotsky was grossly incorrect -- we are more interested in war than it is in us. So interested, in fact, that we are immune to a reduction of our exposure to it. Each Call of Duty game has broken sales records set by its predecessor, and for the game industry at large. A similar marketing campaign based on the usage of Crossfit by elite military forces has been a driving force behind its surge in popularity. From bicycles to sports cars, brands around the world have increasingly tailored products and ad campaigns to appeal to our lust for "military grade" products since 9/11. Whether the global popularization of war began before the global war on terror may be a chicken-and-egg proposition. However, its existential progression leads to new questions. How will this blending of pop culture and militarism affect our society's relationship with its armed forces, and with the principles of armed conflict in general?
Jim Gourley is a member of Best Defense's all-star team.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.