Last week, House Democrats almost stopped the Pentagon from using Twitch as a recruitment tool. The House voted down the measure, but that Congress discussed cutting Military funding at all signals a change in the relationship between civilians and the military. The Pentagon, facing a shortage of skilled recruits, turned to video games and online streaming to find new troops. As is so often the case with the U.S. Military, it was unprepared for the theater it was operating in.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. military became sacrosanct in American life. Celebrities who were critical of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan paid a heavy career price. Movies critical of the war were box office failures, even if they even made it to theaters at all. Video games like America’s Army —another attempt by the military to recruit via video games—passed through the culture with little criticism. People could criticize then-President George Bush, but the sense was that we should leave the military out of it and let them do their jobs.
After almost two decades of blank checks for the military and little critique even in the face of abject failure, the real costs of the United States’ open-ended wars are still coming into view. The war in Afghanistan has cost trillions of dollars and killed more than 100,000 Afghans. Civilian and Military leadership have known for years that the Afghanistan War is a lost cause that’s cost untold lives, but the war grinds on. Add to this the U.S. military’s use of torture, the expansion of the domestic surveilance state using technology pioneered in conflict zones, and the ongoing use of drones to assassinate enemies and it’s easy to see why many people have lost trust in the American military.
In the chaos that is a Twitch chat room, the U.S. Army and Navy esports teams encountered something they weren't used to: some skepticism. There’s a diversity of views and opinions on Twitch that more closely map the real world than the sheltered world of the media the Pentagon is used to dealing with. On Twitch there is no deferential news media, flag-waving entertainment media, or sports leagues taking money to "salute service".
As the U.S. Military struggles to train and retain skilled soldiers, especially as COVID-19 has killed traditional avenues of recruitment, it has increasingly looked to digital spaces—and especially those inhabited by gamers—to fill the ranks. According to the military, it needs gamers. Drones aren’t easy to operate and, increasingly, all branches of the armed forces need skilled soldiers to do complex tasks. According to the Navy’s Twitch recruiting guide, the skills of the gamer are “the same skillsets used in fields in nuclear engineering, aviation, special warfare, cryptology and counterintelligence.”
The Air Force, Navy, Army, and National Guard are all fielding esports teams and running Twitch channels. The U.S. Marines Corps, alone among the branches, has said it wouldn’t field a team. But the Marines Corps is still involved. It sponsors tournaments and has a partnership deal with Esports Stadium Arlington in Texas. The Pentagon wants gamers but it doesn’t understand how to talk to them.
The various branches of the military have been working esports programs for years, but trouble started in July when the Army banned people from its Twitch chat for asking about U.S. war crimes. The Navy followed suit. According to Jordan Uhl—a progressive activist and one of the banned players—and lawyers he’s working with at the Knight First Amendment Institute, banning players from Twitch for asking the military hard questions is a violation of the first amendment.
The U.S. Army esports team has said it’s falling back to reconsider its strategy on Twitch. The Navy, insisting it isn’t using Twitch for recruitment, has started streaming again. The proposed measure to stop the Pentagon from spending money on Twitch failed, but several prominent House Democrats—including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez [D-NY] and Chairman of the House Rules Committee Rep. Jim McGovern [D-MA]—supported it.
A large portion of the civilian population and portions of the U.S. government are pushing back against the Pentagon ways that haven’t happened since before 9/11. It’s no longer a given that the military will be welcomed with open arms in any space it enters. The bans on Twitch, the dithering about what is and isn’t recruitment, and its insincerity in the face of criticism reflect a military that doesn’t know how to have difficult conversations with the public. For twenty years, it hasn’t had to have them.
“If there’s something that’s eroding, it’s deference,” Pauline Shakes Kaurin, professor in the College of Leadership and Ethics, and the Admiral James B. Stockdale Chair in Professional Military Ethics at the U.S. Naval War College told Motherboard on the phone. Kaurin’s views are her own and do not represent the official view of the U.S. Naval War College.
Kaurin said that she’s noticed a change in students in the last five years and that both Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and civilian students have become more critical, especially after 2016.
“Right after 9/11, there was very little appetite to ask any critical questions,” she said. “By  the students were not only happy, but eager to ask those questions and would even confront their ROTC colleagues. That never happened after 9/11. There was a great deal of deference there.”
That’s gone now and the Pentagon has to learn how to deal with a civilian population weary of military power and distrustful of state power.