The Smell of War

Published: July 25, 2006
Category: News

I’m Army, Special Operations. My mission: to sneak up on a rebel training camp. If the intelligence is right—if the place is being operated by the enemy Tiger Brigade—then I’m supposed to plant a radio transmitter so that F-16 pilots can launch smart bombs directly to the target. I just need to make absolutely sure that the location is correct—that the rebels are indeed based here. And that won’t be easy.
I creep through a dark drainage culvert, my helmet skimming the ceiling. There’s graffiti on the walls, puddles and trash on the ground. The place smells like damp earth and moldy concrete, a bit like my parents’ cellar— although home didn’t have bats overhead or rats underfoot. I emerge in a forest, by a river, at night. The air is crisp and piney. After the dank culvert, the change is so refreshing that I initially don’t notice the cinderblock building on the hilltop ahead. I don’t notice the sentry on the roof, standing at a machine gun and looking right at me.
Good thing I’m not actually a soldier in a war zone. I’m in Los Angeles at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, standing in cubicle-land on the third floor of a modern office building. On my head are virtual-reality (VR) goggles with a stereoscopic, 90-degree field of view of the forest. In my hands is a PlayStation-type controller for directing my movements. And around my neck is an oval of blue plastic fitted with four vented metal modules the size of Zippo lighters. Wirelessly controlled by a nearby stack of computers, the modules transform what would otherwise be standard-issue military VR—for along with sight and sound, this training exercise features the smell of war.
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