Meet the Sims … and Shoot Them

The rise of militainment.

View a slide show about video games and war

The country of Ghanzia is embroiled in a civil war. As a soldier in America's Army, your job is to do everything from protect U.S. military convoys against AK-47-wielding attackers to sneak up on a mountain observatory where arms dealers are hiding out. It is a tough and dangerous tour of duty that requires dedication, focus, and a bit of luck. Fortunately, if you get hit by a bullet and bleed to death, you can reboot your computer and sign on under a new name.

America's Army is a video game -- a "tactical multiplayer first-person shooter" in gaming lingo -- that was originally developed by the U.S. military to aid in its recruiting and training, but is now available for anyone to play. Among the most downloaded Internet games of all time, it is perhaps the best known of a vast array of video game-based military training programs and combat simulations whose scope and importance are rapidly changing not just the video-game marketplace, but also the way the U.S. military finds and trains its future warriors and even how the American public interfaces with the wars carried out in its name. For all the attention to the strategic debates of the post-9/11 era, a different sort of transformation has taken place over the last decade -- largely escaping public scrutiny, at modest cost relative to the enormous sums spent elsewhere in the Pentagon budget, and with little planning but enormous consequences.

These "games" range from the deadly serious, like programs designed to train soldiers in cultural sensitivity or help veterans overcome the trauma of combat, to the truly outlandish, like a human-sized hamster wheel that makes virtual-reality software feel more realistic. There are even video-game modules that teach soldiers about the perils of sexual harassment. All told, the U.S. military is spending roughly $6 billion each year on its virtual side, embracing the view, as author Tom Chatfield put it, that "games are the 21st century's most serious business."

The link between games and war goes all the way back to "boards" scratched onto the back of statues by Assyrian guards almost 3,000 years ago. Three millennia later, as the U.S. military recruits from, and is increasingly led by, a generation raised on Grand Theft Auto, real warfare is taking on the look and feel of a video game, from the aerial drones launching precision strikes at terrorists in remote hideouts in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the joystick-controlled robots defusing roadside explosives in Iraq. "The biggest change is that it's gone from being unique to being ubiquitous. It's everywhere now," Mark Sinclair, a staff vice president at military contractor General Dynamics, told a U.S. Navy journal.

The Pentagon's embrace of video games is part of a much larger phenomenon -- "militainment" -- that is reshaping how the public understands today's conflicts. The term was first coined to describe any public entertainment that celebrated the military, but today it could be redefined to mean the fascinating, but also worrisome, blurring of the line between entertainment and war. For example, while America's Army is technically a publicly funded recruiting and training platform, its main commercial rival is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, a game published by Activision Blizzard. The two games compete for market share, but also over who can better define contemporary war zones. In America's Army, you deploy to the fictitious country of Ghanzia; in Modern Warfare 2, you join a U.S. special operations team that roams from Afghanistan to the Caucasus, winning hearts and minds (or losing them) with a mix of machine pistols and Predator strikes. The players also fight it out in a range of potential future areas of conflict, from Brazil's rough urban favelas to a simulated Russian invasion of Washington, D.C. (This is actually a major flaw in the game; any invasion force would clearly get stuck in Beltway traffic.)

The stakes are high. Modern Warfare 2 came out on Nov. 10, 2009. By the end of the next day, it had racked up $310 million in sales. To put this in perspective, Avatar, James Cameron's latest Hollywood blockbuster (notably following an ex-Marine remotely fighting through a video-game-like battle environment), earned a measly $27 million on its first day. Another comparison might be even more apt. Roughly 70,000 young Americans chose to join the U.S. Army last year. By contrast, 4.7 million chose to spend Veterans Day playing war at home.

And this is no mere American trend. More than 350 million people play video games worldwide, with the war-oriented sector perhaps the most important part of the global market. Modern Warfare 2 may have players join a U.S. special operations team, but one out of every 49 British citizens did so in its first 24 hours. Niche games have also amassed huge followings; in the polarized Middle East, Hezbollah-produced Special Force plays out an attack on Israeli soldiers, while Ummah Defense provides the vicarious thrill of taking on the U.S. military, Israeli settlers, and killer robots.

Reporting on militainment sometimes suffers from either an uncomfortable gee-whiz quality or blanket condemnation, when the story is far more complex. There's much to be impressed by: The Pentagon is saving millions in training costs while creating a learning environment that can look astonishingly like the real thing, potentially saving real-world lives. But as the training and fighting -- and even the public's relationship with war -- becomes ever more distant and virtual, there is also an emerging dark side to keep our (glazed-over) eyes on.

Be (Online) All That You Can Be

Like many innovations, America's Army and the broader rise of militainment didn't grow out of a grand strategic plan. Almost a decade ago, a group of U.S. Marines hacked the commercial video game Doom II to create "Marine Doom," a software program that helped them teach urban warfare (instead of fighting the demons of hell, the Marine version has players team up to take out an enemy bunker). Col. Casey Wardynski, then a professor at West Point, was impressed by the program, as well as by the fact that his two teenage sons were fans of action video games. While researching how to build an increasingly high-tech U.S. military, he approached the Pentagon about making an online game as a recruiting tool. The idea stuck, and in 2000 the Army contracted the Naval Postgraduate School to create it.

After two years of development, the game, called America's Army, was released at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, a sort of annual pilgrimage for video-gamers that draws some 60,000 people to the Los Angeles Convention Center. What happened next surprised all: The Army didn't just have a new recruiting tool, but an actual market hit. It quickly became one of the top 10 most popular games on the Internet, and within its first five years, some 9 million individuals had signed up to join America's video-game army, spending some 160 million hours on the site and making it one of the top 10 of all video games, online or otherwise.

From the Army's perspective, commercial triumph was secondary. Its goal was to recruit. And at this, too, the game proved to be a wild success. To log on to the game, you have to connect via the Army's recruitment website and fork over your information. Gamers can also check out profiles of current Army soldiers and video testimonials of why they joined. Just one year after America's Army was released, one-fifth of West Point's freshman class said they had played the game. By 2008, a study by two researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that "30 percent of all Americans age 16 to 24 had a more positive impression of the Army because of the game and, even more amazingly, the game had more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined." Notably, this is from a game that the Pentagon has spent an average of $3.28 million a year developing and promoting over the last 10 years -- compared with the military's roughly $8 billion annual recruiting budget.

Behind the success of America's Army lies a story of entrepreneurship and good old-fashioned interservice rivalry. As one of the developers explained in an online forum, "The Navy started to get pissed at the Army because there was never any mention that the game was actually built within a Naval think tank." So, with the Navy angry, the Army did the only logical thing: It brought in the French. Future versions of America's Army were licensed to French game company Ubisoft, which also allowed the game to be used on Microsoft Xboxes -- a breakthrough because it meant the game could penetrate a much wider marketplace. Ubisoft paid the Army $2 million upfront, plus 5 percent in royalties per game sold. The Army also kept its right to edit content; video games were becoming too violent even for the U.S. military. As Wardynski, the program's originator who now directs the Army Game Project that administers it, told National Defense, the military wanted to ensure that it wouldn't be "the sort of game where you tear off someone's arm and beat them to death with it."

Instead, America's Army is meant to imbue potential recruits with traditional military values. To join, would-be video soldiers have to pass training sessions not only for the game but also for U.S. military systems, lingo, and values. Over time, they can go through added training to specialize in becoming anything from a Javelin missile operator to a Humvee driver.

Once in, players enter a virtual battle built around a scenario from recent real-world U.S. Army experience -- in a squad with other online soldiers anywhere in the world. America's Army has proven so popular globally that, with so many users signing on from Internet cafes in China, the Chinese government tried to ban it. Real soldiers play too, usually identifiable by the unit insignias listed in their gamer names.

The game itself isn't just a regular shoot 'em up, but features an "honor system." Those who cooperate the best tend to win the most, while the go-it-alone Rambo types tend not to last too long. Following the rules of engagement wins extra points, as does stopping to give medical care to your buddies. Commit a "friendly fire" incident, and you get banned from the server. If you log back on under that same account, your point of view is from behind jail bars in a virtual Fort Leavenworth military prison.

The game is not without its shortcomings, suggesting a far more antiseptic version of war than the real thing. Get hit by a bullet and there is only a tiny puff of pink smoke that quickly disappears. And the real world's "fog of war" -- the chaos, confusion, and mistakes in battle that Prussian überstrategist Carl von Clausewitz defined as an enduring feature of warfare -- doesn't cloud the game.

One scenario, for example, is built around a real battle during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. A team of Green Berets was attacked by an Iraqi motorized infantry company backed by artillery, tanks, and armored personnel carriers. As the real-life Green Berets did, you can beat back the virtual Iraqis by deftly firing Javelin anti-tank missiles. However, the game leaves out the part when the Green Berets called in an airstrike. Instead of hitting the Iraqis, the plane mistakenly dropped a bomb on friendly forces, killing 17 U.S. troops and their Kurdish allies.

Virtual Vets

America's Army quickly expanded from a potent recruiting tool into a valuable training system for soldiers already in the military. Military contractor Foster-Miller's Talon robot, for example, is used widely in Iraq and Afghanistan to dismantle roadside bombs, the most deadly weapon used against U.S. troops there. The game's Talon training module cost just $60,000 to develop, but took training in how to operate robots in war to a whole new level. "Prior to this, the only way to train was to take the robot and the controller to the trainees, give them some verbal instruction, and get them started," Bill Davis, head of the America's Army future applications program, told National Defense. "This allows them to train without breaking anything."

But with these advances, it's getting harder to figure out where the games end and the war begins. In Talon the game and the real-life version, soldiers are watching the action through a screen and even holding the very same physical controllers in their hands. And these controllers are modeled after the video-game controllers that the kids grew up with. This makes the transition from training to actual use nearly seamless. As one Foster-Miller executive explained to me, describing the game's training package for the Talon's pissed-off big brother, the machine gun-armed Swords robot, "With a flip of the switch, he has a real robot and a real weapon." Because of "the realism," he said, the company is finding that "the soldiers train on them endlessly in their free time."

Such "serious games," as the Army calls them, go well beyond the America's Army series. One program trains aerial drone operators while Saving Sergeant Pabletti teaches some 80,000 Army soldiers a year what is and isn't sexual harassment. This use of gaming extends across the entire experience of war. Virtual Iraq is being used at 40 clinics around the United States to help the thousands of veterans returning from war cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. The game platform allows them to re-experience traumatic episodes in a safe environment.

These training tools are not just for raw recruits. For example, Gator Six is built around 260 realistic video clips that simulate many of the difficult judgment calls an officer might have to make in modern wars. Designed with the help of 20 Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans, it is broken into three parts: pre-deployment, combat, and transitioning into post-conflict.

The military is also turning to video games to help raise its soldiers' cross-cultural understanding. Army 360 presents 11 "choose your own adventure" mission episodes that take place in present-day Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia. The player chooses from four or more decision paths at various stages in the mission, which ultimately lead to as many as 20 different outcomes. Produced by Ken Robinson, a 24-year Special Forces veteran, the game aims to prep soldiers for the real conundrums that they might experience when deploying into different cultures. For instance, upon hearing a burst of AK-47 fire, an infantry patrol leader might mistake a wedding celebration for an ambush, taking the game down a far more dangerous path.

Much like their civilian counterparts, military game designers are moving from two-dimensional screens and sitting behind simulator mock-ups to three-dimensional experiences that hit multiple senses. At the Institute for Creative Technologies, founded with a $100 million Pentagon grant and housed at the University of Southern California, the self-described mission is to tap the best of Hollywood to create "synthetic experiences so compelling that participants react as if they are real." Its Army leader training module, for example, builds off a scenario that has more than 300 pages of script, works in 75 characters, and was even coordinated with USC's School of Theatre. The program sends trainees out wearing not just 3-D goggles, but also a "scent collar," which sprays what one reporter described as "aromatic microbursts -- of anything from cordite to spices." One driving simulator is said to be so lifelike that the participants often unconsciously wave to virtual trucks that drive by. A few of the virtual drivers even get carsick. Another center for military gaming research -- conveniently located just a short drive from Walt Disney World -- bills itself as "a theme park on steroids." It marries physical sets with virtual-reality projectors for an experience its creators dub "mixed reality."

The Pentagon's ultimate goal with all this gaming technology is to create "simulation on demand" for almost any military skill set. The concept is not unlike Neo's kung fu crash courses in the movie The Matrix: When the military needs its people to learn something, it'll be able to get personally tailored, realistic training instantly.

A good example is a tool for young officers called Self-Directed Learning Internet Modules, or SLIMs. They turn the latest military intelligence reports into packets that can be "played" by soldiers. Instead of just getting a briefing a few hours before a mission, the officer can virtually "play" what he might have to do in his real-world mission. For example, a Sadr City SLIM, layered on top of a 3-D map of the Baghdad neighborhood, is the game's version of what a patrol there might entail. Kids come out and warn of a mine, and then the player has to figure out whether to believe them. A woman screams that the Americans killed her husband, and he has to decide how to respond. Hidden within the training are also lessons the Army wants the young officer to pick up. Taking digital photos and GPS locations of key sites, for example, bumps up the tally, and a "hearts and minds" score measures interaction with the public.

The collective effect is potentially revolutionary. Game-based training can be tailored to specific scenarios as well as to an individual's own rate of learning, sped up or slowed down based on how quickly he or she acquires knowledge. The result is an enormous gain in efficiency. The Navy, for example, switched to such programs for its communications technicians and estimates that it saved some 58 man-years in training time. Virtual training is also appealing because it allows soldiers to learn and exercise their skills, again and again, without the accompanying physical risks. "Combat veterans live longer," Col. Matthew Caffrey, professor of war gaming and planning at the Air Command and Staff College, told National Defense. "One reason we use war games is to make virtual vets."

For the military as a whole, there are also tens of millions of dollars saved by conducting virtual training at the unit level. One recent war game, for instance, linked the crew of a U.S. aircraft carrier at sea, British and German submarines (docked in harbor, but the crews were on simulators), British airplane crews (sitting at simulators), and a set of Patriot missile batteries (working on practice mode). The players shared information and made joint decisions, just as if the exercise were real. The Navy estimates that its use of gaming at bases, in lieu of doing the same exercises at sea, saves it some 4,000 barrels of fuel a year, while simulated missile launches, rather than firing the real thing, save some $33 million annually.

Avatar Fatigue

Not everything about militainment is controversial: Who is going to complain, after all, about trying to find a better way to save soldiers' lives, help trauma victims, or prevent sexual harassment? And as Maj. Gen. John Custer told Training & Simulation Journal, the world has changed: "You have to realize what generation you're trying to teach. You know what? PowerPoint is not the way to go."

But there are many concerns about what these dramatic changes mean for war's future. With only so many hours in the day, some in the military worry that video games are beginning to edge out real-world training. Navy Capt. Stephen David complained in the service's in-house journal that the virtual vets arriving aboard his ship lacked "the requisite familiarity with even the most basic shiphandling skills." Others raise what is called the "O'Brien Effect," referring to the time talk-show host Conan O'Brien challenged tennis champion Serena Williams to a match, only to defeat her on the Nintendo Wii. At some point, piloting a plane in combat is different from piloting a computer workstation, just as hitting a real tennis ball is not the same as hitting the Wii version.

The real danger of militainment, though, might be in how it risks changing the perceptions of war. "You lose an avatar; just reboot the game," is how Ken Robinson, the Special Forces veteran who produced Army 360, put it in Training & Simulation Journal. "In real life, you lose your guy; you've lost your guy. And then you've got to bury him, and then you've got to call his wife."

This is not just an issue for the military, but also for a broader public that has less and less to do with actual war. As Celeste Zappala of Philadelphia, a mother who lost her son in Iraq, told Salon, "I've always believed when people participate in virtual violence, it makes the victims of violence become less empathetic and less real, and people become immune to the real pain people suffer." But for most parents, having to send their children to war is not something they worry about, even as it becomes something that more of them play at.

At the same time, the nexus of video gaming, war, and militainment is growing even fuzzier with the rapid growth in unmanned systems that use video-gaming technology to conduct actual military operations (the United States now has some 7,000 unmanned systems in its aerial inventory and another 12,000 on the ground). Indeed, the executive at robot-maker Foster-Miller worries that it is becoming too fuzzy. "It's a Nintendo issue," he told me. "You get kids used to playing Grand Theft Auto moving on to armed robots. Are you going to feel guilt after killing someone?"

With more and more soldiers sitting at a robot's computer controls, experiencing no real danger other than carpal tunnel syndrome, the experience of war is not merely distanced from risk, but now fully disconnected from it. One Air Force officer speaking to Wired's Noah Shachtman about his experiences in the Iraq war, which he fought from a cubicle hundreds of miles away, described the feeling: "It's like a video game.... It can get a little bloodthirsty. But it's fucking cool."

A commander of a Predator drone squadron based in Nevada probably best summed up to me the quandaries, for both the military and the public. A former F-15 pilot, the officer described the new generation of unmanned systems operators with awe. Years of video gaming had made them "naturals" in the fast-moving, multitasking skills required for modern warfare. But there was also a cost. "The video-game generation is worse at distorting the reality of it [war] from the virtual nature. They don't have that sense of what's really going on," he told me. This might be the essence of this new era of militainment: a greater fidelity to detail, but perhaps a greater distortion in the end.

Every day, this officer heads off to virtual war. But when he comes home, he doesn't let his own children play the many war games aimed at them. "We do the car ones instead."



Africa's Forever Wars

Why the continent's conflicts never end.

There is a very simple reason why some of Africa's bloodiest, most brutal wars never seem to end: They are not really wars. Not in the traditional sense, at least. The combatants don't have much of an ideology; they don't have clear goals. They couldn't care less about taking over capitals or major cities -- in fact, they prefer the deep bush, where it is far easier to commit crimes. Today's rebels seem especially uninterested in winning converts, content instead to steal other people's children, stick Kalashnikovs or axes in their hands, and make them do the killing. Look closely at some of the continent's most intractable conflicts, from the rebel-laden creeks of the Niger Delta to the inferno in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and this is what you will find.

What we are seeing is the decline of the classic African liberation movement and the proliferation of something else -- something wilder, messier, more violent, and harder to wrap our heads around. If you'd like to call this war, fine. But what is spreading across Africa like a viral pandemic is actually just opportunistic, heavily armed banditry. My job as the New York Times' East Africa bureau chief is to cover news and feature stories in 12 countries. But most of my time is spent immersed in these un-wars.

I've witnessed up close -- often way too close -- how combat has morphed from soldier vs. soldier (now a rarity in Africa) to soldier vs. civilian. Most of today's African fighters are not rebels with a cause; they're predators. That's why we see stunning atrocities like eastern Congo's rape epidemic, where armed groups in recent years have sexually assaulted hundreds of thousands of women, often so sadistically that the victims are left incontinent for life. What is the military or political objective of ramming an assault rifle inside a woman and pulling the trigger? Terror has become an end, not just a means.

This is the story across much of Africa, where nearly half of the continent's 53 countries are home to an active conflict or a recently ended one. Quiet places such as Tanzania are the lonely exceptions; even user-friendly, tourist-filled Kenya blew up in 2008. Add together the casualties in just the dozen countries that I cover, and you have a death toll of tens of thousands of civilians each year. More than 5 million have died in Congo alone since 1998, the International Rescue Committee has estimated.

Of course, many of the last generation's independence struggles were bloody, too. South Sudan's decades-long rebellion is thought to have cost more than 2 million lives. But this is not about numbers. This is about methods and objectives, and the leaders driving them. Uganda's top guerrilla of the 1980s, Yoweri Museveni, used to fire up his rebels by telling them they were on the ground floor of a national people's army. Museveni became president in 1986, and he's still in office (another problem, another story). But his words seem downright noble compared with the best-known rebel leader from his country today, Joseph Kony, who just gives orders to burn.

Even if you could coax these men out of their jungle lairs and get them to the negotiating table, there is very little to offer them. They don't want ministries or tracts of land to govern. Their armies are often traumatized children, with experience and skills (if you can call them that) totally unsuited for civilian life. All they want is cash, guns, and a license to rampage. And they've already got all three. How do you negotiate with that?

The short answer is you don't. The only way to stop today's rebels for real is to capture or kill their leaders. Many are uniquely devious characters whose organizations would likely disappear as soon as they do. That's what happened in Angola when the diamond-smuggling rebel leader Jonas Savimbi was shot, bringing a sudden end to one of the Cold War's most intense conflicts. In Liberia, the moment that warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor was arrested in 2006 was the same moment that the curtain dropped on the gruesome circus of 10-year-old killers wearing Halloween masks. Countless dollars, hours, and lives have been wasted on fruitless rounds of talks that will never culminate in such clear-cut results. The same could be said of indictments of rebel leaders for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. With the prospect of prosecution looming, those fighting are sure never to give up.

How did we get here? Maybe it's pure nostalgia, but it seems that yesteryear's African rebels had a bit more class. They were fighting against colonialism, tyranny, or apartheid. The winning insurgencies often came with a charming, intelligent leader wielding persuasive rhetoric. These were men like John Garang, who led the rebellion in southern Sudan with his Sudan People's Liberation Army. He pulled off what few guerrilla leaders anywhere have done: winning his people their own country. Thanks in part to his tenacity, South Sudan will hold a referendum next year to secede from the North. Garang died in a 2005 helicopter crash, but people still talk about him like a god. Unfortunately, the region without him looks pretty godforsaken. I traveled to southern Sudan in November to report on how ethnic militias, formed in the new power vacuum, have taken to mowing down civilians by the thousands.

Even Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's dictator, was once a guerrilla with a plan. After transforming minority white-run Rhodesia into majority black-run Zimbabwe, he turned his country into one of the fastest-growing and most diversified economies south of the Sahara -- for the first decade and a half of his rule. His status as a true war hero, and the aid he lent other African liberation movements in the 1980s, account for many African leaders' reluctance to criticize him today, even as he has led Zimbabwe down a path straight to hell.

These men are living relics of a past that has been essentially obliterated. Put the well-educated Garang and the old Mugabe in a room with today's visionless rebel leaders, and they would have just about nothing in common. What changed in one generation was in part the world itself. The Cold War's end bred state collapse and chaos. Where meddling great powers once found dominoes that needed to be kept from falling, they suddenly saw no national interest at all. (The exceptions, of course, were natural resources, which could be bought just as easily -- and often at a nice discount -- from various armed groups.) Suddenly, all you needed to be powerful was a gun, and as it turned out, there were plenty to go around. AK-47s and cheap ammunition bled out of the collapsed Eastern Bloc and into the farthest corners of Africa. It was the perfect opportunity for the charismatic and morally challenged.

In Congo, there have been dozens of such men since 1996, when rebels rose up against the leopard skin-capped dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, probably the most corrupt man in the history of this most corrupt continent. After Mobutu's state collapsed, no one really rebuilt it. In the anarchy that flourished, rebel leaders carved out fiefdoms ludicrously rich in gold, diamonds, copper, tin, and other minerals. Among them were Laurent Nkunda, Bosco Ntaganda, Thomas Lubanga, a toxic hodgepodge of Mai Mai commanders, Rwandan genocidaires, and the madman leaders of a flamboyantly cruel group called the Rastas.

I met Nkunda in his mountain hideout in late 2008 after slogging hours up a muddy road lined with baby-faced soldiers. The chopstick-thin general waxed eloquent about the oppression of the minority Tutsi people he claimed to represent, but he bristled when I asked him about the warlord-like taxes he was imposing and all the women his soldiers have raped. The questions didn't seem to trouble him too much, though, and he cheered up soon. His farmhouse had plenty of space for guests, so why didn't I spend the night?

Nkunda is not totally wrong about Congo's mess. Ethnic tensions are a real piece of the conflict, together with disputes over land, refugees, and meddling neighbor countries. But what I've come to understand is how quickly legitimate grievances in these failed or failing African states deteriorate into rapacious, profit-oriented bloodshed. Congo today is home to a resource rebellion in which vague anti-government feelings become an excuse to steal public property. Congo's embarrassment of riches belongs to the 70 million Congolese, but in the past 10 to 15 years, that treasure has been hijacked by a couple dozen rebel commanders who use it to buy even more guns and wreak more havoc.

Probably the most disturbing example of an African un-war comes from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), begun as a rebel movement in northern Uganda during the lawless 1980s. Like the gangs in the oil-polluted Niger Delta, the LRA at first had some legitimate grievances -- namely, the poverty and marginalization of the country's ethnic Acholi areas. The movement's leader, Joseph Kony, was a young, wig-wearing, gibberish-speaking, so-called prophet who espoused the Ten Commandments. Soon, he broke every one. He used his supposed magic powers (and drugs) to whip his followers into a frenzy and unleashed them on the very Acholi people he was supposed to be protecting.

The LRA literally carved their way across the region, leaving a trail of hacked-off limbs and sawed-off ears. They don't talk about the Ten Commandments anymore, and some of those left in their wake can barely talk at all. I'll never forget visiting northern Uganda a few years ago and meeting a whole group of women whose lips were sheared off by Kony's maniacs. Their mouths were always open, and you could always see their teeth. When Uganda finally got its act together in the late 1990s and cracked down, Kony and his men simply marched on. Today, their scourge has spread to one of the world's most lawless regions: the borderland where Sudan, Congo, and the Central African Republic meet.

Child soldiers are an inextricable part of these movements. The LRA, for example, never seized territory; it seized children. Its ranks are filled with brainwashed boys and girls who ransack villages and pound newborn babies to death in wooden mortars. In Congo, as many as one-third of all combatants are under 18. Since the new predatory style of African warfare is motivated and financed by crime, popular support is irrelevant to these rebels. The downside to not caring about winning hearts and minds, though, is that you don't win many recruits. So abducting and manipulating children becomes the only way to sustain the organized banditry. And children have turned out to be ideal weapons: easily brainwashed, intensely loyal, fearless, and, most importantly, in endless supply.

In this new age of forever wars, even Somalia looks different. That country certainly evokes the image of Africa's most chaotic state -- exceptional even in its neighborhood for unending conflict. But what if Somalia is less of an outlier than a terrifying forecast of what war in Africa is moving toward? On the surface, Somalia seems wracked by a religiously themed civil conflict between the internationally backed but feckless transitional government and the Islamist militia al-Shabab. Yet the fighting is being nourished by the same old Somali problem that has dogged this desperately poor country since 1991: warlordism. Many of the men who command or fund militias in Somalia today are the same ones who tore the place apart over the past 20 years in a scramble for the few resources left -- the port, airport, telephone poles, and grazing pastures.

Somalis are getting sick of the Shabab and its draconian rules -- no music, no gold teeth, even no bras. But what has kept locals in Somalia from rising up against foreign terrorists is Somalia's deeply ingrained culture of war profiteering. The world has let Somalia fester too long without a permanent government. Now, many powerful Somalis have a vested interest in the status quo chaos. One olive oil exporter in Mogadishu told me that he and some trader friends bought a crate of missiles to shoot at government soldiers because "taxes are annoying."

Most frightening is how many sick states like Congo are now showing Somalia-like symptoms. Whenever a potential leader emerges to reimpose order in Mogadishu, criminal networks rise up to finance his opponent, no matter who that may be. The longer these areas are stateless, the harder it is to go back to the necessary evil of government.

All this might seem a gross simplification, and indeed, not all of Africa's conflicts fit this new paradigm. The old steady -- the military coup -- is still a common form of political upheaval, as Guinea found out in 2008 and Madagascar not too long thereafter. I have also come across a few non-hoodlum rebels who seem legitimately motivated, like some of the Darfurian commanders in Sudan. But though their political grievances are well defined, the organizations they "lead" are not. Old-style African rebels spent years in the bush honing their leadership skills, polishing their ideology, and learning to deliver services before they ever met a Western diplomat or sat for a television interview. Now rebels are hoisted out of obscurity after they have little more than a website and a "press office" (read: a satellite telephone). When I went to a Darfur peace conference in Sirte, Libya, in 2007, I quickly realized that the main draw for many of these rebel "leaders" was not the negotiating sessions, but the all-you-can-eat buffet.

For the rest, there are the un-wars, these ceaseless conflicts I spend my days cataloging as they grind on, mincing lives and spitting out bodies. Recently, I was in southern Sudan working on a piece about the Ugandan Army's hunt for Kony, and I met a young woman named Flo. She had been a slave in the LRA for 15 years and had recently escaped. She had scarred shins and stony eyes, and often there were long pauses after my questions, when Flo would stare at the horizon. "I am just thinking of the road home," she said. It was never clear to her why the LRA was fighting. To her, it seemed like they had been aimlessly tramping through the jungle, marching in circles.

This is what many conflicts in Africa have become -- circles of violence in the bush, with no end in sight.

Lynsey Addario/VII