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Unmanned Culture Clash

In March, Wired magazine sent me to a remote desert outpost in Arizona, where the Army is training newly-minted GIs to fly the robotic planes which have become so critical to the battle for Iraq. The place is central flashpoint in a military culture clash between teenaged videogamers and veteran fighter jocks for control of the drones. Here's a snippet of what I found:drones_wired.jpgPrivate Joel Clark doesn't have any macho dogfight stories. He doesn't have a cool call sign or the swagger of a guy who has pulled 9 gs. In fact, Clark has never held a throttle. He did, however, flunk high school English. And that's how the milky-pale 19-year-old became one of America's newest pilots.Clark had planned to join the Army as a Blackhawk helicopter mechanic. But that F kept him from graduating on time, forcing him to reapply. The second time around, his recruiter suggested he try instead to be a "96 Uniform" - Army-speak for a unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, operator. Clark had never considered becoming a pilot. But the idea of running a robot spy plane sounded pretty rad. Now he's one of 225 soldiers, reservists, and National Guardsmen training on a lonely airstrip at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, a 125-year-old outpost 10 miles from the Mexican border.In a sense, Clark has been prepping for the job since he was a kid: He plays videogames. A lot of videogames. Back in the barracks he spends downtime with an Xbox and a PlayStation. When he first slid behind the controls of a Shadow UAV, the point and click operation turned out to work much the same way. "You watch the screen. You tell it to roll left, it rolls left. It's pretty simple," Clark says. But this is real life. "So you have to take it more seriously. If you crash one of these, you have to bleed and piss" - in other words, take a drug test.Clark has no intention of nose-diving, however. He's gamed away the past 11 months in Arizona, and today, finally, is his last "check ride." After this takeoff, he'll be certified to fly the Shadow 200. He'll spend a few months at Fort Hood, Texas, training with the 4th Infantry Division. Then he'll ship off to what his sergeant calls the Big Sandbox: Iraq.I've also written an online "reporter's notebook" to accompany the Wired magazine piece. Model airplane champs, robotic border guards, and Saddam's children all figure in. Give 'em both a look.

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