Aim Higher!

And then shoot to kill!

A word or two about slogans: the Army has that cool slogan "Be all that you can be," which you can't hear without singing the song and even finishing the line "in the Army Reserve" in your head. It's catchy. It's memorable. It works. Go Army! The Air Force, though, uses "Aim High," sometimes written out in its long form: "Whatever you do in life, Aim High," which is really only okay. It doesn't have a song and it's no "be all that you can be," but it's a vast improvement over their previous slogan: the very lame "We're more than airplanes."

The Air Force could use some help in the PR department.

Enter the U.S. Air Force Experience Roadshow.

Equidistant from Krispy Kreme doughnuts and the Vans Skatepark at the Block in Orange lies a stretch of scorching parking-lot asphalt, upon which the U.S. Air Force Experience has set up shop for one weekend and one weekend only: Sept. 9 and 10. The traveling road show, which from a distance looks more like a circus sideshow, is designed to help the American public "reconnect" with the Air Force. On hand to help speed the connection is a bunch of cool stuff like an F-16, flight simulators, key chains, pens and pamphlets. There are even some real live uniformed Air Force people planted strategically near the F-16 fighter jet, looking fresh-faced and maybe a little bored. But unlike those uptight English guards who have to pretend to be statues, the Air Force people are allowed to talk to you. In fact, that's what they're there for!

Under a nearby tent, a small group of young'uns-many of them barely adolescents and many of them with their parents-waits patiently in a line that doubles back upon itself, amusement park ride-style, for their turn to ride the flight simulators, six of which are ensconced in a splashy, eye-catching mobile unit. While they wait, they are subjected to an endless loop of promotional Air Force videos, featuring loud, punchy music and soaring Eagles and soaring vistas and soaring planes and soaring pilots. There's a lot of soaring going on. It's all very Top Gun.

No less than three people and two press releases have used this "reconnect with the Air Force" sound bite. Of course, this begs the question of when they got disconnected.

"Well, it's not that the connection has been lost," says a publicist, backpedaling. "But with the economy as strong as it is, enrollments have been down in the last few years." It seems that the more options high school graduates are faced with, the less they are seduced by the idea of going off to war. Of course, there is no war, so the Air Force is really presenting itself as a means to an end, a career path, and a way for 18- to 29-year-olds who don't quite know what they want to do with their lives to finish their education and be part of something and take a step toward their future and gain a sense of accomplishment and, in the meantime, to take advantage of the health and insurance benefits and make lifelong friends and shop at discount grocery stores and live in dorms (unless they're married) that they can decorate however they want, "so long as it's in good taste," and yadda yadda yadda.

In fact, the brochures read more like summer-camp or college brochures than anything remotely involving the possibility of defense. Take, for example, this excerpt: "Most bases have ample recreational facilities, such as well-equipped gymnasiums, bowling centers, tennis courts, basketball courts, arts and crafts, and hobby shops. . . . In many cases, you may find facilities on base to help you develop your talents or just relax."

Aaah, the rejuvenating getaway that is the Air Force . . . perched somewhere at the patriotic crossroads of combat and sponge painting. And this is how it seems: all gauzy and fun and motivational and full of opportunity and having nothing to do with killing people or defending freedom-so much so that even a pacifist like me wonders why I never considered it.

Of course, this all changes. "IT'S LIKE a fancy video game," says Staff Sergeant Jason Tag, a top Air Force recruiter in Orange County, as he leads us past the line and into the back of the darkened mobile unit housing the flight simulators, which are exact replicas of the F-16 cockpit. The only difference between these flight simulators and the ones actually used in training is that these don't have a sensation of movement.

"Their mission is to blow up a bridge and an oil refinery," Tag whispers, pointing to a screen with all sorts of cross hairs and marks and a simulated 3-D rendering of mountains, sky and ocean.

"You wanna try it?" he asks. My roommate (whom I've dragged with me today) and I nod. Tag leads us to six touch-activated monitors with little cameras above them. A small sergeant appears on the screen. "So, hotshot, you think you're ready to blah blah blah," he says in a sneering way. I roll my eyes. He talks us through a "security clearance"-I'm guessing it's a roundabout way to collect demographics and compile a mailing list-where we type in our name and birth date and address and sex and education level and then look into the camera, with which our pictures are taken and our ID cards made up.

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