The “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” video game series has always included scenes that are intentionally controversial. In “Modern Warfare 2,” one level sees the protagonist acting as an undercover operative in a Russian terrorist cell that raids an airport terminal and murders hundreds of civilians. The protagonist, played by the player of the game from the first-person perspective, is forced to participate in the slaughter. The first time I played the game, I turned my weapon on the terrorists I was undercover with and started shooting them. The game was interrupted by a forced cut scene in which my character was gunned down by the terrorists.
This wasn’t a game like “Deus Ex” in which you find yourself put in morally gray areas and have to choose one of many ambiguous options. “Call of Duty” has a narrative to advance about modern warfare, one which informs us that we must default to the level of savagery of our adversaries in order to win. The game forces you to murder people; it is the only way to win.
When the trailer for the latest edition of the “Modern Warfare” series was released this week, I clicked on it wondering if the series has evolved. Surprise, it hasn’t. You can check out the trailer for yourself, but from the outset we are informed there is a fine line between right and wrong, and that our highly stylized Special Operators are sent into the shadows to find that line. It is an incredibly romanticized view of war and what modern counter-terrorism operations actually are. Or as one of my Special Forces friends might describe it, “You’re just looking in the mirror while jerking yourself off.”
The narrator of the game tells the player, “We get dirty and the world stays clean, that’s the mission.” Our heroes bloody their hands in our names so that the free world remains free. The visuals of the game tap into familiar scenes reminiscent of the Bin Laden raid in Pakistan and Marines patrolling a Middle Eastern city. Another scene appears to show the White Helmets in Syria, while others seem to reflect recent terrorist attacks in European cities. According to one article, there is even a scene in the game where operators raid a target and gun down unarmed women, ostensibly because they are a part of a terrorist cell. We are even told that a part of the game allows you to play as an Arab soldier, so hooray for #inclusivity, I suppose.
Oddly enough, the game romanticizes Special Operations while also advancing an incredibly nihilistic narrative. In the “Call of Duty” games, you won’t find a lot of jingoism or hyper-nationalism. The operators (and the players) are not fighting for God or country. The thing is, you don’t really know what you’re fighting for. “Call of Duty 2” repeatedly told us the winners write the history books, so in other words, perception is reality. Infinity Ward’s new addition to the franchise seems to continue this trend with plot hooks and catchy quotes straight from the worst bro-vet memes on the internet. “You need me on that wall. Strong men stand ready to do violence on your behalf,”…or something.
The “or something” is the difficult part, because while the player in “Call of Duty” will sweep into enemy compounds on Little Bird helicopters, do HALO jumps, and engage in firefights with the enemy (things I did myself during my military service), you find yourself asking the question why, or what is the point? When the Global War on Terror kicked off, we were fighting for freedom, to prevent another 9/11 type attack, to deny the terrorists behind it a safe haven from which to operate. Seventeen years later and we are not even interested in the reasons why we are fighting in a dozen different countries.
As George Orwell wrote, “We have always been at war with Eurasia.” What this has spawned is a form of amoral nihilism in a certain segment of our youth and our soldiers who now see modern warfare as fighting simply for the sake of fighting. Talk to them and they will even tell you they are part of America’s warrior class. Modern day Spartan warriors we are told, fighting because that is what fighters do.
It pains me to say this as a former soldier and as someone who is now a pro-military veteran. I support many of our counter-terrorism missions abroad, but I hope we are actually trying to accomplish something with them, not just stroking ourselves off with our cool guns and flashy go-to-war gear. Killing is sometimes necessary and is a socially legitimate tool to use to protect your country and culture, but not if we are just killing for fun.
The immediate rebuttal to this opinion will be for people to say, “But Jack, it’s just a video game!” Yes, that’s true and there is nothing wrong with playing a video game and being entertained by it. However, we also can’t underestimate the influence that movies and video games have on our culture. Millions of young people will play “Call of Duty.” Very few will read the many available books that provide a more nuanced understanding of conflict, be it historical or contemporary.
Sure, it is just entertainment, but Infinity Ward is never going to make a game about veterans cracking up with PTSD in clinics around the country because they gunned down unarmed women. There will never be a “Call of Duty” game about Chief Eddie Gallagher and the drama he and his family have gone through as we lead up to his court-martial proceedings in which he is accused of war crimes in Iraq. “Call of Duty” shows us the alpha male bros with their cools guns and gear but strips away the actual costs of war while simultaneously glamorizing it as the price the operators pay, sacrificing themselves for the greater good. It all gets woven into a superficial sheep dog narrative.
I’m able to write all of this with hindsight, having joined the Army in 2002 and then having left in 2010. I’ve been a civilian for nine years now, covering Special Operations as a journalist. I was one of the lucky ones, but now I have to wonder what is going through some kid’s head when he plays a game like “Call of Duty” and how little the narrative will resemble what he finds when deployed to combat. Except the nihilism, except for that.
That he’ll find in spades.