Author’s Note: This piece was written before the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests, so alas, it doesn’t contain much directly pertaining to them. However, as you’ll see, it has some tangential relevance, and I encourage everyone who can to donate to their local Black Lives Matter chapter (for my fellow Seattleites, that’s Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County), organizations like Campaign Zero, and anything on the Minnesota Freedom Fund’s growing list of groups fighting for change. Whatever you can do, now’s the time.
Content Warning: I should also add that this post discusses torture, murder of civillians, and other war crimes. Reader discretion is advised.
Games that question the violence they revel in are nothing new, but I first became aware of them back in 2012, which saw the release of Spec Ops: The Line and Far Cry 3. I played the hell out of the latter while barely touching the former, and the reason for that perfectly illustrates the pitfalls of this subtype of the shooter genre. You have to make the violence feel good, feel fun, which pretty much by definition undercuts your entire thematic structure. Far Cry 3 was smooth, responsive, and satisfying; Spec Ops felt clumsy and dull. Worse, both games throw all kinds of shade at the player for enjoying the combat, a brand of moralizing that rings particularly hollow coming from games that give you no other way to interact with their worlds.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019) is the latest entry in this tradition, and it may very well be the worst, if Polygon’s review is any guide. Worst, that is, in moral terms: even by Call of Duty standards, it’s an egregious form of jingoistic propaganda that co-opts the aesthetics of anti-war stories in order to strengthen its case for escalating the War on Terror. It should be no surprise, therefore, that where the technicalities of gameplay and story are concerned, it looks like the best. That, combined with the ludicrous number of copies sold, makes it well worth dissecting here.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: the game plays beautifully, featuring the same satisfying shooter combat that’s always defined the Call of Duty franchise. And those visuals…this sets a new standard for photorealism in gaming. Cutscenes in particular look like real life with a filter thrown over it, a testament to the insane amount of work that went into animation and motion-capture.
Alas, as I’ve already implied, doing something reprehensible well just makes it that much worse. Early in the game, terrorists launch a major attack in the heart of London, and players find themselves in a running shootout on a crowded street where distinguishing enemy from civilian is all but impossible. At the end of the ordeal, your character has a conversation with one Captain Price, angrily saying that “we don’t stand a chance in hell with these rules of engagement,” and that the military should be allowed to “just take the bloody gloves off and fight.”
Throughout the game, we get to see exactly what happens when the gloves come off. In the infamous “Clean House” mission, Captain Price and his team raid a townhouse in Camden on intelligence that the masterminds of the attack, members of the
Al-Qaeda Al-Qatala terrorist cell, are hiding there. It turns out that they are hiding there, and they use a number of tactics to make you think there are more civillians with them than there actually are. One enemy soldier uses a woman as a human shield, but after you shoot him, she goes for a gun as well. At mission’s end, you confront a woman who claims the terrorists kidnapped and threatened to kill her. However, she keeps backing away from your team despite repeated warnings to stay where she is. While this behavior might seem perfectly reasonable, the uncalculated reaction of a frightened civillian, Price evidently thinks it suspicious enough to warrant gunning her down1Highly debatable, incidentally, and by this logic, it would have been completely reasonable to shoot the woman (who didn’t even comply with the “hands up” order) running to pick up her baby earlier in the mission. . Only after she’s dead do you find a detonator on the table behind her; evidently, she was maneuvering herself into a position where she could grab it and blow the whole house sky high.
How bloody convenient, eh?
Later on, you track down Al-Qatala’s second-in-command, nicknamed “The Butcher,” and torture him for information. When he proves obstinate, you bring his wife and son into the room, point a gun at their heads2Don’t worry, though, it’s fine: The Butcher is a cartoonishly evil killer of children himself, as you see in the leadup to his capture [/sarcasm]., and at this, he finally cracks. Now, you can refuse to participate in the interrogation, leaving the room before threatening to kill his family, but it makes no practical (and negligible moral) difference: if you don’t do it, Price will, and you get the intel either way.
So, the game puts you in situations where you’ve seemingly got no choice. Accidentally but inevitably killing civillians, raiding a townhouse on UK soil, threatening to kill an innocent woman and child: these are war crimes and egregious violations of civil liberties, yet the game contrives to make each one not only justifiable3Regardless of how improbable these situations actually are., but given the enemy’s abject barbarism, altogether necessary. Worse, as Polygon’s review points out,
Modern Warfare is competence porn…These are bad people doing bad things, the text states, while the presentation removes any doubt about the real point: These bad people are also bad ass.
Beneath the “gritty war story” veneer, therefore, the game is really trying to make the case that state-sponsored violence is as awesome as it is oh so regrettably necessary.
As Jacob Geller points out in his video on the game, however, this view comes straight out of La La Land. In real life, the ones committing war crimes are sadists, and when the government violates our civil liberties, it’s not about defeating an evil, ruthless enemy. As the Snowden revelations and documents published by Wikileaks vividly illustrate, it’s about domination and control, nothing more.
That may seem melodramatic or hyperbolic, but take a look at the reality. The Patriot Act, masterminded by Bush Administration Republicans and sustained by both Obama and congressional Democrats, gives the government the right to spy on American citizens without warrant or cause, a power that, as Snowden revealed, they routinely abuse. For his act of patriotism in warning U.S. citizens of the egregious attack on their 4th Amendment rights, Snowden is now forced to live in exile. Worse even than this, Section 1021 of the revised National Defense Authorization Act4Masterminded by the Obama administration, for you Democrats in the audience. allows the military to detain American citizens indefinitely, subject them to “extraordinary rendition”5In other words, they can abduct you, ship you off to Guantanamo Bay, and keep you there forever., and even assassinate them. There are conditions, of course: the citizen must have “substantially supported Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces.” Note the ambiguous “substantially supported” and “associated forces,” which make it trivial to use this law against, say, journalists who have worked in the Middle-East. Hell, if our government gets just a little more zealous in cracking down on dissent, simply speaking out against the War on Terror could be enough.
Indeed, for exactly this reason, the journalist Chris Hedges sued the Obama administration, won the case, and the judge put a temporary stay on the law. The administration tried to pressure her into revoking the stay, but she refused, whereupon the case was moved to a different court and the administration got it thrown out on a technicality.
Now, think back to the townhouse raid we see in Modern Warfare—in the United States, under the NDAA, this could legally happen, and at time of writing, we’ve got a spray-tanned lunatic in the oval office who “jokes” about beating, jailing, and killing political opponents, calling off presidential elections, and has threatened to deploy the military against peaceful protesters6In violation of not only basic morality and the 1st Amendment, but the Posse Comitatus Act, put in place to prevent the army being used as a domestic police force..
So much for the power fantasy.
I’m genuinely sorry to say so, but that’s only half the story. The Polygon review’s tagline reads, “We’re the good people doing the bad things, we promise.” This sums up as well as anything the game’s central message…or at least, that’s the impression the review returns to again and again. To quote it directly,
Modern Warfare leans into the same ideas as films like Sicario, which present a world in which the good guys have to go bad in order to fight evil forces that are willing to do anything, and kill anyone, in order to tilt the odds in their favor.
Now, given our history of imperialist intervention in the Middle East, that is deeply disturbing, not to mention hypocritical. Although obvious to anyone even vaguely left-leaning, I don’t think we talk about the true magnitude of the problem often enough, and thus fail to confront some very ugly truths about the United States and its allies.
U.S. meddling in the Middle East goes back to at least 1953 when the Eisenhower administration removed the democratically elected prime minister of Iran by providing CIA assistance to his enemy, Shah Pahlavi. Since then, we’ve lent our support to any number of despotic regimes, including Sadaam Hussein’s government…you know, the one we went in to remove for his fictional stockpiles of WMDs. If you want a quick (and morbidly hilarious) summary of the dizzying stupidity of this situation, you can check out Jon Stewart’s Daily Show segment, “America in the Middle East: Learning Curves Are for Pussies.”
We only need to worry about a few cases here. The Iraq War is the main one, of course, in which hundreds of thousands are estimated to have died, though other sources place the true number of deaths at an utterly appalling 1 million. Even before the 2003 invasion, though, we imposed sanctions on Iraq after the first Gulf War which starved fully a million people to death, half of whom were children. Now, there is some evidence that these numbers may have been manufactured as part of a propaganda campaign by the Hussein regime in order to garner sympathy, and I certainly hope that’s true. On a moral level, though, it hardly matters, because to this day, you can find footage of a 60 Minutes interview wherein Madeleine Albright, confronted with these figures, says it was worth it.
And speaking of Iraq, Modern Warfare includes an event virtually identical to the First Gulf War’s infamous Highway of Death, in which Coalition forces massacred thousands of people on Highway 80 between Kuwait and Basra. They made no attempt to distinguish between soldier and civilian, pursuing and destroying any vehicles that managed to escape the traffic jam. In Call of Duty’s propagandistic narrative, however, the Russians are to blame for this slaughter!
We don’t need to reach far for more. For decades, the United States has lent its support to Saudi Arabia’s tyrannical government, despite the brutal war they are waging against the Yemenese people using the guns and bombs we sold them. Then there’s our support for Israel, which has committed countless war crimes against Palestinian civilians in their own genocidal wars. Indeed, though Palestine is often accused of atrocities such as using human shields and occupying hospitals in combat, investigations by Amnesty International and the U.N. Human Rights Council found no evidence to support such allegations. Instead, Amnesty accused the Isrealis of using human shields, and a whole host of other despicable acts.
Now, we were told, and continue to be told, that Muslims hate us for our freedom and our noble cultural ideals. However, a 2004 Pentagon study ordered by Donald Rumsfeld pinpoints the true reasons: our support of murderous, dictatorial regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as the (at the time) recent occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. As we’ve seen, such hatred is well-earned, even if the murderous, messianic ideologies of terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda are, to quote the anthropologist and hostage negotiator Scott Atran, “crackpot.”
Here’s where it gets hard, though: I need you to think back, if you’re old enough to remember, to 9/11, to how surreal it felt, how confusing it was, and how traumatic it turned out to be for the entire nation. Some of that had to do with how unused Americans are to attacks on our own soil, but even so, so many things changed that day. As Lindsay Ellis once pointed out, all those urban disaster movies suddenly seemed…wrong, because now we all know what it really looks like when a skyscraper falls down. No words can capture just how deeply those attacks affected us all.
Now consider all of the United States’s crimes we’ve explored here, and remember that this is only a small sample. Hopefully, it’s enough to see that 9/11 is nothing compared to them. Pick any criteria you like: loss of life, cultural destabilization, devastation of infrastructure, psychological damage, economic destruction. In every way, our actions have been far, far worse. Use the experience of 9/11 as a reference point and try to imagine what our wars do to the hearts and minds of the people we attack.
In light of that, consider the apparent themes of Modern Warfare, a game which shrugs its shoulders and says, “If only these gosh darn barbarians weren’t so barbaric, we might not have to commit all these war crimes.” In its proper socio-political context, such a sentiment is revealed for the monstrous obscenity it is.
Even since Call of Duty 47Also subtitled “Modern Warfare,” for maximum confusion., the franchise has been a jingoistic power fantasy. In co-opting the shallowest aesthetic elements of anti-war stories, however, 2019’s Modern Warfare attempts (like the parasite it is) to wriggle its way into a canon that includes everything from Euripides’s Trojan Women to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Unlike previous entries, however, it does begin to acknowledge the horrors of war, and in particular some of the more twisted aspects of the War on Terror, but instead of delivering the expected (not to mention factually and morally justified) condemnation of such a conflict, it looks the player in the eye and states, “It’s worth it. It’s necessary. It’s awesome.” Given how very close we are to seeing such tactics employed against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, this should scare the living hell out of every American.
Seriously, if you haven’t read them, go check out Trojan Women, The Things They Carried, and others like them. They’ll show you what actual anti-war stories look like. Indeed, I think the former might be one of the most successful of its kind: unremittingly dark, without final redemption, and like its version of Menelaus, completely without mercy. It exposes the howling madness that Chris Hedges calls the “moral nihilism” of war, whether fought with sword, gun, or suicide vest.
As for Activision-Blizzard, I have only this to say: get your slime-slicked tentacles out of the propaganda business.
Edit (July 23, 2020): Jesus Christ…that didn’t take long.