Archive for the ‘ History ’ Category

The Real War Will Never Get in the Games

Note: I wrote this one year ago on my old blog. I didn’t know it was Armistice Day until after I published it. Not many people read it, but it still seems like a fitting subject for the day. So here is what I wrote when Call of Duty: World at War was released.

Somewhere along the line, perhaps far earlier than I was willing to admit to myself, the World War II shooter genre started become reprehensible.

I had my moment of clarity yesterday morning when I watched the video of the first five minutes of Call of Duty: World at War, with it’s slick opening cinematic (leaning heavily on the style of the “War Corporatism” antiwar video) and grotesquely cliched in-game cutscene. About the only thing that I can say in its favor is that it at least takes note of the fact that the US embargo against Japan was, from the Japanese point of view, casus belli. Beyond that, I think we may have reached the genre’s nadir.

The game appears to open with a scene from every crappy action movie you’ve ever seen. The villain is torturing and interrogating one of the good guys, in this case a captured US Marine, and the good guy shows his defiance by spitting in his face. This is the thing to do when otherwise powerless, apparently. The villain reacts calmly, takes a drag on his cigarette, then extinguishes it in the Marine’s eyeball. The villain orders another Japanese soldier to execute him using, naturally enough, a sword.

Then Kiefer Sutherland shows up, carrying a Ka-Bar knife and all the baggage of being Jack Bauer in one of the most over-wrought shows in television history. Whoever directed his voice acting decided that Jack Bauer is exactly what this game needed, and there seems to be no trace of the fine character actor fromA Few Good Men and Dark City. All that’s missing from this 24 moment is the Ford Expedition that Jack and the Marines presumably drove to this island.

Now that the player is free, the Marines launch into a standard Call of Duty action sequence, promising to “make ‘em pay for what they’ve done”. The Marines also say “fuck” and variations of the same, coyly demonstrating that the game is hip to what it’s like “in the shit”.

I don’t mean to unfairly single this game out. It’s probably a very good war-themed shooter with glittering production values and sobering bromides about warfare that pop up every time the player is killed, just to show that the game is sensitive to the fact that war is not a game. The Call of Duty series has always been very good at slipping little antiwar messages into its militaristic fortune cookies. The fourth time you die crossing a field, Douglas MacArthur will remind you that it’s fatal to enter a war without the will to win it. The fifth time you die, Barbara Kingsolver is on hand to talk about the inhumanity of man.

This has been bothering me lately, and I’m hard pressed to completely explain why. There were always things about the series that never sat quite right. The quotes are one example, but there was also the annoying way the games were so barefacedly ripping-off Band of Brothers, Enemy at the Gates, and a slew of other World War II films. The games were never about the war, but were instead about movies that were about the war.

Except that the games always had such a stench of horseshit coming off them, far outstripping Hollywood in terms of jingoistic revisionism. The movies at least acknowledged some of the human cost of the war. Not just in terms of the awful damage it inflicted on so many human bodies but also the minds and hearts of those caught up in the maelstrom.

The Call of Duty series, always so careful to keep its ESRB rating, redacted any of the physical cost of war. More insidiously, they whitewashed the monumental cruelty, stupidity, and misery of the war. The troops rather cheerfully went through each mission with their grizzled sergeant character, playfully bitching about their orders, and then celebrated after their victories. War, as the early Call of Duty series liked to portray it, was kind of like a big football practice. And it was all for a good cause.

Where were the fuckups? Erased from gaming’s recounting of the war are all the stupid and pointless wastes of lives that made such a contribution to the war’s final, staggering death toll. Hurtgen Forest, where several divisions of US infantrymen were devoured in a long, bloody, and ultimately meaningless battle for a piece of land with no military value. The wholesale slaughter that occurred along the Siegfried Line after Market Garden failed, and the Allied offensive lurched back to life only to find that the Germans had used their brief reprieve to fortify the border. Anzio? The daylight bombing campaign? Dieppe?

Naturally, games aren’t unique in this regard. Starting with the 50th anniversaries of the war, World War II became a big business and our culture began a very dangerous love affair with one of the greatest catastrophes to ever befall mankind. In retrospect, what a strange spectacle it was to see a nation ostensibly honoring its “Greatest Generation” with a series of increasingly lackluster movies, TV specials, sentimental bestsellers, and finally videogames. And how thoroughly that primed us for the misguided adventurism and empty promises that marked the past several years. The Bush administration may have misled the country into a war, but would the country have been so easily manipulated if it had not spent the previous decade reliving a time when we slew dragons?

What I am sick of is the disingenuousness we see in our military shooters. Hell’s Highway was marketed, on the one hand, as the most historically accurate and respectful World War II FPS ever made. The series had the pedigree to support that claim. On the other hand, the game included a feature that was basically a “fatality” cam, letting gamers revel in the carnage they inflicted. So what we had was a bit of two-faced marketing, where one developer video would talk soberly and respectfully about how serious this game was, and the next was all about “sweet kill” and “check out the gibs”.

I don’t think gamers are burned out on World War II games, but I know that I’m burned out on this particular kind of World War II game. I’m tired of playing games that present a vision of historical reality that I know to be false.

Go read Paul Fussell’s books to understand what I’m talking about. Actually, you only need to read the final chapter of Wartime, “The Real War Will Never Get in the Books”. There is a guy who saw the war firsthand, nearly died over in Germany, and who fifty years later was still filled with a palpable sense of rage over the pity of the entire damned thing. He writes about the stupidity of Allied command, the shoddy equipment that most definitely cost lives on the battlefield, the lies that were told to the “home front”, and most of all the Disney-fication of the war.

Read some Kurt Vonnegut, particularly an essay from Armageddon in Retrospect called, “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets”, in which he talks about Dresden. After annihilating the city, the Allies send bombers over a few days later to drop leaflets explaining why there was a sound tactical reason why the city had to die. Vonnegut explains:

The leaflet should have said: “We hit every blessed church, hospital, school, museum, theatre, your university, the zoo, and every apartment building in town, but we honestly weren’t trying hard to do it. C’est la guerre. So sorry. Besides, saturation bombing is all the rage these days, you know.”

There was tactical significance: stop the railroads. An excellent manoeuvre, no doubt, but the technique was horrible. The planes started kicking high explosives and incendiaries through their bomb-bays at the city limits, and for all the pattern their hits presented, they must have been briefed by a Ouija board.

Tabulate the loss against the gain. Over 100,000 noncombatants and a magnificent city destroyed by bombs dropped wide of the stated objectives: the railroads were knocked out for roughly two days. The Germans counted it the greatest loss of life suffered in any single raid. The death of Dresden was a bitter tragedy, needlessly and wilfully executed. The killing of children – “Jerry” children or “Jap” children, or whatever enemies the future may hold for us – can never be justified.

The facile reply to great groans such as mine is the most hateful of all clichés, “fortunes of war”, and another: “They asked for it. All they understand is force.”

Who asked for it? The only thing who understands is force? Believe me, it is not easy to rationalise the stamping out of vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored when gathering up babies in bushel baskets or helping a man dig where he thinks his wife may be buried.

It’s useless to ask that war not be exploited for entertainment purposes and I’ll cop to enjoying good wargames, movies, and books. I don’t mean to be sanctimonious. But I simply cannot handle any more sentimentalizing when it comes to war, especially World War II. It was a nightmare and one from which the world has not fully recovered, and it is crass to see games wilfully over-simplifying and idealizing an event that killed scores of millions of people.

Crucible of War

Earlier this year I picked up AGEOD’s Birth of America from the Target bargain rack, which is about the only way a title published by Strategy First is going to find its way into a major retailer. The game was well-reviewed and spawned a series of follow-ups covering different 18th and 19th century conflicts, but my chief reason for buying it is that I have an embarrassingly shallow knowledge of early American history. Since my interest in wargames and history have always marched lockstep, I thought Birth of America might be a good way to dip my toe in the water. Then I grabbed Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. While historical literacy isn’t a necessary component for playing a wargame, it usually helps you make sense of what you’re being asked to do.

My one disappointment with Crucible is that it is not a particularly interesting book of military history. Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans probably gave me an unrealistic expectation for how action-packed the French and Indian War was, but that doesn’t change the fact that fighting in the New World tended to be a grubby, ad hoc affair. While over in Europe, Frederick the Great was sending waves of grenadiers into dense lines of white-coated Austrians, British commanders in America were pleading with colonial assemblies to raise a handful of battalions. The most pivotal battle of the war, Quebec, is shown to be a case of mutual blundering followed by an almost inexplicable French collapse. The rest of the war mostly consisted of small expeditions against wilderness forts, accompanied by constant, tedious negotiation with the native peoples.

This might have more to do with Anderson’s own interests than it does with the subject matter. His coverage of the battles makes for good reading, but every campaign reads almost as ponderously as it unfolded. Anderson gets into the nuts and bolts of Indian diplomacy and colonial – military interactions, and ends up belaboring a couple points. One Indian negotiation is much like another, but the reader is treated to the repeated site of Indian warriors bearing gifts and liquor back to their villages, Indian chieftains struggling to maintain their social position, and English officials providing the same hollow assurances. Likewise, we find the colonial assemblies (particularly Pennsylvania and Massachusetts) to be chaotic, bitterly divided, and constantly carping about how difficult it is for them to prosecute this war. If Anderson’s goal is to make you feel the exasperation of any British official who had to deal with America during this period, he succeeds admirably.

Where the book really comes alive, however, is in the war’s closing stages, as the action shifts to London. From that point onward, Anderson seems to be on happier ground. We see Pitt at the height of his power beginning to succumb to a megalomania that disturbs his most important political allies, which sows the soil for the attack that the newly crowned George III and the Earl of Bute are waiting to unleash on him. George III doesn’t come across well in this book, despite Anderson’s attempts to be fair minded, because there is no hiding the degree to which he creates one ministerial crisis after another. George is a monarch very much in the vein of Kaiser Wilhelm II: spoiled, self-assured to a degree far beyond his abilities, and deeply desirous of asserting his prerogative over the state. Both men would take control of a government that wasn’t broken, and then bring the state to ruin in the name of fixing it.

Of some surprise is the degree to which Grenville emerges as a minor hero on the political stage, considering that he writes the Stamp Act that puts the first severe cracks in the foundation of colonial relations. While Anderson does not conceal the degree to which Grenville governed like a tin-eared technocrat, he also celebrates the degree to which Grenville was a perceptive and conscientious head of government. When George III begins making a concerted push to fire him, ultimately replacing him with the inept Duke of Cumberland (whose life after Culloden seems to have been spent plumbing the depths of his own incompetence), there is a definite sense that George is stepping off a ledge into thin air. When the Stamp Act meets with a firestorm of colonial resistance, there is nobody left in government by 1766 that is both competent and strong enough to lead Britain out of the crisis.

The reactions in America to London’s expanded efforts at administration also make for fascinating reading. At first, nobody seems to find anything remarkable in the act and the colonies are on the cusp of accepting it without complaint while leading citizens are fighting for the privilege of administering the tax (the better to skim off the top). Then Patrick Henry passes a resolution in the Virginia House of Burgesses asserting that England lacks the right to lay taxes on the colonies, it gets printed in some newspapers, and the entire seaboard explodes.

In Boston, we see the local Sons of Liberty variant contact both of the city’s official unruly mobs (honest) for the sake of raising nine kinds of hell. Similar mob violence occurs in other northern cities, providing an excellent excuse for simmering tensions within colonial politics to explode. The Penn family and its enemies immediately fall to settling old scores against the backdrop of civil disorder. In Virginia, Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry start overturning rocks and find that the state’s leading planters have embezzled fortunes from the province. In Boston, an angry mob goes looking to lynch Lt. Governor Thomas Hutchinson, who spends the long night cutting through backyards and staying with different friends as he is hunted through the city. The mob contents itself with getting liquored up at his mansion, then destroying it. By the time the Stamp Act is supposed to go into effect, there is nobody left who is willing to enforce it.

The book ends on an ambivalent note. Anderson argues that the American Revolution was far from inevitable even at the time of the Stamp Act’s repeal, but that British misconceptions about the nature of their rule in America doomed them to a series of mistakes. Pitt himself, who supported the Stamp Act’s repeal and exulted in colonial resistance, is shown making the argument that the British military could grind the colonies to dust if it needed to. Nobody in London really grasped that their relationship with the colonies was based on the colonists’ affection for the mother country and their sufferance of Britain’s occasional commands. If Britain had allowed the relationship to drift along as it always had, the Revolution might have been avoided.

On this point, Anderson’s point seems purely speculative, and not entirely supported by what he has already shown. While colonists seemed to love the Empire and consider themselves Englishmen, Anderson never really explains what we should make of the shocking violence and resentment that erupted against the Stamp Act. The Sons of Liberty spoke and thought with cataclysmic overtones, and the mobs they mobilized were as likely to rip apart redcoats as they were stamp collectors. Many colonial elites, like Washington, still cherished their status as Englishmen. But in Boston, New York, and Virginia, there were large and growing factions that were becoming self-aware as Americans. Toward the end of the Stamp Act riots, John Adams wrote in his diary about what a glorious year it had been for America. Looking over the smoldering wreckage of British policy and legitimacy in the colonies, Adams was already starting see the shape the future would take, and he liked what he saw. It did not include a nation of Englishmen.