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.