Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Social Satire of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Warning - This will contain spoilers for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

    I've got to say, I don't know what is wrong with people. Just about every forum I go, people are always taking pot shots at Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and calling it a violent jingoistic power fantasy. Which, of course, means these people have never played Modern Warfare 2 since the game is about how jingoism and rampant militarism ruins people's lives.

    I mean, it's a story about America getting completely smashed in a war by the Russians until an Englishman and a Scotsman save them from annihilation. World War 3 is a senseless waste of life conducted in revenge by the Russians for a massacre conducted against them with a direct parallel being drawn between the United States being invaded versus their presence in Afghanistan to avenge 9/11. Oh and the main villain is an American. Are most reviewers just frigging stupid and miss this is an incredibly subversive story?

    Don't answer that.

    Of course, the game draws a lot of inspiration from the movie Red Dawn (1984 version) and that's bound to also muddy the waters some as well. Red Dawn is, certainly, a right-wing gun nut's dream movie in some ways but it's also surprisingly philosophical in others. It's a movie where the ludicrous premise of a Soviet invasion of America is used to illustrate the dehumanizing effects of war, the horrific consequences thereof, and the senseless waste of life on both sides.

A level in Modern Warfare 2 homages this scene.
    People who have seen the movie know the Russians are humanized and a lot of the heroes die because the movie doesn't shy away from the fact war is not a game. If you can get past the Russians invading, you'll find both Red Dawn and Modern Warfare 2 are more than just their trappings.

    The premise of the game is a CIA agent inserted into the terrorist organization of Vladimir Makarov is murdered after he partakes in a massacre at a Russian airport terminal. The infamous "No Russian" level sparked endless amounts of controversy regarding violence in video games but almost no discussion about what the damned thing is about--which is making the player character party to something horrible because someone told him to do so.

    People sing the praises of Spec Ops: The Line for making killing people feel bad but that's the whole damn POINT of "No Russian."  Your character is part of something nightmarish because of Makarov and you are guilty for involving yourself in the violence. Even if you don't partake in the massacre, Private Allen kills a bunch of FSB operatives (cops, basically) which damns him anyway.

"No Russian" asks one simple question: "Do you pull the trigger or not?"
    The Russians, having suffered their own version of 9/11, immediately blame Private Allen since Makarov left his body there to "frame" the United States for the atrocity. Having been taken over by their own flag-waving jingoistic band of nutters, the Russians hit the United States with everything they've got to kill "one thousand Americans for every Terminal victim."

    Now, the Russian army getting to the United States East Coast is ludicrous. It's as realistic as the sixty-foot-snow mobile jump you partake in at one point--which is to say, not at all. However, it works at its intended purpose and that's to make the American players feel vulnerable.

    There's a really clever bit where the opening levels of the game take place in Afghanistan where you fight a bunch of guerrillas in the middle of a school surrounded by a neighborhood full of civilians. It's the kind of scene which wouldn't normally be questioned in a first-person shooter but just a few levels later, you're fighting an identical bunch of highly-armed invaders through Washington D.C's neighborhoods surrounded by civilians.

Yes, Russia, this is going to make the Americans pay! Not at all want to kill you.
    The difference is "us" versus "them" with Modern Warfare 2 asking what the real difference is. Of course, there's a severe difference between the Taliban and the United States but the larger issue of what constitutes an invader is a question which should be asked.

    The Russians see themselves as waging a righteous war but are motivated by vengeance every bit as much as a desire to stop further attacks against their people. The result of their retribution is, of course, massive deaths on both sides and United States now motivated to kill MORE Russians. One particular line from the game stayed with me (paraphrased): "When are we going to Moscow, Sarge? I want to burn it to the ground."

    The cycle of revenge being a self-defeating loop is hardly a new idea but that's because it keeps happening in history over and over again. The Russians blame America for the Terminal Massacre, the Russians murder a bunch of Americans, the Americans now want to murder a bunch of Russians, and this contributes to sparking the events of Modern Warfare 3. We won't touch upon that game's events here but the reciprocal nature of violence is a strong undercurrent throughout the game.

    This is followed up in the later half of the game where Captain Price and General Shepherd both play large roles in affecting the war's outcome. Captain Price was captured after the events of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, surviving somehow, only to be locked away in a gulag by the Ultranationalists. Having been tortured and abused for five years, he's half-insane but his primary goal is not revenge against the Ultranationalists but to end the war immediately.

A hero who lets other men do the dying.
    Price does this in the deus ex machina way of using an EMP (which both real-life American and Russian equipment are hardened against) across the United States East Coast. Still, it is his desire to bring an end to the war in the most direct and decisive manner possible. In that respect, Captain Price embodies the ideal of a soldier, a man who protects his country (or allies of his country), versus living for conflict.

    This is a contrast against General Shepherd who we find out is responsible, at least in part, for the Terminal Massacre. General Shepherd assisted Makarov in some way in order to force the Russian Federation and United States into conflict.

    Having suffered the loss of 30,000 men during the events of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, he's become disgusted with both the American public for not honoring their sacrifice as well as the Russians for lionizing Imran Zakhaeve (who supplied the nuke which did this). General Shepherd believes an invasion on American home soil will galvanize the people into becoming fiercely patriotic as well as vengeance-filled. In short, General Shepherd is an American Ultranationalist.

    The mirror image of Makarov.

    I'm torn about the revelation General Shepherd was involved in the Terminal Massacre in order to give the Russians casus belli for invading the USA. An act designed to force America to re-militarize and become more focused on fighting wars against its enemies. It runs dangerously close to the point of 9/11 Truthism that a terrorist attack against American soil would be the first step to the New World Order.

    On the other hand, General Shepherd isn't a figure who is entirely out of history. Real-life General Edwin Walker (a.k.a the other guy Lee Harvey Oswald tried to kill and inspiration for General Ripper from Doctor Strangelove) had some absolutely insane ideas in hopes of "winning" a war against the Soviet Union. Likewise, there's Operation: Northwoods which made it all the way up to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Need I mention "weapons of mass destruction"?

    In truth, General Shepherd is a right-wing nutjob's paranoid nightmare come true yet he's also the kind of guy who would think he's fighting the very same paranoid nightmare. Given the way the United States reacted after 9/11, I can't help but even feel a bit of sympathy for the pixellated lunatic since 30,000 troops being killed under your command would weigh on anyone's conscience.

"Do you want to take them out or move past them?" I always choose the later.
    So, I'm going to forgive the paranoia and state I like the character. I just wish we could have shown him to be the bad guy in a way which didn't require him to commit treason against his own nation.

    Well, sort of. I'm not sure it qualifies as treason when you help someone commit terrorism against a foreign nation in hopes they'll attack yours. They may need to invent a new legal classification for that.

    Ugh, I'm going off topic.

    In any case, the game draws a parallel between both General Shepherd and Makarov. They are both warmongers who hate the state of their country and will do whatever is necessary to transform it. They contrast against Price, who is a man who wants nothing more than to bring an end to the fighting. We also get multiple perspectives from other kinds of soldiers caught up in the fighting. Private Allen is a man who follows orders blindly, only to be killed for it and, worse, result in the near-destruction of his nation. Gary "Roach" Sanderson is a man who is betrayed by his superiors because he's become a political liability. Ramirez is a just another boot on the ground who witnesses all the horrors first hand.

    There's even parallels between General Shepherd and Osama Bin Ladin as we see the former hiding in a cave in Afghanistan after having carried out all of his terrorist attacks. Shepherd, for all of his bluster about being a warrior, is a coward who sends his men on suicide missions he never participates in and betrays them at the drop of a hat. Much of the final mission is chasing down the armchair despot, who only chooses to fight once you've cornered him. The death of Shepherd at the hands of a knife he's stabbed into you is nicely poetic, symbolizing turning his act of betrayal against him.

A ruined city, millions dead, and still more fighting to go.
    World War 3 is an utterly unnecessary war which is brought about by a failure of communication between the two sides as well as the war-hawks pushing them into conflict. It is a conflict with no victors, only survivors, as the two sides eventually return to their Pre-War state with no difference in either borders or leadership.

    It is a conflict which never needed to happen and, rather than extol the glories of war, Modern Warfare 2 is a five hour campaign of showing its costs in an action-movie format. Even the quotes given in-between loading screens tend to be on the anti-war side or, at least, highlight the heavy costs of it.

    In short, this is a very smart game and I wish it was given the credit it deserves.


  1. "No Russian" was a shitty mission because it WAS senseless video game violence. There were so many problems with it from a realistic point of view. 1.) This guy had ample opportunity to end the entire massacre from the start. 2.) Any military leader would've called this off because obviously it's bad if the russians learn an American was even party to this. 3.) There was no strategic payoff to allow this entire massacre to unfold even if it ended the way they planned.

    I wouldn't have a problem with it if it made sense to the story, but it was just a super edgy marketing ploy hidden beneath poor writing.

    1. It was entirely necessary. Makarov and shepherd wouldn't have their war without this attack.

    2. Of course, had the CIA agent killed Makarov and his men then Shepherd would have found another way to do it probably. It just would have been more difficult. The fact he didn't indicates he's a pretty awful human being following Shepherd's orders to the letter.

  2. Brilliant Review I must say

    I always believed Modern Warfare was just some kind of satirical look on war disguised as a cool looking Video game

    but you Deconstructed and reconstructed it amazingly that now my curiosity is sated thanks to you

    so sad many people just write it off as just another stale US vs Russia storyline