The U.S.’s identity on the world theater is characterized, perhaps most succinctly, as a militaristic superpower, and not without fair reason. Some facts: the country’s military budget reached over $689 billion for 2019 alone, the 2018 U.S. military budget accounted for around 36 percent of global arms spending throughout the whole world, and, for years, the U.S. has spent more on its military than the next seven countries combined, including nations such as China, India, the U.K., and Russia. These numbers are, obviously, rather ridiculous, but they do help to explain why the U.S. is characterized in the way that it is in the global culture.
History can offer some more context. The U.S. in the 20th century was characterized by the wars it was involved in; World War II gave the U.S. a lot of political currency due to how the country aided the Allies in defeating the Axis Powers, and a post-war booming economy helped to cement the concept of war as an important part of American history (remember, the country was also founded on the foundations of a war). Korea followed soon after WWII, and Vietnam after that, the latter of which really cemented how the U.S. would be seen throughout the last 60 years or so. Vietnam was messy, immoral, and civilians at home saw what war was really like through the advent of televised coverage. The combination of baby boomers protesting and politicians working to pull out of Vietnam caused the country as a whole to question its perception of war, and caused the world to question its own perception of the U.S. at war.
These anti-war sentiments were reflected in the media of the time, too. Films like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and novels like The Things They Carried and Born on the Fourth of July (Vietnam was rough, to say the least) offer a perspective of America in wartime that is uniquely cynical but importantly truthful. But, for all the American anti-war movies and books that have been written over the country’s history, there are just as many, if not more, that pose an opposing idea: that the U.S., as a country, is a heroic force for good in global politics, and that its militaristic actions have been noble at best and misguided at worst.
Top Gun (volleyball, anyone?), Red Dawn, half of John Wayne’s filmography — storytellers have told heroic tales of war for as long as they’ve told stories, and though the last hundred years or so have seen a much more mixed reception on the idea of war as both nationalistic and honorable, the archetype has far from disappeared from the American conscious. The entertainment industry has been painting these portraits for decades, and it has done a number on how exactly the American people view both war and the country’s place in the global political climate. It’s not just filmmakers that have told these stories. In fact, I’d posit that video games as a medium and as an industry has done more to iconify war as a morally-upright responsibility of the U.S. than any other type of entertainment of the past 30 years.
Perhaps the franchise most notorious for this sentiment is Call of Duty. A view of both modern history and the military conflicts that have taken place within that history, which is probably a major reason for why the games have been so popular. Release dates are important here: the first Call of Duty was released in 2003, two years after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. After 9/11, a slew of pro-American media was released; WWII especially saw a lot of television, film, and games make use of its events. This is largely due to the simple ‘good vs. evil’ narrative that underpinned the Second World War: Nazis bad, Allies good, take that concept and run with it in order to reinforce that, at least at one point, the U.S. were the definitive, heroic good guys. This may have been an oversimplification of the war, but it was one that fit with the U.S.’s want for art that gave them a sense of confidence and power after those feelings had been suddenly ripped away.
The series would move on from World War II, though, with the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which kicked off a new generation of first-person shooters while also being one of the most popular video games of all time. Modern Warfare brought the series into the modern-day (hence the title) and, in doing so, introduced it to the complexities of contemporary geopolitics. The problem, though, is that the games from this point forward didn’t really update the complexity or morality of their plotlines. Due to the way the series handled its themes through its gameplay and narrative, the games became a de-facto marketing piece for the American military, a light recruitment tool that has affected a generation of young people.
To understand how the series does this, two things should be noted: first, the action-movie-like spectacle of the events in the games and the general tone of each game’s plot. The soldiers that the player takes control of go on harrowing adventures filled with helicopter battles, car chases, and adrenaline-inducing gunfights where the player (and their allies) are rarely truly hurt. The player is meant to enjoy these sequences, and understandably so, since games being fun is an important (but not vital) function of their existence as a medium. However, that doesn’t mean the plot itself needs to glorify these events as morally upright; there are plenty of games that are highly critical of war while keeping similar gameplay and action beats. Instead, Call of Duty offers a sanitized, if not gritty view of combat, one filled with comradery and swashbuckling-like adventure. The closest the series gets to showing actual horrors of war are scenes where (spoilers) a nuclear bomb is dropped on a city, or (notoriously) when a crowd of civilians is gunned down in an airport by the villains. Yes, these scenes are horrific and shocking and are portrayed as such, but their purpose in the narrative isn’t to display how horrible war is. They’re in the story to show just how evil the bad guys are, and to convince the player that they’re worth taking down. That’s not the same as discouraging war or even portraying it in a negative light. At best, these scenes are neutral to the concept of war; at worst, it defines war as something that, at times, just needs to happen when bad people do bad things.
The second major thing that should be understood is how the series portrays the U.S. as a guardian of world peace and safety through the actions of its military. The Modern Warfare games are the worst about this; their plot follows a selection of different NATO soldiers from multiple countries as they attempt to stop Russian ultranationalists from starting a nuclear war. In theory, this is a fine idea for a plot; nuclear war would, indeed, be a bad thing, after all, but the problem comes from how the events are portrayed. Characters and factions are black and white; there’s a hero and a villain, the former usually American or from a NATO-allied country, and the latter usually from Russia or a country in the Middle East. Western civilization is good, its enemies are bad, and there’s little complexity in the geopolitics of the series and that paints a picture where the soldiers of western countries are almost always heroes and the soldiers of enemy countries are almost always evil.
It’s important to note that, amongst all of the criticism of the franchise’s portrayal of the U.S. and the military, there are many soldiers who are indeed heroes and deserve to be recognized as such; the problem with Call of Duty isn’t that it portrays some of its soldiers as heroes who save lives, it’s that it portrays particular countries as particularly heroic when, in reality, no country is totally good, geopolitics aren’t black and white, and, a lot of the time, the U.S. and its allies actively damage the world at large as a result of their actions. Tone and presentation matters in how an audience understands the ideas proposed by art, and Call of Duty paints a rose-colored portrayal of the U.S. and its military despite any twists or turns in the story that paint one or two members of the American military as immoral or outright evil. The series has done a lot to canonize the military as a fixture of the 21st-century American identity, perhaps more so than any other piece of culture in existence. That is not to say, however, that it’s the most egregious example of a game glorifying the American military, nor the most propagandist or the most dangerous.
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