Graphic by MEREK ALAM
What separates contemporary wars apart from the wars of our past? The easy answer would be a fun presentation about the ever-advancing technology that our soldiers use these days, while the hard answer would have to be a long discussion about the changing tactics and morality that our country is now constantly engaged with. How did the original Modern Warfare (2007) nail both easy and hard answers so well and why is the reboot, Modern Warfare (2019), struggling so hard to do the same?
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007) found itself being released four years into the Iraq War. What initially began as America’s short invasion meant to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power and find Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs) turned into a drawn-out occupation turned aimless with the revelation that the Bush administration had most likely lied about the existence of WMDs in the first place (with the real reason probably related to securing rights to the oil in the region instead). Dissatisfaction over the war was so high that in 2006 midterm elections Democrats won both chambers of the house for the first time in twelve years.
As such, Modern Warfare opens with the rise to power of Khaled Al-Asad, a ruthless leader in a fictional “small but oil-rich” middle eastern country who is now unfavorable to American ideals. Unlike Saddam Hussein, the fictional Khaled Al-Asad really does have WMDs. Over the several hour long campaign, you play as Americans heroically securing control of the country block by block. But just as you have him backed into a corner, he detonates a nuclear bomb and wipes out the whole city. The game flashes a scrolling list of instantly killed American soldiers before forcing you to play as an Navy Seal who’s only able to crawl into a desolate street before staring up at the monstrous mushroom cloud and dying painfully in isolation.
The twist is a real gut punch for those who thought that they might get to play a more morally righteous version of the Iraq War but were instead treated to a story where the events turned out even worse. Infinity Ward, the developers behind the game, bluntly told us that we lived in an age where Americans trying to play the good guys would always lead to appalling unintended consequences. The glory days were over, and this was just the nature of modern warfare. The resonant political nature of Call of Duty 4 was what helped secure its status as an all-time classic video game. The sequel, Modern Warfare 2, took clear notice of this success and pushed the political themes even further by having the final bad guy be an American general who created a war in an effort to boost the powers of the military industrial complex.
Like any mediocre disaster, there were clear warning signs about the reboot of Modern Warfare’s campaign. Foremost was when the art director of the game claimed that the campaign was “a very relevant contemporary war story,” but when asked if the game was political said “no” and that “it seems insane to get political to me.”
Modern Warfare (2019) had just as much potential to say something daring like the original work did. They could have taken inspiration from the Abu Graib torture sites, the Obama administration’s disastrous intervention in the Libyan civil war, or the effects that American drone bombings and occupation had on middle eastern civilians. But in an effort to not seem “political” to an American audience the game disgustingly takes American atrocities like bombings and occupation and assigns the blame to Russian forces.
One sequence takes place on “The Highway of Death,” a highway littered with bombed out cars military vehicles that we’re told the Russians bombed while the middle eastern forces were in the process of retreating. The problem is that “The Highway of Death” was a real war crime, and was committed by the American military against retreating Iraqi forces which lead to the deaths of hundreds of real soldiers and refugees. The excuses that this is a fictional country and conflict don’t cut it. To use the name of an actual event and assign the blame to a different country is a prime example of what actual political correctness looks like, and how the government and media cover up or erase hard truths in an Orwellian manner when they get too hard to deal with. A player who has never heard of “The Highway of Death” will now associate it solely with the Modern Warfare (2019) level and the fictional Russian bad guys instead of being forced to question the idea of the American “good guy.”
This one instance of historical revisionism is only emblematic of the larger problems of timidity throughout the reboot. You can play with new weapons like white phosphorus in the multiplayer, but the game isn’t brave enough to question its usage like Spec Ops: The Line might. You can experience an interactive waterboarding scene, but because your assailant is a cartoonishly evil Russian commander instead of an American prison guard at Guantanamo Bay or soldier in Afghanistan, so you don’t really have to challenge your worldview. Even the most morally ambiguous scene only gets a quick “sometimes you have to the wrong thing for the greater good” quip before moving on, presented as an isolated incident instead of the result of any policy or institution.
There’s nothing “edgy” about the rebooted Modern Warfare campaign, instead the whole storyline reeks of cowardice. The reboot only really recreates what the original did at the most surface level, giving us the easy answer to “What does modern warfare entail?” by showing the advancing technology of warfare but refusing to say anything about the moral implications of it like the original would. Without the guts to be political, Modern Warfare (2019) is completely underserving of its legendary title.