[Science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein] was not the only one having recurring fantasies about nuclear bombs raining on American cities in a sneak attack. This was a national nightmare in the only country in the world that has ever actually used nuclear bombs, a country that had launched sneak attacks not on military targets but on the civilian population of two major cities. While the American people were being stimulated by our government to imagine a nuclear attack on us, American nuclear bombs were daily being flown in B-47s and B-52s over the Soviet Union and an American empire was being built under the cover of nuclear bombs and missiles deployed all over the globe.
So wrote H. Bruce Franklin in his biography of Heinlein, subtitled America as Science Fiction. In other news, there’s a new Call of Duty out, subtitled Ghosts. Journalists are airing the usual complaints about po-faced narrative and sclerotic mechanics, and people are making fun of the game’s gimmicky dog, all with justice. There’s certainly a lot to say about an enormously popular, macho fantasy game that approaches its audience in the form of a dominatrix — I’m in charge here! This is serious business! You want to play your way? Tough. I’ll tell you when you can have pleasure, and how. Let me hear you beg!
Others, such as Emanuel Maiberg and John Walker, have written about the game’s narrative. The gist of it, as far as I can make out (I’ll say upfront that I haven’t played the game and don’t intend to — these games invariably make me want to hurl my computer/controller/tv/stomach contents/self out of a high window, so this time around I’m going to avoid it entirely) is that a group of Latin American countries has banded together into something called “The Federation” and invaded/magic-space-nuked the US, because Reasons. The “heroes” naturally have to solve this by terminating a bunch of foreigners with extreme prejudice.
Maiberg approaches the point slightly obliquely, slyly asking his audience whether it is sure it is on the right side of the beach landings. If the mission is “to save your father and land, to save your father’s land… well, just put the words together.” Walker, always in fine fettle when there is blood to be let, compares the grand pathos of CoD‘s early Second World War outings with the juvenile bathos of its recent past.
This line of critique is a strong one, but I think the difference between the suffering conscripts of the original CoD and the morally void Übermenschen of CoD: Ghosts is only part of the picture. While the hysterical xenophobia of the recent CoD games is so blatant that it goes almost without saying, and the absurdity of their scenarios so tired that mentioning it is itself a cliché, it’s easy to miss the extent to which the fantasy itself has changed: not just from fragile conscripts to invincible action heroes, but from violence and misery for a (hopefully) moral cause to violence as a moral cause, amidst the destruction of the world one is supposedly fighting for. Gun porn, explosions and science-fiction machines, greased with testosterone, are the entire focus of these games: they are the moral and the means. Maiberg is absolutely right to reference the Nazis, because the CoD of today has more than a little in common with fascistic art like Ernst Jünger’s Storms of Steel, extolling violence and suffering for their own sake, and the paeans to high-tech warfare written by the pro-fascist Italian Futurists. CoD is trapped in a breathless present loaded with bombastic action because, like a bitter veteran, it feels it has no home to go back to. The point is no longer to die for peace and democracy, because it holds them in contempt. Ghosts states this explicitly: a man should unquestioningly sacrifice both himself and his children to the military. Relentless, eternal war is the entire point of the exercise.
The corollary to this is a shift in tone from the epic to the apocalyptic. The modern- and near-future-themed Calls of Duty are replete with apocalyptic imagery, raining strategically placed destruction upon their button-mashing audience. Buildings fall, planes crash, cities burn. This is not the blasted landscape of war so much as the spectacle of a disaster movie. Which is to say: watching civilians killed and cities ruined is part of the fun, not just a source of pathos. The apocalyptic always invokes a visceral thrill and a little bit of Schadenfreude, and amidst CoD‘s frenetic wake of catastrophe and mutilation, sympathy — if not bromance and righteous indignation — is in short supply.
This is the point where the paragraph I quoted from Franklin starts to seem somehow appropriate. The series of Red Dawn– or Homefront-style inversions, whereby, in this case, the victims of US-supported death squads become the invading, mass-murdering imperial power and source of terror, the cause for an(other) episode of military heroics amongst the rubble, and also the enemy who is to be murdered without compunction, boggles the mind. Return of the repressed? Projection? Simplistic propaganda? Or just a loathing for everyone outside of the (Western) armed forces? In any case, Call of Duty doesn’t want this war to end.