The Military-Entertainment Complex and Call of Duty: A Bizarre Tale of Truth Being Stranger Than Fiction
Call of Duty, the bombastic, high-octane, arcade-shooter, has become a monolith in the games industry. The series has sold over 300 million copies and generated billions in revenue, becoming one the most recognizable brands in gaming and the top first-person shooter on the market. But, with that kind of mainstream staying power, comes new attention, specifically, from the Department of Defense and the Pentagon. A game series played by millions and one that depicts both real and fictitious renditions of the United States military, it is no wonder that the government wants at least some involvement in the matter. It is an open secret that the U.S. military has its own dedicated entertainment branch and has worked with thousands of movies. The relationship is mutually beneficial as well. Hollywood can borrow military equipment, expertise, or personnel, and the government can edit scripts and add a new branch in their recruiting efforts. This is known as the military-entertainment complex, a riff on the military-industrial complex. Call of Duty is a relatively more recent addition to this crowd, yet it is undoubtedly one of the largest exemplifications of this phenomenon.
Call of Duty started as a formulaic first-person shooter set during WWII in the same vein as Medal of Honor and various other competitors of the time. It was not until its fourth entry that Call of Duty became the juggernaut of today. That fourth installment, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (developed by Infinity Ward and published by Activision), was the first mainstream foray into the modern shooter. No longer were you storming the beaches of Normandy and liberating France from the Nazis in virtual reality. Instead, you are placed in a fictitious rendition of a war-torn Middle Eastern country with a brutal dictator who may or may not have weapons of mass destruction. Modern Warfare abandons the safety in depicting “a moral war“ and replaces one that is muddy, and at the time very much still ongoing. Either purposefully or unintentionally, setting the game in a modern setting acted as propaganda for a war that would take the lives of hundreds of thousands.
The story of Call of Duty is quite literally a rollercoaster. Modern Warfare (2007) follows two main branches. The first, a U.S. Marine Force Recon company invading an unnamed Middle Eastern country to depose Khaled Al-Asad, who act as thinly veiled stand-ins of Saddam Hussein and Iraq. The second branch follows SAS (Special Air Service) operatives working to take down Imran Zakhaev, leader of the ultranationalist party waging a civil war in Russia. As the narrative unfolds, Al-Asad uses a nuke, provided by Zakhaev, to lay waste to his own city and with it nearly all the American forces. Retaliation follows soon after, as the SAS operatives you control hunt down Al-Asad and execute him after he gives up Zakhaev. The game ends with you and Russian loyalists killing Zakhaev extrajudicially. The first Modern Warfare has a middling ethos. On the one hand, the game accentuates the brutalities and horror of war. It showed how conflict affects everyone and the turmoil that the modern era of war wrought around the world. Yet, on the other hand, the game is pro-intervention, legitimizing American imperialism with their real-life invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. By the time Modern Warfare came out, opinion of the war on terror had already soured. Saddam Hussein did not have WMDs, and the Bush administration was caught in a lie, yet the game depicts that lie as a reality.
The sequel to Modern Warfare (2007), Modern Warfare 2, ramps up the intensity to eleven. The story is wild and has probably the most critical look at the U.S. military out of any other game in the series, but still trips over itself by the end. The game follows the events of Modern Warfare, with Zakhaev becoming a martyr and the ultranationalists taking over Russia, threatening the western world with WW3. The main characters are a coalition of elite operators who operate under U.S. General Shepard, who led the U.S. occupational force in the previous game, his reputation now tarnished. The group, Task Force 141, is pursuing Vladimir Makarov, the new leader of the Russian ultranationalist party. MW2 caused quite a stir in its initial release by the media when one mission depicts a terrorist attack on an airport, in which the player character can participate. “No Russian”, the mission, caused a huge uproar and fervor from the video games cause violence crowd, a claim entirely unsubstantiated and not a point this piece aims to make either. The in-game story behind the mission weaves an intricate, surprising, web that leads to the ultimate twist in the game.
The terrorist attack, orchestrated by Makarov, aims to kick off WW3 and destroy “the western world”. General Shepard is given intelligence substantiating the terrorist attack waiting to unfold but belays making it public. Instead, Shepard enlists a CIA operative to covertly join Makarov’s forces, in which you then play out the terrorist attack on the Russian airport and kill hundreds of civilians. But it turns out, Makarov knew your character was a CIA operative and kills you at the end of the mission. Framing the attack on the Russian airport as a U.S.-backed operation, the phrase “No Russian” was spoken by Makarov before the slaughter to set up the hoodwink. But in an extra layer of war crime shenanigans, it turns out General Shepard knew this would happen and set it up so it would. This is the big twist of the game, with Shepard orchestrating the terrorist attack and using Task Force 141 to cover his tracks. Shepard’s overall goal? To start WW3, avenge the soldiers lost in the first game, and establish a new American empire, the “benevolent hegemony”.
Of course, in typical action movie hysterics, you thwart the bad guy’s plan. Yet, in the end, the bad guy, specifically a U.S. general held in high regard, ultimately achieves his goals. The Russians invade the U.S., raised Washington D.C., and kicked off WW3. Meanwhile, the player characters are labeled war criminals for killing Shepard and are on the run in the final installment. The Modern Warfare trilogy was bold in its approach. Portraying the immorality of war and the politics that lay behind the curtain. But it still never outright challenges contemporary American foreign policy. The rest of the series dives into bizarro land with the outlandish and bombastic scenarios intertwined between games. The franchise’s other darling, Call of Duty: Black Ops, are spy thrillers covering CIA antics during the Cold War: from Mk Ultra, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, brainwashing, and a litany of war crimes, oh my! Call of Duty: Ghosts has a fictional Venezuela dominating the world (ludicrous and laughably out of touch even for its time). Advanced Warfare asks what if Kevin Spacey was actually evil, and paramilitary corporations were actually bad.
In fact, the behind-the-scenes of Call of Duty are sometimes just as wild as the stories they concoct. Black Ops II has none other than Oliver North as a military consultant, a main player behind the Iran-Contra affair. A deal in which the U.S. sold weapons to Iran and used those funds to support the Contras, who then ran cocaine into the U.S., all very fun and very legal. Another bizarre fact was when the writer for Black Ops II became an advisor in Washington with a think-tank whose goals were to predict future conflicts. A rather strange and egregious example of propaganda and rewriting history occurred in the reboot Modern Warfare, released in 2019. Once again set in a fictitious Middle Eastern Country (at least this one was given a name), the Highway of Death, a real historical event, is attributed to the Russians and called a war crime. But in real life, it was the American forces that carried out the attack.
While Call of Duty has no outright ties with the Pentagon, it still works as a mutually beneficial propaganda outlet for the U.S. military. The U.S. Army even got into some hot water for first amendment violations when their twitch channel, aimed at recruiting, was spammed with mentions of U.S. war crimes. The outside world has a far less virtuous and accepting outlook on American intervention and offers fairly salient criticisms on U.S. imperialism. So, having media dominated by only positive affirmations and post-hawk justifications for U.S. involvement seems a bit detached from reality.
Hollywood is an extension of America; it outstretches across the globe, entertaining billions. The industry may be the most known export the U.S. has ever produced, which is why Hollywood and the Pentagon have had a working relationship for decades. The video game industry is looking to take a slice out of that pie, and it has been successful so far. But unlike Hollywood, the video game industry does not need to worry about procuring military equipment or consulting military liaisons. So why has there been a newfound interest in this budding market? It’s because military recruitment has nosedived in recent years, with younger generations being less likely to view the military in a favorable light. So, the military has had to diversify its campaigning for recruitment. Gone are the days of military ads blasting the airwaves of radio, gone are the recruiters skulking high schools and malls for unsuspecting teenagers; now arrives the age of digital media, where even military service is one click away.
Now, this is not a total condemnation of Call of Duty. I myself am and have been a fan of the series for over a decade. But, it is important to be conscious of any form of media, and what any piece consciously or unconsciously conveys. If Call of Duty, and the games industry in general, want to be treated like their contemporaries in Hollywood, they must also accept that their works of art carry messages, and what those messages entail.