The voice couldn’t have come from anyone older than twelve. There was no rasp, no pubescent pitchiness.
“I’m gonna rape again!”
It took me a moment to connect the meaning of the words to the sound of the voice. And I couldn’t tell whose voice it was. Maybe Deadlylilbro22. Or ChronicJman03. Perhaps QuazzeFrodo. He could have been any of the eight or so players logged on to that particular round of “Hardcore Team Deathmatch,” a multiplayer online mode of 2009′s most popular videogame, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Players’ identities, like this kid’s, remain on the far side of gladiatorial algorithms, online-interactive audio and cutesy pseudonyms. Within the game, you can be whoever you want. No matter what you sound like. Or, apparently, what age you are.
The only gamer’s identity I knew for sure was that of my couchmate, Bogdan “Blowjob” Blower, a Wittgenstein scholar writing a dissertation on private experience, known online for his mad savvy in explosives. His weapon of choice that day was the Sikorsky MH-53, or the “Pave Low,” a helicopter rigged to rain down missiles and .50-cals. Blowjob heard the little boy’s voice, too. I turned to him, horrified. He preempted my questioning with something vaguely Wittgensteinian about slipping into the language games of “these sorts” of online gaming venues.
“It’s easy to get caught up,” he says. “It’s its own world.”
Modern Warfare 2 (MW2) is the only game Blowjob plays, which is a none-too-uncommon phenomenon. Since its inception, MW2 has inspired something of a cultish devotion in its followers, besting competition well beyond bottom lines—though the economics alone are staggering. In its first five days MW2 grossed over half a billion dollars. The day of its release, 2.2 million unique gamers logged more than 5.2 million online hours onMW2 for Microsoft’s Xbox LIVE, helping to set a new single-day record. Today there are more than 25 million unique gamers worldwide—as much as the entire population of Texas. Not unjustifiably, the game’s digital publisher, Activision Blizzard Inc., boasted that MW2 was the “largest entertainment launch in history,” with consumers choosing it “at unprecedented levels [over] other forms of media.”
Included in that “other forms of media,” of course, are more than mere DVDs, CDs and MP3s. The entirety of human experience predating Nintendo’s turn to electric toy manufacturing in the 1970s also lies before this altar. But this isn’t news—ask any parent. Just as “P-and-that-stands-for-Pool” led to trouble in River City in 1912, and pinball led to gambling in the Bronx in the 1930s, so movies and videogames led to surging violence in the 1980s and 90s.
Yet the more interesting story of videogames, particularly “first-person” shoot-em-ups like MW2, is not their conspicuous dominance over more socially amenable activities like soccer games and spelling bees, nor their influence on school shootings, but rather the increasingly symbiotic relationship between modern videogames and the human activity that is their most popular subject: modern warfare itself.
In the middle of May 2003, American troops invaded Los Angeles. Major media largely overlooked this particular action, though it was part of a wider campaign that had achieved a persistent presence in the news. Chopping through a clear blue California sky, a cluster of Black Hawk helicopters swept over downtown, then hovered above the glass-curtained main complex of the Los Angeles Convention Center as pedestrians glanced upward in surprise. U.S. Special Forces, clad in green camouflage and clutching machine guns, descended from the copters onto a building’s roof, rappelled down its wall to the ground, then stormed the Center’s entrance. Traffic halted on Pico Boulevard as some civilians rubbernecked in disbelief, while others cautiously fled—no doubt wondering whether the troops were here to tackle an anthrax scare, dirty bomb, sleeper cell, or some other impending threat to Western culture by Those Who Hate Us. A mere two weeks after President Bush had declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq, had the war on terror found its new front, right in the heart of the global entertainment industry?
The venue was the Electronics Entertainment Expo, or E3, the annual convention and showcase of the videogame industry. In his book From Sun Tzu to Xbox, Ed Halter describes Special Forces soldiers hovering in helicopters above a huge banner, “emblazoned with a photograph of a soldier’s face, the Army’s logo, and the slogan Empower Yourself. Defend Freedom.” The soldiers, like stuntmen in some John Woo action flick, showcased perfectly real combat maneuvers, in a perfectly unreal setting, for a perfectly real purpose: promoting the U.S. Army’s most recent recruitment tool—the videogame America’s Army.
America’s Army was downloaded over 2.5 million times in its first two months, and at least eight gaming publications bestowed it with best-of-show awards following its pre-release unveiling at E3 2002. By 2005, more than 5 million gamers had registered to play the game online. As Halter puts it, “Suddenly, the Army was wicked cool.”
Shortly after the game’s pre-release, gaming journalist Wagner James Au wrote that America’s Army was “teaching today’s teenagers how to wage, and win, the war against terror.” This was precisely the note the Army had hoped to strike. Au went so far as to describe America’s Army as an updated version of the Frank Capra Why We Fight documentaries of World War II:
A contemporary version of Why We Fight seems unlikely to emerge from Hollywood, outside of a rush of thrillers with stock terrorist villains. But the need for one now is just as urgent, even as al-Qaida is whittled away by gun battles in Karachi or raids on a Buffalo suburb. The war on terror—which, if we parse out the diplomatic niceties, really means a war on Islamist militants, and the nations who back them (beginning with Saddam’s Iraq)—must be fought, and over a campaign of many years, decisively won.
Au not only echoes the talking points of neoconservatives William Kristol, Ken Adelman and Richard Perle, he also summarizes quite nicely the political mythology of MW2, the sixth incarnation of the Call of Duty series. The expressly evangelistic goals of America’s Army helped lay the foundation for MW2‘s cultural coup d’état, which, given the political maelstrom of Vietnam, can be best understood in terms of the Capra “good war” legacy of World War II. And it was in Normandy and Berlin, rather than Saigon and Hanoi—or for that matter, Baghdad and Kabul—that the Call of Duty franchise first began commandeering territory originally occupied by America’s Army.
Call of Duty and America’s Army both helped to redefine videogame realism.Attempting to surmount the stock villainy at work in predecessor games like Wolfenstein (i.e. Nazis, ghouls, aliens and other pseudo-human “undead”), Call of Duty simulates the infantry and combined-arms warfare of the Allied Forces, with distinct “campaigns” relative to American, British and Soviet forces. Enemy forces are still that monolithic, “other-than-us” opposition, but enemy actions are limited to historically plausible scenarios—a significant development in realistic gaming.
It’s the sense-experience aesthetic of Call of Duty, however, which best showcases the game’s realism. Call of Duty pioneered the “shell shock” feature, or simulated tinnitus: in the wake of a bombardment, movements slow, sounds muffle, sights blur—similar to those immersive POVs in films and miniseries like Black Hawk Down andBand of Brothers. Individual players must also contend with ever-shifting positions of allies, controlled by the game console itself—as opposed to the customary solo maverick mode of games like Wolfenstein, Ninja Gaiden andAssassin’s Creed. The gaming experience thus deftly combines the intrinsically social character of war with its inescapably first-personal perspective. The twentieth century brought home that although war is waged by nations, it is fought by individuals. Individual fingers are needed to pull individual triggers; neither “countries” nor “armies” can bleed; and no soldier gets to hide from the law or his conscience by claiming, “I was only following orders.” The true genius of the Call of Duty franchise lies in its emphasis on the intertwinement of war’s political aspects with its inherently personal “feel.”
As for political realism, the very first Call of Duty saga was released on October 29th 2003, seven months and ten days after the first bombs had been dropped over Baghdad. It would be a hard sell for a developer like Infinity Ward to claim—a full year and a half after 9/11—that it was only interested in producing realistic “period” games. Not only had the felling of the World Trade Center been one of the most watched, and re-watched, events in history, but televisions across the globe were showing Baghdad in sparks and flames. Dictators were being dug from the dirt. Masked men were taking knives to necks. These were images from no film, no videogame. It wasn’t realism, but reality. Seen everywhere, and often. And with the success of America’s Army, released the year before and set in the twenty-first century, Infinity Ward could hardly be expected to overlook the commercial possibilities. Nothing says tomorrow’s sequel like today’s vengeance.
2005 and 2006 saw the arrival of two more WWII-based installments of Call of Duty. 2007 marked the much-anticipated unveiling of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (COD4). This fourth episode departed the historical stage of Western Europe for a war-ravaged, modern-day Middle East and an Eastern Europe still wallowing in Cold War nostalgia. The bad guys now spoke Russian and Arabic and were dark-skinned or looked like Lenin. Whereas WWII had provided a certain haven for the game’s realism—with the events being played out soundly in the rearview mirror—the ongoing nature of contemporary conflicts seemed to force COD4 in a markedly sensationalistic direction. As the settings became more modern—closer to home, as it were—the language became more foul, the images more gruesome, the fighting more barbaric. The franchise earned its first “Mature” rating.
Somehow COD4 managed to capture the impersonal atmospherics of modern warfare (technology, precision, versatility) at the same time as it conveyed its archaic, flesh-and-blood bottom line (brute force, indiscrimination, bodies). And it was all set in the vicinity of conflicts headlining any given day of the New York Times, venturing through various fictional Middle Eastern locales (such as “unnamed countries” bordering Saudi Arabia and the Red Sea), as well as the post-Soviet states of Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Russia. The game therefore succeeded in distilling and digitizing the post-WWII American political unconscious—fear of all things east of Martha’s Vineyard—and helped mold the fragile political imagination of a gaming generation too impatient to read the New York Times and too young to remember the Cold War.
The plot begins with a character well-loved by devotees of MW2: John “Soap” MacTavish. Soap is a battle-hardened veteran by the time we meet him in MW2, in the snow- and ice-covered Tian Shan mountains of Kazakhstan, but at the beginning of installment four he’s just a new recruit of the British SAS, undergoing weapons training at a military facility in Credenhill, England, and readying for a cargo ship raid. The franchise’s novelistic character development allows gamers to get to know individuals, to enjoy their stories and accompany them along a hero’s quest. With the entire world engulfed in retaliatory conflict—on the high seas, in city squares, beneath Soviet statues, beside towering minarets—your hero becomes the central player on a battleground that the real world could some day soon become, if only this or that contingency were to fail its fail-safe. It’s seductive paranoia. The stakes high, the tension taut. And everything spontaneously combustible. COD4dramatizes the Hobbesian “state of nature” warfare of all against all, the sort of saga fit only for a Jack Bauer or a Jack Ryan. With everything so fucked, so utterly beyond and out of control, only a messiah, some one exemplary individual, has a chance of distilling the political madness into a humanly habitable coherence. You are that one.
You begin MW2 in Afghanistan. Like your cousin. Or that friend of a friend of yours who joined the military straight out of high school. You’re Private First Class Joseph Allen of the 75th Rangers. Your objective: train local military forces. They’re assembled under a canopy—a real ragtag lot, chatty, undisciplined, rattling on in their local dialects. In the background is Camp Phoenix: a spot-on panoramic of concertina wire; huge half-pipe canopy tents used as hangars; sandbags; soldiers playing basketball in camouflage and t-shirts; mechanics at work over Humvees; soldiers on perimeter patrols; soldiers bullshitting over cigarettes; and so on. And everything glazed over by the ever-present yellow fog of Afghan dust. In the foreground, an American soldier, Sergeant Foley, who sounds just like “King” from Platoon, derides the locals for all that shooting from the hip they’ve been doing on recent missions. But not you, you’re a Ranger. Sgt Foley tells you to pick up the rifle on the table in front of you. It glows, letting you know to pick it up. The screen flashes the button you have to push. Then Sgt Foley tells you to fire down-range, spraying randomly, from the hip like the locals, to demonstrate for them both their inadequacy and their dependency. And you’re like Clark Kent, thinly veiling your superhuman swagger behind glasses and a poorly feigned awkwardness, until Sgt Foley tells you to aim down your sights, firing quickly and selectively. “Show these locals how the Rangers do it!” he says. By pushing a button with your left index finger—a function called “Target Snap”—you can snap targets quickly into your sights. It’s deceptively easy, like hitting a note through Auto-Tune. Sgt Foley then instructs you—just as Soap MacTavish was instructed back inCOD4—to practice firing through “soft cover,” a wooden board obstructing your view of targets. You fire through a board. Splinters fly. A target drops. After one final demonstration—the proper use of grenades—Sgt Foley sends you down to “The Pit,” where you’ve been tasked to demo your skills for a general assembling a special unit: Task Force 141.
Corporal Dunn tells you how to navigate The Pit. How to change from your rifle to your sidearm, a Desert Eagle .50-cal. You’re new to the game, but maybe you’re not new to the content. Maybe you’re like me, a vet. The Pit is just another timed qualification course, just like back on base, back stateside. You’ve done this countless times. And the kinesthetics are freaky real. The controller vibrates every time you shoot. And somewhere in the background is that instructor, like a drill instructor, yelling all the right shit at you. Hurry up! Look down your sights! Switch to your sidearm, it’s faster than reloading! Holy shit, you say out loud. This isn’t a flashback. It’s an interactive re-creation. This is fucking scary.
The reflexes come back to you. Pop-ups painted like Zarqawi and bin Laden spring up from behind concrete road blocks, sandbags, petroleum barrels, interspersed between pop-ups of fat old men with glasses who look like professors, and women in burkas and hijabs, and kids with backpacks. A few pop-ups that look like leftovers from the Eighties and Nineties—more IRA than al-Qaida—sometimes make it into the rotation. They stutter your trigger rhythms. But the civilian pop-ups, Irish or Arab, look as scared as the enemy ones look scary. That gut contrast is critical. You gotta stay general. If you stop too long to look, trying to spot the visual differences between a ski mask and a kefia, you’re done. You gotta just see, like you’re seeing with your stomach, so you’re not looking, you’re seeing, and once you’re seeing, you’re firing, which means they’re dead and you’re not. You can’t trust details.
The moment passes. And you remember. And it’s not like you don’t already know it, but you do have to remind yourself. This is just a game. So you remember: you did the real thing.
My deployment to Iraq, June 2004: I’m the only one to raise a hand when my convoy commander—a sunglass-wearing, steely-jawed stereotype of himself—asks who’s never done this before. Been on an armored convoy, that is. He steps through everyone to about six inches from my face.
“We don’t fire warning shots,” he says. “If you move your selector lever from safe to semi, you shoot to kill.” He turns, mounts his Humvee.
From the Baghdad International Airport to Abu Ghraib Prison, I was thoughtless, immersed, breathing, sweating, reacting. I wasn’t thinking about the six months I’d spend interrogating enemy detainees. Or about the post-scandal madness my unit had been charged to put to rest. And I asked nothing. Not Who’s on the side of the road? Or Who’s on that rooftop? Or Is my rifle still on safe? Or Did I move my selector to semi? My body provided the answers automatically. I barely realized I’d entered a combat zone.
That night I received my bombing baptism. I’d yet to unpack my gear or set up my room when mortars, some inside, some outside, all around the prison compound, started peppering the soundscape. My roommate, without looking at me—he was too busy slinging his rifle with some new high speed across-the-chest thingy—says to me, “Happens four, five times a week. They got shitty aim. Sometimes they miss by a kilometer. If it gets heated, you’ll hear some Mark-19s. The Marines’ll fuck’em up. I’m gonna take a shower.”
But not everything was so radically dissociated. Sometimes radically the reverse. My one-time company mate, Alyssa Peterson, who was assigned to a different unit from me after graduating from training, turned her own M16 on herself after concluding that she had no option but to torture detainees. I didn’t learn of this until after coming home. After I’d become a Conscientious Objector. And after countless failed attempts to turn my experiences into a coherent narrative. The story kept changing. The wider the separation between Iraq and me, the more lurid and complicated our relationship became. I found solace in contempt.
It began to surface, the contempt, the night I went to see the movie Jarhead. A gaggle of seventeen-year-old boys stood outside the cinema complaining that the film didn’t have enough action. I told myself they’re probably not aware the film was based on true events, that “action” means real people dying, that the film’s main character, Anthony Swofford, used to live just down the block from where they were standing, and that I myself—walking by, withholding reprimand—was only nine months out of combat. I thought about ripping out their throats. I decided instead to take my mother’s advice and get some help.
I phoned Swofford on the drive home. I was working on a memoir at the University of Iowa, where Swofford too had come to study writing, and we’d corresponded some. He didn’t pick up. I left a message.
Hey, Tony. I just saw Jarhead. That last scene … where you’re in your room, smoking a cigarette, and you turn to look out the window, and all you see is the desert … I know what you were feeling … but fuck you, you made me feel it twice.
I hung up and checked my own messages. My former barracks roommate and interrogation partner, Cody, had called during the movie. I call him back and he tells me he’s trying to fail out of his Chinese course at the Defense Language Institute so that he can get deployed again to Iraq. Maybe Afghanistan. His grandpa had fought bad guys back in the good war, he tells me. Cody and I, on the other hand, had been Army interrogators at Abu Ghraib prison in the immediate wake of the prisoner abuse scandal. Despite its spectacular reputation, Abu Ghraib was pretty sanitized by the time Cody and I arrived. We spent six months needlessly interrogating taxi drivers and young fathers, holding men hostage who had no more intel to give up than how long it had been since they’d seen their wives. We were very nearly useless. And while we did help to clean up a place much in need of moral hygiene, all the dark activity just fled elsewhere. With Special Forces. With CIA. With those units with cloak-and-dagger names—like “Task Force 141.” Some of it I knew about. I’d learn about most of it later, though, long after Cody and I had received medals for “rehabilitating” Abu Ghraib and “changing the face of the War on Terror.” Cody tells me, I wanna find the bad guys, Casteel, the real ones. I ask him if he’s still listening to that same pop, shake-your-moneymaker, rap bullshit he was always blaring before physical training. He laughs and hangs up.
Later that week I tell a psychiatrist I’ll try the meds, but I’m not ready to talk to anybody. I’m still hoping for that one exemplary individual, maybe Swofford, and we’ll talk—you know, vet writer to vet writer. Or maybe some radical Jesuit priest or something, somebody who’d been arrested with the Berrigan brothers, back during Vietnam, for incinerating draft cards with homemade napalm. Not some smooth-handed liberal dispensing sympathy. And definitely not some VA volunteer who loves America and is proud of my service.
Ironically, my job as a teacher of Rhetoric at Iowa would have me talking routinely about my experiences with college freshmen. Kids one year older than the boys from the cinema. Who equally hated Jarhead. But who loved their ever-expanding libraries of shoot-em-ups like Call of Duty. I’d hear about it during my office hours. It’s crazy good, Mr. Casteel, serious … of all people, you gotta check it out! Such visits were of course infrequent at first. But after I began telling my classes about the boys from the cinema (and what I had wanted to do to them), and as more and more of my war experiences found their way into my lectures and class discussions, curious minds began to find their way to my little desk in the basement of the English and Philosophy Building. They didn’t give a damn about Jarhead‘s poetic realism, or how a film’s use of music and imagery fulfills the “pathos corner” of the logos–ethos–pathos “rhetoric triangle.” Or how just about all popular American media is pathetic in that very Greek sense of the term. They cared deeply, however, about discovering “what’s really going on.” Maybe they could intuit the vacuity enveloping them, just not diagnose it. All that realism crowding out reality. You were there … what was it like? they’d ask.
“The next time you get killed playing Call of Duty,” I tell one of them, “take the game out back, back behind your dorm. And bury it. Along with a picture of your best friend. That’d be a good start.”
“Why a picture of someone else? I thought you said the next time I get killed.”
“Your own death is too abstract.”
Blowjob and I sit on his couch. His wife’s just returned from the store. I call him Blowjob, loudly, simply for provocation’s sake. She rolls her eyes. There’s pot in the air. I’m eating an apple and drinking water, though, because grad school and depression have fattened me up since my Army days, and I’m working hard at getting back on track. For a moment I feel superior, like life has taught me real lessons. And I’m not fleeing the lessons, or even thinking about them. I’m responding. Not like “Blowjob” here, who writes theory about “private experience” and then escapes into private, medicated fantasies. At best, I think, his world is the world of realism. Not reality. Games like this, I tell myself, are what the world would be like if supposedly realist theorists—like Hobbes, like Clausewitz, like Machiavelli—turned out to be describing anything real. But they’re as connected to the reality of warfare as that twelve-year-old boy who just spouted out with his choirboy voice how he’s gonna “rape again” in the next round of “Hardcore Deathmatch.” To him, war is a game. It’s an object. And he can step into it. Turn it on. Enjoy it. Be dissatisfied by it. Turn it off. Maybe even try to reform it. But it’s not something that he himself is.
As we leave Blowjob’s apartment, I feel a sudden craving for a cigarette. Thinking about war always brings back war’s habits. It’s not the nicotine, but the muscle memory, the reflex. Blowjob asks if I ever fired in combat. I don’t answer. I ask if I ever told him about the Army historian S.L.A. Marshall.
“Is that that WWII ratio-of-fire guy you were telling me about?”
“Yeah. Not more than one out of every four infantrymen deployed to WWII ever fired his weapon. Not with the enemy in his sights. Not even when in danger.”
“What about you?”
“I went through the training the Army invented to help soldiers overcome their inhibitions. Called reflexive fire training. Just like in The Pit, that qual-course at the beginning of the game. WWII guys trained on bull’s-eyes. We trained on moving targets, shaped like humans. And we yelled out crazy shit like Kill, kill without mercy! AndBlood, blood makes the green grass grow! Pavlov and Skinner and all that operant and reflexive conditioning shit. Might as well’ve just yelled out how we were gonna go rape again, too. Do you think that gonna-rape-again kid would shoot at me if I tried to attack him?”
“You mean, because he’s gotten some of the training you got, you know, vicariously, by playing the videogame?”
“Hobbes says he’d shoot. Even without the training. Which is bullshit.”
“When that kid said that, I was appalled. That’s what S.L.A. Marshall says I’m supposed to feel. Violence is supposed to appall me. I mean, I’m a Conscientious Objector!”
“What I did was … just now … was essentially just play some interactive, videogame version of Debbie Does Dallas. Anatomically correct. The full nine. It was even sexy. But further fucking removed from real war than porn is from real sex. Which of course is why everyone loves it. It turned me on.”
“That was quite a segue.”
“This is the answer to your question: there is no ratio-of-fire problem today.”
For whatever reason, and despite the fact that yet another installment—called Black Ops and set during the Cold War—is slated to be released this November, the Call of Duty franchise seems to understand, at least partly, the horrid irony of its enterprise. Official MW2 literature is full of quotes from Martin Luther, Aeschylus and even Albert Einstein on the horridness of war. “Nothing will ever end war unless the people themselves refuse to go to war.” But this ironic self-awareness is as vapid, as platitudinous, as passive, as the myth of duty the game itself propounds. It’s a dirty world. Time to get your hands dirty. Which is to say: from a technological and theoretical and political and emotional distance. A game. When you die the game is over. And when you kill…?
Set before you are the world’s sins, which you can bathe yourself in, like fine perfume. As bodies are torn. As flesh-and-blood soldiers die, searching for meaning, failing to find before them the visions they once gave themselves to. So they turn to contempt. At sixty dollars a unit. This is modern warfare. One big spectacle. A videogame more popular than Moses. But not to worry. As the Air Force tells us: It’s not science fiction … It’s what we do everyday. The images come to us, almost imperceptibly. They meet us in our bewilderment, coolly, sexily, as though their arrival were not of our own creation, our very own and very inhospitable imago humani, so we name them Fate, Destiny, Necessity. Images all, nearly divine, by whom we believe ourselves to have been seized, and with whom we seek intimacy. And we gaze upon them, ravished.