On November 14th, 2017, Russia’s Ministry of Defense used footage from a videogame to “prove” that American forces were protecting an ISIS convoy in Syria. Actually taken from AC: 130 Gunship Simulator: Special Ops Squadron, a gorgeously named mobile game clearly based on Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s “Death From Above” gunship mission, the black and white stills tweeted out by the Russian MoD are, of course, difficult to separate from actual gunship footage played on countless news shows and across the internet. Ghostly white silhouettes of trucks and human bodies, static-y pops of explosions and small arms fire, all look, appropriately, like something out of a videogame.
This is a strange story. It’s the kind of thing 1950s science fiction writers could barely have dreamed of—a shambling resurgence of the Cold War played out through high tech misinformation campaigns based on sophisticated consumer entertainment itself based on fictionalized versions of real world wars. Tracing the line back through all of this—from East vs. West political tensions and proxy wars to a mobile videogame meant to recreate moments from a prior game that used actual military gunship footage as inspiration for its Iraq War-based fiction—is an entire article in and of itself. The only way forward is to take a few steps back.
On June 6, 1944, the Allied invasion of Normandy resulted in thousands of dead, injured, or missing soldiers: approximately 10,000 Allied casualties with an estimated 4,413 dead. The German count is a far broader number—anywhere from 4,000 to 9,000 casualties. Exact numbers are difficult to come by. These figures have always been hard to come to grips with, even though they’re almost modest in comparison to others from the Second World War. (The Battle of Stalingrad’s roughly two million civilian and military casualties; the Holocaust’s six million European Jews murdered; the entire war’s cost of between 50-80 million lives within six years.) Still, it seems almost impossible to reckon with D-Day alone. The coldest possible way to understand it is with the long view of the dispassionate armchair historian or the military strategist weighing the sacrifices of battle against the broad context of the entire war. People like these could, perhaps, boil down the death that occurred along one strip of French coast on a single day in the mid-‘40s and reduce it in mind to something understandable. Call it a K:D ratio.
In Call of Duty: WWII, there’s a statistic for just about every action the player/soldier can take. The end of a multiplayer match tallies up how many opponents she has killed and the number of times she has died. As Will Partin convincingly describes, all of it functions as an abstraction of reality that’s hard to take completely at face value. We know, on some level, that the opponents gunned down in WWII’s single and multiplayer modes are more shooting gallery plastic ducks than representations of real people. But, despite this, the game strains to make us remember what its virtual playgrounds represent.
This is made clear in one of WWII’s most resonant sequences—a level where player character Ronald “Red” Daniels risks his life during the Battle of Aachen to rescue German civilians trapped inside a hotel. The adult innocents run back to an American truck for protection, but Daniels is trapped inside with a young girl. He sneaks her out as Nazi soldiers return to the hotel. Instead of the usual gun, a portion of the screen is covered by the girl and a teddy bear wrapped in her arms. Her terrified face dominates the screen as the player ducks behind barrels and hides in closets to avoid German patrols. She’s a noncombatant suffering immensely and the player is forced to recognize this—to get cheek to tear-wet cheek with it for a prolonged, tense break from the usual bloodbath of the game’s battles.
What are we meant to do with scenes like this?
Call of Duty has always had a contentious relationship with reality. Its most politically insightful entries are all impossible to present to a reasonable, non-game playing person as politically insightful. Their stories successfully engage with the world around us (most potently in the original Modern Warfare) but distance themselves from representing reality with a non-distinct “Middle East” setting or wrapping Black Ops’ Cold War battles in science fiction plot devices.
In all of this, the audience is left purposefully disoriented. Grappling too intensely with what the games are trying to say about history and current events makes the player feel slightly foolish; not doing so makes her callow.
Call of Duty: WWII, in bringing the series’ focus back to the Second World War for the first time in years, forces this question even more dramatically. There’s no way to sidestep the veracity of the events it depicts—they’re described with specific dates and times right at the beginning of each mission. (“Stronghold,” as an example, pops up at the start of the level with the subtitle “July 26, 1944. Marigny, France.”) If we ignore that the action is culled from real events, we’re not paying attention. And so the player ends up in a kind of trap, gut twisted between wanting to care and only being teased with just enough context to do so. After finishing the brief single player mode, which rehashes the familiar story of an American unit fighting through Western Europe, from Normandy, France to Remagen, Germany, WWII provides its multiplayer matches as an infinite pastime. The anchor lifts and the entire project floats unmoored through a vast ocean of digital combat whose apparent senselessness is rooted in historical specificity: Omaha beach and Ardennes forest maps, unlockable Allied and Axis armaments, and various national military uniforms in which to dress up the player’s soldier avatar.
History, then, becomes nothing but an aesthetic. An older generation, who gave up years of their lives to engage in a roiling death machine that, whatever their intentions—obscured by history, by long looks backward, by romanticism or maybe not—are sucked up and regurgitated. Their lives become a legendary sandbox of heroic knights striking down slavering dragons. WWII’s inevitable missions set during the Battle of the Bulge don’t feel like portrayals of one tragedy among the War’s many. Those icy trenches and jagged pine trees represent only a trip back to a town we used to live in. World War II becomes warmly nostalgic. Black Ops III understood how to use the historical mythmaking of this specific battle very well.
If nothing we’re shown is capable of meaning anything, the player can embrace a numbness that makes the churn of bodies in WWII’s multiplayer into something almost truthful. It shows masses of humanity rendered into not just chunks of exploded viscera but numbers, too. 17 kills, 14 deaths; 3 objectives captured. There’s a perverted satisfaction to it—to taking our own historically recent monuments of young corpses and annihilated worlds and holding it between our hands, turning it into something small and understandable and so goddamned powerless that it becomes our idle entertainment. World War II, with its millions of unjustly dead, is now no longer a staggering, nauseating tragedy of our species’ almost divine propensity for utter failure, but a “vintage” look and sound we can delight in returning to.
There’s the satisfaction of willingly retrograde behaviour in all of this. The erotically detailed, authentically recorded, modelled, and replayed metallic ping of a spent M1 Garand; the gleam of the Nazi stahlhelm as it dents inward and bucks backward from the impact of a perfectly aimed bullet—it all becomes degenerate poetry of a kind perfectly suited to our age. Because here we are—the dancing idiots of history who, through economic, cultural, and psychological forces too complex and multifaceted to detail in any single sentence, extract any lesson or emotional impact from our past and repackage it as supposedly “apolitical” entertainment.
It’s fun and sick and, as Will points out, just one element of a machine so vast that it seems pointless to identify any one product of it as at fault. And yet still, lost in the fog, it feels worth trying because the alternative is too grimly nihilistic to bear. Divorced from the meaning of our own recent past, we debate the validity of fascism as a political ideology within the same century as World War II’s dead millions. The evil of this—the vast stupidity of a child burning its hand on the stove and crying at the pain before planting its face back on the hissing element—isn’t surprising. Nothing means anything because we can’t bear to let it.
The tide pool of our times rocks us back and forth, unsure even where to plant a foot against the constant motion of everything coming at us. We let it happen and end up unsure of what, if anything, it means that one of 2017’s most lavish videogame releases is about fighting the Nazis yet again. Is it nonsense because it’s Call of Duty or all the more vital because of this?
Those screenshots from AC: 130 Gunship Simulator come to mind again. Playing Modern Warfare near its 2007 release, the “Death From Above” mission felt somehow wrong. Pressing the button that guided a smattering of bullets or a massive bomb to annihilate enemy soldiers was taboo to the point of actual, bone-deep subversion. The player sits, maybe at home on her couch, interacting with footage so faithful to reality that it seemed like B-roll from the evening news. Once again, it felt as disorienting, distant, and deviant as Call of Duty: WWII’s recreations of historic battles. None of it mattered because it was a simulation and repackaging of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars as an aesthetic. A decade later, the legacy of that game’s immense popularity has led to mobile phone spinoffs whose screenshots matter in a very real, life-or-death sense.
The nuclear bombings that ended World War II are seen, by many artists and theorists, as the beginning of the end for any claim to a rational future for humanity. But, in a strange way, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are protected in memory in a way that the comparatively “low-stakes” slaughter preceding them is not. The bombings are so awful in scope and meaning that we can’t make action movies and videogames from them. Our art may focus on the lead-up to or apocalyptic results of using nuclear weapons, but not the raw violence of the blast as a tool of warfare. There’s nothing to celebrate in the style of death it deals. The rest of the War, like all wars to come, is up for grabs, though. It’s capable of being reinterpreted as something irrelevant—or at least a good time to pretend to relive. Here, it seems, is another worthy place to resituate the origin of our formless current form. We can storm the beaches forever, knowing it has nothing to do with the actual Normandy landings. In the future our descendants, if they exist, might mistake pictures of us doing this as a real document of a bygone time. They might, it’s strange to say, be right.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at GQ, The AV Club, Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.