What “Modern Warfare” Taught Me About War

Some might remember “Call of Duty 4” as a run-of-the-mill shoot-em-up, but two of its levels illustrate the horror of war better than anything else I’ve ever seen.

This essay is from a newsletter project that I started in early 2020 and abandoned shortly thereafter.

Last Friday, after the assassination of Iran’s Maj. Gen. Quassim Suleimani, the world suddenly seemed like it was teetering on the edge of war. Twitter and TikTok filled with memes about World War III. Young people started talking about the draft. And people began thinking about the art that has informed our perception of war.

For me, when I think about war, there are two works that come to mind. The first is Slaughterhouse Five, especially Mary O’Hare’s quote about how wars are fought by children, “by babies like the babies upstairs.

The other — I kid you not — is Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

These days, you might think that any Call of Duty game is little more than a Michael Bay-inspired shooting gallery produced for the widest possible audience — and you’d be correct in thinking that. Yes, this is the series that brought us “press ‘X’ to pay respects” and, more recently, the misattribution of an atrocity committed by the US, and Modern Warfare is definitely not out of place in that lineage.

But what you have to remember is that, until Modern Warfare, most military first person shooter series (Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, Battlefield 1942) possessed a patina of reverence because they were all set in World War II. They were all generally historically accurate and light enough on disturbing elements to warrant mere “T for Teen” ratings. Parents could buy them for their kids and maybe even feel a little proud of themselves since they were, in a sense, teaching their kids about history.

These shooters were simple because it was easy to simplify World War II. The Allies were the good guys, and the Nazis were the bad guys, and you could tell who was who because of their uniform. The weapons were simple and the violence was, if not bloodless, definitely not gory. It wasn’t that much of a reach to imagine the games to be an evolved form of playing with little green army men.

Then, in 2007, Infinity Ward took all the reverence and goodwill they had built up and spent it all, immediately, by making a game set in present day. They went from the safety of making a pseudo-educational product with a clear moral conflict to a work that, whether they wanted it or not, would be seen as a comment on the divisive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They tempered that potential divisiveness by saying as little about those wars as possible. Modern Warfare tells the story of a fictional war where the Middle Eastern fighting takes place in a fictional country. The gameplay — run, aim, shoot; run, aim, shoot — is still basically identical to its WW2 predecessors. But in two brief, groundbreaking levels, the game becomes almost unrecognizable as the player is transported into horrifying experiences that illustrate what “modern warfare” really means.

The first level is called “Death From Above.” You play as a “Thermal Imaging TV Operator” in an AC-130 gunship, which is to say: you are the gunner controlling three different powerful turrets in an airplane that’s designed to take out ground units. Your objective is to locate and eliminate enemies that are attacking a squadron making their way to an extraction point.

Your entire screen is a black and white thermal image: The humans below you are tiny white specks, the roads and grasslands are a dull grey, the chilled trees are a dark black. The edge of the frame is adorned with unexplained letters and acronyms. Moving the camera blurs the image slightly. In the center of the screen sits a simple crosshair.

It is a perfect replication of an image that’s instantly, chillingly familiar to anyone who was alive in the mid-2000s.

Recordings from the real life versions of these gunships (as well as similar views from drones) made their way into the media during the wars. The clips were all the same: a figure stood in the crosshairs, completely unaware of any threat, then, suddenly, they are engulfed in a burst of white heat. There’s a curiously unsettling aspect to the footage, but after a second the obvious dawns on you: this is footage of a person dying, of a person being killed.

That’s your view for this mission. A view you’re going to see over and over and over again.

When the level begins, you’re instructed NOT to fire on a church, but as soon as tiny white specks spill out of that church, you’re told to open fire. The first trigger pull unleashes a shuddering rumble and after a moment the screen is engulfed in a massive explosion, and the sound of the shell’s impact reverberates up to your ear. A voice on the radio cheers you on with chants of “Good kill. Good kill.” The crosshairs blinks. The machine reloads. Do it again.

So you do it. You do it over and over and over. You switch to the other cannons. One causes a slightly smaller explosion; the other peppers the specks with lots of tiny explosions. The specks from earlier that stopped moving begin to fade from white to grey. The voice whoops and commends your aim as another explosion engulfs the screen.

Discomfort begins to creep into your stomach. From your perch in the sky, you are perfectly safe. You can’t take damage in this mission, and the only way to fail is to shoot at the friendly white specks on the ground or the church you were instructed not to shoot at. (Both, actually, are surprisingly easy to do unintentionally.) It’s all easy — too easy, really. There’s not even a challenge. It isn’t combat. You’re not fighting. It’s like you’re just selecting these people on the screen and pressing “delete.”

The navigator decides to move to a new position and starts talking to the pilot about a curved road, but the pilot can’t figure out which one is the curved road, and you realize that, shit, all this destructive power is being wielded by fallible, imperfect humans. Their confusion, though you know it’s scripted, is too authentic. These voices telling you to kill are just other people. And that’s when the lunch really begins to churn in your stomach as you realize that this it, this basically no different than how it would feel in reality. Somewhere out there someone is holding something like an Xbox controller, pulling ‘right trigger,’ and turning white specks into grey specks.

This isn’t like the other levels. This doesn’t feel like a game. This feels too real. There is no detachment, nothing to remind you that this is just a simulation.* This is what it looks like. This is what it feels like. This is all it takes, these days, to kill.

The voice on the radio yells, “hot damn!”

The other level, “Aftermath,” is the perfect inverse of “Death From Above.”

At the conclusion of the previous level, you were flying away from a combat zone in a helicopter when a nuclear weapon detonates. The scene is classic catastrophe in an action movie. The blast causes the helicopter to spiral out of control, the music swells as the helicopter’s uncontrolled spin accelerates, and the whole thing concludes with a dramatic crash that blacks out the screen. So far so ordinary.

But what follows is unique for just about any medium. Your character, Sgt. Paul Jackson, slowly opens his eyes. You see the inside of your crashed helicopter and hear the crackle of a broken radio in the background. You’re heart is beating hard. You’re barely alive.

You’re looking out the back of the helicopter, but only a plume of smoke is visible. You try to move and find that you’re much, much slower than you were just a moment ago. You’re not even walking anymore, you’re crawling. In this game — in this medium — which is popular because it gives people the ability to be someone they’re not, to have powers that ordinary people don’t have, you are suddenly powerless. You are suddenly ordinary. You are suddenly human.

So you crawl towards the end of the plane, and after you tip over the edge, you fall a couple feet to the ground and take damage. (You know this because the red swatches that appear around your reticle when you get shot appear.) Once your vision comes back into focus, you look up and see nothing but complete and utter devastation. The air is filled with smoke and debris. Cars are tipped on their sides; streetlights are bent at an angle. Bodies lay lifeless on the ground. A building in the distance collapses in on itself as if it were made of wet sand. Everything is hued a dark blood red.

You survey the scene, almost reflexively looking for someone to help you. You remember that this is a game, so you figure that maybe one of your allies is about to run up and rescue you. After waiting for a moment, you realize no one is coming, so you begin walking — hobbling, really — away from the helicopter.

You see, in the distance, the mushroom cloud towering over everything. Then you look down and see a small garden surrounded by a chain link fence. But wait…the garden has these little a-frames made out of pipes…this isn’t a garden…this is a playground. You approach the playground (there’s nowhere else to go) and, for a brief moment, you can actually hear children playing and shouting. They’re not there, but you can hear them, ever so faintly.

As you keep walking, looking for help — looking for anything — your heart seems to begin beating faster and harder. Eventually, you collapse. After a moment the sky begins to burn white. It’s so white that it envelopes everything around you: the clouds, the dust, the mushroom cloud, the playground; it eventually covers your entire screen. And just as everything becomes blindingly bright, you hear your heart stop beating, and the level ends.

For a game in which even a skilled player dies from time to time, this death is different. This death is not simply the death where you get a quote about war and a reboot from your last checkpoint. This death feels like…well, like dying. There is suffering and helplessness. There is pain and inevitability. In a game where you’ve “died” a hundred times, you finally, actually die.

I can’t pretend that I know war. I’ve never even been close to a war. But I know from living through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that these are the two things that war produces: killing and death. I’ve yet to find a better illustration of either aspect than these two levels.

It seems like, for now, we have avoided the beginning of a new war. And that’s a relief. But I hope that before the next time we are on the precipice of a conflict, at least a few more people will play Modern Warfare.

Other Notes:

*Noah Caldwell-Gervais has a brilliant video that summarizes the entire Call of Duty series and includes many observations that informed my writing here, including the note about how “Death from Above” feels less detached from reality than the rest of the game. He also notes a moment from the Russian campaign in the first Call of Duty where the player is dis-empowered that reminded me of “Aftermath.” Although I have to admit that I only re-watched the first 30 minutes while researching this essay, I’m sure the entire video is worth watching.

In 2016, Raven Software released a remastered version of Modern Warfare that includes many graphical improvements on the original. However, in remastering “Aftermath,” they’ve dulled down the impact of the scene by including other people around you that are still alive. To me, the loneliness of the original was one of the most intense parts. If you’re looking to play Modern Warfare for the first time, try to get your hands on the original version. The Xbox 360 version will play on Xbox One, and Steam still has what you’re looking for.

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