Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Modern Warfare is a Comforting Lie

Robert Rath | 27 Jun 2013 12:00
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spec ops the line

Watch any television program about the history of warfare and you'll find that it largely focuses on technology. The Romans won this battle or that battle because they had the ballista, or the testudo formation or the hasta, the History Channel will explain, but they won't tell you how the Romans managed to hold the territory after the battle, because that's boring political and administrative stuff not fit for television. Technology is tactile. People can grasp it easily. But selective history like this creates a dangerous myth that the side with the greatest weapons always wins a conflict, and that's demonstrably false. Zulu warriors with spears and cowhide shields slaughtered a whole column of British troops at Isandlwana. Both the British and the Soviets couldn't handle Afghanistan. No matter how many people we killed, the U.S. couldn't affect a favorable outcome in Vietnam. But in games, the side with the drones and the laser sights and the active camouflage nearly always comes out on top. "Superior technology wins wars" is a societal myth that we cling to because, as the country with the most technologically advanced military, we find it extremely comforting. Developers naturally gravitate to this thought process as well, since they work in a field where technological advancement really does lead to success. But in these days of asymmetrical warfare, when a nation of rural poppy farmers and livestock herders can keep us pinned down with sniper fire and bombs made out of rice cookers, even the concept of victory can become elusive.

Things are changing, though, and there has been some sporadic progress. Spec Ops: The Line made major inroads into the issues of PTSD and civilian casualties, and received critical acclaim as a result. The reboot of Medal of Honor portrayed the Afghan National Army in a fairly favorable light, and largely was based off of real campaigns in Afghanistan rather than a fictional conflict (and took pains to have Afghan characters that weren't Taliban, I might add). Modern Warfare 3 featured a section where you played as a Russian character. Call of Duty: Black Ops II, beneath a thick layer of BS, really did have some interesting thoughts about the overuse of drones in the armed services, included a playable Yemeni character and contained an unsubtle condemnation of America's interventionism in the 1980s.Medal of Honor: Warfighter had a lot of problems, but it did try to dramatize how multiple deployments can brutalize a soldier's family life. The granddaddy of them all, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, was entirely about the horror of nuclear-armed warfare, implicitly stating that the even the terrible price of proxy war is preferable to atomic annihilation.

These are encouraging developments, and they give me hope that in the future games will explore the War on Terror rather than exploit it. There's still room in that mix for big, dumb, fun action games as well, but I'd like to see something different, a game that's more thoughtful, that teaches the player something they didn't know or gives them insight. America's fascination with war is both understandable and inevitable: we've been at war for almost twelve years, and only one percent of the country's population has served in Afghanistan and Iraq. During a conflict this protracted and distant, it's normal for the civilian population to have a certain fascination with soldiers and war. It's also perfectly normal for media to try and represent the conflict as we wish it were happening, rather than the stark and frustrating reality. But media isn't only supposed to show us our fantasies, it also has a major role in informing citizens about a conflict. I'd like to see someone brave take up that banner. Someone needs to tell the story of the soldiers that were there - still are there in many cases - so we can better understand them, the people we fight, our allies and our role in the world.

I want to see a game depict modern warfare - because nobody's really done it before.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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