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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Hollow Nihilism of 'Call of Duty'

By the end of America’s long and bloody war with Vietnam, the draft had become so unpopular with the public that it was retired in favor of an all-volunteer force. The armed forces, which had, since World War II, fed their ranks through the conscription of healthy young men, would now become staffed on a purely voluntary basis. This new reality presented countless challenges to the military and its federal overseers. Beyond the sheer difficulty of convincing people to sign up for such a hazardous position, a volunteer force meant that, for the first time in decades, military service would not automatically be associated with being a US citizen.

In Jennifer Mittelstadt’s The Rise of the Military Welfare State, she describes the concern raised by Lyndon Johnson’s administration, which worried that the volunteer force would be responsible for “creating a gap between the military and civilians in American society.” (The draft was eliminated by his successor, Nixon.)

That gap undeniably exists today. It exists not only between those who choose to enter the military and those who don’t, but between those who are poor and otherwise marginalized enough to see the military as a genuine opportunity and those who aren’t. For many Americans today, the military is a black hole, an institution we don’t really have to think about, in spite of how much its history and its ideology continue to shape our society. The nature of this divide, the way the American military can take up space in the general absence of close study, resembles the relative lack of critical attention paid to another institution with outsized market influence and an undeniable impact on American culture: the Call of Duty series of games.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Treyarch’s Call of Duty: Black Ops games, a confounding series of four (soon to be five) installments, which swings from presenting plucked-from-history encounters with famous Cold War figures like Fidel Castro, Manuel Noriega, and Jonas Savimbi to wacky zombie-survival challenges and Avenged Sevenfold concerts. These are tremendously difficult games to pin down, but they live in a politics and a worldview that is extremely relevant to our time. Particularly in light of the latest installment of the franchise, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, a game that appears set to take these politics to extreme and unseemly ends.

An Empire Without an Enemy

The Black Ops series exists in a state of prolonged ideological crisis. In a departure from most other Call of Duty entries, the games aren’t interested in painting the US government as a benevolent force. Instead, throughout the three main campaigns (the fourth game does not have a single-player campaign), the government is cast as mercenary and out of touch with the concerns of the soldiers on the ground. The only politics in play are those of paranoia and self-protection. As Viktor Reznov, the Soviet ally of Alex Mason in the first Black Ops, warns Mason: “The flag may be different but the methods are the same. They will use you, as they used me.”


With such a darkly nihilistic lens, these games are reflective of the confusion and overall despondency that took over a nation and a military built up over half a century to fight the Soviet Union and the global specter of Communism, only to have this seemingly invincible threat whither away from the world stage by the end of the 1980s. According to Daniel Bessner, in his essay The American Empire and Existential Enemies, “Defining the Soviet Union as an existential enemy analogous to Nazi Germany provided Americans with a simple framework through which they could negotiate (and justify) their emergence onto the world stage.” Without it, the military was, and largely still is, listless. “An empire without an enemy,” as Bessner puts it.

The series seems inclined to explore the unsettling nature of this position: decades of war and bloodshed, and seemingly endless varieties of enemies to go up against—the Russians, the Chinese, the Cubans, the North Vietnamese, the Angolan MPLA, and so on, far into an imagined garrulous future. What was it all for? The main protagonists of the first two Black Ops, Alex Mason, Jason Hudson, and Frank Woods, are maimed, scarred, and ultimately annihilated by the fires they started and the enemies they created on behalf of the CIA. Nova 6, the doomsday nerve toxin they had fought to contain, shows up a few games later anyway and claims even more lives. The drug runner they had attempted to take out, Raul Menendez, returns with a vengeance and mostly succeeds in his plan to bring down the western powers.

Threaded through these games is a sense of hopeless and frustrated rage—rage at the government, and, perhaps even more sharply, rage at the corporatization of American society. In Black Ops II, the Navy Seals jealously admire the obscene wealth of a fictional private island called Colossus during one of the game’s missions. One of the Seals, Mike Harper, asks, “What do you figure it’d cost to spend a weekend here?” “More than you make in a year,” his compatriot retorts. In Black Ops III, the private government contractor Coalescence decimates part of a city and conducts vile experiments on unwilling subjects in the name of security and progress. Wedded as your soldiers are to their high-tech weaponry, exoskeletons, and futuristic jet fighters, there remains an underlying dread, a rising sense of alarm at a military and a government willing to give so much of itself over to unaccountable capital interests.

After the conclusion of the Cold War, the massive military behemoth that President Reagan created to do his dirty work could no longer enjoy, as it long had, relative immunity from the free-market cuts and defundings that had hollowed out most other government programs during the same period. With the 1990s came the near-total dividing up and privatization of one of America’s last truly public, state-run institutions. “As the pressure to outsource grew within the Clinton administration …” Mittelstadt writes, “the army shed approximately half of its total support functions to the private sector.” As a result, “the army shifted its burden of services for ‘caring for its own’ from its own shoulders to those of private, for-profit corporations.”

Those Who Are Willing to Do What Others Cannot

In spite of their unease at the prospect, the Black Ops games never make a political argument about the role capitalism and neoliberal economics play in undercutting the military and damaging society. Though one of the series’ main villains, Menendez, is explicitly anti-capitalist, he is portrayed as a madman who must be put down by the brave and selfless black operatives who are the series’s only true heroes. For the duration of the three campaigns, it is these soldiers alone who remain idealized and cherished. They are cast as the forgotten spartans, “those who are willing to do … what others cannot," as Woods puts it in Black Ops II.

Though these soldiers are treated as fodder to be used and discarded by a narrow-minded state, their role and function is rarely questioned. Their bravery is celebrated, connected back through history, to famous battles like World War II’s Battle of the Bulge, which one character goes so far as to mentally reenact in Black Ops III. Each game, regardless of its individual narrative beats, reinforces this theme, this lionization, at the cost of a broader political understanding.

The original Black Ops does this by designing its narrative around the paranoia and mistrust that permeated American public consciousness during the Cold War. Following the same pattern as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019), which grossly mischaracterizes American war crimes in the Gulf War, Black Ops seems to blame Russia (or at least Russian agents) for the CIA-created MKUltra-esque mind-control program used in the game to brainwash Alex Mason. These Russian agents then go on to test their chemical weapon, Nova 6, in Vietnam, once again twisting around the real history of US forces using the toxic chemical Agent Orange on North Vietnamese jungles. All these historical realities are mystified and spun up into goofy pulp fiction, which focuses all its attention on the inequities suffered by the American soldier, largely ignoring the sweeping collateral damage left in his wake. We’ll see this pattern appear regularly in the rest of the games too.

Black Ops II exists in a more transitional and fragmented space. Its narrative jumps between two time periods: first the 1980s, where it continues the story of Mason, Woods, and Hudson, and then in 2025 through the perspective of Mason’s son, David. It takes us through the end of one Cold War and into the beginning of another. It explores what it means for the sins of the father to catch up with the son, both in personal and international scale. Menendez is a villain born of US misadventure in Latin America, after all, surviving American-caused insurance fires and botched assassination attempts. His backstory is an elaborate indictment of US foreign policy during the Cold War. But instead of truly reckoning with what penance or self-reflection might look like (which, for example, would have meant being bold enough to have Osama bin Laden cameo as the Mujahideen leader you meet in Afghanistan), we instead fall into a fear-mongering exploration of technology and warfare, capped with the misguided question of how the US can remain dominant if other forces should gain access to the same overwhelming power we take for granted.

Black Ops III takes the nightmare scenarios of these technological arms races to their next logical extreme, while continuing the series’ focus on the sacrifice of the soldier over any other moral concern. The game’s campaign kicks off in 2065, where your unnamed soldier, in order to keep up with the exacting pace of future warfare, essentially surrenders her body to the military-industrial complex. After a particularly gruesome scene where she is torn apart by an enemy robot, she is resuscitated as a cyborg. Like any good soldier, she must suffer for the good of the nation. But there is bitterness in her sacrifice. She feels angry, as do the soldiers around her. The nation they represent is cast as weak and undeserving. Its representatives, your CIA handlers, are largely seen as untrustworthy and self-interested. The corporation whose technology controls your mind (on the nose ‘til the end) is cartoonishly evil, greedy, and devoid of conscience. Your soldier is left alone, used up, betrayed, and extinguished.

But this nihilistic rage, while arguably well-deserved, is misdirected. A different, and perhaps better, use of it would be in coming to terms with what it means that we, as a nation, spent half a century ballooning our military on the false pretense of facing an existential threat that never truly existed. Instead of focusing, as Black Ops does, on the frustration of soldiers armed to the teeth, only to be torn apart, these narratives could build an understanding that the same forces that erected the institutions from which these soldiers were sent out to die also resisted the progressive movements at home that might have made these wars unnecessary to begin with. In her book, Mittelstadt describes how Reagan’s slashing of civilian programs in favor of military budgets represented “two sides of the same coin—a rejection of civilian government programs and a championing of the military as the most legitimate function of government.”


Unless, like Los Angeles in Black Ops II, it’s a catastrophic battleground meant to serve as a dire warning against inaction, we rarely get to see our own country in these games. We don’t get to encounter regular civilians, just as regular American civilians generally are not required to interact with soldiers in action. When you play Black Ops, the only parts of the country you see are shadowy government representatives and disembodied voices on the other side of a two-way mirror. The only civilians you meet are the corporate goons who soak up government contracts in order to build you bigger exosuits to die in.

And the countries that are the backdrop of your global misadventures? Mostly forgettable, dusty legions of brown people to mow down on your way to pick up that valuable piece of intel. Groups with years of history and struggle, noble successes, and bitter failures are reduced to acronyms that are almost never expanded. The MPLA, UNITA, the Vietcong, short rhetorical barks that fly past your ears as you rush to move the checkpoint forward, to provide covering fire for your squad, to call in air support and listen as their gatling guns tear open the night sky.

This insularity, this conversation only within self, has dire ideological consequences. The only world these games show us is one full of secrets, double-crosses, and endless, bloody attrition. In this world, hard-edged intransigence and ideological emptiness find easy purchase. To Mason, Woods admits: “You know me, I don’t like anyone.” Within this framework, all ideologies are bad, all politics suspect. Within this framework, the disturbingly reactionary marketing for the upcoming Cold War installment makes sense.

In one trailer for the new game, a real video clip of KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov plays. In the video, he describes his theory about active measures, which categorizes all manner of progressive movements as evidence of Soviet subterfuge. This paranoid dismissal of liberal policies in the US has long been the domain of ultraconservatives and racists. That this message should find purchase in the Black Ops franchise shows the polar end result of what nihilism, anti-government conspiracy theories, and lack of historical understanding produce.

As with most reactionary belief structures, the seeds of the problem, the complaints and injustices are often legitimate and true. These games do present a sympathetic picture of soldiers who are treated as expendable by a government more concerned with symbolic victories than with helping its people or anyone else's. But instead of building or organizing based on this ignoble past, it flails, it looks for enemies everywhere and dismisses most ideas as propaganda. It lashes out in pain, confusion and anger, intent, apparently, on dragging us into its nightmare with it.

Special thanks to Vivian Chan and Reid McCarter for their help in refining the central ideas of this piece.

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