Friday, August 14, 2009

Missing in Action, part 2: "Seeing the Elephant" in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

This is the second post in a three part series dedicated to analyzing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The first part, "Civilians in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare," can be found here.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare contains very little about the characters that inhabit the game's world. The story revolves around a group of Bad Guys who like to do Bad Things and a group of Good Guys who like to do Good Things. Little time is devoted to developing the characters controlled by the player: Other than giving them stereotypically fitting accents, the player knows nothing about the soldiers they control or the enemies they kill.

While this omission may hurt the game in a narrative sense, what remains is a useful tool for examining the specific phenomenon of combat. During the American Civil War, soldiers would refer to joining the army and going into battle as "seeing the elephant." While the origins of this phrase are unclear, the meaning is both fitting and poetic: to the western world, the elephant is a beast that is simultaneously fascinating, exotic, and terrifying. CoD 4's strength lies in allowing players to "see the elephant."

The game's highly polished visual and sound effects, in combination with its first person perspective, trap the player within the terrible din of battle. Being on the ground in the middle of a larger campaign conveys a sense of being compelled forward, as though one were caught in a living tidal wave. The sound of distant mortars creates forms a back-beat accented by the high pitched whine of bullets and the anguished screams of the fallen. The game is about marveling at the spectacle of war. It challenges the player to perform calmly under tremendously hectic circumstances.

Civil War soldiers offer accounts of their comrades similar to those we use when describing the action heroes in our games. Soldiers claimed that "no tongue, or pen can express the excitement" of battle, and routinely saw their comrades and opponents "behaving like wild men."1. A soldier of the 47th Ohio regiment wrote: "I had no idea that I had such determination, such, stubborness or strength...I saw men perform prodigies, display the most unparalleled valor...One man Joseph Bedol of Co 'D' was surrounded & knocked down by the rebels, he came to, jumped up, killed and wounded three & knocked a fourth down with his fist."2[sic] Keeping in mind the possibility of embellishment, it is still clear that, while it may not provide a personal story, CoD 4 effectively captures horrible excitement of war.

CoD 4 walks a fine line between excitement and chaos. The game is a world comprised exclusively of pure battlefields. With no civilians, the world is morally binary one: people and objects are parsed by determining whether or not they can kill the player. As Krystian pointed out in the comments of part 1 of this series, the fog of war causes the ever-present problem of friendly fire. In a situation in which the only way to stay alive is to be fast on the trigger, accidents happen. Without any civilian presence, everyone with a gun is a potential threat, which instills a "shoot or be sorry" mindset while creating a world of extreme physical and mental violence.

This kind of life is not sustainable in the long term. Both Union and Confederate soldiers soon tired of "the glory of war" which was comprised mainly of "seeing dead men and men's limbs torn from their bodies." John McCreery , a teenager fighting on the Union side, demonstrated hard-earned wisdom when he wrote "got to see the Elephant at last and to tell you the honest truth I dont care about seeing him very often any more, for if there was eny fun in such work I couldent see it...It is not the thing it is braged up to be."3[sic]

As I bounced from war zone to war zone in CoD 4, McCreery's thoughts became increasingly understandable. What started as a blustering romp became an exercise in self preservation. Whether I hung back and let my comrades clear a room or charged in guns blazing, my intent was the same: stay alive and kill anyone wearing a different uniform. During the moment, idealism and rationality faded away and were replaced by cold practicality. This mindset was epitomized during the game's signature AC-130 gunship scene. While initially novel, the action soon became a function of callous destruction. Glory is retroactively ascribed to battles; during the fight, there is no time nor room for such sentiment.

CoD 4 might lack compelling, character-driven narrative. The game's overall message about war is unclear, and perhaps even nonexistent (although next week, I will argue that the game carries a very specific message). What is present is the spectacle of total battlefield and the sense of immediacy fostered by being a part of that spectacle. Call of Duty 4 shows us the ways in which battle destroys the larger context of war, and offers us a peek at the elephant.

1. James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 40
2. McPherson., 40
3. McPherson, 33


  1. I was thinking about something similar the other day while watching television. We so commonly see cops chase down armed men who just stole something from a store. I tried to imagine how I could ever care enough about somebody else's stolen property that I would actually put my own life on the line. Even though I believe stealing is wrong and the world is a better place with safeguards against thieves, I'm not willing to lose my life over somebody's car being stolen. I have the values, I just don't think they supercede the worth of my own life. So how does a cop or military person put their life on the line? Is it that they so strongly believe in these values that their own life is expendible? Maybe, but I started thinking that a large part of the appeal of being a gun-toting soldier or policeman is really about action and excitement. It's about the thrill and the surging feeling of power. "Protecting values" is really a secondary reason, and almost an excuse, to get the rush of living on the edge.

    I think these games like Call of Duty are so fun in part because they give you just enough backstory to know that you're a good guy and everyone else is a badguy, then they plop you down in the action without bogging your mind down with moral questions, responsibility, or guilt. It's like it clears our conscience to not have to think about the moral grey areas or to even question the idea of having any war in the first place, so we can finally get down to the fun business of kicking ass and taking names.

  2. "what remains is a useful tool for examining the specific phenomenon of combat."

    "The game's highly polished visual and sound effects, in combination with its first person perspective, trap the player within the terrible din of battle."

    You're writing all this as if you believe the action in CoD4 is representative of actual combat. It is not (though the gunship mission might come closest).

    The game does not allow us to "see the elephant". In fact it does the exact opposite and hides the reality of battle from its players. There are no civilians, no injuries, no medics, no waiting or boredom or questionable orders. If the reality of battle is an elephant, CoD4 presents us with a dormouse.

  3. Not sure about the derivation of "see the elephant," but it certainly got me thinking and googling. I've encountered the story of the man trampled on his way to see the circus, but I can't help thinking there's a connection to the story of Charlemagne's elephant or to various military elephants--perhaps Hannibal's. (Interesting discussion, at least, here:

    Perhaps this is a job for the Language Log!

  4. @JT

    The "rush" is probably a big component of why people do it; there are plenty of accounts of soldiers that support that.

    Interestingly enough, one of the biggest reasons (according to McPherson) that Civil War soldiers re-enlisted was a sense of duty to "the cause," as well as their devotion to their fellow men.

    So perhaps CoD 4 creates a world that is largely morally ambiguous, but just specific enough that it gives us the feeling that we're doing "the right thing" even if we're most enjoying the rush?


    Thanks for stopping by!

    While I definitely agree that CoD 4's combat is stylized and idealized to some degree, I wouldn't discount it completely. Whether you're looking at the Battle of the Wilderness, the Normandy campaign, or the Battle of Baghdad, combat is a hectic, noisy thing.

    More recently, I've talked with Iraq vets who describe everything from complete bedlam to long stretches of extreme boredom, which lends credence to the assertion that there is no singular depiction of battle.

    I'm also glad you raised your last point, as it brings up a weakness in my post:

    When soldiers who joined up to "see the elephant," they were actually interested in seeing the idealized form of war: glory, honor, victory, etc. When faced with reality, "the elephant" became a beast quite different than what they expected it to be. I guess you could say that CoD 4 lets us see the idealized, digital "elephant," without having to clean up all of its metaphorical shit.

    At the risk of stretching the metaphor, perhaps there is a difference between seeing the elephant, seeing its aftermath, and understanding the nature of the beast?


    I had a feeling you'd like the phrase. ;-)

    I did some digging too, and like you found some folk stories about the man on the way to the circus, as well as some conjectures from the ancient world. Maybe we'll never know...

  5. Mmm. I love a nice, extended metaphor.