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