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Playing Call of Duty in Baghdad

Richard Weiss | 5 Nov 2013 13:00
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Not that we got out much. Security convoys cost several thousands of taxpayer dollars per trip, and were subject to last-minute cancellation, depending on what the day's intel said. That left us with the tedium of an office job, punctuated with the occasional terror of indirect fire. We needed to unwind, but we were stuck in the compound.

Some immersed themselves in their work. Others punished their bodies with exercise. Too many drowned themselves in booze. Me? I bought a Playstation 3.

Incredibly, the military-run Exchange lined a whole wall with luxury consumer electronics, from Xboxes to Playstations to handhelds and iPads and enough games to occupy your entire tour of service.

Big titles arrived within one week of stateside release. I may have been in Iraq, but I didn't miss Crysis 2, or Modern Warfare 3, or Spec Ops: The Line.

In 2011, The military was leaving Iraq like water swirling down a drain, and everyone had questions about what would happen when they left. We the civilians were struggling to answer them. When I needed to forget Iraq, if only for an hour, I flipped on the flatscreen war. It was all spectacle, so what was the harm?

No one will ever say Call of Duty is realistic. It doesn't claim to be. It's built to thrill, with each set piece staged and scripted to delver maximum adrenaline. Nothing is left to subtlety or inference; if your synapses aren't smoking, it's not Call of Duty. It's popular among soldiers for precisely this reason - it bears little resemblance to the tedious anxiety of actual combat.

It was all spectacle, so what was the harm?

But despite the contrived campaign stories, the presentation is deadly real. The weapons are modeled with painstaking precision, the black-matte grooves and notches so convincing, you practically feel the weight in your hands. The soldiers move with human clumsiness and gravity, smashing through doors and skidding around corners. The violence is unsentimental and knife-in-throat brutal.

Sure, it's just a game - but developer Infinity Ward, entrusted with Call of Duty's superlatively lucrative Modern Warfare brand, plays it with a straight face. They want you to blink away the dirt and taste the blood in your mouth.

Working in Iraq - and getting a taste of real adrenaline, even as a civilian - didn't turn Modern Warfare weird for me; it made it boring. Before coming to Mesopotamia, Call of Duty 4's imaginary Middle East felt gritty and authentic. But after seeing Baghdad through bulletproof glass, it felt like nothing so much as Europe painted in brown and covered with a coat of dust. The bad guys fought you with guns, in the open, on more-or-less even turf.

But actual modern warfare isn't about a fair fight. In squat, squalid, grim Baghdad, the bad guys stayed at a comfortable distance, dialing in death with a cell phone. When, during my time at the Embassy, a contractor was killed by an Explosively Formed Penetrator - the nastiest, most lethal kind of roadside bomb - no one called it a battle. No one called it a fight. It was a bomb, and bombs were scripted events that didn't let you try again.

No one called it a fight.

This bomb killed one and wounded two - one critically, and one gruesomely, but not seriously. I talked to the latter survivor as he was leaving the country on an armored bus to the airport. One arm in a sling, he spoke complete sentences that, strung together, made little sense.

"Are you going home?" I asked him.

"Yes," he said. "I'm going on R&R." As if this were a planned Bali vacation, a reward for hard work in a hard place. His voice sounded a thousand miles away. When I shook his hand, it felt like nothing at all.

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