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Playing Call of Duty in Baghdad


Lunch is over. I’m walking back to work, and I’m almost out of my apartment when the first one hits.

In Baghdad, you become a connoisseur of bombs, able to tell the type and size by the sound it makes, and the way they feel. This feels like a car bomb – those, especially the really big ones, thump you in the chest.

Then the second. And the third. It isn’t a car bomb – it’s just that close. The rockets make an awful descending moan as they pass overhead, and when the fourth slams home, I can feel it in my teeth. My windows rattle in their frames. Five, six. They’re getting louder. Getting closer.

Seven, eight. Five. Adrenaline disconnects my mental abacus. Sternum to the tile, I start giggling through clenched teeth. The duck and cover alarm sounds, an afterthought.

Then it’s over. My brain reconnects. I scramble to the blast-hardened part of my apartment and wait for the all-clear. I’m cold, though I don’t get the post-rush shakes, like someone said I might.

About a dozen 107 millimeter rockets hit Baghdad’s International Zone that day, including a few on the U.S. Embassy compound. That night, I Skype a friend back home.

“That felt nothing like Call of Duty,” I say.

You become a connoisseur of bombs.

Like most Americans, I derived my concept of war from entertainment. War was a series of tropes stretched between mediums, assimilated by watching Tom Hanks storm the beach at Normandy, and then storming it myself in Medal of Honor. Grizzled sergeants, nervous lieutenants and faceless, dehumanized enemies filled out the mental portrait. It was brutal and harsh, but also triumphant, heroic, even noble. It was, at least, always a spectacle.

I loved it. My friends, civilian and military alike, loved it. In the States, we played Call of Duty to dabble in inherently unimaginable death and destruction. We died a thousand times, and still, the story sprinted to its gasping conclusion. It was fireworks – all pop and flash, no wumph in the chest.

After the lunchtime rockets, I tried to process the fact that someone I’d never met had tried to kill me. The seriousness of their effort was debatable; 107mm rockets are low-yield and inaccurate, and seldom inflict mass casualties. Rocket attacks hadn’t killed anyone at the Embassy in almost one year.

Yet thinking about it I could feel myself shrink reflexively in my chair, trying to make myself smaller. I strained to properly remember the descending moan of the engines. It wasn’t like anything I’d ever heard before; it was both terrifying and thrilling, which left me wondering whether I wanted to go immediately home, or stick around to hear it again.

I came to Iraq as a civilian, enlisted as a short-timer at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the biggest and most expensive diplomatic mission in history.

It was brutal and harsh, but also triumphant, heroic, even noble.

More than 10,000 diplomats, security guards and support personnel crowded onto the hundred-acre compound in Baghdad’s heavily-fortified International Zone (née Green Zone). Look one way, and it was a normal diplomatic mission, full of paperwork and bad coffee and weak-chinned middle managers. Look the other way, and it was a parade of armored trucks and private security guards, all bristling with shiny black guns.

Excursions into the Red Zone – the world outside the IZ, known to normal people as Baghdad – were treated like Call of Duty missions. Diplomats wore body armor over their suit jackets, and traveled in convoys of armored SUVs. Diplomatic security agents panned the alleyways and traffic jams for bad guys looking to make a big, smoking CNN headline out of their Land Cruiser.

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.

He was a civilian – a humanitarian, no less, on contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development. He was a victim of the violent game of cat-and-mouse that modern warfare had become; but in Modern Warfare, there are no civilians, and every fight is survivable, with a little patience and infinite second chances.

Even Spec Ops: The Line, an ostensibly cerebral shooter, failed to be anything more than fun. Spec Ops attacked me as a consumer of war-entertainment, shooting taunts like “Are you having fun yet?” across loading screens. Was I? Maybe. The action was serviceable. The chief set piece, a sandstorm-ravaged Dubai, was appealing in its decadence and destruction. I was intrigued by the notion that I should feel guilty for drinking down the spectacle, but ultimately confused when the game kept serving it up.

I found civilians in Spec Ops, but only as props in scripted good/evil decision moments. In the game’s darkest moment, when the player finally crosses “The Line,” the bystanders are little more than bowling pins. Knocking them down even earns the player an achievement, which cheerily blips onto the screen.

I found civilians in Spec Ops, but only as props.

Spec Ops direly wanted to make a statement, something akin to the pitch-black moral of Far Cry 2: war is hell, and everyone’s the bad guy. But underneath the gloomy moralizing, the game said: war is fun, and everyone gets an achievement. Spec Ops was little more than Call of Duty glitz dressed up as pedagogy.

I would still play shooters, but it would cease to mean anything, even as pure, sugary entertainment. It became a series of disconnected symbols and tropes. A series of misconceptions. It stopped being entertaining. It stopped being fun.

It seems fitting that Call of Duty: Ghosts, the franchise’s latest permutation, leaves the desert behind for speculative fiction. In this particular war story, a hijacked orbital weapon turns on America, smashing all modern infrastructure and plunging the erstwhile superpower into a dark age. The Ghosts, gun-toting knights-errant of the apocalypse, seek to restore America to its former glory.

It couldn’t be a more perfect metaphor. We’re a long way from Shock and Awe, when the myth of American military omnipotence – not that we have the best military in the world, which we do, but that it’s capable of defeating any enemy, which it can’t – launched us into war on the flimsiest of pretenses. Contrast Ghosts with Command and Conquer: Generals, a Real-Time Strategy game released just months before the 2003 invasion. In Generals, the armies of the United States deploy drones, orbital lasers, and supersonic bombers capable of shrieking past enemy air defenses. They are technologically superior, and overwhelming in their firepower.

It stopped being entertaining. It stopped being fun.

In Ghosts, they can’t even defend their own borders.

We’re now a lesser superpower than we were in 2003. Our economy is wounded. Our elected leaders are bitterly divided. Our nine-year war in Iraq failed to produce a stable, prosperous democracy. Even before the U.S. troop withdrawal in December 2011, America moved on, forgetting Iraq like a bad dream.

As did Call of Duty. Since the seventh game, Black Ops, the series has opted for more exotic locales – Vietnam, Rio de Janiero, Hong Kong, Havana, anything but the Mesopotamian stand-ins. They’re more like the action movies they always were, and less like the places I work.

I’m still in the desert. I won’t say where. But on my lazier weekends, I find myself playing Civilization V. I build nations. I grow culture. I win with peace, if I so choose. And when I quit to desktop, I don’t hear the voice of a shell-shocked man telling me, a spectator to suffering, that he’s going on vacation.

Richard Weiss worked for the U.S. government in Baghdad from February 2011 to December 2012. He currently works in post-conflict international development.

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