There is a long stretch of six-lane blacktop going from Kuwait City to Basra, officially known as Highway 80. To most of the world, it’s the Highway of Death, and it’s the home of the most enduring images of Operation Desert Storm. You’ve probably seen them. Hundreds of burnt vehicles littering a desolate road. Mangled metal and smoking rubber for miles. The aftermath of Mad Max. Multiple Mad Maxes. There are pages of scholarly debate on the subject of the Highway of Death. I won’t bore you with the details, but the summary is that on February 26th, 1991, Coalition forces, led by the U.S. military, targeted the retreating Iraqi army just north of Al Jahra. Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers were bombed, shot, or roasted along the road during the 10-hour assault. One pilot later said the battle was “like shooting fish in a barrel.”
In Call of Duty Modern Warfare, the Highway of Death has moved to the fictional country of Urzikstan, and it’s the villainous Russians that did the deed instead of us. That may be the most telling bit of how this Call of Duty treats war.
I was a young soldier in 1991. I state this, not to establish my bona fides, but just to let you know that I carried all the wisdom of a young man given a weapon and sent around the world to kill people in service of ideas I really didn’t understand. My team, part of a U.S. Army infantry battalion, was there for the build-up in Desert Shield and we were, like the protagonist of Jarhead, going a bit nuts with all the waiting. If it wasn’t drills, then it was the endless chores of filling sandbags, digging ditches, burning barrels of human waste, or hauling supplies hither and yon. Our camp was drudgery and we couldn’t wait for the shit to start. This was a young man’s foolishness that went away as soon as the shit appeared.
The only bright spot in our days was “Abe” a cackling older local man that was permitted, with some official eye-rolling, to ride his rickety bike into our area and sell sodas and “pizzas” (small flatbread treats with blips of cheese and herbs baked on them) to us. He also sold premium hash out of his bicycle basket, an off-menu item that would’ve resulted in some harsh punishment from our commanders were he to have been found out. Still, he was a jolly guy who offered better fare than MEAL, READY-TO-EAT, BEEF AND NOODLES, NOT FOR PRE-FLIGHT USE.
One night, a fellow soldier came to the team with a distressing story. He’d purchased a large amount of Abe’s illicit goods with the intention of luxuriating through the rest of his time in the Twilight Zone of waiting for shit to start, but he’d since realized it was a bad idea. While the probability of the Army testing him for drugs while on combat deployment was slim, the military police did sporadically come through the area with their dogs looking for contraband. It was too much for him to consume before another spot check, and he couldn’t afford to keep it around. He was now stuck with a lot of hash and no way to be rid of it short of burning it in a literal barrel of shit. A tragic waste that he couldn’t bring himself to commit. What was he to do?
The sensible answer was for us to help our battle buddy out. We would do our patriotic duty and smoke it with him while out on perimeter patrol. That would allow us the crucial time and distance from anyone in camp that might prevent us from taking care of team business. The desert nights were clear and the terrain held a sparse beauty that would go well with a mellow high. Red-eyed and rough-throated, we acted like troopers and got through the mission, with the only wrinkle being the high turned out to be a bit more than just mellow.
In later days – days of shooting at people, and having people shoot at me – I would think back to that patrol and wonder at the weirdness of war. One day enjoying a fine ganja walkabout with friends, the next trading shaky hand signals while clearing an insurgent’s nest room-by-room.
In Call of Duty Modern Warfare, there are no such shenanigans. “Abe” would’ve smuggled a bomb into our camp, but before detonating it, he would’ve been shot by a stony-faced special forces operative using a car oil filter as a makeshift silencer. My team would’ve been ambushed while on patrol, staccato rifle shots flashing in night-vision bursts of white on green as a radio sang the phonetic alphabet into our ears. Modern Warfare’s grim, unrelenting grimness, demands you take it seriously. “This is war,” it says, as it shows you a terrorist blowing himself up in London’s Piccadilly Circus. SMASH CUT TO TITLE. You want to see the shit? This is the heaviest of shit.
Like Calls of Duty before it, this takes scenes from movies, recent history, and combat anecdotes and mixes them into a ghoulish goulash of atrocity. Here is Zero Dark Thirty’s nighttime raid. Here is the Benghazi embassy assault. This is 2019 and we’re back in Modern Warfare territory. Infinity Ward wants to take us somewhere “grounded” and “realistic” but the specter of the game’s namesake, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, looms large. Captain Price is once again our guide through this parade of hoorah, but now he’s in high definition. Since they can’t shock us with a terrorist nuke, it’s suicide bombers and gunmen attacking London. With no sniper mission in Pripyat, it’s a sniper mission in the fictionalized Highway of Death.
The game’s Urzikstan is the over there that exists in the popular consciousness of a country that’s been over there for decades. It’s Iraq. It’s Syria. It’s Afghanistan. It’s every place that hides the enemy in chocolate chip deserts and bullet-pocked beige cinderblock houses. It’s every -stan that creates young men with shattered lives and shattered legs. Did the writers purposefully show their hand with the name? Is it meant to be the ur-country it seems to be?
Modern Warfare puts us in the young shoes of a little girl at one point to show us the beginnings of a woman’s rise in a rebel group. See? Modern Warfare wants us to know that war is tragic. Later in the campaign, the United States abandons the rebels. Now, Modern Warfare wants us to know that war is complicated.
But it’s really not. The rogue Russians are evil, and the forces of freedom are good. Captain Price and the player do the things they do to keep everyone free. It’s hard men like them that do the hard things the civilians cannot. Things like pushing a man to his death before his bomb vest explodes to save the others, or administering mercy kills on mangled victims.
It’s so weighty and dour, but there’s a not-so-subtle nod to the coolness of it all. These are serious men that execute their missions with practiced seriousness. There’s a reason why characters like Price remain fan favorites despite any questionable wartime ethics. You civvies just don’t get it. Price is the only person standing between you and the evils of Al-Qatala, the fictional terrorists embroiled in the Tom Clancy cast-off plot with the Russians.
Flip to the other game modes and it’s killstreaks, guitar riffs, and level ups. It’s Call of Duty multiplayer honed to a knife-edge. Gun skins, bunny-hopping, and unlocks, now sans a premium pass or map packs. Seasonal progression tracks, similar to Fortnite Battle Passes, are the order of the day, and Activision says there will be no random loot box purchases this time around.
A new Ground War mode sneaks in vehicles and Battlefield-ish maps with the promise of large-scale combined arms multiplayer warfare, but the illusion is shattered by the lack of destruction. Every time your Infantry Fighting Vehicle runs into a bit of scenery and stops dead in its tracks you’ll be reminded that this isn’t Frostbite.
In the campaign, white phosphorus is a horrific set-piece accompanied by screams and whimpers. That’s some heavy shit. In multiplayer, white phosphorus is a reward for competent play that brings high-fives and fierce guitar licks. That’s some badass shit, Bro! You can have this cake and you can eat it, Modern Warfare assures us. In past installments, this dissonance would be funny, but here, it’s another reminder that these are really two separate games, and never shall the twain meet.
Man, I would’ve loved some cake on that patrol.
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