Call of Duty Ghosts — Starship Troopers
Starship Troopers is a terrible book. Trust me on this. I sat down, I read it cover to cover, and I can say, calmly and objectively, that it is a putrid fascist abortion written by a man whose intellectual maturity is stuck somewhere between eleven years old and douchebag.
Starship Troopers is an excellent movie. Paul Verhoeven approaches the material (he never finished the book, proving he's smarter than me) with the same capacity for subversive counterprogramming he brought to Robocop, hiding messages about jingoism, propaganda, fascism and racism beneath the facade of a gung-ho alien killing flick. Like Network, Putney Swope, and all great satire, Starship Troopers proved eerily prescient, with its vision of the news as a form of interactive propaganda in the service of an endless, pointless war being not only realized in our lifetime but surpassed, with channels like Fox News and websites like Buzzfeed making the Federal Network's propaganda engine seem quaint by comparison. Like all good satire Starship Troopers risks being confused for the very thing it's lampooning, and while its reputation has largely been rehabilitated thanks to the diligent work of cinephiles the world over, an astonishing number of people continue to miss the bloody point, putting it on lists of Movies So Bad They're Good instead of lists of Movies So Bad They're Making A Larger Statement About Our Culture of Perpetual Violence. (Of course Denise Richards was cast ironically. Denise Richards has never been cast unironically.)
I'll readily admit that the Call of Duty series cannot lay claim to the kind of cinematic verisimilitude that's in Verhoeven's best work. The COD games are rote, formulaic, mass-produced orgies of empty spectacle and military jargon. The campaigns are afterthoughts that lead the player by the hand through massive setpieces with action as tightly choreographed as the average PowerPoint presentation. The plots of said campaigns are equally formulaic, with catastrophe leading to betrayal leading to bigger catastrophe leading to chase scene leading to torture scene leading to final slow-motion showdown with the staid regularity of a religious ceremony: cross yourself, kiss your stole, press RB to launch missiles. It's all very dumb. Conspicuously dumb. Perhaps, even so dumb that it's secretly smart.
Call of Duty Ghosts opens with the narrator informing us that the oil producing nations of the Middle East are gone. He doesn't explain why or how the Arabian Peninsula, the Shia Crescent, the Turkic States of Central Asia, and all of OPEC vanished in an instant; the presumption seems to be that stuff explodes in the Middle East all the time, and this explosion just happened to be a particularly large one, one that killed approximately two hundred million people and is never mentioned again for the remainder of the game. Anywho, out of the resulting chaos and, one imagines, general anxiety felt when huge sections of the planet inexplicably blow up, a new Federation of South America emerges to challenge the United States of America for global preeminence. It's a bizarre development, since South America has flirted with federalism before, and has always failed. One of the great tragedies of Simón Bolívar's life was the failure to preserve the unity of the liberated nations of South America in the newly minted federation of Gran Colombia. One would think forging a new, continent-spanning union in the wake of the Middle East spontaneously combusting would be unlikely at best, but again, Call of Duty Ghosts leaves the hows and whys of Federación de las Américas' existence by the wayside. All we need know is that the Federation is a brutal regime whose rapacious appetite for power will not be sated until it has conquered the entire Western Hemisphere, striking a vulnerable America who's hobbled by the loss of its beloved Middle Eastern allies, and it is here where Call of Duty Ghosts' story inches away from Stupid, in the direction of Stupid Like A Fox.
The history of the USA's relations with Latin America is the story of one long atrocity sustained over generations. The Monroe Doctrine, the Panama Canal, the Banana Wars, coups against democratically elected governments, environmental catastrophes, NAFTA—The United States and its corporations' record in Latin America consists of a series of well documented and unconscionable crimes. The idea of all the Latin American nations overcoming their differences to strike at an innocent United States is an insane paranoid fantasy that ignores centuries of history, but those seem to be de rigueur at the moment, when our movies are so desperate for tangible antagonists they portray the United States being attacked by North Korea, a hermit nation that rattles its saber at the US in order to get food and fuel. COD has always done its best to contribute to this lunatic sideshow, struggling to wrangle a force that can pose a legitimate threat to the United States, whose defense accounts for between 40 and 45 percent of total global military spending. (The second closest nation is China, whose expenditures account for about ten percent.) Modern Warfare manufactured a conflict between the USA and Russia. Black Ops played like a highlight reel of the Cold War. Black Ops 2 traded on the same Cold War nostalgia in flashbacks, then manned the present with a hodgepodge of enemies from failed states, Cuban mercenaries, and a hijacked drone army. Now, with Call of Duty Ghosts, Infinity Ward has had to corral the entire continent of South America into a single military force, and even then they don't even dare attack us until, once again, our own weapon is turned against us.
The story of Call of Duty Ghosts begins with a father, Elias Walker, regaling his sons, the unfortunately named Hesh and Logan, with tales of a unit of soldiers called Ghosts. The way Elias talks about the Ghosts makes it clear these are not merely simple men who responded to the titular call of duty, but Gods of the Battlefield who bathe in the blood of their enemies. Meanwhile, as Elias is not coincidentally spinning yarns of his nation's invincible military, said nation is being put into checkmate by her enemies, who have seized control of their orbital kinetic bombardment platform ODIN and are successfully using it against them. Our own weapons being turned against us has long been a theme in the Call of Duty series, with Lieutenant General Shepherd betraying his country to manufacture a war in Modern Warfare 2, Captain Alex Mason assassinating his own president in Black Ops, and Raul Menendez seizing an entire army of drones and turning it against the first world in Black Ops 2. The same theme is trotted out in Call of Duty Ghosts, but it will eventually be raised to a fever pitch we haven't seen before.
The Federation deploys ODIN against the nation that created it, (Why does the United States have a robust space program after the Mideast is destroyed, when it doesn't even have one in reality, when the Mideast is more or less intact? STOP ASKING QUESTIONS!) firing rods of tungsten who only need to fall in order to impact at speeds of Mach 10. We get to watch the resulting havoc play out at ground level through the eyes of Logan while astronauts heroically sacrifice themselves to end ODIN's reign of destruction. By the time we reach the next level of the game we're at war, and what a war it is.
When we're next treated to the comedy stylings of Hesh & Logan it's ten years later, and a hobbled United States is barely holding out against an encroaching Federación de las Américas. Logan is stationed with his brother in Fort Santa Monica, where the U.S. has forged its last line of defense against the Hispanic Horde in the ruins of Los Angeles, land it annexed from Mexico in 1848. Part of the USA's defense included erecting an enormous wall that the designers at Infinity Ward clearly modeled after the controversial wall erected by Israel to separate it from Palestine.
According to the achievement you get for completing the Brave New World Level it's called The Liberty Wall. Calling any wall with barbed wire and watchtowers a Liberty Wall is patently absurd, but “liberty” is a term that has a very specific historical and cultural context. During World War One war bonds were called Liberty Bonds, war loans were called Liberty Loans, and sauerkraut was called Liberty Cabbage. All walls that keep one group of people out have the effect of keeping another group of people in, and the more impregnable a fort becomes the more it starts to look like a prison. It's one small part of the vast universe of circular logic that sustains war (we must keep sacrificing in order to justify previous sacrifices) and keeps us flinging new generations into the abyss.
Elias makes a point inculcating his sons with reverence and awe for the Ghosts, making them want nothing more than to be Ghosts themselves despite having no firsthand experience of what Ghosting actually entails. He lies to them about being a Ghost himself, and neglects to tell them that the greatest Ghost of all now works for the other side and is hunting Ghosts down. The way Elias tells it, Captain Gabriel T. Rorke was more demigod than soldier, the baddest and assest of the badasses, the perfect living weapon.
"To us, Rorke was a legend. The man could walk through hell and not get burned. Ghosts were the best of the best. But Rorke was the reason we were feared."
Something else Elias neglects to tell his sons is the more you turn a human being into a weapon, the easier it becomes for that weapon to be turned against you. After Rourke is lost during a flashback to a mission in Caracas to assassinate a Federation General, it seems only natural that he comes back fighting for the other side, since the same traits that make someone a great killer make them an indiscriminate killer. Rourke has not switched sides, in fact Rourke was never really on anyone's side; Rourke's only true loyalty is to his chosen god, and that god is death. As far as he's concerned, the rest is window dressing for the gullible. A good gun can't choose when to fire, and a perfect soldier can't decide who they want and don't want to kill, a point driven home when Rourke grabs the player's arm and forces us to shoot our own father. As he lays dying next to us and Rourke turns his attention to our brother, Elias doesn't apologize for encouraging us to get into the family business, or for getting us all killed. With his last words, he says “I'm proud of you.” Really, Dad? This is what bursts the floodgates of fatherly approval? If I'd known shooting you would make you proud, I'd have done it a long time ago.
But of course Elias is proud. He intended to fashion his sons into weapons to kill South Americans, and in that respect his parenting was a rousing success. (The fact that the war with the Federation is, for all intents and purposes, a race war, is never brought up.) In their capacity as Ghosts Logan and Hesh prove adept at killing mercilessly and indiscriminately. In the level Into The Deep you sink a boat by splitting it in half with a torpedo and watch from underwater as scores of corpses spill out like seeds from a crushed seed pod. It's a scene of eerie, dream-like horror, but if you want to experience real, profound moral revulsion, there's no substitute for Atlas Falls, where Infinity Ward seems to be asking the question “If we dropped an honest-to-god war crime in the middle of a routine Call of Duty campaign, would anyone notice?”
Atlas Falls has you sinking an oil platform in the Drake Passage between Chile and Antarctica in order to distract the Federation's navy. The fact that this will unleash an environmental catastrophe of global proportions is not mentioned, but considering the way the Ghosts behave in the process of blowing Atlas up, it's safe to assume they don't care. You know how in the beginning of an action movie they introduce you to a group of bad guys by showing them conducting their criminal activity in the most cutthroat, inhumane, no witnesses manner possible? The Ghosts in Atlas Falls behave like that. They begin their assault by blowing up the ice from beneath and shooting men as they fall through. At one point a Ghost remarks “We need the foreman alive.” but the moment after they've successfully scanned his hand print the Ghost shoots him in the head. The Ghosts don't distinguish between soldiers and men who just happen to be working on the drilling platform. They execute unarmed men as they're blinded by smoke and choking. A Ghost says “Get that body off the console and let's finish the job.” and Logan pushes the corpse aside like he's moving a sack of laundry. I saw a man cling to a destroyed catwalk and could only watch helplessly as his grip eventually failed and he fell to his death. Atlas Falls is like the final level of The Last of Us, but absent any implication that what you're doing is wrong. Infinity Ward can't just be including all this for shock value. They have to be saying something. Don't they?
I could be wrong. I have to accept the possibility that I could be seeing a moral critique in Call of Duty Ghosts that isn't really there. I could have apophenia and I'm seeing a meaningful message in senseless violence that is really just that.
Is Call of Duty Ghosts Starship Troopers the book or Starship Troopers the movie? Is there a secret critique of the Military Industrial Complex buried in the name Infinity Ward that appears when your drop the “d”? Probably not, but I wish there was. The alternative, that the Call of Duty series is just a collection of stupid games designed to glamorize war, is too grim to contemplate.
Call of Duty Ghosts ends the way most wars end, by beginning again. The Federación de las Américas salvaged enough tech from the downed ODIN to make their own orbital kinetic bombardment platform called LOKI, and the USA does exactly what the Federation did at the beginning of the game: seize control of their weapon and use it against them. The sheer volume of irony on display and the yawning absence of self-awareness on the part of the players involved is incredible. At one point a Ghost talks about LOKI, saying “If they [the Federation] get their satellites operational they can hit us anywhere, at anytime. They'll wipe us out.” utterly oblivious to the possibility that people living in the Federation may have felt the same way about ODIN. For him, the people living in South America are as inscrutable as the aliens Neversoft has us killing in Extinction Mode. We go to the space station. We take command of LOKI. We fire it. An eye for an eye, a war crime for a war crime. If you don't use LOKI, if you try to break the cycle, you get a Game Over with the message YOU FAILED TO FOLLOW ORDERS. Logan and and Hesh try to kill Rourke, but he survives and drags Logan off to turn him into another Ghost killer. The cycle of killing continues. There's no is no moral reckoning in Call of Duty Ghosts like there is in Spec Ops The line. There is only the cycle, stretching on into infinity. Come on you apes, you wanna live forever?