“Just because they write it down and call it history, doesn’t make it the truth. We live in a world where seeing is not believing. Where only a few know what really happened. We live in a world where everything we know is wrong.” So goes the narration of the trailer for Call of Duty: Black Ops, one of the best selling and most lucrative video games of all time (25 million units sold, and a billion dollars in earnings for Activision). It’s actually kind of a profound statement about history, and how the vision and ideology of the dominant culture has the privilege of forming the narrative. And it intimates that this narrative is an outright lie. But the curious thing about Black Ops is that it presents itself as telling a hidden truth, but it really performs the precise opposite in the narrative of the main campaign – glossing over a messy, deceptive history with even thicker mystifications and fantasies of heroism. Yet, it turns out that Black Ops has an even further twist off the beaten path of the connect-the-dots campaign story; a multi-player zombie mode which represents a negative side of the dialectics of power, a sense of doom, fate and limits that make Black Ops, as a package, a conniving piece of game making that asks profound ideological questions about our symbolic identity and our Cold War history.
The draw of this most successful of video game franchises is its tremendous and thrilling game play. The technical sophistication of the action, the graphics, and the surround sound are genre and platform gold standards. Black Ops lets you play as various characters in the 1960s Cold War era, performing recon and infiltration missions to subvert a nefarious Soviet plot to develop a fictional nerve gas called Nova Six. The game play has a specifically heroic function – seeing only outward, acting in the world, performing incredible feats of daring do, surviving all odds, unthinkingly answering all questions of purpose through action; an unwavering call of duty. At bottom, Call of Duty’s appeal is not the story itself, but the action; a military fantasy without real consequences, and plenty of do-overs.
When it comes to the story of this action, however, Black Ops verges on mystifying huge swaths of the Cold War with a boy’s 9-year-old heroic back yard fantasy – of always getting justice, following a sense of higher purpose, and doing dirty work for a good cause. This performance of the heroic self is, in a sense, a prerogative of the privileged, of the victor. Nations that have lost wars usually don’t get to form a heroic narrative – their culture, their identity, suffers a fragmentation the likes we have seen in defeated and colonized people.
The U.S. is one country that does not sense that it has lost a war. There is a palpable sense that we still believe in war – war as a force for good, war as a proactive agent in the world where the US is an exceptional nation that needs to police the world. In a sense this narrative derives from the perceived success of World War II, which constructed the massive military-industrial complex. Europe was torn to shreds in that war. The European empires were dismantled. They are afraid to engage in war as policy ever since. But not the US. The US has been looking for another “good war,” another virtuous war, another worthy enemy. As Chris Hedges wrote, “War is a force that gives us meaning.” We perceive war as an important narrative to give our heterogeneous culture meaning and existential coherence. The performance of the Cold War is that drive for ideological coherence. Marshall McLuhan said, “All forms of violence are about identity,” and this is the driving force of the heroic, conquering self that Call of Duty games promote in all their bullets-ablaze flag-waving glory. It’s no wonder army recruiters have demos of the game playing in the back of their Hummers when they go canvassing the high schools. They want to give the impression that war is just like this simulacrum.
The thing was that the facts of the Cold War are far messier than the simplicity of this heroic narrative. They are far more ambiguous than the flat surfaces, where the gaps in this heroic narrative don’t add up. In Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, Tim Weiner tells that the CIA was not nearly the clever intelligence agency of our popular imagination. The CIA’s history is replete with intelligence failures, and in essence, failed as an agency in the Cold War due to a lack of mission. They were designed as an intelligence agency. But they did way more than espionage. They engaged in counterrevolutionary measures, called black ops, across the world. They set about, in large part, to remake the world according to the narrative of American power, and sided with military juntas in the so-called third world in order to do this. As Weiner writes, “In World War II, the United States made common cause with communists to fight fascists. In the cold war, the CIA used fascists to combat communists” (39). This resulted in fascist coups in places like Chile, Argentina and the Congo, and lead to the assassinations of democratically elected leaders like Patrice Lumumba and Salvador Allende.
In addition to promoting American imperialism, the CIA explored how to restructure societies through psychiatric manipulation. This is one of the features of Call of Duty: Black Ops, and explores how the CIA character Mason was captured by the Russians and brain washed, programmed into a kind of mindless automaton sent to assassinate President Kennedy. This is an old paranoid myth that the CIA was involved with in the Cold War. The fear was that the Soviets were using brainwashed sleeper agents and these agents were walking around like ordinary Americans until they were given a code word from their handlers to perform assassinations. It’s the basic plot of The Manchurian Candidate, (a fantastic movie), and captures the paranoid, xenophobic tendencies of cold war politics. The fact is that the Soviets looked into this technology, but quickly abandoned it after seeing that it obviously didn’t work and too hard to control. The CIA, however, did far more research into this technology throughout the fifties and sixties. They even tried to use LSD as a mind-control agent in Project MKULTRA. But they gave up on this because the solider test subjects grew passive and peaceful and started to fail in their duties. All of these facts reinforce the CIA as a brainwashing agent of propaganda rather than intelligence gathering.
There is a famous flub in the 1967 John Wayne Vietnam movie The Green Berets (one of only a couple movies that actually portray the Vietnam War as a patriotic and virtuous cause). At the end of the movie the sun sets on the shores of the East Asian nation. The trouble is that Vietnam’s shore faces East, not West. This fundamental absurdity is emblematic of our epistemological gap, the gap between our war fantasy and claims to virtue, and the reality. The reality is that Vietnam was fighting for independence. The US saw it as another domino falling to the red menace. That is the power of ideological identity, an identity still perpetrated after 40 years spent trying to deconstruct the lesson of Vietnam and the larger Cold War. Yes, Call of Duty is that dissociative.
It is a feeling of dissociation, fragmentation that one feels when the master narrative no longer holds water. This is the sense of fragmentation that I witnessed working with homeless veterans in Houston years ago. A world broken apart, incoherent, a world where this heroic, solid, unwavering identity was shattered. A sense where the symbolic identity could no longer account for the experiences. A place where the wars no longer made sense. A space beyond the call of duty, beyond propaganda, and a culture that is unable to help pick up the pieces when the illusions of the war fade.
Lately I’ve been thinking about this idea of the post-traumatic subject. The other side of war, the neglected side, the side our pride and propaganda wants to skirt over. It’s about how trauma re-forms us. And how we must diligently strive to pick up new pieces, new bits of identity, to start over rather than re-assemble the shock.
It is funny that Call of Duty: Black Ops has another side to the coin. Where the main mission takes its flag-waving fervor very seriously, the zombies mode turns the narrative on its ear. In the spirit of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, Black Ops is a negative tragedy – a story of the fall of a hubristic symbolic identity. But the zombies mode is a positive tragedy – a story about the embrace of catastrophe, limits, and the foolishness of the whole enterprise. It is, in short, a negative dialectic to the master narrative. It has a sense of humor about itself, most notably in the chapter “Five,” in which Kennedy, McNamara, Nixon and Castro join forces, crossing old ideological lines, to protect The Pentagon from Nazi Zombies. Kennedy’s intro speech captures the embrace of fate, the amor fati, the laughter of self-mockery and the lightness of resigned fate. Jack pontificates in his famous thick r-dropping Massachusetts accent, “For time and the world do not stand still. Change is the lawr of life, and those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.”
“Five” is a zany send-up of Cold War paranoia. It is a very difficult game, and one in which you can never master even with the ray guns, death machines, electric traps, teleporters, and funny one-liners from these Cold War statesmen. There is no end to the game. There is only the performance of its positive fate. Wave after wave of zombies come to eat you. Two hits in a row and you loose. There is no ducking for cover, no automatic healing when the screen turns from red to back to normal. And each horde is bigger than the last. If you last that long, you can play for hours, killing thousands of zombies. But you will lose. There is no exit. I found a YouTube video of a guy playing on level 116. He played for 3 hours continuously. And then he died. This is Cold War as folly, as myth stripped of the veneer of history in an unwinnable war.
I found this part of the game entering my dreams and fantasy. The music, the howl of the undead. There is a perpetual sense of impending doom, a kind of incredulity about it, a sense where you want to try to beat it, but you just can’t. Kennedy says it all, “Do not pray for easy lives, my friends. Pray to be stronger men.” I can see why this is the lasting part of the game, the part players keep going back to, and the part that keeps getting expansion packs, more forays into zombie apocalypse. Is this our post-traumatic identity? Is this the hidden truth Black Ops really wanted to reveal and intimated in its trailer? An existential embrace of the human folly? Maybe. Or maybe it has these two parts to let us sit with this dialectic of fate and identity, between the privileged fantasy of heroism and duty, and the complex deconstruction of this symbolic identity, a place of ambiguity, the joyful wisdom of the “lawr of life.”
Reposted from my blog Green Fissures in an Otherwise Pristine Robot, May 2012.