Yeah, so all of the criticisms of Modern Warfare 2 are basically true. It’s hammy, it’s superficial, it’s not really a patch on the original Modern Warfare. But there’s still stuff that’s worth talking about. For one, I do find it really compelling how they shift the usual field of war from the Middle East or Russia or one of those other countries – you know, the ones depicted as ‘unstable’ and ‘warlike’ – into the American heartland. I’m thinking of doing a study of American invasion games at some point, and if I did, this game would be top of the list. Let’s talk about Burger Town.
I guess I should start with a quick couple notes about why Modern Warfare 2 is stupid, just for those who haven’t played it before. There’s this American spy who’s infiltrated a group of Russian baddies, and then the Russian baddies go shoot up an airport, and then they murder the spy so that the Russian authorities find a dead American gunman at the scene of this massacre. Then Russia invades America. Yeah – that’s the stupid part. Firstly, Russia invading America isn’t really, you know, a thing that would happen. That’s sort of why the Cold War existed – it specifically wasn’t a Hot War because America and the USSR didn’t want to go hammer and tongs at each other. It’s also worth noting that Russia’s military budget today is, uh, 14% of what America currently spends, so the idea of an invasion actually getting off the ground is ridiculous.
Anyway – yes, it’s dumb, but I don’t care, I want to talk about Burger Town. To me it’s one of the most memorable areas in Modern Warfare 2, besides the airport sequence and that fucking shower room in the gulag. It’s primarily made up of two or three fast food restaurants that’re all knock-off American products. Burger Town is closely styled after Burger King, and so on. And – I don’t know, there’s just something fascinating about hearing Keith David shouting ‘Enemy target on the roof of Burger Town!’ It’s shifting the conflict away from the typical theaters of war and into our more familiar everyday context. It makes the fighting seem less real, in a way – it’s surreal, because it’s not a location we’re used to seeing from that perspective. That’s one of the big differences between Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2. In MW, the Americans are a clumsy global police force doing a bad job of helping in the Middle East, while the British are sneaking around behind the scenes doing secret violence in foreign countries to preserve a stable world order. The Americans, and the entire Middle Eastern campaign, are really more of a sideshow. In MW2, the vision shifts. Modern war stops being about secret necessary violence, in the Orwellian sense (“We sleep peaceably in our beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf”). It becomes a sort of hellscape, this unending psychedelic whirlwind where you can never quite come to terms with everything that’s going on. It’s simultaneously unreal and too real. You shoot up an airport in a radical act of terrorism, and then you use miniguns and Predator drones to fight off Russian soldiers from the roof of Burger Town, and helicopters are raining from the fucking sky. And – let’s talk about that airport scene a bit more, actually. The whole premise is that Americans are trying to monitor evil terrorists, and then those terrorists turn around and unexpectedly hurt America. There’s a pretty straightforward 9/11 analogy in there – so when the game positions the terrorists as Russian, it’s this weird displacement, as if the game was struggling to associate the roots of 9/11 with the Cold War. Of course, we know historically that the Middle East was part of the battleground of the Cold War, and that the instability created by that conflict gave rise to groups like al-Qaeda, who – yeah. Modern Warfare 2 stumbles towards that link without ever fully managing to articulate it.
In short, the original Modern Warfare begins with the conceit that our soldiers are doing what needs to be done to keep humanity safe. Modern Warfare 2, however, is a game that wants to wake up from itself. It represents the psychic shock of 9/11 – in the wake of that event, nothing quite seems real. Even in the first level, unreality is a major thematic concern. The player is positioned as an American soldier moving through a city in the Middle East. There are three Middle Eastern men on a balcony – obviously spotters for the militia, but not visibly armed. The American soldiers talk back and forth about how those militia are clearly tracking the Americans as a prelude to an ambush, and one of the soldiers says ‘Yeah, but that don’t mean we can shoot ’em.’ The rules of engagement prevent the Americans from effectively defending themselves. They can’t kill the spotters, because the spotters haven’t done anything explicitly aggressive, and so from the legal perspective, are considered civilians or non-combatants. That’s obviously a complete fiction, but it’s one that the Americans have to adhere to. That adherence means that the spotters do their job without interruption or impediment, and shortly afterwards the militia forces begin a massive attack on American troops. The military reality is straitjacketed by legal fictions, by unrealities, and those unrealities kill American soldiers.
Burger Town continues and develops those basic themes. Russians are spilling out of the diner to the east. Three bogies by the Nate’s sign. Hostiles on the roof of Burger Town. It’s a fever dream, a nightmare written by people who haven’t fully come to terms with the horror of 9/11. As a text it’s superior even to Spec Ops in communicating the horror of the current situation. Spec Ops is at least able to articulate the problem. Modern Warfare 2 is entirely incapable of understanding the trauma that it depicts. The closest it comes is the character of General Shephard, the game’s antagonist. Shephard is an American military leader who creates and perpetuates the problem that he sets out to solve. He looks to end the war by escalating the war, by prompting the full-scale invasion of America. His self-destructive nature is exemplified by his tendency to call in air strikes within a few hundred meters of his own men. Shepard doesn’t care about danger close. He ultimately ends up bombing his own men in a failed attempt to kill his enemies. His war is autocannibalistic. He’s creating the problem he’s trying to solve. There’s something in there about 9/11, about America today. Not sure what though. Can’t quite see it.