A common attitude about Call of Duty in recent years has been that being an American made title, with its military themes, that it is jingoistic. That is rather false, but before diving in to that we should first call out when the franchise follows history, and when it writes its own story.
Not to suggest that writing its own story is rewriting history, when it goes fictional, it is blatantly fiction. I’m not looking at revisionist cases, and where it does cross with history in its fiction, the process is one of integration to the lore, not revising what is believed to have happened. Until Call of Duty 4, the game concerned itself with specific World War 2 battles from the perspective of the American, British, and Russian forces. In more recent titles, some of the scenes of fiction took place in the context of historic events – the Black Ops franchise is more known for this in its use of the invasion of Panama, and the Vietnam War, as backdrops for what was happening in their stories.
Let’s take a look at the presence of the American military when Call of Duty writers are determining events, rather than the history books – the following is spoiler heavy:
The Modern Warfare Franchise
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
- America is late to the game where they get on the ground in large numbers in the middle east to hunt down a terrorist who is believed to have WMDs. They did not get this intel themselves, the British and Russians supply it.
- American soldiers make blunder after blunder, going to the wrong locations, and spending more time rescuing themselves than chasing the bad guy.
- Ultimately they fail and a nuke is set off killing thirty thousand American soldiers, far more civilians, and one of the player characters. This marks the most memorable moment in the game, wherein the American protagonist slowly dies due to their own mistakes.
- America is not involved again until the SAS and Russians figure things out some more.
- The few American characters are involved in a joint mission, which is a failure.
- In a follow-up mission the American is captured and the British and Russians have to divert their course to rescue him, meanwhile the terrorist launches two nukes at America.
- The British soldiers penetrate the facility and save America from being nuked twice.
- Final confrontation with the terrorists, the American is killed, the British successfully kill the terrorist and the Russians get everyone to safety.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
As a bit of backstory, Russia lost its civil war and the Ultranationalists took over. They regarded the terrorist of the previous game as a hero, and his lieutenant, the new villain, goes unchecked in Russia.
- An American soldier displays skill in a combat scenario in Afghanistan, he is put on a task force.
- The task force slips him into a Russian terrorist cell as a spy to monitor the behavior of the new villain.
- He then passively, or actively depending on the player, participates in a terrorist attack on Russian civilians in an airport, all to gain the villain’s trust.
- He does not, the villain knew who he was the whole time, kills him at the end of the attack and plants his body there to claim that the attack was perpetrated by Americans.
- With Russia under Ultranationalist control this is a suitable cause for attacking America.
- America’s national security was grossly compromised and a full scale invasion is underway.
- America struggles to fight back and is continually losing.
- The White House, Department of Defense, and Washington Monument are decimated and still Washington D.C., as well as the suburbs of Virginia, are overrun by the Russian army.
- America is saved by the British, and their only personal victory comes in getting flares down in time to keep them from carpet bombing themselves.
- The British are betrayed and murdered almost entirely en masse by an American.
- The British kill the American to win the day.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
- America finally actually defends itself and repels a Russian invasion of New York City.
- The Vice President of the United States is abducted.
- American soldiers act based upon British intel throughout the campaign.
- American soldiers take part in a large battle in a diamond mine, and die, as the British successfully escape.
The Black Ops Franchise
Call of Duty: World at War
- Americans battle the Japanese across the pacific in an isolated story that has no bearing on the franchise. The Russian campaign establishes characters for the follow-up games.
Call of Duty: Black Ops
- Americans are interrogating one of their own, an American, setting the tone of principal failure outright.
- Americans are manipulated at every turn, achieving only minor victories which do little to harm their enemy.
- Even when they catch up with their enemy, it was part of a scheme and the Americans have been fooled again.
- It is indicated that the Americans even in victory were used to kill their own president, the only character with a measure of success is a single Russian, who is American friendly.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2
- Americans are fruitlessly pursuing a single man who they are credited with creating without examining the responsibility of his own decisions.
- Americans are manipulated into shooting one another.
- When captured, the villain is able to compromise the entire U.S. military electronic network and turn it against the nation – in fact, he planned his capture.
- The villain is able to in multiple endings, complete his objectives from within a jail cell or even beyond the grave.
Call of Duty: Ghosts
Little is known of this title as it was recently announced but we know this much:
- America is utterly defeated, so much so that those remaining are fighting only for survival, no longer as a defense of anything to do with America so much.
Now I can appreciate that “The Underdog” is a useful trope for story arcs to draw the audience in, but this goes well beyond it. In the past six years the franchise has used America as a punching bag for its settings and stories, with victory always coming at a harsh cost, or even being a false one. Typically all actual progress is made by British and Russian soldiers, with the Americans at best holding ground, but typically significantly endangering everyone and the mission. For this reason, I reject the cries of “‘Murica” and other misinformed slurs in regards to Call of Duty. If the franchise was to sing the praises of a people, it would be the British, followed by Russians. The idea that it is military propaganda is a blind accusation. Americans blunder, sputter, and die in Call of Duty. They do not go down gloriously in a hail of fire (with the exception of one scene in Modern Warfare 3) and they aren’t particularly clever or aware. Call of Duty has many issues, many many issues, but they are not criticized for them typically. Jingoism is certainly not an issue of the franchise, but it is a useful tool of oikophobes, hoplophobes, and those who desire to enforce the perception of America being self-obsessed and self-praising at all times.
To put it another way, if the country roles were reversed in the Call of Duty plotlines, accusations of American jingoism would then be somewhat correct.