Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is finally here, and to the surprise of literally no-one, we already have another debate on our hands. This time, the game has been accused of rewriting history to place blame for controversial real-life US attacks on the Russians. Suddenly Sony's decision to avoid selling Call of Duty: Modern Warfare in the Russian PlayStation Store doesn't seem so surprising.
This article contains spoilers for the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare campaign.
One mission in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's single-player campaign puts players in the shoes of Alex, a CIA agent embedded in a pro-US militia, who undertakes a sniping operation overlooking a valley full of burnt-out vehicles. That valley, and the name of the entire level, is called The Highway of Death - which the game says earned its name after the Russians bombed it during an invasion, killing those who tried to escape.
As pointed out by critics, however, there was actually a real-life Highway of Death: and all that killing was actually down to a US-led coalition.
Towards the end of the First Gulf War, US-led forces were successfully driving Iraqi troops out of Kuwait, leading to Saddam Hussein ordering a full-scale retreat in February 1991. The US-led coalition carried out attacks on the Iraqi forces as they fled up Highway 80, creating a pile-up by hitting both the front and rear before bombarding the convoy. The death toll remains unknown, but the Project on Defense Alternatives estimates about 500-600 people died in the main attack.
The images that emerged from the main attack were haunting (so much so that the US media initially refused to publish them), and serious questions were raised about its legality, with some arguing civilian refugees were present and it violated rules of engagement by attacking after a cease-fire.
Given the controversial nature of this attack, many are now criticising Modern Warfare for using the real-life historical event without attributing the attack to US-led forces. The main complaint is that Infinity Ward has rewritten history to present US forces as the good guys, and in doing so, has effectively covered up a US "war crime". There are also concerns that Modern Warfare is contributing to Russophobia, with some labelling it as propaganda. "If you're doing a game based around real-life events, then those events need to be accurate," says one popular Reddit comment. "Otherwise, it's going to seem like historical revisionism is being presented as real-life."
So, uh, it turns out that the new Modern Warfare game just sorta lies about a US war crime and makes it a Russian one because it needs the US forces to be seen as the good guys.— Chowderhead (@TheChowderhead) October 27, 2019
So that's... I don't really have words for how to feel right now. Disgusted, probably. pic.twitter.com/8wGRIuYkKk
the new call of duty campaign has a moment where the player is told that the Highway of Death was done by the russians in 1991. if you're not familiar, this war crime was committed by the united states and its allies, russia had no involvement https://t.co/nBmk5cnQVe— Off-Brand Brandon (@dropkickpikachu) October 27, 2019
I always thought using Russians in Modern Warfare instead of Americans was some shitty historical revision, but the highway of death thing is legitimately nuts. That starts to reach levels of banana republics where art is created to venerate nationalism as volunteered propaganda.— Imran Khan (@imranzomg) October 28, 2019
Not everyone agrees with this sentiment, however, with some maintaining Modern Warfare has sufficiently distanced itself due to its fictional setting (a Russia-bordering country called Urzikstan). And, of course, there's the ever-present argument that players are able to distinguish games from real life.
Back in May, Infinity Ward co-studio head Dave Stohl said the studio was "creating an emotionally charged experience that's inspired by the headlines in the world today, where the rules are grey and battle lines are blurred". Sure enough, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's campaign appears to be littered with close references to real-life events (have a look at this Reddit comment for an in-depth breakdown). One mission sees players defend against a deadly attack on the US embassy (akin to the 2012 Benghazi attack in Libya), while The Wolf's Den - an attempt to capture the leader of a terrorist group called Al-Qatala - is highly reminiscent of the raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound in 2011.
The difference between these levels and the Highway of Death, however, is that the latter's real-life name has been retained, and the US coalition's role in creating that situation has been significantly altered, to say the least.
From my own reading on the subject and playing Modern Warfare, there's a lot of similarities between the real-life event and the in-game version. The majority of destroyed vehicles in the level are civilian, which tallies with the Department of Defense's report that only 28 of the thousands of burnt out vehicles on the main road were of military quality. Several eyewitness reports from the real-life Highway of Death stated Iraqi soldiers held up white flags of surrender, and in Modern Warfare, white flags are used to mark the wind direction for sniping. It could just be a coincidence, but the resemblance is rather uncanny.
Eurogamer contacted Activision for comment, and was pointed to the following quote from a recent blog post:
"The Campaign mode takes players through an immersive narrative that at times requires them to exercise thought, skill, and judgment to navigate some of the issues and challenges of warfare in the modern age. The Campaign is a fictional story that does not represent real-world events."
Beyond the argument over Modern Warfare's representation of the Highway of Death, the episode appears to have reignited a debate about whether the Highway of Death can be labelled as a war crime. For context, US military officials initially defended the decision by arguing they were continually fired upon during the assault, and that the convoy constituted a legitimate target (via BBC). On whether it was morally justified, some scholars have argued the destruction of the soldiers was necessary to bring an end to the war and prevent further atrocities, while admitting questions needed to be raised in international law about providing overwhelmed troops with means of surrender (Cook and Hamann, 1994).
Others, however, have argued the attack was a war crime under international law. Chediac, for instance, asserts the killing of withdrawing soldiers violated Common Article III of the Third Geneva Convention, and raised questions over whether civilians were caught up in the attack.
Yet regardless of the legality of the attack, reporters and the public felt the methods used were unnecessary and disproportionate - and the way it's framed in Modern Warfare implies it was morally reprehensible.
While the game has only been out for a matter of days, this isn't the first major controversy surrounding the title. In July, Infinity Ward revealed white phosphorus would be used as a killstreak reward in the game's multiplayer, which some argued was tasteless (particularly given the campaign's more critical handling of chemical warfare).