[Originally published June 24, 2016]
This is a story about Call of Duty 2, and one of the craziest emotional roller coasters I’ve ever experienced in my entire life. It is a story of love, childhood, and video games, and also an acute existential crisis. It begins in the fall of 2005.
I’ve just come home from this miserable summer camp. They only had one bathroom, which they called ‘Egypt’ because it was so far away. It was ran by a man who went by the name ‘Cha-Cha.’ To this day I don’t know what his actual birth name was. One of those haunting mysteries, like: what happened to D.B. Cooper? Why do so many people like Army of Two? And where does the bread go when the toast pops up?
Regardless, the first thing I see when I come home is a brand-new Xbox 360 sitting on the dinner table. I literally faint, because I am – and always have been – a kool kid. When I come to, my family is laughing at me, but I’m too excited to care – I have an Xbox-gosh-darn-360. You could have spit vodka into my eyes and I don’t think I would’ve noticed. It came packaged with Call of Duty 2, and I was beyond excited to engage in all that sweet sweet FPS glory.
It should be noted that – at this point in American History – Yours Truly is But A Babe – a mere 12 years of age. Not too far off from teen-hood, but far enough that I felt like a rebel for playing a T-rated game. Like some sort of sexy, vigilante, anti-hero.
I reiterate: I was a kool kid.
I pop in CoD 2, and do what most of us did – I shoot the hell out of Nazis. I revel in it. My dad comes down at one point and grumbles about the ‘disrespect’ and how I’m ‘gonna be some sort of Klebold-style-lunatic-sociopath.’ My dad’s a real charmer, but – more importantly – he’s a World War II buff. As such, I’ve been force fed all the books and movies about WWII for most of my life. Patton? Seen it. The Longest Day? Seen it – around 27 times, might I add. The Dirty Dozen? Seen it. Name a Stephen Ambrose book, and I’ve read it. As such, I’ve become acutely aware that many of the folks who fought for The Allies were very, very young. I’ve also become acutely aware that the folks who fought for The Axis were equally young. So young, in fact, that many of these Axis soldiers believed more in the sanctity of their nationhood than the horrible, bigoted, genocidal beliefs that directed their violence. That was always something that stuck with me from the historical readings I had consumed, but it was a fact that my brain had never fully processed.
Until 2005. Until the Xbox 360. Until Call of Duty.
I can’t remember what level it was, but I can tell you what I do remember. I remember lots of snow. I remember a German soldier entering my view as I rounded a corner. I remember panic-firing, pulling the trigger and firing from the hip. I remember the muzzle flare from my Mosin-Nagant. I remember that accidental bullet striking the helmet of my enemy, and ricocheting off of it.
I remember his helmet flying off.
I remember my shock.
I remember his face.
He was a kid – poster-child of the Aryan Nation. Blonde, slicked back hair. Fair, unblemished skin. I even think his eyes might have been blue. I don’t think the game even rendered eye-color, but this kid’s visage was so striking that I’m convinced he had blue eyes. He stumbled back, and looked around – surprised he was still alive. His hand briefly rose to his forehead, as though to check and make sure his flesh and bone remained intact. I remember him looking scared. Then he regained his senses, locked his eyes with mine, and charged at me with his weapon raised.
And then I remember shooting him.
And then I remember watching him die.
And then I remember turning off the game to cry.
This was just two years after the start of the Iraq War, and this moment really got me thinking about a lot of things that had become quite important to my life. I come from a military family – both of my parents were Army folk, and served in the Gulf War. What did they see? Who did they know, and what happened to those people? What was the cost – personal and cultural – of the conflict they became a part of?
Was it worth it?
See, us gamers are lucky. We get to experience these questions and emotional responses in a space that separates us from the actual consequences of our actions. Killing an AI in a game is small potatoes. That figure you gunned down wasn’t a real person – they were just a collection of code and polygons meant to simulate one. These moments still provide the catharsis of emotion, but without the baggage that comes with it. We can turn off the game whenever we want to, and take some time to recuperate. When we question these moments, we get to choose whether we continue to experience them or not.
Not so with soldiers.
Soldiers are people of duty. They do what they do because they’ve signed up for an organization that expects obedience. Such is the nature of militaries. I’m quite grateful to games for helping inform this perspective on military life, and I hope they’ve done the same for you.
To any service-men/women readers, I wish you the best, and hope that you’ve enjoyed my writings. Stay safe, and – as always – good luck out there.