Phony War

logo_codOn October 25, video game publisher Activision released the sixteenth installment in the Call of Duty video game series, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. This version is a “reboot” of the original Modern Warfare, released back in 2007, the best-selling video game of that year. The 2007 edition was a seminal shift for first-person shooters, which had based their themes and moods on cinematic WWII depictions like Saving Private Ryan. Modern Warfare instead represents war as it exists today. Like its predecessor, this most recent Modern Warfare aspires to give players realistic, recreational simulations of special forces raids, drone strikes, and shoot-outs. Critics have documented the jarring choice of representing war in a video game, where difficult issues are ignored or neglected at the expense of entertainment. Critics should go further: The Call of Duty games are acting as forms of propaganda, representing real-life historical events and places, some associated with U.S. atrocities, as something other than they were. This goes beyond the normalization of state violence and its supporting industries, to the revision of the U.S. war record in recent decades.

americas-army-3_2119177The link between the Pentagon and the entertainment industry is well-known. As documented by Nick Turse in The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives (2008), the U.S. military encourages a quid pro quo relationship with the entertainment industries. With Hollywood, the Pentagon provides access to genuine hardware and expert consultants so those blockbuster war movies look authentic, while major studios provide the military with the best recruitment ads money can buy. Similarly, games like Call of Duty emphasize all the “cool” aspects of being a soldier—like charging headlong into a firefight or sniping targets with state-of-the-art weapons—when this is hardly representative of the actual experience for most military personnel, especially those who never see combat. (Of course, no one would buy a video game about desalinating water in Kuwait.) By putting players (most of whom are boys and young men in the 18-35 demographic) in the boots of Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, or CIA intelligence operatives, the games show only a limited aspect of what the military does, one wrapped up in the joy of murder without consequences. The idea that games like Modern Warfare could be considered “training” is laughable; they are, without doubt, meant to provide a sanitized “fun” version of war for their players. The only way these games are challenging is in issues of hand-eye coordination; they do not aim to make players pose hard questions about war, only to experience a scripted imitation of dramatic combat. Yet this imitation is not meaningless; the script contains choices, strategies employed by designers, meant to constitute the U.S. military for players.

The 2007 version of Modern Warfare set the game in “the future” of 2011, in the midst of a Russian civil war as well as a fictional war-torn Middle Eastern country. The “bad guys” were Russians and Middle Eastern militants. For the players of these games, killing Middle Eastern men becomes a recurring experience, desensitizing them to what they could very well do if they enlist, given our ongoing embroilment across the Middle East. The vilification of Russia mirrors tension between Washington and Moscow over Russian interventions in the Republic of Georgia and eastern Ukraine. The Call of Duty games certainly did not invent the Russian bogeyman or the Muslim terrorist tropes, but they certainly help to reinforce them. Taking part in raids on Italian terrorists would not feel… right. The game uses enemies that feel familiar as enemies in U.S. pop culture. Yet, even as it plays on these cultural references, it creates a divergence from our world.

medalofhonor4Medal of Honor, a rival series to Call of Duty, featured the Taliban as a playable faction in one of its editions, creating controversy. It did not seem appropriate for U.S. citizens to play as Taliban soldiers killing U.S. military personnel. Call of Duty has thus avoided controversy by changing its universes just a bit from our own. Although Russia is frequently the “bad guy” in scenarios, the Middle Eastern countries are fictional, and their struggles are less historical and contextual and more general “freedom versus dictatorship” material. The game becomes war without the politics or history, an imagined war, hypothetical war, wholly separate from the “complications” of real life. Its this careful, calculated presentation of war that makes the game enjoyable. But it also provides an opportunity for the U.S. military and its operations to be presented in a certain way. The choices made in Modern Warfare are not accidental; they serve to rewrite history, to give new meanings to names and places that already exist.

As Alec Kublas-Meyer notes in his review of Modern Warfare, the game relentlessly shows the grittier features of war, such as the waterboarding (torturing) of human beings, or the deaths of innocents caught in the crossfire. But beyond these general qualities are references to specific events. Kublas-Meyer cites the close parallel between the storming of a U.S. embassy in the game and the real 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya. Unlike real life, however, in the video game al-Qaeda (or its thinly veiled analog of it) is actually involved in the assault. Rather than an uprising by local militia (like in real life) the attack is part of a coordinated operation by the game’s al-Qaeda equivalent. What was a hawkish fantasy becomes real within the Call of Duty universe, and al-Qaeda is represented as more influential and powerful than it is.

The game also mentions a “Highway of Death,” where Russian forces bombed fleeing civilians. In reality, the “Highway of Death” refers to the 1991 massacre of retreating Iraqis who were fleeing Kuwait for Iraq by U.S.-led coalition forces. The “Highway of Death” is now being associated in young minds with a fictional Russian war crime and not the actual U.S. killings. There’s even a map in the game called “Haditha,” which is a real place in Iraq, and the site of another U.S. massacre, this time of 24 civilians in 2005. It’s not just that, as Kublas-Meyers observes, that the game fails to ask the inherent ethical questions regarding war; it’s that it presents an alternate reality very favorable to the U.S. military-industrial complex as propaganda. Setting aside the morality of war is bad enough, but to reconstitute actual events is literally attempting to create a twisted perception, one that unambiguously advances the agendas of foreign policy hawks and arms contractors. This is propaganda in its purest form.

300px-haditha_massacreGiven the degree to which war pervades our culture, it’s not surprising that it has also found representation in video games. The tradition of “war-gaming” goes back to exercises played by Prussian field officers in early modern Europe. But whereas war games in the Prussian tradition encouraged innovative strategies, games like Modern Warfare encourage an obedience to status quo thinking on war. Certain premises are put forward and must be accepted as an informal ticket of admission: the U.S. military never harms innocents; the enemy commits war crimes, not the U.S. military or its allies; and the consequences, psychological or otherwise, of taking human life is minimal. Just as players shoot the nameless “bad guys” in the game, so too does our society ignore the actual killers trained by the U.S. military, the veterans living with physical or psychological disabilities because of their actions. Worse still, there is the complete erasure of victims of U.S. aggression, as they simply don’t exist within the game. In the case of the aforementioned 2005 Haditha massacre, none of the Marines charged in the killings served jail time. Only one, Frank Wuterich, suffered a rank reduction after six years of prosecution. Modern Warfare adds insult to injury by redefining Haditha as a bit of terrain, not the atrocity that it was. The game is making a very real claim to be representing modern war, yet the atrocities carried out by the U.S. and it allies in recent interventions are completely omitted or revised. Whether a person is a hawk or dove, it should be acknowledged in any representation of war that no side is immune to “collateral damage.” Innocent people suffer as a result of war, yet the war of Modern Warfare is war without civilian casualties, without weddings blown up, women and children shot in the night.

Obviously, the solution is not that Modern Warfare should have U.S. planes bombing civilians as well as Russian planes. And it is also true that video games may just be a dubious medium for considering war critically. Still, Hollywood has produced some anti-war films that also sought to capture war accurately, like Full Metal Jacket and Platoon. While these films were imperfect, especially in their tendency to emphasize sympathy for the U.S. soldiers and not the Vietnamese people, they nevertheless were decidedly opposed to the glorification of war. It is reasonable that a video game publisher could produce an anti-war war game today, but it is doubtful how it would be received by a gaming audience isolated from “real war” like no previous generation. After years of reinforcement that “war is normal,” a message against war and the celebration of warriors would be received as bizarre, a radical idea. After all, that is what “modern warfare” is: the perpetual interventions of the U.S. militarily in the name of “keeping peace” and “restoring order,” as dictated by the interests of the U.S. itself.

Those of us who remember a world before September 11, 2001 probably never imagined the extent to which U.S. military operations would expand in a fleeting period of time. There was a small window between the end of the Cold War and 9/11 when the idea of NATO and global strategic alliances seemed outdated. Now there is an ongoing global military campaign with no end in sight and no clear adversary. Osama bin Laden is dead; the head of ISIS just died. So how many more need to die before the war ends? What final event needs to happen for the “War on Terror” to be finished? The war will never end because its good for business, including the entertainment industry. Games like Call of Duty do not want to ask when the war will end because their makers do not want them to end. It would be like Madden asking its players whether the glamorization of violent contact sports, one that leads to widespread concussions, is really humane entertainment. Since war will exist regardless, video game publishers may as well profit from it, as long as they keep it “culturally appropriate,” a few shades shy of reality.

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely at present that U.S. foreign and military policy will change anytime soon, even if Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren win the White House. While their policies would be disruptive to the economic status quo in this country, their visions for U.S. actions abroad remain murky at best. Ideally, some of their promised generous social spending would be funded through cuts in bloated defense spending, and a less funded war machine might lose some of its luster. It’s worth remembering, though, Warren’s connections to defense lobbyists and Sander’s fierce protection of fighter aircraft assembly in Vermont. Historically, they have been allies, not opponents of the military-industrial complex. Given the tall orders they face in reforming our complex financial system, the idea they could take on the MIC as well seems unlikely. Games like Modern Warfare may just be reflections of a forever war that is here to stay.

May the Best Social Democrat Win

320px-youth_voice_presidential_forum_284878162773329In a recent interview with ABC News, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders highlighted this distinction between him and rival Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren: “Elizabeth, I think, as you know, has said that she is a capitalist through her bones. I’m not.” Sanders claims Warren would just tinker at the margins of the existing economic system, whereas he would seek to replace capitalism itself. In terms of tactics, the candidates are virtually identical, as both are using left-wing populist messages to sell their campaigns as crusades to change the status quo. While Warren has emphasized her “plans,” in substance their policy proposals are remarkably similar. They are also alike in status: U.S. senators who caucus with Democrats with similar left-wing voting records. So, are they really all that different?

320px-elizabeth_warren_visits_roosevelt_high_school_284893857431129The most concrete difference between Sanders and Warren is not so much ideological as chronological. Several of Warren’s colleagues have recounted her past as an ardently free market-supporting Republican. Sanders, by contrast, has been staunchly on the left his entire political career, and therefore is more appealing to left-wing diehards. Warren’s conversion to the Democratic Party, however, may say more about the two-party system in the U.S. than anything about Warren. Since the late 20th century, the Republican and Democratic parties have been more alike than different, sharing a loyalty to a constellation of established interests. Of the two, the GOP has been the more dynamic, evolving from the evangelicals and economists to conspiracy theorists and nativists. The Democrats, instead, have held onto the mantle of inoffensive centrism firmly in place since the 1980s. It is only recently that taking a more left-wing posture has won support among Democratic leaders, and even by that metric Warren was a relatively early convert to government regulation and a fairer economy. After all, she made her political career by pushing for a more powerful Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which had its opponents within the Obama White House. Friends of Wall Street, like then-Vice President Joe Biden, wanted the CFPB to be toothless. Warren, however, vocalized her belief that the disaster of the 2008 financial crisis demanded a stronger, more centralized oversight over U.S. financial practices.

240px-36_vikingo.svg_If Warren was never that radically right, Sanders has never been that radically left. When asked for a concrete model the U.S. should adopt, he has pointed to Scandinavian states such as Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. In 2013 The Ecomomist (hardly an anti-capitalist publication) sung the praises of “the next supermodel,” the so-called “Nordic model” of free market capitalism coupled with large states with large budgets. The magazine notes that Denmark and Norway permit privately-owned corporations to run public hospitals, while Sweden has a universal system of school vouchers. This “enhanced Thatcherism” is offset by high spending on social services funded by high taxes, which The Economist maligns: “Too many people—especially immigrants—live off benefits.” For the free market advocate, the Nordic countries “waste” too much on generous welfare states. Nevertheless, there is still clearly a class system, one in which impoverished non-Nordic people have to subsist on government assistance. In the end, Sanders’ example of countries to emulate are the capitalist countries of Europe, where labor movements and social democratic parties established Keynesian mixed economy welfare states. Such states existed across Western Europe after WWII thanks to powerful labor movements as well as a litany of social democratic politicians.

Sanders describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” but he is more accurately a social democrat. The similarity of those terms invites confusion and requires some historical context. In 1848, Europe was hit with several liberal revolutions demanding the distribution of political rights (such as voting for all men without concern for property or income). It was these uprisings that most directly inspired Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to make their communist call to action. What they advocated, however, was not democracy, but class domination of another sort: the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat that would seize the means of production and destroy the bourgeoisie before abolishing class entirely, along with the state. Communism is inherently anti-democratic because it presumes a stateless as well as classless society. Social democrats, therefore, have departed from the revolutionary aspects of Marxism and have embraced parliamentary politics and legislative reform. These methods have invited sacrificing ideological purity for courting public support, as best demonstrated by the rush of many social democratic parties to support the wars of 1914—1918 across Europe, many of them entering into coalitions with centrist and even conservative political parties.

sozialdemokratische_partei_deutschlands2c_logo_um_1930Everything changed with the foundation of the first socialist state, the Soviet Union, in October 1917. The bullet had showed itself more effective than the ballot box. Violent revolution threatened not just the pro-capitalist politicians but the social democratic ones as well, and out of self-interest they gravitated to anti-communist policies. This was most historically evident in the case of the German Social Democratic Party, who used the police to crack down on the German communists and their paramilitary street-fighting squads. There was also the “threat” of Soviet diplomacy and the institution representing global communism under Soviet guidance, the Communist International. In a world order of competing superpowers, many governments felt pressure to align with one state or the other, for economic if not security reasons. The wealthier, most industrialized countries tended to be capitalist democracies, and to be accepted into that bloc required opposition to Moscow. After the 1980s paradigmatic shift to neoliberalism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the capitalist democracy became the norm, the “end of history,” as Fukuyama called it. If the crisis of 2008 meant the beginning of the end for neoliberalism we know it, then the future is looking less like unchartered territory and more like a return to the social democratic models of post-war Europe.

Sanders and Warren are both presenting visions for reform that would extend democracy into the economic life of U.S. citizens (such as by strengthening labor unions and granting employees partial corporate ownership), but would fundamentally preserve strong private companies, including the increasingly narrow of multinationals who dominate most trade and industries. A large state with generous social services is not socialism; in fact, having such a large state with extensive influence over society and the economy is considered a feature of fascism. This why the Soviet Union condemned the social democratic parties of 1920s Europe as “social fascists,” or as “the moderate wing of fascism.” Sanders and Warren would probably both like to create a neo-corporatist framework of tripartial coordination between employers, unions, and state entities, not unlike those that emerged in post-World War II Europe, including in Scandinavia. This would be preferable to the depletion of social welfare programs in the U.S. to fund the ever-growing military-industrial complex, but it would not be a means to socialism. It would be the enlargement of the state, when an aim of socialism is to abolish it. A dictatorship of the proletariat, by contrast, would have a purpose other than existing for itself in the provision of needs and services. Its function would be to realize the ambition of abolishing property and ending exploitation. Neither Sanders nor Warren present a path for getting to that goal because that is not their goal; the aim is merely to alleviate the worst abuses of capitalism than abolish capitalism itself.

In the case of the U.S., it would mean that Washington and New York would continue to go on as the hegemons of the world politically and economically, funding highly profitable industries through the exploitation of peripheral underdeveloped countries. A portion of that wealth would be redirected into programs starved off resources or into creating innovative programs considered reasonable and moderate by European standards. Undoubtedly, a great deal of money will still be funneled into arms production (via the Pentagon) and corporate welfare. It would mean a considerable increase in the actual standard of living for many people in the U.S., certainly, and for many U.S. citizens, it would mean the best chance of reforming a corrupt, dysfunctional system whose contradictions and failures become more apparent and outrageous.

As a socialist myself, I recognize that the conditions for revolution do not exist in the United States. Electing a social democrat like Sanders or Warren would be an absolute good when the alternative is the persistence of a status quo that has produced the U.S. as an invader, human rights abuser, and the site of the economic malpractice behind the 2008 global financial crisis. The election of Donald Trump and the public surge of white supremacy accompanying it are just symptoms of societal breakdown as communities feel neglected and oppressed by uncaring elites. Rather than “socialism or barbarism,” we are facing “social democracy or barbarism,” by which social democracy still wins in a landslide. Obviously, the best way to accomplish this is to opt for unity rather than division in face of needing to defeat not only Trump but centrist champion Biden.

At the same time, calls like that by the L.A. Times for Sanders to drop out (before a single Democratic primary vote has been cast) and endorse Warren are absurd. Sanders and Warren must both play to win. While close on policy, their approaches are indeed different, with Warren taking the path of the conventional bridge-builder and hand-shaker (this time it’s selfies) as Sanders maintains his firebrand bravura. Warren’s recent rise in Democratic polls likely draws from moderate voters preferring her to Sanders, especially as questions arise about Joe Biden’s health and his son, Hunter, unethically gaining status in foreign oil and gas companies based on his familial connections. Hunter Biden’s “qualification” was his connection to his father. This sort of “legal corruption” embodies what the aggrieved masses despise: the ruling class enriching itself at the trough of unashamed nepotism and blatant horse-trading.

Assuming Biden continues to struggle in the polls, the race will indeed become increasingly about what separates them. Warren will probably continue to be the more successful candidate, precisely because the Democratic nominee must navigate a process that is still dominated by special interest groups, policy institutes, and political action committees. While Bernie Sanders and his campaigns have been instrumental in mobilizing people on the left like no other political candidate in recent memory (especially working class people), that same grassroots movement has failed to penetrate the institutions who decide who the nominee will be. That nominee will have to work with those institutions if elected, along with a hostile Republican opposition in the Senate and Supreme Court, to pass social democratic reforms that will be dubbed “socialist.” There is already evidence that the Republican Party is liberally using the “socialist” label when attacking Democrats ahead of 2020, citing the policies of Warren and Sanders along with Reps. Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Sanders and Warren represent a real shot at progress in the U.S., at least on economic issues. On important social questions like racial justice, and especially on U.S. foreign policy, there is still a lot of work to be done to pressure them to expand the parameters of what is possible in U.S. politics. We should have no illusions about the need to maintain pressure not only on hostile groups but candidates themselves who claim to be representing the political left. Voters are important during elections, but once the election is over, voters must continue to organize and petition decision-makers to be instruments of popular will.  One of the classic criticisms of social democracy is the “iron law of bureaucracy,” which holds that bureaucratic organizations inevitably give rise to powerful but largely self-serving layers of officials. Electing a social democratic candidate will not be sufficient, even though that itself will be difficult; that will need to be followed by even more energy from the left to oppose right-wing reaction and pearl-clutching by the centrist chattering class. There is still a lot of time left in the primary, however, and not a single vote has been cast. May the best social democrat win.