I have war memories.
Not real ones of course. Born generations after any “real wars” had been fought, I was never a candidate for military service. The last of great wars occurred almost seventy years ago, and many of the men who served in it are dead.
No, I have memories of another war. A faux war, a pathetic, sanitized simulacrum of conflict.
Call of Duty 2 was not the first WWII shooter I had played, that of course went to various incarnations of Medal of Honor, which I experienced in fragmented pieces of the campaign, in hour long stints over at Egyptian cybercafes at the age of twelve. I remember it more for the deathmatch than anything, the opposing sniper hills where I sent digital lead into the body of another person, likely sitting at a seat somewhere in that same cafe.
Call of Duty 2 was instead the first game that gave me an idea of war was like, despite how divorced from real combat the game is. In many ways it created the idea of what a “war game” should be like in my mind. That of course is story for another time.
I returned to it today in the hopes of remembering what exactly it was that affected me so. It didn’t take long. Even while I expected it, the integration of war photos and footage threw me off. Grainy black and white records of the frontlines, blurry photos of combat.
It took footage of him and his generals to make him real again. Decades after the war we find that Hitler has become not only a historical figure, but a pop culture figure as well. People are likened to Hitler in personal attacks, people and actions that are considered despicable are likened to Nazis, and he pervades media today as an almost comical figure, thrown around for laughs and irony in films such as Inglorious Basterds, mechanized versions of him are killed and in Wolfenstein and a very Hitler like dictator sees his head explode at the end of Bionic Commando.
That video, however, made him real again. This was a real person whose accomplishments where grand, vicious, and as depraved as they were successful. A man who lead a force so large and capable of such atrocities that they couldn’t be considered anything but evil.
These were people that existed, and though we would like to think that this could never happen again, it’s frightening to think that people can be lead in such mass into such a state of mind.
Here, they appear within the game’s Russian opening act, gas mask wearing, faceless and well equipped with superior machinery and numbers. My comrades and I, poorly equipped in comparison, head out against this elite force. We are unmasked, or voices tearing through the air with updates on the positions of the silent advancing enemy. These white ghosts dot the clean white landscape of the Russian snowfall, and as we advance the corpses of both them and my comrades will litter the crumbling landscape.
The now anachronistic modified Quake III engine that powers the series lends itself, along with the sweeping score, to a sense of heroism. I advance with my PPSh-41 in hand, ever moving, laying fire into my enemies, tossing grenades over upturned desks and clearing rooms with ease. I sweep the floor, firing a burst into those still alive. One of them pulls out a pistol and I crush his skull with the butt of my rifle. I do what has to be done.
I am not without guilt. Fresh out of training I fire off my weapon in a moment of twitch, crippling a comrade. Luckily, he is still alive and well. I am not however, as lucky the next few times. Fighting through the ruined complexes of Russian buildings, I see comrades fall from enemy fire as we advance, the superior mechanized force of the fascists cutting them down as a Nazi announcer tells us that we should surrender, and be spared. Another comrade takes a step through a broken doorway at the wrong moment, and is tossed through the air by an unseen grenade.
Still, my heroic endeavors are effective, and after taking down a Nazi installation, I proceed to my next mission to fix a cut communication line. The line extends through the front, with the ghost soldiers of the Nazi machine, and the steel giants of their tanks swarming the streets. I fire off all my bullets and pick of a foreign enemy weapon. In a moment of panic I fire off a single shot as I crest over a pile of rubble in an otherwise empty street. Only after my bullet has killed him do I realize it is a comrade of mine.
There is no one to witness this act but me. I head back and finally fix the line. My comrades on the other side alert me that there is another tank division incoming. I look around the room and find a locked door, then retreat to an alcove, doing a sweep as my singular comrade stacks up against the wall at the foot of the stairs. The Nazi ghost squad enters and I turn around just in time to see his skull bashed in by fascist rifles.
I am shook. I was supposed to be the great Russian hero, yet I could not save him. I charge them but they are overwhelming. I am struck with their rifles and as I stumble back, they become my personal firing squad.