Watching History Fade Away in 'Call of Duty: WWII'
The latest Call of Duty returns to its roots, casting a modern warfare gaze on a past that suddenly seems mythic.
All screenshots courtesy of Activision
Remember that we knew them. The people who survived the Second World War were grandparents or great-grandparents who we saw slip into old age, and whose occasional stories gave us very small, personal glimpses of one of the most important and terrible events in history. Many of them eventually heard themselves called heroes, but the term never sat easily on people like my grandparents. They were ordinary people caught up in a massive, global conflagration, and who very much wanted to come out the other side of it with their friends and family. Most of them did, many did not. And slowly, in ever greater numbers, they passed on.
Call of Duty: WW2 exists at the ragged end of a long chain of mediated history and fading memory. It is a pastiche of other games that, in turn, were more directly re-creating other movies and shows, which had themselves been informed by the gauzy Greatest Generation historiography of the 1990s. CoD:WW2 isn’t quite a World War 2 game about World War 2 games, but it reflects the obsessions and tics of its medium. In its telling, Europe was liberated by squads of melodramatic, heroic archetypes on a high-stakes achievement hunt.
You can listen to this article right here:
Here, you will find hardly a trace of the actual human beings whose experiences have been commodified over the last quarter century. Call of Duty: WW2’s vision is of an inescapable crucible, a Trojan War where heroes are endlessly tested and forged. They care about being the best at World War 2, expunging their past mistakes, and one day perhaps leading men like themselves into the same iconic scenes, again and again.
You already know those scenes, the exact images and what those moments feel like. The ramps going down into the surf at Omaha Beach. Dodging machine gun fire between hedgerows and old french farmhouses. Sniper scopes glinting impossibly in distant windows. Tiger tanks bursting from a treeline into a brilliant sheet of snow.
But even as it’s all delivered with the ritualistic pace of mythic litany, the presentation does not strive for a heightened tone. It’s too self-serious to rejoice in the spectacle it means to portray, but too perfunctory and formulaic in its execution to be affecting. Much of that is down to abysmal sound design and uneven character models and textures that make crystal clear that this is a Potemkin warzone where a few things are meant to be noticed, and most everything else is to be ignored. But the kiss of death is the story Call of Duty: WW2 chooses to tell.
You join a squad full of familiar cliches as part of the 1st Infantry Division (The Big Red One), a unit that fought in all the U.S. Army’s major campaigns in Europe. The only veterans in the unit are the kind-hearted Lieutenant Turner and the hard-bitten Sergeant Pierson, who is striving for redemption for something that happened at Kasserine Pass, a North African battle where the U.S. Army was soundly beaten in its first major engagement against the Germans.
Coincidentally, your character, Red Daniels, is also striving to prove himself because of a shameful childhood memory involving a wolf that mauled his older brother (let this detail prepare you for the caliber of storytelling to come). Can war offer redemption to both of these emotionally wounded heroes-in-waiting? When hasn’t war been morally uplifting?
The rest of the troopers are raw recruits, and keen to win the approval of their sergeant. Every familiar battle is framed in terms of their surrogate father’s nonchalance and contempt, and the young soldiers’ adolescent anger that he refuses to acknowledge their manhood as warriors. After storming a French village, he merely says he’s been coddling them, and now they have to really prove themselves… by going on a shopworn commando mission with British special forces that culminates in one of the game’s few genuinely impressive set-pieces: a preposterous but undeniably breathtaking night-time street battle in Paris.
There is a weary quality to all of this that feels like these soldiers have all been fighting in this war for ages. They are freshly-trained replacements, yet seem to have almost no memory of home (except for the wolf attack) and no frame of reference outside their combat experiences.
Perhaps that’s because their story is being told for an audience that has been liberating France since Medal of Honor: Allied Assault in 2002. There is scarcely a frame of Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers that has not been turned into a shooter level in its own right. The first waves on Omaha Beach spent at worst two to three hours working their way through the German defenses before the breaking out of their landing zones. How many hours have players spent doing the same thing over the years? How many more times can you watch soldiers wade into a charnel-house that has long-since ceased to be horrifying? These make-believe soldiers feel like they’ve done it all with us before, and expect to have to do it again in the future.
Call of Duty: WW2 is also telling its story in a different context than its predecessors. The early World War 2 shooters were explicitly copying Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, which were themselves rooted in the massively popular histories of Stephen Ambrose. A late-career plagiarism scandal seriously damaged Ambrose’s professional reputation, but prior to that his books—published around the 50th anniversaries of the U.S. war effort’s great events—helped ignite intense nostalgia around the war.
Ambrose was able to bring history to life with vividness and coherence. And because his stories seemed to be coming straight from the sources, the veterans themselves, they had an air of unfiltered authenticity. In the movies and shows he inspired, his perspective becomes an aesthetic: the combat is harrowing and shockingly violent, but the characters are simple, virtuous, and reassuring. They are the heralds of America’s arrival as the benevolent hegemon of the 1990s.
It was never that simple, of course. Ambrose approached his subjects more as a fan than as a historian, and he sought and interpreted the stories he heard through that filter. If you go back and read Studs Terkel’s “The Good War” (the quote marks are a pointed comment from Terkel), written a decade earlier and with a more documentary purpose, you’ll find a similar method yielding a very different impression.
Terkel interviewed his subjects when the war was both more recent and less popular. He talked to far more people than just American riflemen who served in the final, victorious year of the war, speaking with those whose service was often far less remarkable but far more representative of what that generation went through. Across Terkel’s pages, they disagree with each other and argue about what the war meant or accomplished, or about how America evolved in the wake of its victory. Like ordinary people everywhere, they are complicated, conflicted, diverse. All that individuality and contrasting personal experience was flattened and erased by the Greatest Generation panegyrics that Ambrose and his disciples composed.
The grim, driven men of this story have a coldly distant, heroic quality to them that belongs more to myth than history.
Now, with Call of Duty: WW2, even the humanity and the hope are draining out of the story. It is World War 2 as viewed from an era of endless war, compounding geopolitical crises, and a political system that cannot even articulate objections to much less act against fascism and racial supremacy. It’s only fitting that the all-American platoon of Call of Duty: World War II seems almost to be fighting a forever war, acting more like members of the modern professionalized military that replaced the citizen-soldier ideal with a warrior ethos.
“Someday, Daniels, when you have your own platoon,” Lieutenant Turner begins to say, before one mission, like a man discussing the family business with a precocious nephew. He doesn’t really have a point or an insight, just a bromide about the burdens of command and the pressures of war, in order to avoid revealing the terrible Mystery of Kasserine Pass. It’s all these men talk about: the war, and how to be better at it.
Men like Daniels didn’t generally get their own platoons, and didn’t generally want them. The dead airman for whom I am named didn’t write letters home dreaming of the day when he might be made flight leader or given command of his squadron of Liberators. He caught up on gossip from home, talked about movies he’d seen, and sometimes, just barely and mostly via vague allusion, the pressure and terror he was subjected to over there. My grandfather talked about being mightily bored and hot inside his tank during the Philippines campaign. The only things about his war that he claimed to enjoy were hours of meditative target practice with a carbine rifle, and a brief stint of occupation tourism in Japan before being sent home to resume the life he’d put on hold. How many of those citizen-soldiers really aspired to the kind of military achievements coveted by the soldiers that Call of Duty: World War 2 presents?
Article continues below
Outside of the elite volunteer units, probably not many. The exceptions, of course, were the types of soldiers that Call of Duty still exhibits little interest in: divisions of black soldiers, or the Japanese-American formations who were sent to Europe to prove their loyalty to a country that had herded their families into internment camps for the duration of the war. The curious drive and insecurity of the soldiers of the Big Red One might make more sense if the story being told were from the perspective of soldiers for whom front line combat duty offered a dignity frequently denied them on racial grounds.
But this isn’t a story that this game wants to tell. The one black character with a speaking part—Corporal Howard—encounters mild, implied racism… and then largely fades into the background until the finale, when a skeptical white character admits, “I guess I was wrong about you. I owe you one!” Howard’s entire experience, such as it is acknowledged in this game, is framed by the reaction of the white men around him, and their grudging approval at the end after he has “proven” himself. Howard makes clear he didn’t need that approval and didn’t ask for it… but still the game has made a point of showing it. By the end, the only thing we know about Howard is that he won the respect of the white soldiers around him, and then he is gone.
Call of Duty: WW2 isn’t interested in anyone’s experience beyond its slightly milquetoast collection of anachronisms, all of whom seem to have an odd passion for defending the honor of the German people. During one scene they even begin rattling off German achievements in science, literature, and music to a comrade who seems to have soured on Germany because of this whole Nazi thing.
And why would they hate or fear their enemy when danger is so nonexistent in this story? Nobody with a name you’re supposed to know dies abruptly or pointlessly in this game. Everyone can choose the method and moment of their passing. The only loss this squad suffers is a noble self-sacrifice, with a wounded comrade having a moment to bid farewell to his men before holding off the entire Wehrmacht single-handed to permit their escape. He dies beautifully, like a painting of a saint.
It’s an odd, ill-fitting note in a game that filled me with a strange sort of grief, because it is the moment I could feel a culture’s connection to the recent past growing weaker and fainter. The grim, driven men of this story have a coldly distant, heroic quality to them that belongs more to myth than history. It reminded me that my grandfathers with all their flaws and frailties are both gone, and so is my grandmother with her shoebox full of small, fading Victory Mail letters, a War Department telegram, and photos of her one trip outside the United States, to a military cemetery in France.
If you knew them, you wouldn’t think they were the sort of people to have survived and won a world war. They weren’t at all like what you’d imagine.