Glen Newey · Modern Warfare 3
Eleven-eleven-eleven is upon us, and the 93rd anniversary of the Armistice. Politicos and telly folk have long vied to out-poppy each other by getting on their red blooms ever earlier in October, and this week the poppy piety has merged with its near-ringer, the death-piety of the Premiership, where it only takes the groundsman’s cat to croak for a minute’s silence and black armbands all round. The entirely proper matter of honouring war dead has been 'overshadowed' by teacup squalls over the England football team’s royal-enforced right to wear poppies and Muslims’ lack of a right to burn them – with, as usual, the red-tops riding shotgun on the catafalque. Thursday’s Question Time panel, sanctimonious even by QT standards, unanimously agreed with the home secretary’s decision to ban poppy-burning, on the strange ground that this 'glorifies' terrorism.
There’s no obvious reason why footballers’ jerseys shouldn’t have a poppy stitched on them, given that they are usually plastered with plugs for Carlsberg or Northern Rock. Nor is there much in the charge that acts of remembrance necessarily ‘glorify’ war. But somewhere a glorification awaits unseen. This Remembrance Sunday, the 11 a.m. silence at the Cenotaph will be dinned out on many of the nation’s screens by the crackle and snarl of virtual death. The new Activision blockbuster Modern Warfare 3, launched this week with a tsunami-sized splash, is the ideal Christmas gift for the bedroom psycho. The franchise umbrella monicker, Call of Duty, sounds like the call of nature re-envisioned by Kant, and that’s about right, as adrenaline surges in the service of a pitiless sanctity. Its threadbare set-up pairs ‘Vet’ John ‘Soap’ MacTavish (Avatar’s Sam Worthington) with ‘Noob’ sidekick (Jonah Hill) in an unending shoot-out against eastern hordes covetously eyeing our Lebensraum, outriders of an ideologically null expansionism.
The game, we’re assured, is both amazingly realistic, because of near ‘movie-quality’ visuals; but also, reassuringly, nothing like reality, because though the heroes sport star-spangled arm-flashes, the badhats are Commie-Lite Russky nats, rather than the ragheads we’re really fighting right now. Collateral damage and friendly fire bungles by the good guys are also in short supply. Gamers get to kill an awful lot of people, and earn points for it. You can pilot Predator-style drones from your cell in Nevada to take out far-away terrorists, just like we do in Af-Pak – though the MW3 version doesn’t seem to echo what, on Brookings Institution reckoning, is the 1:10 jihadi-to-civilian kill ratio of the real-life drones. In defending civilisation against barbarism what matters is splatter, with right a given, and no prisoners taken.
Apparently MW3 is on course to gross £1 billion by Christmas. It’s been lauded as the CGI apotheosis of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. Gaming hacks have unsurprisingly gone ape over the let’s-pretend killing spree, which hops from NY to Paris, London, Berlin, and all points east where Activision has big markets among boy consumers. But not all the plaudits have come from those in secure units, their moist fists coiled about their joysticks. Keith Stuart, the Grauniad’s tech-floss pundit, hailed MW3 as ‘peerlessly slick’, ‘an engrossing study of cause and effect, of input and immediate, explosive consequence’. And don’t try and pull that pinko egghead crap about the moral high ground. ‘If you want to ask questions about the morality of war as entertainment, you should perhaps begin your quest with Homer or even chess’. One way or another we’re all bashing the bishop. There must surely be a reason why all this is less distasteful and emotionally stunted than a video game called, say, Kiddie Fiddler: The Call of Lust, but it’s quite hard to think what it is.