I haven’t played the new Call of Duty game, Black Ops, but I think I get the gist: the preview trailer features not one, but two instances of soldiers crashing through windows on rappelling lines. An unshaven man wearing a red bandana draws his finger across his throat. Bullets are pumped into ski-masked soldiers, who then topple backwards in glorious slow-motion.
Black Ops is the first game in ages to plant its boots in Vietnam. But the war-torn city of Hue, rendered in such spectacularly hellish detail, seems to be little more than a tableau for a by-the-numbers shooter. Perhaps I’m passing judgment prematurely, but how many windows must a commando crash through before I’m allowed to roll my eyes?
Maybe Black Ops will shove my foot so far down my throat I’ll only be able to gurgle “hallelujah.” Until then, I have a modest nomination for someone who can make Call of Duty relevant again: Graham Greene. The man who wrote The Quiet American, one of the smartest novels ever written about modern warfare.
I should probably get this out here: Graham Greene is dead. Still with me? Onward.
Greene, a man who constantly grappled with God, was preoccupied with sin – especially sin founded in good intentions. Sin so simple as two American loafers standing in a pool of Vietnamese blood.
The Quiet American was published in England in 1954 – that’s pre-Tet, pre-Tonkin, pre-U.S.A, when the French still fought Ho Chi Minh’s communist guerillas in Vietnam. The eponymous American, Alden Pyle, breezes into Saigon and catches the attention of Thomas Fowler, a jaded English correspondent whose happiest moments come when his Vietnamese lover, Phuong, is packing him a bowl of opium. Pyle is in Vietnam with an economic aid mission (Central Intelligence Agency), importing plastic for the manufacture of toys (bombs).
Like many Americans in Saigon with vague job descriptions, Pyle is working for American intelligence, presumably the Central Intelligence Agency (like many CIA men at the time, he’s Ivy League-indoctrinated and drunk on the kool-aid of interventionalism). The novel opens with his body being dragged from a river, his lungs full of silt. One French inspector remembers him as a “quiet” American; not brash, loud or drunk like the others. But discretion didn’t save Pyle. He meddled. He got involved. His sin was earnestly. Caring, however misguidedly.
Pyle’s fate is sealed by a numbed, offhand observation: While standing at the scene of a bombing he orchestrated, he notices aloud that he has blood on his loafers.
“I must get them cleaned before I see the minister,” he says. Fowler is so horrified he sets Pyle up to “talk undisturbed” with his contacts in the communist insurgency.
It’s rare that such small, deft strokes pop up in war shooters. Oddly enough, the most compelling example that springs to mind is an interlude from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. After getting caught in the shockwave of a nuclear explosion, you get to crawl out of their downed chopper and stagger around in a radioactive wasteland before dying. You can feel your heartbeat fade through the controller, the vibrations growing softer and softer.
Granted, it’s like a haiku in the middle of a Transformers 2, but it was the first time I really gave the series any credit. Instead of spooning out thrills, Call of Duty managed to horrify me.
The game later tasked me with shelling squads of bad guys from an orbiting AC-130 gunship. Invulnerable inside my flying death machine, I lobbed artillery rounds into the night-visioned world without the threat of retaliation. Shells burst, the night vision flared white, and my pilot laughed. “See lots of little pieces down there,” he said.
Greene thrived on this kind of moral ambiguity. Call of Duty gave me a literally black-and-white view on a killing ground, let me play around like a vengeful god, and asked: is this how it feels to fight the good fight?
The vast majority of Call of Duty games are simple, braindead fun, a fiesta of bullets and rocket-propelled grenades. Alden Pyle is nowhere to be found, or is any whiff of introspection. So far as moral heft is concern, the games are pure fluff.
Greene himself grappled with the notion of entertainment. Books like The Comedians or The Quiet American read like thrillers but have something more sophisticated at their cores. Maybe Black Ops will surprise me; a Russian roulette scene straight out of The Deer Hunter seems promising, if not plagiarized. Making a game about war shouldn’t be an invitation to phone in six hours of gunplay. In fact, it should be a mandate to dig deeper. They might as well start with Greene.