Small Wars Journal

What Do Video Games Say About the American Experience with War?

In an essay at The Atlantic, Michael Vlahos, a Naval War College professor, argues that the state-waged long war has brought a hint of defeat and self-destruction to popular culture - particularly Modern Warfare 3.  Many may roll their eyes at the linkage, but the essay is smart, short, and if nothing else, brings some pretty unfamiliar references (Zouave regiments, Prussian pickelhaube, a late Roman adoption of Gothic trousers) to The Atlantic's entertainment page.  I highly recommend clicking through to his reference on "The Culture of Defeat."  An excerpt from Vlahos' essay follows.  Read it all here.


Like German Stoßtruppen remade in fire, our warrior-heroes find identity and realization in the firefight. Battle itself is meaning; battle is pure; battle becomes the only reality—and as it was for Junger, compared to the venality and corruption and aimlessness of modern life, its destruction is cleansing.

MW3 reveals how this long war reaches back to seize us in ways we can only sense. ...

[Young gamers] are connecting at the gut level. Yet it is there that allegiances are made. They do not want to be Muslim Ghazi, but they do want to be American Ghazi. They want to fight like Ghazi and if necessary, die like Ghazi. In their deepest dreams, think Beowulf. Think berserker.

These dreams mean something. Something the Washington political realm might yet wish to see before it is too late. This world might wish to reflect on how a war fought solely by and for government and its military has placed our larger national identity at risk. In the original Call of Duty, players relived an American way of war now forgotten: where people and their government fought as one for sacred goals like freedom and democracy. MW3 shows us what the U.S. government's long war has brought: instead of straight-up defeat, a more corrosive loss of self.

Categories: Iraq - defeat - culture - Afghanistan


Steve Blair

Mon, 07/02/2012 - 1:47pm

In reply to by Scott Kinner

I agree, but with the note that it's important to understand and acknowledge the forces within the industry that can drive content. Gaming of this sort is a culture all its own, with both creative and financial drives that need to be understood when writing about it. I didn't see that level of understanding in the article, honestly.

Scott Kinner

Mon, 07/02/2012 - 11:48am

Understand the concerns and issues with assigning too much importance to individual things in the realm of popular culture.

However - I would offer that truly, the stories and entertainments associated with a culture say a lot about that culture. There is a tendency, in the present, to "poo-poo" such concerns because, frankly, we in the present are far more interested in doing what we want to do, and living the lives we want to live, than with introspection.

But where would our understanding be of ancient cultures and societies without examining the stories they told and held dear, the entertainment they provided themselves...and yes, the games they played?


Steve Blair

Thu, 06/28/2012 - 4:50pm

You shouldn't write something like this without being aware of the development and culture of the gaming community as a whole. MW3 is designed to compete with CoD. They are NOT the same franchise. The last CoD game (Black Ops, which was very successful) took a Cold War setting and turned it into something like the X-Files (by having the main character a victim of Soviet mind control experiments and a counter-program overlaid by a fellow prisoner in his even fight Nazis and recover an "ultimate weapon" in the form of a quick-acting nerve agent supposedly developed by the SS near the end of Word War II). And all have been influenced to some degree by the Grand Theft Auto franchise and its portrait of America as it could be if we were really like our popular culture image. Halo got slagged for having stalwart space marines gunning down aliens (and was to a degree parodied in "Republican Space Rangers," a "TV" show created for GTA4...which created its own popular culture within the popular culture background of the game itself).

Interesting article, I suppose, but without the vital gaming community framework bits it turns into an unfocused socio-political rant piece.


Mon, 06/25/2012 - 10:35am

Agree with Ken completely. I half expected something about the dehumanizing effects of Ozzy Osborne lyrics.

Ken White

Mon, 06/25/2012 - 9:36am

Consider my eyes indeed rolled. Pessimists are amazing and armchair psychology is always rather droll...

FWIW, Phil Sheridan pointed out in the 1880s that we Americans tended to adopt the headgear of winners of European wars. I believe that and our current Beret say more about lack of original thought and the copycat effect then and now than does MW3 which is, after all a <i>game</i>...

Games have all sorts of attributes. Reality is not one of them.