When you face low expectations, falling short of them doesn't count for much either. And that's the dirty secret of Call of Duty , which has spent four years solidifying its image as a crass chickenhawk brand thanks to some particularly dumb marketing initiatives. But hiring Lt. Col. Oliver North as a spokesman for Black Ops II , due for release in November, represents a new low.
North is a relic of the decade in which Call of Duty really should have been released: the Rambo 1980s, in which proxy wars were fought with perfect moral clarity by people who funded them but didn't pick up a gun. Call of Duty embodies that repulsive vicariousness; its multiplayer-intensive focus, the kill-die-respawn-kill-die liturgy of the game's main selling point, has led some to argue that it's actually a casual title, considering that there isn't even a metaphorical consequence for death in the game's principal mode of play.
Perhaps they found their perfect spokesman then. North broke the laws of a nation that he, as a United States Marine officer, swore to uphold. We're continually reminded that servicemembers are foremost loyal to the Constitution, not necessarily their commanding officers, particularly commanders-in-chief of a different political party. Though North claimed his actions in selling arms through an intermediary to an enemy of the nation—Iran, mind you—were known and authorized by his superiors, he lacked the moral code to refuse to carry out actions that benefitted a hostile nation and specifically broke a law passed by our Congress. He is a disgrace as both an officer and a public servant and anyone who looks up to him is a fool who believes liars.
Black Ops II may wish to flatter itself by aspiring to a realpolitik story in which you must make decisions that are right but not necessarily legal. After seeing how the original Black Ops handled its singleplayer campaign story, I have little confidence it can deliver anything that sophisticated. The first Black Ops was a noisy, facile, confusing stroll through a series of set pieces and quicktime events that reduced the intrigue of the Cold War's pivotal events to a couple of panels in a G.I. Joe comic book. If we're going to be peering into the future—into any future influenced by consultation with Oliver North, we'll likely get a self-serving acquittal of his conduct that sings directly from the GOP hymnal.
He is a celebrity. And his presence creates what every marketer wants. A "conversation." Or "buzz" in more mercenary terms. Obviously, I'm writing about North and Call of Duty and a controversy that has two sides, and the net effect may be to recruit partisans to the cause, or even opponents out of curiosity. Robert McNamara, the defense secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, cameoed in the first Black Ops. I'll confess to a morbid interest in seeing him on the screen. When I phoned Dad about it, his response was not so much disgust as it was fascination that this man, who sent the best and the brightest of his generation to die in a war known by its planners to be pointless and unwinnable, would ever be in a video game.
We got here by expecting nothing of Call of Duty, by giving it a pass on offensive hype trailers like this, for World at War, and for the unbelievably stupid "F.A.G.S." Internet promotion for Modern Warfare 2. LOL so what, everyone said. Just a video game. Stop being so offended. And I bought into it a little, knowing that there are, basically, professional victims out there in a culture that is constantly seeking to be offended.
Still, in 2009 I lived with my grandfather—like North, a Marine colonel—helping him recover from a head injury and stroke. Before I moved in, I sold off my copy of Call of Duty: World at War. There was no way in hell he would ever see me playing that in his home. My grandfather was, literally, in a World War II first-person shooter in his youth—in one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific campaign. And it wasn't entertainment. And he was also in Korea, where he damn near died. If Activision really wants to impress me with its steely-eyed understanding of the lawless reality of war, it can try to interpret that in a video game.