header is screenshot from Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
Vietnam Syndrome
Yussef Cole

This article discusses plot points from the entirety of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War.

The penultimate mission of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War takes place entirely inside the head of the game’s main character, Bell. Turns out Bell’s been under mind control the whole game, and now the player must traverse an imagined world within the twisted corridors of their subconscious in order to reverse the programming and uncover a deeply buried secret so that the good guys can save the world.

Despite its science fiction premise, the mission isn’t set in some abstract null-space but in the painstakingly recreated jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam at the height of America’s bloody involvement there. Bell’s struggle to reconnect with their own identity, their fight to take down the mental barricades in the way of that self-discovery, amounts to mowing down waves of North Vietnamese soldiers, wildly waving AK-47s in their recognizable conical hats. As Bell nears the end of the ordeal, and the layers of brainwashing finally melt away, they call in a napalm strike on a village, annihilating every last soul remaining in the way.

Bell may be undergoing a deeply personal journey, enacted solely within their own mind, but it’s quite telling that the fodder required for this journey is a sea of nameless, mostly faceless, Southeast Asian people, citizens of a country which has suffered under the western boot heel for generations. In Cold War, it seems, they must also suffer under the western imagination.

Cold War’s narrative explanation for using Vietnam as a literal battleground for Bell’s more figurative conflict comes from the character of Russel Adler, the head of Bell’s CIA team and the original owner of all this imagery. Adler fought in Vietnam and is able to use his own recollections as a structure with which to manipulate and control Bell. The Vietnam Bell finds themselves fighting in, then, is a place which only exists in another war vet’s memory. In choosing it; in constructing a narrative reason for it to be there, an explicit impetus to return once again to the muddy camps stuffed with grunts chewing on cigars and reading porno mags, Creedence Clearwater Revival tinnily blaring from the radio, droned out by the stutter of chopper blades, the game seems to hint at a larger reason, an obsession with Vietnam, not necessarily as a country, occupied by a people but as a site of shortsighted and misguided national trauma, an albatross around the neck of the American empire, a battle which must be re-litigated and re-fought over and over again.

Vietnam presents a profound dilemma for America’s noble self-image, after all. Americans had been long raised on a steady diet of exceptionalism and moral righteousness. We were the city on a hill, a shining beacon (as long as you ignored all those we had to trample on to get there). The USSR and communism, meanwhile, was declared so noxiously evil that it was a self-evident necessity to involve ourselves in dozens of conflicts around the world for decades to make sure the morally correct ideology survived in the face of the immoral and illegitimate one. But after so many years in Vietnam, carpet bombing desperately poor farmers and villagers, after so much photographic evidence of our own soldiers acting inhumanely out of rage and desperation, it became impossible to maintain the illusion of the US as a force of unalloyed good in the world. 

When American pilots returning from the Korean war claimed that they’d been ordered to drop experimental chemical weapons on North Korea, Americans found it so hard to swallow that they decided instead to believe that the pilots had been brainwashed (The Manchurian Candidate was inspired by this popular conspiracy). With Vietnam, however, the explosion in media coverage meant we could no longer as easily turn away from the horror of our country’s actions, and so a national identity crisis inevitably followed suit. The draft, which had been a cornerstone of the armed forces since the second World War was retired and the military became a voluntary force. Large ground invasions became unpopular, a phenomenon described as “Vietnam Syndrome.” As a result, wars shifted away from troop deployments to aerial bombardments, and governments we wanted replaced had to be toppled through clandestine operations, poisonings, backhanded dealings, killings in the night.

It’s the kind of stuff Cold War seems most interested in embracing, the polished world of stealthy spycraft instead of the nasty boots on the ground warfighting business that the earlier Black Ops games largely traded in. And yet, even at this modern juncture, launching a brand new generation of consoles, supposedly looking forward into its bright digital future, the series still can’t seem to let go of Vietnam. Your time there may be from the perspective of a CIA operative, part of its infamous “Studies and Operations Group,” but you still spend most of the Vietnam-set missions fighting shoulder to shoulder with Army grunts, hopping in their patched-over Hueys and raining hellfire down on straw roofed hamlets from above. The goals and priorities may be different, but the effective reality requires performing all the same roles, reliving that shared collective memory, its component pieces so familiar as to feel drearily rote.

Similar to how it treats the other places you visit, Cold War’s interest in Vietnam is mostly at the level of aesthetic, and otherwise devoid of meaning or interrogation. The Vietnam War was traumatic, the game hammers home, again and again—for Americans. Before reliving Adler's memories, Sims, one of the members of your CIA team and another Vietnam veteran, mutters, “Some part of me always knew that place wasn’t done with us.” His character, and Adler’s, to a lesser extent, is shaped by the implied trauma and PTSD of having participated in the conflict. Not for one single moment does guilt or responsibility enter the conversation. Vietnam was something that happened to them, to us, not something we did to someone else.

It’s in this same spirit that the national conversation, the historical remembrance of Vietnam is as a mistake, a blunder, a tactical error. If only we had done x, y, or z, it’d have been a clean war. We’d still have killed hundreds of thousands but maybe with fewer visible American deaths. Our intentions were good, we remember, they simply produced poor results. And so we continue in that ignorant vein, a blundering force for good, trying our best to make the rest of the world free, like us, with force if necessary.

In Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, a series of science-fiction books about a future space empire and its discontents, the story’s main imperial force, the Radch, commit a genocide to quel the rebellion of a resistant planet. As a result, the Rach’s emperor, Anaander Mianaai, an immortal consciousness shared between countless cloned physical bodies, has an identity crisis. One part of her reacts with a sense of guilt and a determination to address the systems which allowed the inciting decision to be made. The other part wishes to ignore and justify her behavior, to proceed brashly on, having learned nothing. Her inner turmoil eventually manifests into outright civil war as her identity splits and creates factions within the widely spread empire.

America’s political landscape is rarely forced to be as honest. In reckoning with Vietnam, America took the position of the latter Mianaai: we chose to ignore reality and make up a story that allowed us to continue growing our empire, unchanged. Cold War lives within this uneasy blind spot. It recognizes, as liberal history does, that Vietnam was bad. But it also refuses to learn any moral or foundational lessons from the experience. It refuses to recognize the humanity of the men and women who fought us, who challenged our assumed superiority, who brought us to our knees.

Within this blind spot we seemingly must continue doing the same thing over and over, murdering and shooting the same people ad nauseum. In Cold War’s mind-control mission, this manifests literally, with the player’s character stuck running through the same recursive loop of memory, the same rice paddies and hamlets, the same firefights, the same bodies. We’re forced to circle this visual drain until we finally find the unrelated intel, and Vietnam is washed cleanly away, slotted back into history until it becomes needed once again.

Like the Hollywood industry it leans heavily on, American videogames, particularly ones like Call of Duty are inextricably tied up in the baggage of empire. Iran-Contra mastermind, Oliver North, consulted on Black Ops II. Its lead writer, Dave Anthony, went on to work for the Department of Defense. Many of the guns used in these games are based on real models and uncounted sums are paid into the weapons industry as licensing fees. In this irredeemably compromised model, it is vital to pay attention to how the victims of America’s imperial ambitions are portrayed, how little care is afforded to the people of these countries, and how that reflects the mainstream understanding of the conflicts that rage today. As long as we continue to misunderstand and ignore the implications of these wars in our art we will continue to do so in our politics, pushing mournfully, and blindly, into the future.


Yussef Cole, one of Bullet Points’ editors, is a writer and motion graphic designer living in the Bronx, New York. He writes primarily about how video games intersect with broader cultural contexts such as class and race. His writing stems from an appreciation of the medium tied with a desire to tear it all down so that something better might be built. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.