Partway through Michael Cimino’s 1978 film The Deer Hunter, Christopher Walken’s character Nikanor “Nick” Chevotarevich leaves the military hospital in which he’s been recuperating to wander the darkened streets of Saigon. He’s recently escaped from an infernally filthy and brutal Viet Cong prison camp where he was kept in a cage partially submerged in a river and made to play Russian roulette for the amusement of vicious, gloating captors before a desperate, near-death escape. After the movie establishes that the Vietnamese enemy is something akin to demons, we see Nick solicited by a sex worker who leads him into a messy, dirty, and dimly lit room where a toddler stands in a crib next to the bed, their tiny face crumpled in sadness.
The scene ends with Nick rejecting the woman as the child starts to wail. He pushes her back onto the bed, which knocks a ceiling light wobbling back and forth, rendering the miserable tableau in a disorienting strobe. “I can’t stay here in a room with a kid crying,” Nick says, leaving the woman yelling after him for her money and him back on the street, eventually finding an underground game of Russian roulette to continue playing in an echo of his torture at the Viet Cong camp.
The Deer Hunter was rightfully criticized for its portrayal of Vietnam as a sort of Dantean nightmare into which even a tough, blue collar American’s psyche would split apart like rotten fruit if he was forced to endure it. It’s humane in its depiction of the life-destroying torment of war, but the film’s sympathy is lopsided, not extended to an Other drawn from the bodies and minds of a real population. Defenders will point to the Russian roulette scenes as linchpins for the movie’s thesis: war renders all touched by it into victims and survivors of chance, subjects of chaos and invisible change, senseless destruction.
The sex worker and her child are more striking, though, in their specificity. War is horrific, it suggests, but some of the people affected by it are already damned to an inferno that outside forces, like the fully human Americans, are soiled by merely witnessing. The Deer Hunter’s Vietnamese, in other words, are so deep in a moral hell intrinsic to even the liberated south of their nation that only the foreign invader’s torment truly matters.
In Spec Ops: The Line, a 2012 game fashioned after a different famous ‘70s Vietnam movie, itself based on a different famous 1899 novella, the leader of an elite American reconnaissance unit finds himself descending into a nightmare. Its protagonist, Captain Martin Walker, comes to an apocalyptic Dubai devastated by sandstorms in pursuit of another character named in gauzy homage to Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness: Lieutenant Colonel John Konrad. Players learn that Konrad, who served in Afghanistan with Walker, followed an attempt to evacuate the city by propping himself up as a warlord amidst the violent chaos caused by the sandstorm. With Dubai cut off from the outside world and its citizens trapped under Konrad’s rule, Walker and his team arrive to assess the situation and learn what’s become of Konrad.
By the time the game has ended, Walker has been consumed by the war being fought inside the city, physically scarred from severe burns and psychologically damaged by what he’s seen and done in pursuit of Konrad. He kills many people, soldiers and civilians alike. He makes dangerous plans driven by the hallucinations that lead the game to a concluding, Fight Club-esque twist. He is meant, as has been discussed thoroughly over the last 11 years, to stand in as an avatar of the players and player characters of modern military shooters like Call of Duty.
He is, like the Americans from The Deer Hunter, one of the only characters whose torment matters to The Line.
Heart of Darkness, published in 1899, looked to author Joseph Conrad’s experience working on a steamship on the Congo River during the horrific era of Belgium’s colonization of the Congolese state. His fictionalized description of the European ivory trade and one continent’s ruthless “civilizing” of another remains a haunting artistic outcry over colonial brutality readily accepted by Conrad’s Western contemporaries. It is also, ultimately, a book that uses African suffering as a means to reflect on the horrors that participating in systems of brutality inflicts on outsiders, and not a nuanced depiction of those who actually suffered their cruelty.
Nigerian novelist and critic Chinua Achebe famously lambasted Heart of Darkness in a 1975 lecture (printed as essay in 1988) about just this failing. “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization,” Achebe writes. “[A] place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.” He calls Conrad’s depiction of Africa “a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril.”
“Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the breakup of one petty European mind?”
Achebe’s criticism has inspired decades of debate, still argued in postcolonial literature classes the world over. Its central point, though, is one that too often goes unaddressed in even the most thoughtful of Western war media.
Walker’s mental break occurs when he orders a white phosphorous barrage on what he assumes is just another enemy position, horrendously burning alive a group of terrified civilians. The image of a fatally burned mother cradling her fatally burned child amidst piles of smouldering corpses is the turning point in his ability to justify the violence that’s animated his journey so far. From then on, he’s a modern-day berserker, indiscriminately laying waste in single-minded pursuit of his goals.
Unfortunately, we know very little about who these civilians are that have spurred his fury other than that they once lived and are now dead because of his actions.
Dubai and the United Arab Emirates are, in The Line, basically voided cultural and historical spaces in their own right. The city has the shimmering high rises and expanses of surrounding desert that belongs to it aesthetically, but no specific political make-up or other than the foundational aspects of identity. The presence of the American military on a mission to reassert order and the presence within the city of angry, AK-toting insurgents, makes it a stand in for any country in the region.
The Line takes place during a fictional natural disaster and subsequent war, but in choosing the UAE as its setting, it subsumes the entire Middle East into an indistinguishable whole—a mass of faceless people who could hardly better suit the description of a foreign Other. Collectable radio tapes explain that the local government is cartoonishly corrupt, evacuating the rich and influential before ordinary citizens when the sandstorms come to swallow the city. We learn that Dubai’s insurgents are driven to fight for their survival. Nothing else matters.
The Line’s UAE is the same moral theatre set dressing as seen in films about Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s a venom-dripping jungle, free of defined human influence, where a group of Western outsiders are given space and danger enough to have their character tested and trauma birthed. It’s a forge free of context, a nearly antediluvian space of floating battles between the cosmic protagonist and their shapeless devils.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the contrast between the game’s enemies. The first time Walker and his squad begin gunning down rival American soldiers functions as a sign that extends beyond plot details and is there to show just how deranged the situation has become. The Americans stand in for enemies of substance—of discernability and heroism—and the characters remark upon it. They express dismay and shock at having fired at their countrymen and defend their first violent encounter with the defectors by reassuring themselves that they didn’t initiate the attack. The initial battle with local insurgents is not given anything like this kind of weight.
As The Line continues, this focus is emphasized further. The main characters are rival groups of American forces, military and CIA, with differing opinions on how to handle Dubai’s descent into total devastation. We see the actual population not as decision makers or named figures struggling against the whims of internecine foreign squabbling, but as blindly aggressive gunmen, hapless victims, and furious mobs.
In theory, the game’s drama depends on the fate of ordinary people from a city in desperate need of outside help. In actuality, it’s about Americans debating the shape their paternalism should take.
Viet Thanh Nguyen 2015 novel The Sympathizer includes a subplot parodying the making of a film all but named Apocalypse Now. A year after its publication, in 2016, Nguyen spoke explicitly about his relationship to the movie as a Vietnamese-American who came to the United States as a refugee after the Fall of Saigon, in a New York Times interview.
He recalled the experience of watching scenes of cinematic horror inflicted on “people just like me” and a discussion in a film class, years later, in which he thought: “It was an antiwar movie about the war in Vietnam, but the movie was about Americans … The Vietnamese were silent and erased.”
Like Achebe, Nguyen is a writer who’s grappled with questions neglected in foreign discussions of the evils visited upon a continent like Africa or a nation like Vietnam. In The Sympathizer and its sequel, The Committed, the war leaves marks on his characters that inform their entire lives, forming personalities and destinies no matter where in the world they go and the distance they try to put between themselves and their past. His books, to put it simply, give Vietnamese characters as much psychological dimension as what’s usually afforded only to American soldiers in English language media.
Spec Ops: The Line didn’t emerge from a vacuum. It’s a product of the late ‘2000s/early ‘10s pop culture reckoning with the disastrous Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. Because of this, it’s tempting to compare it with similarly blinkered but valuable work of the time, like The Hurt Locker or Generation Kill, and forgive its issues by virtue of just how common they are. Doing so not only accepts that games are “good enough” when they replicate more established media’s faults but ignores that decades upon decades of precedent and keen critique should help avoid making the same, solipsistic work over and over again.
There can still be a valuable, kneecapped truth to depictions of war’s brutality centred on the experience of foreign combatants or witnesses to atrocity, but it must be balanced with the perspective of those who call these killing fields home. Otherwise, it’s harder than it should be to feel real pain for the burned corpse of a mother and child whose faces we’ve never seen in life, or to imagine the humanity of the child consigned by history to cry in the corner of a dirty apartment.
Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.