Modern Warfare accused of ‘Russian-washing’ controversial Gulf War attack

Modern Warfare accused of ‘Russian-washing’ controversial Gulf War attack
Credit: Activision

The latest game in the Call of Duty series, the rather confusingly titled Modern Warfare, has dipped again into the well of controversy by naming a mission after a Gulf War attack. The problem? They may have accidentally named an attack by Russians after an attack made by Americans.

Be forewarned, I’m gonna be dropping a few minor *spoilers* for the Modern Warfare campaign.

During the mission “The Highway of Death,” major character Farah Karim describes a stretch of road in the fictional Urzikstan in which Russian soldiers bombed forces retreating from the capital city. The Russians, in case you couldn’t surmise, drew the short straw for “Call of Duty baddies” this time around, as did a fictional, Arabic-speaking terrorist group called Al-Qatala.

Highway of Death” is also the name of a road that leads from Kuwait City to Basra, Iraq. To perhaps oversimplify it, in 1991 American, Canadian, British, and French forces attacked Iraqi soldiers leaving the city — reportedly the latter were retreating. While there’s no definite number of casualties, estimates range between 200 and 600.

Personally, I’ve been enjoying Modern Warfare, but this is a bit of a sharp reminder that these war-based games are never without real-world context. I was hoping the game‘s writers just came up with a spooky-sounding name for the location and perhaps weren’t aware of the actual location and the things done there, but the similarities are there. Perhaps they thought that enough time had passed that we wouldn’t make the connection.

If that was the case, well…

As with the “White Phosphorus” thing that happened before the game‘s release, it’s questionable how many players of Call of Duty actually care. And at least with the White Phosphorus, one could make the argument that it’s no more or less heinous than anything else CoD has allowed players to do in the past.

But in this case co-opting actual military history, intentionally or not, is a little more (to use a loaded term) problematic. As you might expect, Russians aren’t exactly thrilled to be the villains again — Sony’s already refused to sell the game on the Russian PlayStation Store.

Given the game’s director told GameSpot (regarding the single-player campaign): “It’s about civilian collateral damage kind of being, unfortunately, part of the equation.” I can’t say much without spoiling, but the whole moral (if one can call it that) of the story is that no one’s on the side of the angels in war — I don’t see any reason, assuming the writers were aware of what they were referencing, for them to “Russian-wash” the Highway of Death, given it makes the exact same point very succinctly.

We’ve reached out to Activision for comment.

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