Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 touches upon themes of America's economic decline, technological dependencies, and the loss of international political capital in the face of a costly empire.
The modern iterations of the Call of Duty franchise have consistently incorporated real world political facts and themes, albeit not always tactfully. More than mindless military shooters set to a simulacrum of modern politics, each Call of Duty reveals interesting aspects of American social and political fears and psychoses. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 continues this trend, touching upon themes of America's economic decline, technological dependencies, and the loss of international political capital in the face of a costly empire.
It is fitting that Manuel Noriega plays a very large role in the early missions of Black Ops 2. Yes, as Scott mentioned in his recent article, "Noriega is a sleazy character, but the ways in which his sleaziness was enabled by the U.S.government are shoved off to the side" ("The Real World in Call of Duty: Black Ops II", PopMatters, 29 November 2012), nevertheless, his initial involvement and cooperation with American officers and his subsequent betrayal of American interests in the game does mirror an actual historical arc.
Noriega learned many of his military and political tactics in the School of the Americas, tactics he would later use to commit atrocities during his rule of Panama. Indeed, Noriega was not the only war criminal to receive American tutelage at the school. The troublesome saga of American cooperation with Noriega represents one of the worst blunders of American international relations (yes, one of many).
We have since distanced ourselves from this history. Even the School of the Americas received a branding makeover in 2000 when it was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Yet the lesson remains and resonates within Black Ops 2 throughout its campaign: America has turned allies into enemies before, and it may happen again.
This fear of treachery, of having our own products turned against us, runs through the heart of Black Ops 2. The core story of the game is perhaps the most personally motivated in the series. Raul Menendez, while not an explicit byproduct of American manipulation, is a person driven by American mistakes. Her death at the hands of Woods, and in a roundabout way the relationship between Noriega and the US, fuels his schemes of revenge. Yes, Menendez is a madman, but he is a madman created by the sins of American international relations.
Again, this fear is manifested in the way Menedez threatens the US in the first place: military drones that betray their creators. It is no coincidence that America’s drone air fleet becomes a major threat in Black Ops 2 during larger discussions and fears about real world drone warfare. Drones have skyrocketed into public consciousness over the past couple years. While the US has employed drones for both information gathering and offensive strikes since as early as 2001, the fleet saw heightened use since 2009. Even today, with over 7,000 U.A.V.s in operation, drone warfare composes a major arm of President Obama’s foreign military strategy.
There are two major concerns regarding drone warfare at the heart of both Black Ops 2 and America’s growing trepidation at the idea of unmanned combat. First, we have always been paranoid of technological dependency and perhaps rightly so. Black Ops 2 does briefly mention China’s overwhelming ownership of rare earth mineral mining operations. From oil to the expanding ubiquity of smart phones and tablets, there has been a consistent concern that the US depends too heavily on foreign goods.
Second, drone warfare represents the increasing disconnect between personal accountability and military action. When a drone kills civilians in a distant country, who are the victims to blame? The faceless drone operator or the political system that allows such atrocities to happen? Drone combat does nothing to assuage a lingering fear of blowback from the international community and ongoing political fallout. This is, of course, to say nothing of the very real susceptibility of such technology to viruses.
In the final moments of Black Ops 2, US drones are shown heading to major cities around the globe. On the phone, the president seems desperate to convince foreign leaders that the attacks are not directed by the US. Finally, as they are about to strike, Menendez detonates all the drones in the air. On a live podcast, he announces to the world that the US is vulnerable -- that a time for action is now. The event is supposed to trigger “Cordis Die” operations, a movement more social network than terrorist cell.
Black Ops 2 ends by tapping into real American fears of international backlash, political and social, during a time of vulnerability. It portrays a country that has burned its bridges and has more temporary friends than life-long allies. The enemy is more diffuse than ever and draws more similarities to the Occupy movement than to Al Qaeda. Empire, in both fact and fiction, comes at great cost. Coming off one of the worst recessions in American history and coupled with a disillusionment in the US military involvement around the world, Black Ops 2 seems perfectly timed to evoke the same sensations of fear and vulnerability.