There’s a brief aside in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s campaign that paints the Russian antagonists as cruel—and it does so by referencing a real attack the U.S. took part in during the Gulf War.
Modern Warfare draws on various real-world conflicts in telling its story, but a pointed reference to the Gulf War “Highway of Death” bombing is drawing particular scrutiny. In Modern Warfare’s fiction, the name and controversial nature of the attack are the same, but it was carried out by the story’s Russian antagonists instead of U.S. and coalition forces.
The real Highway of Death attack was carried out in February 1991. As a retreating Iraqi convoy moved along Highway 80 between Iraq and Kuwait, U.S. bombers attacked vehicles at the front and back of the convoy. Then, with over one thousand vehicles trapped on the stretch of road, waves of U.S. and coalition bombers continued to assault the highway for hours on end. Low-end estimates attribute hundreds of casualties to the attack.
On Twitter, user @TheChowderhead points out that Modern Warfare frames its version of the Highway of Death as an attack in Urzikstan, the fictional country occupied by the story’s Russian antagonists.
So, uh, it turns out that the new Modern Warfare game just sorta lies about a US war crime and makes it a Russian one because it needs the US forces to be seen as the good guys.
So that’s… I don’t really have words for how to feel right now. Disgusted, probably. pic.twitter.com/8wGRIuYkKk
— Chowderhead (@TheChowderhead) October 27, 2019
Farah, one of the stars of Modern Warfare and leader of the Urzikstan Liberation Force, describes the incident as an attack on “people trying to escape” the Russian invasion.
In the case of the real Highway of Death attack, many journalists and observers disputed the United States’ characterization of the bombing, calling into question how many managed to escape the highway on foot and whether civilians and refugees also perished.
Whether referencing a real attack and changing the aggressor to suit Modern Warfare’s narrative crosses a line depends on your perspective. The nature of the Highway of Death assault certainly fits with the realities of war Infinity Ward grapples with in the reboot, but—like the controversial white phosphorus killstreak—referencing a real-world bombing while also obscuring the actual events is certainly questionable on its face.
In Russia, Sony Interactive Entertainment is declining to sell Modern Warfare digitally for PS4. Sony declined to comment as to why, but given Modern Warfare’s provocative themes and its framing of Russian forces as brutal occupiers, it’s possible that those creative choices have something to do with the reluctance.