What Black Ops 2 Gets Right About America’s Dirty Little Wars


In a series of articles at War on the Rocks and Slate, I heavily criticized Black Ops 2’s vision of future warfare for – among other things – a stale consensus vision of future conflict that prizes fluff and fear-mongering over realistic threat scenarios. This vision alone, I argued, would constitute a poor contribution to defense policy. However, a recent lawsuit by former dictator Manuel Noriega against the use of his image and likeness in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 puts into focus one area where Activision and Dave Anthony are arguably ahead of the policy community – the messiness of black ops and proxy wars.

In July, Noriega sought compensation for Black Ops 2’s depiction of the former dictator as a corrupt, double-dealing murderer. The case was just dismissed, and rightfully so given the precedent it might create for depiction of historical figures in entertainment media. In Black Ops 2, Noriega is [SPOILER WARNING] portrayed as a faithless despot who double crosses the player and commands a brutal security force whose lives he is willing to throw away at a moment’s notice for his own convenience. In other words, Noriega is a figure familiar to any reader of international news since, say, the late 1950s.

A pivotal and emotionally compelling moment in Black Ops 2’s plot hinges on the consequences of Noriega’s betrayal for characters we come to care about.  Over two Black Ops games, we come to know the game’s Cold War covert trio – the audience stand-in David Mason, the cool professional Jason Hudson, and the survivor Frank Woods. While these characters sound one-dimensional in brief, they reveal remarkable emotional range during the Black Ops games. We see Hudson break his cool in the first game as he struggles to save a brainwashed Mason. Woods is alternatively the wily survivor, the cranky and impatient covert veteran, and rage-fueled fighter. Sometimes he’s all at once.

The emotional depth of Black Ops 2’s main characters is enhanced by a realistic depiction of the ad hoc, hazardous, and often purely improvisational character of Cold War covert missions. The paranoia and ambiguity of the time are reflected in Mason’s obsessive pursuit of Russian operatives who may or may not be operating in Vietnam, engrossing the player in the sensitive, dangerous, and often futile hunt for shadows implicit in proxy war. Almost everything that can go wrong does, forcing players to fight desperately in bloody battles like Vietnam’s Tet-vintage struggle for Khe Sanh. But the biggest true-to-life problem inevitably boils down to problems with proxies. Black Ops’s Cold War portrayal of covert operations is not glamorous. It is ambivalent in ways gamers and critics do not perceive.

In the first game, David Mason is driven by an all-consuming drive to kill a group of Soviet and ex-Nazi conspirators, repeating the phrase “Dragovich, Kravchenko, Steiner. ….all must die” over and over again. Mason, however, has unknowingly internalized the revenge drive of an embittered ex-Soviet soldier named Viktor Reznov. Reznov brainwashed Mason to internalize his decades-old vendetta against Dragovich, Kravchencko, and Steiner, Reznov’s vendetta becomes Mason’s vendetta in ways that compromise the larger mission.

While no Afghan warlords have ever brainwashed American special operations forces, Reznov’s reprogramming of a clueless American outsider is analogous to the way that sub-state actors often manipulate culturally and politically blind and deaf Americans in current wars. In Afghanistan, for example, it has not been uncommon to find American troops attacking the wrong targets due to false information from local actors looking to use Uncle Sam to strike petty rivals. Americans have mistakenly intervened in inter-village feuds over issues as minor as access to jobs on American bases – with horrific consequences.

But Reznov’s manipulations are but a prelude to the larger betrayal in the Black Ops series – Noriega’s cooperation with game villain Raul Menendez. In this, Black Ops lays bare the complexities of dealing with the local clients that proxy operations often necessitate.

In the Black Ops 2 mission “Time and Fate,” Noriega’s soldiers brutalize Menendez’s innocent sister, driving him mad with rage. Noriega, like many American clients, is then faced with a decision. Does he honor the trust that his American patrons have placed in him, or pursue his own self-interest? In a twisted “favor,” Noriega kills his own men guarding Menendez to preserve deniability, and then sets Menendez free. Menendez rushes to rescue his sister from Noriega’s forces, but she is accidentally killed in the midst of Menendez’s combat with security forces and American SOF.

Later in the game, America invades Panama to overthrow Noriega and prosecute him. Mason and Woods capture Noriega, but are told by an unusually cryptic Hudson that a more important target needs to be eliminated. Mason and Woods are separated in the course of the mission, and Hudson tells Woods that the target is Menendez himself. Woods shoots an ambiguous target that he is led to believe is Menendez. Unfortunately for Woods, the man he just shot is his colleague and friend David Mason.

Unknown to Mason or Woods, Menendez – driven by a desire for revenge – has penetrated the CIA and coerced Hudson into setting a trap. Menendez captures Woods and Mason’s young son, and tells Woods, Hudson, and the boy that one of them must die or all of them must die. In the most compelling moment of the COD series, Hudson initially resists sacrificing himself (he has two children himself) only to offer himself up for the sake of Woods and Mason’s child. Unmoved by Hudson’s complex display of fear, bravado, spite, and self-sacrifice, Menendez brutally kills him.

Certainly, the game’s events are fanciful. No real-world villain quite like Menendez existed during the Cold War. Yet many elements ring true. The idea of a sub-state actor defeating CIA operational security and murdering an intelligence officer is frighteningly plausible. Hezbollah, after all, got to CIA station chief William Buckley and tortured him to death. If anything, even Menendez’s brutal execution of Hudson was merciful compared to what real-world villains like Hezbollah did to Buckley before he died. However, what is most crucial about Black Ops 2’s relevance for policy is the proximate cause of Hudson’s death – Noriega’s brutality and betrayal.

Americans often invest enormous trust in proxies and clients. But for every valued ally of the West, there is a Noriega—cruel to his own people and invested primarily in his own interest. Pakistan’s double game is a case in point. The Pakistanis not only repress and brutalize residents of the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), but also support and direct insurgents and terrorists that maim and kill NATO troops and Afghans. The Pakistanis were not informed of the Bin Laden raid because of fears they would tip off the target (who they may have been complicit in harboring), and American troops prepared for the possibility of a gunfight with Pakistani troops during the operation.

Certainly the consequences of Pakistani perfidy are less severe than that of Noriega’s split-second decision to help Menendez. But they are still are tremendously disturbing. Americans – and many more Afghans – are dead because of Pakistani treachery, first demonstrated against Pakistan’s own people. Despite Black Ops 2’s vacuous depiction of future war, there is something familiar in how Noriega’s betrayal triggers events that force the player (controlling Woods) to shoot his best friend and precipitate Hudson’s tragic death.

I’ve already said my piece about the problems with using Black Ops 2’s plot and gameplay mechanics as a way of thinking about future, high-tech war. But at least in its depiction of the historical and even present problems with covert warfare, COD director Dave Anthony is far ahead of national security analysts in DC.  Covert operations and unconventional warfare – judiciously planned and executed – can arguably serve as a useful tool of American national security policy. Moreover, the US cannot avoid dealing with problems posed by Russian, Iranian, Pakistani, and North Korean covert behavior.

But today’s growing enthusiasm for engaging in real-world “black ops” runs counter to the unfortunate reality that the American historical record is very, very bad. To read a book like intelligence historian John Prados’ magnum opus Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA is to enter the same opaque mixture of occasional triumph, paranoia, brutal and double-dealing clients, and haphazard improvisation that Anthony’s Black Ops games heavily fictionalize. Contrary to the stereotype of the CIA as a “rogue elephant” acting out of political bounds, Prados depicts a covert community populated by well-meaning people like Woods, Hudson, and Mason that nonetheless sometimes did enormous damage to American policy objectives and enabled figures every bit as brutal and shady as Noriega (if not more).

Whether a fictional version of Manuel Noriega or the very real ISI agents that helped kill our deployed men and women in Afghanistan, the weak link of covert ops is a combination of American ignorance about the politics and incentives of local culture and the risk of compromise by local actors who – if given a choice – will often betray the distant foreigner for local advantage. And when they do not betray Americans, they betray their own people – as seen in Noriega’s real-life blend of corruption and brutality.

The policy lesson we ought to take away from a game like Black Ops 2 is not the cliché of a high-tech terrorist Menendez unleashing cyber attacks and killer robots. Rather, it is that a brave American and devoted family man like the doomed CIA veteran Hudson may die because we – in our zeal to engage in black ops – erroneously underestimated the level of knowledge, competence, and sobriety needed to beat the real-world game of cloak and dagger that forever tempt defense policymakers.


Adam Elkus is a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University and a columnist at War on the Rocks. He has published articles on defense, international security, and technology at CTOVision, The Atlantic, the West Point Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel, and Foreign Policy.