Most of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s “operators” are wholly fictional characters created for multiplayer and Warzone battle royale. A few are drawn from the game’s narrative campaign. A handful, though, are modeled closely on real life figures. I wanted to know more about the people these characters were based on, and investigating their background took me on a strange journey into the marketing of tactical training and equipment — and what it means when that marketing makes it into one of the biggest gaming franchises on the planet.
Lerch and Ronin
Marine Corps veteran and retired law enforcement officer Tony Sentmanat portrays “Lerch,” while retired Master Sergeant Tu Lam, a former Green Beret, provides the likeness and even the motion-captured finishing moves for “Ronin.” In civilian life, both men run private security companies whose services include firearm and tactics training for law enforcement. Lam, when asked about his company for the Activision Games Blog, said: “Ronin Tactics Inc provides … [w]eapons training in firearms, edge-weapons, and commando tactics. Team Ronin travels around the United States training major police departments along with their specialty teams.”
Questions about police use of lethal force and the militarization of the police are not new, but 2020 has seen them drawn into sharper focus with widespread protests against antiblack police violence across the United States. Activision and Infinity Ward are not unaware of these dynamics: in July, a skin named “Border War” for the D-Day operator was renamed after criticism grew over its appearance and accompanying in-game text. Polygon reported that the skin featured a “bulletproof vest that said “POLICE” on the front, with the skin’s description reading, “Show them the error of their ways and make them pay with D-Day’s Border War Operator skin.” The skin was renamed as “Home on the Range” and the description updated, though the actual appearance of the skin including its “police” text was left in place.
But why and how did two men who leverage their military experience into police training end up in a Call of Duty game? Call of Duty as a franchise has long traded on “authenticity,” and the inclusion, motion capture, and likeness of an actual military veteran is in many ways the ultimate expression of this value. Lam’s arrival as “Ronin” in Season 3 of Modern Warfare’s Battle Pass was accompanied by official blog posts, in which his current work is mentioned only briefly, with the majority of the interview focusing on his early life as a refugee of the Vietnam war, military experience, and involvement with the game. This was back in April of 2020, a month before the death of George Floyd reinvigorated Black Lives Matter as a movement and sparked a new wave of protests in the US. Infinity Ward would later include BLM messaging in loading screens for Modern Warfare and Warzone.
The Military-Influencer Complex
When Tony Sentmanat’s “Lerch” was added with the launch of Season 5 in August there was much less fanfare. Even as a regular Modern Warfare player, I was unaware the new character was based on a real person until he appeared in my Instagram ads — Sentmanat is also a brand ambassador for Hazard 4, a manufacturer of bags and accessories pitched at the military and photographers. After that, it wasn’t hard to find out who he was and that his company Real World Tactical also offered training to law enforcement. One course is “for law enforcement or military police personnel… on the proper use of their firearm in relation to its real world applications against an armed threat in/out and around vehicles.” Other courses, currently without descriptions, are entitled “Crime Suppressions Tactics” and “LEO [Law Enforcement Officer] Armed Confrontations”.
In a discussion recorded for Sentmanat’s YouTube channel, Lam describes his military experience abroad and how he has to modify his training for law enforcement bodies like the NYPD. Sentmanat concurs, but observes that not every returning military veteran shares their philosophy when it comes to providing police training; some “… just teach exactly what they’ve learned and they don’t try to translate it over.” However, even though both men separate the law enforcement training they offer from war, they’re still engaging with the world through the terminology of conflict: the reason given for not teaching police the use of overwhelming suppressing fire is the presence of civilian “non-combatants.”
It seems odd that Sentmanat was not featured as prominently as Lam in Activision’s official messaging. Perhaps Activision no longer felt highlighting the involvement of someone who trains the police in armed conflict was a prudent marketing move. Still, that hasn’t stopped Sentmanat from discussing his role and how he came to be in the game on his own social media platform. Sentmanat carries himself like other influencers, shouting out companies and products in his videos. For their role in his collaboration with Modern Warfare, he namedrops TacGas: a self-described “content creation service for the firearms and tactical industries.” TacGas appears to operate as an intermediary between companies like Activision and veterans like Sentmanat.
Modern (Domestic) Warfare
Launched in 2016, TacGas’s website states that “[k]nowing that the market was receptive to our vision of what tactical and firearms content could be, TacGas further leveraged its abundant resources to create the type of images that we want to see in our social media feeds.” Its explicit mission is to shape favourable opinions toward weapons products and the military, including the militarisation of the police.
TacGas’s Instagram feed is a slick collection of tactical glamor shots, virtually indistinguishable from the handful of Modern Warfare screenshots that are mixed in. Like D-Day’s renamed but unaltered “Border War” skin, this includes several photos of police that blur the lines between law enforcement and the military. Uniformed officers pose with handguns drawn on a civilian car, officers with riot shields face off against masked individuals with glass bottles — several of the photos feel especially out of time in 2020, including one from late 2019 in which models are shown with tactical gear in Portland, Oregon. Protests and a changing public mood didn’t stop a July 2020 photo including an officer in SWAT gear with a handheld battering ram. The accompanying caption reads, “Technically we knocked.”
The kind of training Ronin Tactics and Real World Tactical offer is concerning, but ultimately, it reflects a demand from law enforcement for such services. The only way to reduce this demand would be to radically reimagine to the concept of policing. This is what makes TacGas’ marketing and promotion of tactical training and military-style equipment for law enforcement so alarming — it works directly against the notion of reform and normalizes policing as a form of conflict.
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Realism and its Discontents
Call of Duty walks a thin line between realism and glorification. This was particularly true in the early days of the franchise’s shift to a modern setting, with missions that put players in high-flying gunships raining fire on grainy targets indistinguishable from contemporary news footage. As Call of Duty moved into increasingly futuristic, science fiction heavy settings in Advanced Warfare, Black Ops III, and Infinite Warfare, that tension dissipated somewhat. But when Modern Warfare then returned the series to the present day, it brought back old problems and introduced new ones. It’s difficult to overstate the reach Call of Duty‘s popularity gives it — it boasts 75 million players in the free-to-play Warzone, while 30 million units of the full game have sold.
Millions of players enjoy Call of Duty games, which matters when Modern Warfare misrepresents events like the Highway of Death, a 1991 potential war crime in which US forces targeted retreating vehicles, as being perpetrated by Russia within the game’s fiction. And it matters when players see official interviews with the game’s latest star in which his description of training police in the use of military style weapons and tactics goes unquestioned and unchallenged.
It will continue to matter going forward, with the upcoming release of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, a game that recasts Ronald Reagan as the shrewd commander authorising the player character’s special forces unit. Unlike previous games in the series, which has long operated as an annual franchise that resets every fall, the Warzone multiplayer mode is being extended into Black Ops Cold War. Images on the TacGas Instagram suggest they continue to be involved in the promotion of the new game. As for operators “Ronin” and “Lerch,” Activision has promised that previously earned rewards will continue to be usable in Warzone under Black Ops Cold War. Even as Modern Warfare bows out, they’ll live on and continue to work as influencers among the Call of Duty community.