War has changed a lot over the years, and with it, so has its representations in the media. Media has long been used as a tool by which to promote views, both positive and negative, of the military and its involvement in various conflicts. As early as World War I, there were propaganda films encouraging men to join the army and go find glory in destroying the alleged German menace. World War II saw several different forms of propaganda films around the world. Hollywood's entry into the war resulted in not only a wide variety of feature films (most notably the combat film), but also serials (Why We Fight) and animated shorts from Walt Disney (An Education for Death), all of which aimed to provide incentive for the general public to enlist. On the opposite side, the Nazis produced a variety of their own propaganda films, most famously Triumph of the Will, which tried to promote their cause.
However, somewhere around Vietnam, things started to change. There were very few films made during the war, and only one true propaganda film (The Green Berets). Nearly every film that has been made afterwards has depicted Vietnam in a negative light, often drawing attention to the high casualties, miserable living conditions faced by American soldiers, and generally treating it as a futile war which the U.S. should never have entered to begin with. This pattern has continued, and while propaganda still exists, it mostly remains in advertisements. This has not, however, prevented the media from taking an interest in modern wars, and the ways in which war has changed as a result of new developments.
The subject of modern warfare has been tackled in a variety of films including, though not limited to, Jarhead, Black Hawk Down, Courage Under Fire, G.I. Jane, Home of the Brave, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, American Sniper, and Eye in the Sky. It has also been shown in several TV shows, such as Combat Hospital. Several video games have also taken an interest, such as the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare trilogy, Medal of Honor: Warfighter, and Operation: Flashpoint. The exact treatment of war and its accuracy varies across different stories, although most do try to avoid glamorizing it. Even Call of Duty likes to place an emphasis on the high casualties, sometimes going as far as to have the player be among them.
Accurately representing modern warfare has been another matter entirely. To the best of my knowledge, Paul Gross's Hyena Road remains one of the most accurate attempts to dramatize a modern conflict (unsurprising, as Gross himself actually visited Afghanistan and accompanied soldiers in the field). With other films, it is harder to say. When The Hurt Locker was released, it sparked a wave of controversy in terms of its depiction of EOD activities in Iraq. Some were quick to dismiss the film as unrealistic, usually pointing to the actions of its protagonist, while others claimed it was fairly true to real life.
On the other hand, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is not in fact an accurate representation. Although the game is called Modern Warfare, the series refrains from using any real conflicts; instead focusing on a non-existant Civil War in Russia that somehow escalates into a full-scale invasion of the United States at the start of Modern Warfare 3. In short, the narrative is structured in a manner more closely resembling World War II than any actual modern conflict. This in itself isn't surprising, seeing as Call of Duty started out focusing on various campaigns of World War II before trying something new with Modern Warfare and moving into science fiction with Black Ops and the upcoming Infinite Warfare.
If Call of Duty wanted to accurately represent modern warfare, most of the game would instead be focused on the player being stationed at an army camp and waiting for something to happen, receiving short missions once in a while, and then returning. It would be more reminiscent of Jarhead than Black Hawk Down. The former provides a solid illustration of the tediousness that often comes with modern warfare. Much of it involves basically waiting for something to happen. Swofford never gets his assignment, something surprisingly true of many soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Even when he starts to get anywhere near the action at the film's end, it's only a series of short moments in between long and tedious sessions at the camp.
In this sense, The Hurt Locker comes much closer to showing modern warfare realistically than Call of Duty. While the danger is always present, it isn't as straight forward as taking out the enemy. We see this in the tensions between the three protagonists James (Jeremy Renner), Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). The biggest threat in most of the film is the possibility of hidden bombs, rather than enemy soldiers that can be taken out. In fact, for much of the film, the "terrorists" remain unseen, only appearing when they are visible to James and his partners (and even then, the viewer is often denied a clear view of them).
There are very few scenes in which James has to deal with any enemies. In one notable instance, he and Sanborn have to outwit a sniper, though this is hardly the chaos one would see in Call of Duty. Instead of aiming and taking the shot, the film draws out the sniper duel, emphasizing the slow waiting that is required to make a precise hit. Only one shot is ever fired at a time, and they all occur in between drawn-out shots of Sanborn and James trying to aim the rifle.
Later in the same film, James is investigating a bombing at a gas station, and correctly deduces roughly where the insurgents responsible would have been operating from. In Call of Duty, this would have been a whole level, in which the player would be responsible for tracking down the terrorists. Instead, Sanborn and Eldridge rightly point out that chasing them is reckless and irresponsible, and James' attempt to do what could easily have happened in Call of Duty results in Eldridge being shot.
One of the biggest issues affecting media depicting modern warfare is representation, especially towards women. We are living in an era where women are becoming integrated into the military and becoming an active role, yet there are few stories that actually show women in the field. Hyena Road and Eye in the Sky remain exceptions to the rule, although the former is still male-dominated. According to Gross himself, he actually struggled to find a way to fit a female character into his film while being realistic (although it's legal, no women have yet managed to enter the Canadian sniper corps). He eventually resolved this by having a female base commander and having female officers appear in small supporting roles.
Meanwhile, the degree to which this has been present in other films has varied. American Sniper does show men and women working together, though the female soldiers depicted serve as nothing more than extras, with a lot of the film focusing on the all-male Navy SEAL team. Zero Dark Thirty also depicts an all-male team of Navy SEALs, though it addresses the issue by having a woman gather the intelligence that allows their mission to happen. G.I. Jane serves as a notable exception, as the plot hinges on a woman proving her worth as a U.S. Navy SEAL (something which was supposed to happen this year, still no word on that).
This is not even getting into the misogyny of films like Alien Outpost, a Battle: Los Angeles-esque invasion film which lacks even one actress playing so much as an extra. This is even though it is set in a near future where having female soldiers would make sense. There is no logical reason why this film had to be an all-male cast. If anything, given its subject matter, having a few female characters could have made it more effective. Even though the trailer's narration refers to "everyone" becoming a soldier, the director apparently could not be bothered to cast one woman in his film. Alien Outpost provides a perfect example of how bad this issue has gotten.
Battle: Los Angeles has a strange way of getting around this problem: it begins focusing on an all-male platoon of marines, before introducing Tech Sgt. Elena Santos part-way through. Even though the film quickly accepts her as one of the marines, it still insists on explaining that she is a stranded member of the Air Force who runs into them, rather than allowing her to be a marine from the start. Courage Under Fire also attempts to address the issue by having a female chopper pilot who takes action in the field... only to have her die before the film even begins and have the story instead focus on an all-male cast describing her actions.
Three games purporting to be on "modern warfare" and they couldn't so much as allow the player to choose their character's sex. This is also annoying as one easy way of fixing this problem would be to take advantage of the first-person interface and have the player be gender-neutral. It would be easy enough to do: the majority of player characters in Call of Duty are never seen and don't speak. Call of Duty; Modern Warfare almost manages to pull this off, too. Most of the game sees the player controlling a figure known as "Soap" MacTavish, whose face is never shown and whose voice is never heard.
Theoretically, one could play the entirety of Modern Warfare imagining Soap as a woman (and as it happens I did, even going as far as to try to share my vision in a short fanfiction)... if only they'd made a few small changes to the dialogue. All it would have taken to make the character gender-neutral would be to write the script to avoid any gender-specific pronouns. Furthermore, it would have done good if Soap hadn't been given a first name and a face in the later games, ruining whatever image a player of the first Modern Warfare may have come up with. To make matters worse, the later games appear to go out of their way to ensure the player understands their character is male, even though all it would take is an androgynous name and to write the script to avoid gender-specific pronouns.
It has become apparent that for all the efforts to depict modern warfare, the media still has a long way to go. It seems to be hard to find films that truly capture the changing nature of modern warfare: Hyena Road and The Hurt Locker being notable exceptions. We are failing to recognize the changing nature of the military. Would it really have hurt the developers of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Operation Flashpoint to show female soldiers, or for the developers of Medal of Honor: Warfighter to allow players to choose the sex of their characters? Would it really have hurt the director of Alien Outpost to cast a woman in one of the leading roles? These all seem like questions worth addressing. If the media is going to try to show modern warfare, than they should start to do it right.