The Easiest Target: Nazis in Wolfenstein, War, and the World

 Wolfenstein: The New Order is a game of killing Nazis. It is also a game about killing Nazis. It is about resistance of totalitarianism, about how and why we fight, and it rests securely on the accepted fact that Nazis are the enemy. I’m no defender of the Third Reich, but I have noticed how often we involve Nazis, symbolically, in our lives. We make films and video games about killing Nazis. In online debates, we often compare adversaries to Hitler or other members of the Nazi High Command (even if, according to some, this means immediate defeat in the debate). We frequently draw on comparisons to the Holocaust, the Weimar Republic, Sudeten Land Grabbing, Appeasement, the invasion of Normandy, Kristallnacht, or other major events, episodes, or people from 1936-1946. Somehow, that chunk of the 20th century manages to linger in our culture in some surprising ways. Not that it was unimportant or forgettable—it shaped economies and geopolitics in ways we still feel. However, I wonder why we have maintained such a cultural obsession with the manifestation of evil displayed in brown shirts and synchronized, high-stepping marches.

There are many possible reasons, each explored from diverse backgrounds and approaches. One relevant point is that Nazis intersect with US history in a way that many other genocidal totalitarian regimes do not. One factor that likely keeps Nazism as nugget of cultural dialogue is the place of World War II in public education: Everyone who gets half-way through high school (which is a lot of the US, and even more of the people who participate in public dialogue) gets exposed to the concept of 1930s-40s Nazi Germany.

I will draw on Wolfenstein: The New Order to consider three points about the continued use of Nazis in media and culture. I will consider two of these points from the game with comparisons to Just War Theory.

                Over 1,000 years ago, St. Augustine developed an explanation to reconcile Christian values of peace, love, and harmony with the apparent need for the Holy Roman Empire to defend itself (or aggress against others) through force of arms. In the 1960s, an American philosopher re-examined this “Just War Theory.” He explained that there were two levels at which one may evaluate the ethics of warfare: jus ad bellum and jus in bello. The first is an analysis of the reasons for going to war (defense of homeland is a better justification than an aggressive act to amuse the aristocracy). The second level considers the way in which the war is fought (on battlefields, by designated combatants is considered more ethical than secretly releasing biological weapons in the water supply of non-combatant civilians). Philosophers, political scientists, soldiers, and others have debated on many points for the last 50 years, and it continues to be re-examined and refined. I do not necessarily support or defend it, but I find it a useful tool for this examination.

1) We feel justified in making war against Nazis. During the final boss fight of the game, the enemy rebukes the player for killing so many soldiers. He accuses the player of killing husbands and fathers, honest working men. Just War Theory holds designated combatants, such as soldiers, as entering warfare willingly and knowingly. Perhaps it was less clear in 1941 than it is in 2014, but there is no doubt that stopping the advancement of the Nazi agenda could be among the highest justifications for a declaration of war. A lot of it is the result of cultural conditioning, but it is nearly impossible to understand Nazis as anything besides the enemy—or to feel that they could or should be anything else. In a society that has grown to question whether we can really label things “good” or “bad,” and promotes that we need to be “more tolerant,” Nazism remains unquestioningly bad and the tolerance thereof remains entirely impermissible. We might describe Nazis as “always already in the crosshairs,” as they cannot be understood except as a villainous target.

2) We feel justified, even obligated, in resisting evil. We feel free to exercise all available means in undermining them. This is more a matter of jus in bello. Around the midpoint, the game presents the player with a variety of diary entries from a young woman (“Ramona”) who carries out a series of terrible, sometimes brutal, attacks against local Nazi soldiers. Her methods straddle some line between guerrilla-warfare resistance, assassination, and terrorism. And yet, despite the horror and gore—indeed, because of it—, one may feel almost sympathetic for her as she struggles against her enemy. A key element of Just War Theory is proportionality: it is unethical to respond to the throwing of a stone with nuclear annihilation. But if your oppressors deceive, rape, murder, torture, slaughter, pillage, and inflict all manner of suffering and agony (particularly beyond what is necessary to achieve military success), there is a case for the use of deeply subversive methods. Ramona’s diary entries reminded somewhat of the film The Battle of Algiers, which depicts the struggle for Algerian independence and considers the question of what methods or forces are ethical or reasonable for both sides to use.

3) Our cultural stance against Nazis goes beyond warfare and violent resistance. It saturates our dialogue, our debates, politics, and judgments. Nazism has become a landmark on our ethical landscape: we orient ourselves, and our judgments, between evil and good by locating Nazism and relating the subject of our judgment to that point. The closing cutscene of Wolfenstein: The New Order includes a recitation of the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. That landmark and its inscription are symbolic of a set of values entirely antithetical to those of Nazism.

Nazis are easy to hate, easy to kill, always wrong, and everyone knows it. The inscription (and other texts and documents precious to the fabric of cultural ideals) is not about death and destruction. It is about life and creation. That oppression must be resisted and that sometimes violence must stand against violence seem an unpleasant realities (necessary or not) of this world.  However, there is more to evil than Nazism, and there is more to goodness than slaughtering Nazis.

A Pandemic of Buttcheese: How Shame Ended the Human Species

                One of the games I scooped up in the Steam Summer Sale was “Plague,. Inc.” I played a version of this on Newgrounds many years ago, and I only found out that there was a tabletop version of it a few months ago when it I found it played on Wil Wheaton’s “Tabletop.” The mechanic of the game is the creation of a disease and management of its evolution, symptoms, and resistances as it spreads and infects the human population of Earth. The goal is to infect and kill everyone in the world, while avoiding being cured and eradicated. At the start of the game, you can name your disease. Because games are meant to be fun, I choose something immature and amusing: I called the disease “Buttcheese.” I don’t know what it meant, but I knew that I didn’t want to know.

                Over the course of about 3 years, Buttcheese infected and killed every human on Earth. One problem was that it went almost 2 years before getting noticed, by which point it was spreading within every country. The fun part about a game like this is that when presented with bare facts and data, you are free to craft your own story to connect the data. As I watched humanity succumb to Buttcheese, I wondered: How did it all come to this? How did so many tens of millions get infected without any report, without any notice?

                I created a story to explain it. You see, whatever Buttcheese is, it’s embarrassing and unpleasant. It’s taboo and shameful, and no one wants to talk about it. Even if you have it, and everyone around you has it, you just don’t talk about it. You just live with it, and don’t think about it or talk about it. Especially, you wouldn’t admit it to a doctor. People don’t like to feel awkward, uncomfortable, or ashamed. So, in order to avoid shame, millions of people remained silent about the subject of their ailment. Buttcheese went unnoticed for years. Then it killed everyone.

                What did more to destroy humanity: The pulmonary edema that evolved as a symptom of the disease, or the shameful stigma that prevented any kind of honest discussion about the disease before it was life-threatening?

                The feeling of shame goes deep in humans. We think of those without a capacity for feeling it as severely ill and dangerous (“sociopaths”). Shame is a key component of developing and enforcing social norms that hold communities together. Inasmuch as Lessig is right to posit “norms” as a type of law, shame is a sort of internal officer of the law.

                In the 21st century, many of us are interested in breaking free of shame. We want to feel free from the oppression of societal norms that we think are unfair. Maybe there was some kernel of this in the counter-culture revolution of the 1960s and 70s, though it was articulated a little differently. Brene Brown has done some great research on the relationship between vulnerability and shame. One of her findings was that although shame often caused disconnection from others, vulnerability was necessary to forging meaningful connections with others.

                Although shame can feel isolating and oppressive, I think it can be a signal to take action. That the pretend inhabits of my Buttcheese-infested world felt shame is understandable. But their shame led them to be silent and blind about their condition, and they were ultimately destroyed. What if their shame inspired them to take action to cure what ailed them? When we feel shame in our own lives, we usually have a choice as to our reaction: we can withdraw and disconnect, or we can work to identify and resolve the cause. Feeling bad is a sign something is wrong: pain tells us of physical threats, and impels us to remove ourselves from danger. Maybe shame isn’t really so bad if we use it as a tool to seek a cure for our ailments rather than use it as an excuse to not talk about them.