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.

Ethical Behavior in an Unethical System

It may be surprising to those who hold with the popular, cynical view about lawyers, but law schools require students to take an ethics course (sometimes called “Professional Responsibility”) and pass an ethics portion of the bar exam prior to being licensed as an attorney. For all of the images of lawyers as greedy, selfish, despicable creatures who will bring about all manner of misery through all sorts of distortion of truth (and there are plenty of real-life examples, no doubt), I know many attorneys who take their roles extremely seriously.

I once heard a US District Judge in the Midwest relate her experience of being nominated to the position. In preparation for an official nomination, she met privately with the governor. A general question was asked about any possible ethics issues that might arise during the nomination process. She admitted to the governor: “If you ask people I practiced with, you will get all sorts of stories about how mean I was, how rude, how harsh, abrasive, profane- and those stories are all true. But I never, never, acted unethically.” I’m not sure why- maybe it was the way she told the story- but the value that attorneys can and should place on ethical behavior struck me hard when I heard this.

In writing this entry about Legal Ethics, I found most of my examples relating to war. My drafts included discussions of Just War Theory and the Nuremburg Defense to explain why Role Morality was initially appealing but ultimately unsatisfying. I thought this woefully off-topic, but perhaps it is entirely appropriate to the adversarial system of law we have in the United States. Jurist Jerome Frank compared this adversarial trial process to “throwing pepper in the eyes of a surgeon during an operation.” I am generally inclined to agree, although drastically better alternatives that can be smoothly implemented do not readily present themselves. Some argue that when both defendant and prosecutor do their best to twist and spin testimony at trial, the system ultimately sorts out their efforts to arrive at the just conclusion. One problem is how often at least one side gives something less than their best effort, or how often the best efforts of each side are unfairly mismatched.

Ultimately, I don’t like Role Morality. I don’t like it generally and I don’t like it specifically for attorneys. But my rejection of it raises an issue: If the faithful fulfillment of roles within the Justice System cannot be an acceptable moral code, can an acceptable moral code be found within the Justice System? If this System cannot be altered, can one behave consistently (with rules extending beyond a “case-by-case” basis of evaluation and action) and ethically? If I know me, my answer is a Virtue Ethics burrito filled with a Kantian reading of Aristotle and generous amounts of sliced Kierkegaard, with some Derrida and just a pinch of Foucault.


For more information on Role Morality, this quick video does a good job:

Viewing People as Isolated in the Age of Interconnection

One of the prevailing views of ownership is “not a contract between myself and my property, but between myself and the world ABOUT my property.” The point of owning something is for everyone else to respect my relationship with a thing- be it a pen, a house, or trademark. Why, then, do we frequently fail to accept that piracy is a wanton and willful disrespect of an artist’s relationship with her property?

Perhaps we misunderstand property and ownership at the outset. As I have said before, a common rejection of copyright is that “copying is not theft, because it does not deprive the owner of their thing.” This apparently rests on the notion that to own something has weight insofar as it means I can have it. The competing view is that ownership has weight insofar as no one else can have what I have. This is the difference between understanding property as a contract with a widget vs. understanding property as a contract with the world about my widget.

Fundamentally, I trace this misunderstanding to a generation that internalized all too well the elementary school maxim to mind one’s own business. I think it likely that we became too adept at seeing the world in terms of single individuals, isolated and independent, alone in the world. Seeing the world like this, it makes more sense that an act cannot be wrong if it does not directly disturb others, or does not directly interact with them. I spoke to the broad implications of this kind of view in my post “A Head in the Sand is not an Ideal Source of Rights.” Applied here, attempting to see property claims as irrelevant to anyone neither an owner nor a piece of property can cause confusion over why copying might infringe on someone’s ownership. I think our views of piracy and copyright would be rather different if our relationship (or our view of our relationship) with the artist were closer (or felt closer). I wonder: are devoted fans of a band, game studio, actor, etc. less likely to pirate the works of their idols? If so, perhaps a good way to enforce copyright is to build a strong sense of community so that consumers feel that they are helping themselves and each other by abiding copyright, rather than taking free rides through piracy.

Philosophy and the everyday

Philosophy is sometimes disregarded as irrelevant and unimportant in the 21st century. I think this shows a misunderstanding of what philosophy is (maybe even by those who claim to be proficient in it). I chose to study philosophy because it was obvious to me that it was a study of the subjects of our daily conversation. Every argument we have, every thought we think, every decision we make, is filled with issues in metaphysics, epistemology, logic (and mathematics), ethics, aesthetics, and rationality. From sports talk shows (almost exclusively filled with counterfactuals and predictions of decisions) to interior decorating to social gossip, our lives are filled with the very stuff of academic philosophy. It seems that even anthropology does not come so close to the useful study of being human as does philosophy. Yet, in the last 50 or 100 years (or last 2000 years), philosophy became the boring and irrelevant study of stupid questions (“does my hand exist?” or whatever).

Shortly after I started studying philosophy, I found a blog post about the need for philosophy in computer programing languages. The author felt that a philosophy could end the fighting and competition between programing languages and thus move the entire technology forward. Notwithstanding the issues with that, he made mention of his view that philosophers pulled society out of the dark ages and into the modern era; releasing them from the bondage of superstitious beliefs and delivering them into the scientific revolution. He noted that after philosophers taught people how to think, people forgot why they needed philosophy.

I am convinced that a return to the value of philosophy (combined with many, many other things) would be greatly beneficial for civilization. I think that a great emphasis on thinking, wonder, creativity, reflection, with a deeper understanding of rules of logic and reason—as well as the ability to properly question such rules—would greatly enhance the political, economic, and social systems of our time. Even arguing about whether philosophy is important is itself a philosophical exercise. Questions about what is and how it ought to be are both questions of philosophy. If there are other sorts of questions, discovering them would also be a philosophical endeavor.