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 Video Game Review: Payday: The Heist

Payday: The Heist a first-person shooter that allows a player to conduct a variety of armed robberies, from ripping off drug lords to sneaking around for diamonds. The very first level is a bank robbery. The gameplay is fun and the idea works, but there is one aspect to the game that surprises me: you are penalized for shooting civilians, but encouraged to slaughter a variety of law enforcement officials. This surprises me because the moral distinction seems weak: you already play a bank robber. You are a bad guy. You kill dozens of hard-working police officers, security guards, S.W.A.T. members—all of whom have as much interest in being alive as the little old granny depositing her social security check on the day you burst into the bank and start spraying bullets. I’m not convinced the game is really sending a strong moral message by saying “Kill all the cops you want, but don’t shoot that man in jeans and a t-shirt!”

This raises 2 issues. First: this is an example of how video games have to construct a moral framework in which the player must operate. Many games have started to emphasize “moral choice” systems, but all of those systems have already decided which answer is “right” and which is “wrong.” Moral choice systems in video games face a serious hurdle in the limits of programming languages and AI. More on this in another post.

The second issue is touches on a debate I had while reading Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars for a class in college. Walzer held that there was a justification for soldiers-killing-soldiers that did not justify soldiers-killing-civilians: enemy soldiers have guns and pose a threat, whereas civilians do not (also, soldiers signed up for war and risking their lives, but not civilians). There are a number of criticisms of this argument (which I have dramatically simplified for the sake of brevity), but I seemed alone in my criticism that the reasons that make killing wrong apply whether the slain is a soldier or not. The same argument seems to run in Payday: The Heist. How can the game justify condoning the en masse slaughter of police but wag a finger at each individual civilian death? I continue to hold that the value of human life is not altered by position or uniform, and to commit murder is immoral regardless of the occupation or benign activities of the victim. If we want to include a moral message in a game, it ought to be stronger than “kill cops, not civilians.” Trying to hedge on the morality of murderous mayhem may be more dangerous than outright [imaginary] acceptance of evil; by trying to keep the killing “in bounds,” the developers concede that there is an area in which killing for profit and pleasure can be accepted.