Definition: A cop-out (phrase): "A failure ... to face a difficulty squarely".
Regular visitors to this blog will know that I have been mildly obssessed for the last six months with a gaming project along the lines of something popularly called "Weird War Two". This subgenre admits a number of possibilities (occult, pulp, late war mecha) and in a later post I'll address how I understand these taxonomies. For now, though, I need to work through the ethics of a game concept which takes a dark premise (Nazis and the Third Reich) and then amps it up by adding additional badness to the bad guys (eg, my SS Vampire character, whose skin these days is somewhat less green).
For the last few weeks I've been thinking about the moral implications of this project, and of the "Weird War" subgenre in general. Perhaps it will seem to you as if I am overthinking this, but humour me for a moment. My questions began thanks to a number of gamers I greatly respect, who have issues with playing the bad guys, and who make convincing arguments that playing the Nazis in a WW2 game is problematic for anyone concerned with being virtuous. If you are interested in exploring this argument, an excellent place to start is the post "Virtue And Wargaming" (see http://ancientrules.blogspot.ca/2012/09/virtue-and-wargaming.html) by Polemarch, one of the smartest and most provactive wargaming bloggers I know of.
In this post, Polemarch asks why it is that we don't usually hear debates about the ethics of playing the Ancient Romans, whose empire was founded on highly organized and brutal repression conducted at a geopolitical level, whereas we sometimes hear arguments about the ethics of representing the SS on the gaming table. Polemarch argues that because the Romans are safely removed in the lost world of the distant past, we don't feel many moral qualms in thinking about Rome. With the Nazis, Polemarch argues, it is quite different:
"The difficulty, then, in terms of wargaming Nazi Germany, is that we too live in a system which is not wildly dissimilar. While I am sure that no western style democracy is headed in that direction, Nazi Germany is close enough to us to permit us to imagine that it could. In short, we can much more easily identify with the people on the ground, receiving orders that they either execute or get executed themselves. This places the moral question directly before us: what would you have done?"
So as I understand his argument, because the society and the people represented in our WW2 games are much more similar to us than, say, the Ancient Romans, our games become models of moral choices that should, at the least, discomfort us as gamers. I suppose one could say the same thing about representing modern societies other than Nazi Germany on the gaming table. Are there moral challenges in representing NKVD units, or western forces engaged in Operation Phoenix (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenix_Program) in a Vietnam game? Surely the problem is much broader than just a few SS figures on a tabletop, since modern wargaming allows the representation of many evil regimes and armies? But perhaps I digress.
So here's my point. Any game which adds "Weird" to "World War Two" will inevitably make the Nazis ever nastier, albeit in a highly fictive form of narrative. An example I saw recently is a Kickstarter RPG project that adds Cthonic elements from the Lovecraft sub genre to Nazi Germany. One might ask why anyone would want to add yet more horror and evil to a conflict that set the modern standard for horror and evil. Conrad Kinch posed this question quite well in the gaming ezine The Gazebo, when he asked, in effect, how could we possibly make World War Two even more horrific by adding mythic/pulp elements such as, say, zombies? Isn't the real horror of that war enough for anyone?
On a related line of thought, assuming, pace Kinch, that one decides to add mythic or pulp horror elements to World War Two, does that not trivialize the scope of the evil committed by actual human beings? How could an SS vampire be even more horrfying, any more evil, than an actual figure such as SS General Reinhard Heydrich, seen in this link as portrayed in the HBO film Conspiracy by Kenneth Branagh? I like Conspiracy, and the German film it emulates, The Wannsee Conference, because they capture what Hannah Arendt famously called "the banality of evil". If a monumental evil such as the Final Solution could be set into motion by bureaucrats calmly sitting around a conference table, then do we really need Nazi vampires? If we transpose evil into the realm of the mythic, do we run the risk of forgetting and ignoring the evil that ordinary people can achieve in the real world?
Setting aside these objections, it seems to me that the Weird War Two genre, if we are to pursue it, offsets the amped up evil of the villains (Nazi vampires and the like) by adding superheroic, juiced up good guys (see my blog header for an example). In my own Weird War Two world, I have deliberately set it in the early days of World War Two, just after the Fall of France, when only a few people in Britain realize that occult forces are stirring within the Reich. By creating an atmosphere where "Project Alice" and its characters are mobilizing as a small army of light to fight the darkness, I am trying to pay tribute to that pivotal moment of existential danger in 1940 when Britain and her colonies stood alone against Hitler and the fate of the world hung in the balance. My good guys thus complement the mythic nature of the storytelling by adding caricatures of good (saintly padres, lantern-jawed soldiers, brave and resourceful women resistance fighters vs the forces of darkness in Nazi uniforms). That's the idea behind my Weird War Two setting, but does that approach of mythic good versus mythic evil not deepen the cop-out by substituting fictitious good guys for flawed, human, banal guys who may or may not have been good, but who were on the winning side?
As the Polemarch has said, it all depends on how postmodernist your view of history is. Seeing the summer of 1940 as an historical hinge moment, an existential crisis of good versus evil, is one interpretation of history, but it is a modernist view that buys into one narrative for World War Two. The actual narrative of World War Two was far more complex. Britain went to war for Poland and then sold Poland out at Yalta. For reasons that seemed to make perfect strategic sense, the Allies escalated the bombing of military targets into the bombing of whole cities, while refusing to commit bombers to attacking the infrastructure of the Holocaust. Churchill may have stood for defiance and freedom in 1940, but he also fought to preserve the Empire, something his American allies never supported. The reality is complicated, messy, and considerably less mythic than the stories we would tell of it. Turning World War Two into Weird War Two could be seen as an ethical cop-out, in that it overlays a messy and difficult conflict with a mythic narrative that allows us to avoid the moral nuance of history.
I would agree that a postmodernist caution of single narratives is helpful, but I also think (and here I nail my colours to the mast, finally!) that it is still possible to speak with moral clarity about a subject like World War Two. For all the awful or ambiguous things that the Allies did or did not do, it was a fight for the survival of a vision of humanity that transcended race or ideology. British historian Michael Burleigh makes this point with great clarity in his 2011 book, Moral Combat: Good and Evil In World War Two (New York: Harper Collins, 2011).As Burleigh describes it, the central narrative of the war is of millions of responsible adults who were confronted with difficult decisions and an often “overpowering” temptation to immorality. In such a context, Burleigh says, it is remarkable that the number of those people who made good decisions was such that “a vestigial regard for decent or lawful conduct survived at all”.
To summarize, after thinking this through, I don't believe that Weird War Two has to be an ethical cop out. Going ahead, I will try to let the following principles guide me. One, Weird War Two is a way of telling the story of some aspects of the actual war in a mythic way. Two, my villains will point to the reality of evil in World War Two, without trying to replace or trivilaize that reality with caricatures. Three, my heroes will honour the moral heroism of real men and women in that war, without trying to minimize the complexity of the choices faced by them and the courage it required to make those choices. Four, the project will try to tell its own story, using creativity, humour, and broad strokes, rather in the way that the old films of the 1940s and 1950s did, while remaining respectful of the historical stories as we understand them. Fith and last, the project will be guided by Burleigh's these that World War Two was indeed Moral Combat, a struggle between good and evil at a fundamental level, and needs to be remembered as such. I hope I can succeed at these goals, and hope that you will tell me what you think as I go along, for that is the fun and the goal of a blog.