The Death of Chivalry in War Fiction

In a previous article about game violence I talked about how military shooters represented – or should represent a less fetishised, more acceptable face of violence in their evocation of the hero myth. Recent developments in gaming have made this seem unlikely and, while this may be difficult for some to accept, made me realise a line must be drawn somewhere because without boundaries, or anyone to adequately question content, I will no longer be happy to enjoy games.

To begin with, what is the military ideal as I see it? I trace it back to the Morte D’Arthur, which is full of violence, battle, duelling and exciting things like that. Here is a quote;

“Than they russhed togydyrs lyke two borys, trasynge and traversynge myghtyly and wysely as two noble knyghtes, for this Sir Brewnor was a proved knyght and had been or than the deth of many good knyghtes”

It’s a military power fantasy; mighty heroes clash in mortal combat, and this scene ends with the violent death of Sir Brewnor by beheading. But what sets the Arthurian warrior ideal apart is it’s tied into to being noble. The combatants – even the enemy – are “proved knights”, that is they aren’t just skilled soldiers but they’re considered the best society has to offer in all aspects. Chivalry in some form and social mores were as important to a medieval knight as skill at arms. Whole storylines in the Morte D’Arthur focus on the importance of good behaviour, of knowing when to stop and what to do in high society.

The modern military power fantasy is arguably the war-game, the sanitised, bloodless simulacrum of the battlefield bought by the thousands and enjoyed by many. The competitive multiplayer side of it is a modern tourney, fencing-piste or even a sanitised version of the gladiatorial games, with people taking up simulated arms and re-enacting time and again for their enjoyment battles. A certain kind of honour emerges in this among some players, with unsporting strategies rejected and the emphasis being on having a fair fight. This I have no problem with at all; it may be realisticly depicted, it may be violent but there is a sense that what is being glorified is the joy of safe combat. I fence, and get a similar feeling when using a blunted sword to play at duelling as when I play Battlefield and pretend to drive a tank and storm a city defended by my friends.

The problem is in the single-player content. There, the player enacts a soldier-myth, fighting a simulated war to protect some ideal that needs protecting, like freedom, democracy or even just national pride. In theory this is fine; one of the earliest first-person shooters, Doom, was a simple fight for survival against literal demons of Hell. The player merely fought to escape against manifestations of the embodiment of evil, there was no moral argument at all. However, modern FPS games offer an attempt at reproducing realistic war; they are called “Modern Warfare,” or “Black Ops.” They draw on real nations, real weapons and real political tensions. To a point, even this is acceptable; there is such a thing as a just war, I maintain. The Second World War was a just war, intended to curb an expansionist power responsible for nigh-unimaginable atrocities. The conflicts, though, of modern FPS games, are problematic. Black Ops 2, a game coming out later this year, has as its antagonists a militant socialist movement intent on hacking US military networks and wantonly starting wars across the world. It co-opts the imagery of less militant groups to do this whose actions, while perhaps debatable, are certainly not done with the intent of nuclear annihilation or global conflict. If the villains, thus, are socialists (not even McCarthy-fantasy Red Devils out to nuke McDonalds and expand the Iron Curtain, simply people in favour of fair taxation and the welfare state), what is the desirable ideal being fought for? Capitalism? It’s harder to want to raise a gun in favour of big business and economic laissez-faire than it is to raise one against the Third Reich.

That said, ridiculous conservatism is the least of the problems of the modern war game. Fear of anarchy, of violent revolution and of coups d’etat is an understandable fear – even if one does not agree with it. The problem is that the modern soldier-hero has lost his honour. The fight between the two knights described above is a genuine fight – they come at each other, swords clash, and the best man wins. Because they are knights they fight with honour and act nobly off the battlefield.

Here is a description of a section from Splinter Cell: Blacklist:

…A disguised Sam takes a wounded man into a terrorist camp on the Iran/Iraq border, but the men inside quickly rumble him, forcing him to shoot two in the head, then torture the leader to find more information… You’re given the entirely consequence-free option of stunning or slaying your hostage post-torture…

The game is about espionage, so subterfuge is to be expected; the problem comes that the protagonist subsequently acts – and this is positively depicted – in a way that most villains would act. He tortures a man, which apparently is shown in graphic detail, and then the only “choice” the player has is whether to put the victim of torture out of their misery or not. There is a massive problem I have with this – the player is shown a scene in which torture is used by an agent of the United States and proven to work. Presenting economic conservatism as something worth protecting is a debatable choice. Presenting torture as justifiable and successful, and something the good guys do as a matter of course, should not even be considered. This is an attack on freedom of expression, for sure. I am taking exception to the idea that games depicting a military ideal, the soldier-hero fighting just wars for the safety of free democratic people, condone the torture of prisoners-of-war. That the mass media presents this unquestioningly, and positively, suggests that there needs to be boundaries, or if not actual boundaries serious discussion and debate about game content.

My problems with the new idealised soldier continue; a level of Modern Warfare 3 has the players, with advanced weapons and so on, kill their way across the African countryside using the under-equipped militias as a tutorial level. To these well-armed soldiers that the player represents, the locals are training. What is being promoted is extrajudicial killing, illegal operations, torture, and a litany of other things that supposedly “civilised” nations are supposed to be better than. And my opinion is this is too much.

I am not opposed to violence in games. I am not opposed to war games. I am opposed to what military fiction has become; that the new ideal is using all the appalling things that the “good guys” are supposed to stand up against “for the greater good.” Modern military fiction is no longer about being a “proved knight,” unimpeachable, impeccable and skilled; it is about doing whatever is necessary and being amoral and brutal. And this is where my problem lies; I am coming to hate the politics, and the lack of morals, of modern war fiction. I still like the exciting simulation of combat that the competitive multiplayer of these games offers because it is divorced from that. There is no narrative, no video sequences of brutal interrrogations or constant reinforcement that you’re doing the right thing for the good guys. It’s a medieval melee. Two teams of people grab the modern equivalent of tourney-swords and blunted lances and bash it out until one wins. No difficult moral issues, no glorifying and justification of the unacceptable, and even – in most cases – a kind of chivalry among the players.

I’ll end this with two thinking points; should consequence-free and torture ever occur in the same scene? If these games are supposed to present “realistic” modern situations, how realistic is it that torture is effective?



Thomas Malory, The Book of Sir Tristram de Lyones, from Malory: The Complete Works, 2nd edition Ed. E Viniver, OUP 1971

Jon Hicks, Splinter Cell Blacklist: Airstrike, Electrocution or Torture?, from Official Xbox Magazine09/08/12


One comment

  1. Uchenna Kema

    See, I find this a horrible civilian (disclaimer, I am in the military) idealization of war. War was never noble, or nice, and its a hyper idealistic version to pretend there is a difference between killing demon hordes in the name of surivial, and black operative in a nebulous 21st century battlefield. I can agree with you on the torture thing, but I feel your fundamental premise is flawed to begin with!

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