Ethics in World-Building: War

Our love of sweeping epics and grand battles create a glorified depiction of war that has been used as propaganda to fuel real-world horrors.

Sweeping epic battles with grand armies clashing together that determine the fate of the entire world have become standard for high-fantasy fiction. It’s very easy to get swept up in flashy armor, heroic speeches, and the stories of brave individuals leading the charge against the forces of evil. It’s so fun, and so effective, that the US Military uses similar techniques in their recruitment ads.

This video was part of a marketing campaign for the Independence Day sequel, which in itself was mostly a recruitment ad for the US Army. The recruitment drive latched onto the narrative power of good versus evil and heroism in order to lure young people into signing up for the military. It’s not the first time of course that the United States has used film and science-fiction as propaganda.

The Pentagon has a long history of approving financial support for films that positively showcase the US military and government, including Batman and Robin, the Iron Man films, and all of the Transformers films. Michael Bay’s Transformers in particular almost looks like a US Army and Navy recruitment ad itself, with lovingly photographed shots of helicopters flying over naval bases with the sunset in the background, while Optimus Prime’s voice-over gives us an epic monologue about heroism in the face of duty.

Meanwhile, that heroic narrative obfuscates the ugly truth of American military intervention in other countries, such as backing and being a party to war crimes, drone-striking innocent civilians, and supporting dictatorships across the world. These are not the actions of heroes or saviors. At best, they are the actions of those duped by greedy duplicitous men, those who follow orders without question and find themselves culpable in spreading horror and death wherever they go. And at worst, willing participants in theft, rape, and murder.

These films backed by the Pentagon are approved because they make the US look good, and our military looks heroic and brave. They don’t show the nasty side, the innocent civilians raped and murdered, the deals struck as resources are plundered and stolen from their home-countries. These films don’t show the dictators supported by the US government, because that would undermine the lie that American military interventionism is about protecting others from tyrants, and not about the armed robbery of the global south and middle-east.

What is more, it is the language of armies linked to heroism that is important here. The rousing calls to defend a nation or empire from her enemies, the linked brotherhood of swearing fealty to a ruler, and the promise to lay one’s life on the line to protect the border. This sounds nice and fine when the enemies are literal space-aliens, nasty fantasy monsters, but then you think about how that language is used in the real-world. Where politicians portray caravans of refugees as monsters, and the president threatens them with violence.

I’ve talked before about how we frame the concept of the alien invasion, and the same applies to the evil outsider. We have to stop and think about our language when it comes to the stories we tell, and how these narratives play out in the real-world. The poisonous idea of violent nationalism doesn’t simply stop existing because this is now Tamriel or Middle-Earth, and we do not consume or create these works of fiction without bringing those ideas with us. No work of art is created separate of the society that made it. We create and tell fictional stories about inhuman invaders coming to destroy all that we know and love, and we tell the story over and over and over again, and then now it’s the president of the United States telling this story, but the villains aren’t monsters or space aliens, they’re just people — scared, poor, desperate people fleeing hardship and seeking asylum.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t have fun with the spectacle of violence in our fiction, but we need to stop and consider for a moment the role of violence in the worlds we build, and in the one we live in. Who is wielding power here, and why? Are we simply regurgitating lies told to justify oppression and imperialism?

One method that can be done is to avoid lazy generalizations when it comes to opposing sides in a military conflict. Just about every single war in the history of mankind has oppressors on every side. Even in World War II, the German Nazis took inspiration from American eugenics movements, and the US had their own internment camps for Japanese Americans.

Even when there are conflicts where absolute evil is present, it’s important to remember that nations are simply designations of where someone lives, and while the leaders of a people might be evil and cruel, there are those who suffer beneath them. There were Germans who smuggled Jewish people to safety, and hid them. There were queer Germans who were persecuted as well. It is the same in countries ruled by fascists and dictators today, even as their armies spread imperialism and horror, it does not mean that every person who lives in those places are evil boot-licking fascists themselves.

So why should it be that your nation of orcs are all evil savages? These broad sweeping generalizations are birthed by a xenophobic mindset, often coupled with racism and toxic nationalism. “My nation is good and yours is bad” is overly-simplistic thinking that lacks nuance and insight into how systems of oppression can be perpetuated globally.

Perhaps the world leaders in your story pushing their armies into conflict are equally horrid, and the war being fought isn’t heroic but utterly pointless. This might put your heroes at violent odds with multiple armies, as they fight to protect innocent civilians from getting caught in the cross-fire. This sort of a conflict is more interesting because it raises the stakes, and the situation becomes immediately more perilous when your heroes don’t have a powerful army to fall back on, even more when their own country turns against them.

By thinking critically, and willing to readjust how we approach military conflict in our fantasy and science-fiction settings, not only can we decouple ourselves from centuries-old xenophobic propaganda that justifies imperialism, but we can vastly improve the stories we tell by making them more complex and interesting.

Dorian Dawes is the author of Harbinger Island and Mercs. Their non-fiction work has been published on Bitch Media and the Huffington Post. You can read more of their work on Medium, and support them at patreon.com/doriandawes