Battlefield V: A corruption of history

History can be anything. It can be a dust-softed book, it can be rediscovered archives, it can be an interview with a survivor, it can be the sudden silence from your grandmother when she stops talking about a sore subject. History is the way we remember memories that aren’t our own, which helps us understand them. Remembrance is an activity. So, history is not only alive, it is retroactive. By remembering, we start seeing the arrangements of relationships and events, struggles and victories, powers and victims that led to the present. Memories live on. But original memories aren’t always accessible: the way we remember is produced. For instance, in how we remember war.

In 1998, journalist Tom Brokaw released his World War 2 book The Greatest Generation. Oversimplified and sentimental, it posited America as the single driving force that drove the Germans to defeat. Later that year, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan came out. A monument to the hardships the Americans faced and a laurel to the cameraderie of a squad. These productions about World War 2 coincided with a massive boom in World War 2-inspired fiction, signalling a completed, influential trend in American war memory which has come to be known as ‘The Greatest Generation’-style historiography (GGH from here on). Three characteristics to this way of memory production are: 1) the maximised attention to every single breath and bullet in a skirmish; 2) a hyperspecific, fetishistic focus that traces the expanse of global war through the eyes of a handful of soldiers, and; 3) a portrayal of war as a series of victories rather than an ideological-political-historical context.

This patriotism is clearly felt, once again, in studio DICE’s Battlefield V (BF5). Now, a video game is not a historical document, but it is a cultural production about a historical event. It offers a certain way of looking about the past: a memory. With subject matter this sensitive, and with the studio’s proclaimed devotion to realism, a very reasonable expectation is this:

Developers of historical games have a responsibility to contextualise the situations that are being presented to the player. No war misses a historical context or a clarity of purpose, so neither should their retellings.

How does BF5’s text produce a memory of world war, and is it historical or rather ideological? For this I will be examining its opening movie, its French campaign, and its, yes, Nazi campaign.

My Country Calling: oversimplifying the soldier’s struggle

From the cold skies above Norway in the earliest raids of the war, to the rocky passes of Algeria, to the mud of Eindhoven, Netherlands during Operation Market Garden, World War 2 is established as a truly global, all-encompassing war. In these pastiche, back-and-forth vignettes of gameplay, we take on the roles of various soldiers fighting — and dying — to protect what’s dear to them. It is crucial to contemplate the fact that before you flip to the next soldier, the body you inhabit first has to die. It symbolises war as this great engine, and blood is the medium by which it is fueled (a message that Battlefield One also carried with its Harlem Hellfighters intro). Every soldier’s death is a sacrifice, and we have to grieve and respect that.

“In the silence, we forgot.”

Is the quote the game offers us to remind us of our ignorance. This quote hints at the weight of history and the importance of its vivacity. The missing history, the lost generation, the men and women who fought for our freedom which we ostensibly take for granted. The nations that begin war don’t matter as much as the men and women who give their lives to end it: “my country calling”. Sacrifice as a rhetoric device is only able to happen within a certain national context, because it is relative to the degree of dehumanisation of the enemy. Decisive to the soldier’s struggle, in this kind of memory, is victory — every action is justified, because it leads to victory, which is a patriotic landmark. If the enemy also has friends, family, virtues, beliefs, dreams, etc., it becomes a moral problem to believe in the supposed righteousness of the soldier.

“Suffering is the same in every language.”

However, in its haste to memorialise and glorify the lives sacrificed to end the war, it seems DICE has included literal Nazi soldiers. In the second vignette, we take on the hide of a German tank commander firing at British vehicles in Tobruk, Libya. In another, we take on the role of a Luftwaffe pilot as they intercept a British bombing raid over the Netherlands. This sophomore attempt at nuance muddies both the idea of the soldier’s struggle, and who to actually root for. If the soldier’s struggle is the end-all, be-all for whom to offer our respect, is the idea, then, to also sympathise with the Nazis? The game cowards out of an answer by never identifying the German soldiers as Nazis, or showing the symbols of their hate. More on this later.

The third characteristic of GGH becomes even more dumbed down: war is a series of battles devoid of context. Death as the great equaliser, i.e., ‘people die’ is both a self-evident truism as it is offensive moralism. The visual narrative spins a web of ‘lives we should care about’ — it affirms we should respect the Nazi without any historical indication why the Nazi is on the battlefield in the first place. The forced nuance of “not all individual Nazi soldiers may have agreed with Hitler” is critically pointless, seeing as this story is in its totality representative of their side of the war.

DICE cannot assume that all their players know their history. For an overwhelming portion of players, too young to know or otherwise disinterested in history and politics, this may well be their first exposure to this particular context. And for the demographic on the furthest right, this may well serve as the fascist escapism they have been longing for, an affirmation and absolution of what they memorialise as glorious and honourable.

Tirailleur: A misunderstanding of anticolonialism

‘Tirailleur’ is BF5’s French campaign, where the player takes on the role of a Senegalese colonial soldier, conscripted for the liberation of Europe. The opening emphasises at least four times how many of these men would be fighting for a country they had never seen before. Indeed, most sub-Saharan colonies would never see battle, but its men of age did, solely through the coercion of colonialism. To fight for a violent and oppressive motherland most colonised had nothing to geographically do with? My first impression was pleasantly surprised. Hardly any narratives acknowledge the role that colonial peoples played in the second World War. This impression turned to disappointment fast.

The first cutscene is a voiceover talking about “what history has been erased”, which is oddly relevant to this article. Significant is a photo shown of an all-white French platoon. Two Senegalese soldiers, main character Deme and his brother Idrissa, arrive in France, anxious but proud to be able to serve ‘their’ country. When they arrive, their rifles are yanked out of their hands and replaced with shovels — they’re assigned to do manual labour while the white French soldiers do the real fighting. The situation is at least cognisant of the racist realities that took place (for instance, most Black soldiers in the US army were assigned cargo and transport duties, carefully kept away from the frontlines out of distrust.)

The reason the Senegalese tirailleurs are allowed to join the battle is because the other French soldiers have been unable to capture a château. Their ‘unorthodox’ officer gives them a serious nod and they’re given the greenlight to try. This is presented as a huge honour for Deme, who is presented as young, hot-headed, and eager to prove himself (despite being 26 years old?). This isn’t an uncommon character trait, but the question of ‘whom does he prove himself to’ has a difficult answer.

The theme of Deme’s story is clearly “race shouldn’t matter when it comes to war”, which is echoing one of my favourite tweets. His victories in battle are to be seen as analogues as victories over racism and his status as a colonised subject. After all, he, an African man, is able to do what the ‘superior’ white men couldn’t, right? Throughout the campaign, more and more of his squad members discover what it means to fight and sacrifice oneself for France as death stalks behind every tree. Idrissa, too, sacrifices himself. Only Deme and the only two remaining Senegalese squad members survive after capturing the château. The unorthodox officer and a squad of white Frenchmen line up next to them, and a photograph is taken. The last cutscene of the campaign ends with an older, current Deme sitting in an interview room. The ‘real’ photograph from the beginning is revealed to have been doctored, erasing the history of him and his comrades’ black faces. Deme ends the scene by saying “I was proud.” What isn’t shown in this campaign is how Deme would be shipped back to Senegal where he would have to continue to abide white French masters until 1960.

The erasure of black soldiers’ contributions to the war effort is a historiographical fact and one that is consciously unremembered. And DICE has done a good thing in tackling this sore subject. But, ultimately, this isn’t a story about the systemic exploitation of a colonised subject by forcing his body to labour, kill, and die for an abstract dominator. Deme’s proof of ability doesn’t contest the validity of the colonialism of the French, but in fact tests how good it works in order to win wars. In the nexus of ideals offered, Deme seems to cling to a patriotism that isn’t his, making him eager to synchronise with his oppressors. He may be personally invested in stopping fascism, but the narrative scope of his struggle ends at his encounter with whiteness, not at that with Nazi soldiers. It is an acknowledgement of colonialism that is not anticolonial. It’s more in line with, “thank goodness France had their colonies to conscript from, which allowed these men to sacrifice themselves for their coloniser.”

Adding the dramatic framing of this being a story ‘lost to history’ fabricates a pro-colonial sentiment. According to Battlefield V, what truth was erased was that the tirailleurs loved to fight and die in a conflict that isn’t theirs, on the soil they were shipped to against their will, in conditions that they have nothing to do with. Because at the end, their conscription allowed them to be ‘proud’, despite being slashed from all historical record.

The logic here is that military participation is equal to abolition, and that the army and the battlefield are apolitical. Identities and histories disappear and only one’s abilities becomes relevant. This simultaneously contributes to the legacy of GGH, as well as to the myth that the army is the only way out. This reflects a reality faced by many kids in America: army recruiters organise predatory visits to high schools, hoping to convince minors with the lure of respect and a well-paying job, which disproportionally affects poor and black schools.

If the thesis of Battlefield V is that the battlefield is a meritocracy, then its inclusion of a Nazi campaign starts making more and more decrepit sense.

The Last Tiger: “both sides”-ing Nazism

In the spring of 1945, Tiger I commander Peter Müller and his tank crew participates in the defense of the Rhine-Ruhr against invading American forces, with orders from High Command that all German soldiers must fight to the death. Old and grizzled, a sunken face that suggests authority and capability. The cookie-cutter example of the ‘experienced, war-skeptical lieutenant’, he follows orders out of a sense of duty but not out of moral conviction. The lamentful soldier-philosopher, a difficult personality that simultaneously signifies the cycle of war as a production of victims and a perpetuation of villains. His crew is straight out of a war movie, maybe Generation Kill: an experienced driver, a starry-eyed, überpatriotic youngster and a diffident, yet eager rookie.

Let’s interlude this by saying that nowhere in the entire game, you can find reference to these people being Nazis or even the bad guys — they are just ‘enemies’. BF5 brands them as ‘Germans’ and, throughout this campaign, as soldiers bearing the burden of imminent loss. In the other campaigns, which seem primarily preoccupied with ‘internal’ struggles, it is the same. They are Germans, just another country in a World War. There is no evidence of the world order of racial extermination that the Third Reich actively pursued. They’re just a faction, like you’re choosing between Alliance or Horde in World of Warcraft.

When the crew is forced to abandon the rookie, they later find his body dangling from a rope. Accused of desertion, executed by hanging. The scene nourishes sympathy for the regretfully-surviving Müller and resentment of the military forces responsible for executing a blameless victim of circumstance. Really? We need a reason to resent the Nazi command? By that same narrative trick, the crew’s ‘righteousness’ is reinforced — they’re not the ones doing this. They’re not the real real bad guys.

This is echoed near the end when the tank driver expresses his disillusionment in the ‘German cause’ (which cause is that again?) and decides to deserts. This choice isn’t easily made, as we remember that deserters are summarily executed. It is then that the patriotic youngster takes matters in his own hands, and executes him. As Müller cradles his fallen friend’s body, the Americans that you’ve been fighting the entire campaign arrive to demand your surrender. Müller does so, and the patriot goes into a fit of rage. He aims a gun at you. The screen cuts to black and gunshots are heard.

At the very core, this campaign echoes the idea that GGH is premised on: ‘we few, we band of brothers’. It tries its hardest to engender the kind of cinematic camaraderie that defines HBO war series like Band of Brothers or The Pacific. World War 2 as told through a single squad, their plight unimaginably dire and hopeless. DICE, when asked about their reasons for this including this controversial story responded:

“[W]e had to figure out how to tell a story that’s authentic to the values of War Stories, like we’ve done before — something that’s driven from the German perspective, but that isn’t apologetic, that isn’t propaganda. (…) [You] get to experience the chemistry within the crew as you find yourself trapped and start to reflect on your actions.”

The tone here identifies the player with the player-character, and the use of ‘reflection’ indicates a sense of regret or guilt. It implies the devs know that Nazis are bad. These actions, obviously, are not ‘ours’, but we are made to feel as if we are taking on the role. At no point does the game stop and explain to the player, this is what the Nazis did and what they believed in, and this is how that’s awful. It doesn’t even explain that they are Nazis. Still, we should question these actions as if they’re ours, despite the fact that the game is fundamentally missing a moral compass or even a cogent language by which we can measure and reflect on these roles and actions ascribed to us.

Lacking text, even subtext, the game doesn’t provide a meaningful critique by way of negative empathy. The single-player campaigns are too short and too sanitised of commentary to achieve that. Instead, it is an aesthetic simulation. The only thing that’s concretely different between the Allies and the Axis forces are their faction icons, reducing the enormity of war and the plurality of combatants to a design decision. It refuses to identify an aggressor that actually happened and that happens to be the most researched historical topic. The unimplicated side is absolved of blame. The ideas on which their aggression is built remain unnamed and become like sandstone, eroded of any ethical scrutinies. They become abstractified into vague aphorisms like ‘even Nazi soldiers had things to fight for’.

The crew’s individual battles supercedes that of the bigger, much more important picture. Their struggle is forcefully separated from their political function. The game keeps suggesting that soldiers are mere pawns, tools to be used, but never expounds what they are used for. Phrased differently, engineering sympathy for the soldier is made more important than their military situation. In The Last Tiger, We are forced to play as/empathise with a representative of the worst, foulest regime to human history. And there is only one character’s hysterical patriotism to suggest this is crossing a line. But this patriotism is never linked to its historical truth: Nazism. Rather, this worldview, quite normalised among wartime (civilian) Germans, becomes a radicalism only porported by zealous psychopaths. Like the game is saying, “oh, but he’s one of the bad Nazis.”

The conclusion of this arc is: Nazis suffered, which makes them human, therefore worthy of sympathy. Yes, Nazi soldiers fought, bled, and died. But each and every bullet they shot was to establish the Third Reich in its fascist, totalitarian, genocidal totality. They were shot at to prevent this from happening. In the fiction about them, we cannot reduce their ‘struggle’ to the sensationalistic melodrama of ‘do they not bleed?’ ‘Respecting the troops’ is a common moral token spent on all situations military — we must not afford it a foothold in Nazi memoranda.

Conclusion: God, DICE really fucked up

Memories as they pertain to war are fundamentally fragile. From maps and troop movements, to the jotted-down numbers of destruction and loss, to the quivering hands of a soldier, what do we tell? Such colossal moments where death is the only upheaving force must be understood, because they must be avoided. But remembering wars is an awful thing, much too awful to remember. So time passes, generations that don’t know war emerge, their connection to direct memory severed — it becomes second-hand. The more a society’s remembrance relies on second-hand memories, the more we want to monumentalise it. In this form, it becomes part of history, though not through its intent to avoid further war. War becomes culturally synonymous with ‘winning’, not with ‘warning’.

All this unnecessary storytelling is the result of DICE’s refusal to ascribe an ideology or a political reason to any of the soldiers featured in BF5. They storify their existence through their participation on the battlefield, treating all of their fictional soldiers as extreme equals. Ergo, no one can ever be right or wrong, good or bad. Regardless of which army they belong to, all are victims in the sense that they were sent out fight each other. Never mind the fact that World War 2, like all wars, was started over something. It had a progression, a chronology, in which stakes barrelled out of control into a global conflict. Rather than treat this historical context as a revived past, it summons the idea of the forever war. World War 2 becomes a permanent, ongoing struggle, an eternal gladiatorial arena without culpable participants. This isn’t moral relativism, it’s centrist clownism.

Despite its superficial antiwar message, the game is obscenely pro-war. Each ‘War Story’ is showcases a highly specific way for a soldier to attain glory, the most important thing to achieve on the battlefield. Auxiliary to this are colonialism in Tirailleur and Nazism in The Last Tiger, mere narrative devices through which more soldiers get to experience the glory of war.

Battlefield V is another link in the shackle of commodified World War 2 stories. From fiction to film, these ‘War Stories’ are not based on anyone’s true experience of war, but on sensationalised cultural images. Striking visuals which acts as their own reason; war games that try to be war films that try to be war fiction, revisiting the same scene over and over to try and produce the coolest image.

The emphasis on the graphical realism of war as a bloody struggle goes hand-in-hand with the deterioration of memory. The game showcases technical detail, not historical reality. In these narratives, World War 2 isn’t ‘caused’. There are no political actors, there is only the Soldier. Meanwhile? Battlefield V wants us to fight as a Nazi, but never names them. I also want to point out that, as of publication, there is no Russian campaign mode. Meaning you can’t play as the biggest historical force to defeat the Nazis, but, again, you can play as the ‘tragic heroes’ known as the Nazis.

Nothing else matters except that they were there, which isn’t history.

That’s apologia.