Saturday, October 23, 2010

Heroic Sacrifice, Halo: Reach, and American Pop Culture

I finally finished the campaign for Halo: Reach after 12 hours of game time.  That puts me behind the curve on skill and time, but I've played my First Person Shooters on the PC, not on a console.  Many years ago I started Halo: Combat Evolved, but didn't finish it, so I have no particular affinity for this franchise.  In essence, I started Halo: Reach as a completely new player without any knowledge of the background or skills many players bring to the game.  Of course, I'm not here to review Halo: Reach  Many people have done that with great skill already.

Back when Halo was first released, Trish pointed to a review that linked Halo: Reach to the epic tradition in Western Civilization, particularly that of the Iliad, particularly the self-sacrifice of Noble 6 in his effort to save humanity from destruction at the hands of an alien race (the Covenant).  Noble 6's sacrifice is notable due to his relative anonymity - his face is never seen, voice not heard.  He is the faceless, armored defender who sacrifices to complete his mission, and when it appears that he will escape with his life, goes back to certain death in order to allow humanity's last hope a chance to escape the alien onslaught.

Halo: Reach's narrative is full of heroic self-sacrifice.  Countless Marines desperately fight to the bitter end so that groups of civilians can escape, or so that others can complete critical missions.  The other members of Noble, the elite group of Marine special forces that Noble 6 is a member, similarly meet their fates.  Jorge pilots a corvette into a Covenant cruiser to allow human ships to escape.  He grabs Noble 6 and hurls him to safety, pleading with him to allow him to make this sacrifice, and to make it count.

Most of the rest of Noble Team also meet their fates with their eyes open.  Emile is dragged from an anti-ship battery and killed by Covenant forces while attempting to cover Noble 6's escape.  Jun is last seen escorting a civilian scientist with instructions not to let her fall into Covenant hands.  Carter, the commander of Noble, plows his crippled aircraft into Covenant armor in order to allow Emile and Noble 6 to deliver an AI containing information critical to humanity's survival to a waiting corvette.  The only exception is Cat, Noble's second in command, who is senselessly struck down by a sniper after guiding Noble 6 on a mission to suppress covenant forces allowing civilians to escape.  Her death is the only one that doesn't carry the message of self-sacrifice.

Halo: Reach is just the most recent example of this message of primacy of heroic self-sacrifice in American pop culture.  My initial reaction to Roger Travis' review was to blow it off because it seemed to argue that Halo was the only recent example of this message in recent American media, and to point to Saving Private Ryan (1998) to bolster that argument.  Travis goes a bit deeper than this, linking Halo to a deeper tradition in Western cultures, but I still think that they merely represent a new way of accessing these ancient traditions.  Just in the past thirty years we have numerous examples from a still important mass medium: movies.

Saving Private Ryan is merely an obvious example of the genre, in which a small group of soldiers are sent to find an American soldier whose family has already sacrificed three sons to the war effort so that he can be sent home.  The squad sets out across enemy-occupied territory to find Ryan in the aftermath of the D-Day invasion.  When they find him, he refuses to return to safety until his rag-tag unit defends a critical bridge.  While Ryan survives, the leader of squad, Capt. John Miller dies while defending the bridge, telling Ryan to live a good life in payment for the sacrifice.

There are a plethora of other examples.  One of my earliest movie memories is Star Wars, which I saw in 1977 with my Dad and our parish priest, Fr. George Kitchen.  The key moments of heroic sacrifice that stand out are Obiwan Kenobi's death at the hands of Darth Vader, and the combat deaths of a small group of outgunned rebel pilots who desperately through themselves into the teeth of the Death Star's defenses.  These guys could use their ships to flee, but they stay and fight to save their comrades, and by extension the free peoples of the Galactic Republic.  If we couldn't pick up this theme on our own, Director George Lucas slaps us in the face with it by using an argument between male leads Luke Skywalker and Han Solo over the rationale of the seemingly suicidal defense of the rebel base.  Solo is only redeemed when he returns at the last second, allowing Luke, the lone remaining rebel combatant, to destroy the Death Star in time to save the day.

1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn also features the theme of heroic self-sacrifice on more than one occasion.  The first example occurs off-screen when the civilian crew of scientists aboard a space station above Regula I sacrifice themselves to allow a small group group of scientists to escape with an experimental device that is both potential miracle terraforming device and terror weapon.  Later, Captain Terrell, commander of USS Reliant, kills himself rather than allowing Kahn to force him to kill Admiral James T. Kirk and seize the device.  During the movie's climax, Spock sacrifices himself to save the crew of USS Enterprise by entering a reactor chamber to perform critical repairs to the Enterprise's warp engines.  Radiation kills Spock, but the Enterprise makes it to safety at the very last second because, in his words, "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one."

More recently, The Dark Knight (2008) and Star Trek (2009) reinforce this theme.  In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent, Gotham's District Attorney rages against Batman for saving him rather than his fiance Rachel, both of whom have been kidnapped by the Joker in his efforts to create chaos in the city.  The result pushes Dent over the edge into madness.  At the end of the film, Batman conspires with Lt. Gordon to paint himself as the villain to save Dent's reputation at Gotham's soul.  The city, the masked hero argues needs to have Dent as a symbol of hope, so he volunteers to become hunted as a criminal despite his efforts to save the city.

J.J. Abrams' reboot of the Star Trek franchise in 2009 opens with Lt. George Kirk assuming command of a damaged starship, desperately fighting a superior enemy in order to allow the crew and families of the vessel to escape while he uses the ship to ram another vessel, masking their escape.  His son lives to become the Capt. James T. Kirk, the original franchise revolved around.  Later in the film, Capt. Christopher Pike, commander of USS Enterprise, goes to his almost certain death at the hands of the mysterious enemy in order to give Kirk, Spock, and the crew of the Enterprise vital time to escape and warn Starfleet of an imminent threat to the the Earth itself.

The heroic tradition, thus, lives on in our mass media, of which video games are the most recent incarnation.  The question I'm interested is in what we do with this tradition.  One path is to glorify it as a warrior tradition, in which determined and brave people, usually men, perform heroic feats beyond the ability or expectation of average citizens.  This is the Homeric path that Roger Travis takes us down with his discussion of Halo and the Iliad as examples of the epic ring cycle.  If so, I believe this is a potentially dangerous cultural turn for Americans given the United States Army's current obsession with the "warrior ethos" as the basis for its core ideal.  The Air Force has also adopted the "warrior" mindset as the basis for much of its most basic training, even to the point that it extended Basic Military Training and is working to instill the "warrior ethos" in drone pilots.

The problem is that the mindset of the warrior is intrinsically different from that of the soldier.  Warriors focus on the issue of fulfilling the mission without worrying about the niceties of how they get the mission done.  The primary focus is on physical and mental toughness, veneration of those the attributes that lead to success in combat, and, historically, disparaging the civilians warriors protect and civilian leaders who do not measure up on a small cluster of values.  This trend, in which some members of the United States Military deem themselves somehow morally superior to civilians, particularly politicians, has been evident since the Clinton administration, but has actually been reported in the mass media over the past two or three years.

Contrast this with the mindset of the soldier, particularly the citizen-soldier of the American ideal.  The ideals of the soldier are outwardly similar to those of the "warrior ethos" - focus on mission, not leaving comrades behind, physical and mental toughness.  One difference is that the citizen-soldier is part of American society, not apart from it.  Another, and equally important difference is that soldiers do far more than fight and kill.  The focus on "warrior" detracts from other options - the soft parts of military power like building schools and clinics, restoring law and order, fighting corruption, agricultural reform, etc... When not in combat, these are important missions, particularly when fighting what used to be called "low-intensity conflicts," where they can reduce the combat that does occur.  This is the "hearts and minds" stuff that you have to do along with providing physical security and engaging in traditional combat actions.  Building roads and bridges have been part of the soldierly arts since at least 300 BCE, and they can't just be turned over to contractors.  This is how the British built and maintained their Empire.

I'll have more about the contrasts between "warriors" and "soldiers" another time.  My point here is that while Halo and other media may reach back to our mythic past, as embodied by the Iliad, there is another way of looking at the heritage it represents.  Rather than the Iliad, perhaps the model should be Livy's Cincinnatus, a figure that seemed to speak to 18th century American leaders.  Cincinnatus was a typical Roman citizen.  He had enough wealth in the form of his farm to be a citizen and to serve in the main three lines of the legion, rose to lead Rome as Dictator, and after defeating the Aequians, Sabinians, and the Volscians, resigned his post before his six month term was up to return to his farm.

Cincinnatus represents the tradition we see among most Greek hoplites.  With the exception of Sparta, the Roman and Greek model was that of the citizen soldier.  American tradition venerates the Minutemen and other militia of the American Revolution, the volunteers and conscripts of the Civil War and the Spanish American War, and the citizen soldiers of World War II.  The vast majority of Vietnam Veterans were not professionals, but conscripted citizens who were simply doing their duty as Americans (albeit frequently after being drafted).  This tradition required the United States to maintain small professional forces that could command greatly enlarged forces when wars occurred. 

The tradition of the citizen-soldier is what we see in Saving Private Ryan and Star Trek.  I would argue that we can even interpret Halo in this manner.  The Spartans that are the primary cast of the Halo series are genetically engineered versions of our own Special Forces, which date back to the American Revolution.  They, along with regular Marines, do their duty to defend civilians and help them escape, sacrificing themselves only when they must in order to ensure that others survive to fulfill that mission.  This is part of the grand tradition of the citizen-soldiers of the United States Military.  Yes, there are folks who fit the tradition of Achilles rather than that of Cincinnatus, but Achilles, the sulky, if gifted warrior, does not fit with our tradition of Republican Democracy.

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