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Faith and Steel: A Warrior's Manifesto

Death or something like it

by Steve Bergeron
Jul 22,2002


Death or something like it

"Old soldiers never die, they just fade away."
What a load of Crap! It should read:
"Old soldiers eventually die, but first they open bars."

Death happens to everyone, but few people have to face it every day. All warriors must live with the harsh reality that death is the hallmark of their profession. Above and beyond anything else, the purpose of a warrior is to kill. Even more difficult is the reality that the warrior might die. The concept is incredibly simple, but the execution (excuse the pun) is incredibly complex.

But Killing is Evil!

Is it, really? Why? Is the wolf that kills the deer to survive "evil"? Is the woman who shoots the scum that's trying to rape her "evil"? Is the soldier that throws the grenade into the enemy machine gun nest so that his buddies can advance without being cut down "evil"? What about the "heroic" soldiers that buried alive thousands of Iraqi infantry by bulldozing their trenches during Desert Storm, were they "evil"? What about the Special Forces sniper that will someday put a bullet in the head Osama Bin Laden from a mile away, he is committing a premeditated murderous act fuelled by the need for vengeance, is he "evil"?

No, killing IS NOT evil. Killing is a part of existence. Predators kill to survive, and so do the prey trying to protect themselves. The difference between right and wrong or good and evil is intent. Since the beginning of history the leaders of countries have determined what is "evil" intent and what is not. Soldiers are given justification to kill from their leaders in form of assurance that their intentions are noble. Whether or not this is actually true, soldiers are compelled to believe so by their superiors. While not in combat, this is generally enough to reassure troops, but studies have shown that during the heat of combat, soldiers justify killing for very different reasons.

Killing is not evil, but it is by no means an easy thing to do physically or emotionally. Killing, under most circumstances, is forbidden by society, and so when a soldier is called to do so, there are certain psychological barriers that he or she must overcome. There are many factors that allow a soldier to overcome the hesitance to commit violence, but three stand out amongst them: The protection of oneself, the protection of one's comrades, and the dehumanization of the enemy. The first plays off simple survival instinct; that man is trying to kill me. I do not want to die. I can stop him by killing him first. The second has been argued to be the most important. Recent movies, such as Blackhawk Down, We Were Soldiers, and Band of Brothers, have given an excellent illustration of how soldiers treat battle. The theory goes that the soldier cares little for the lofty ideals of whichever war that he is fighting, but he will do anything to protect his fellow "brother" soldiers. The motivation to "not let the team down" encourages the soldier to fight. The third is based off a fairly simple principle: It is very difficult to kill a person who has a life and a family, and all of the normal things we expect people to have. It is very easy to kill an evil monster that is not human and cannot be seen as such. During WWI the allies fought the "Huns" during WWII it was the "Nazis" and the "Japs." In Vietnam, the enemies were the "gooks" and now the enemies are all "terrorists." These people were never referred to as the good people of (insert country here) who all had wives, children, and lives to return to after the war. An enemy that is perceived to be a monster is no longer human, thus the natural hesitance to kill people no longer applies.

So what does this all mean for an RPG warrior character?

It means maybe you should think twice before you swing your sword or take aim for your next shot. The line between murder and combat is finer than you might think. In game time it is unlikely that your warrior will hesitate at all, he will choose his course of action and follow it. But you as the player might want to consider what direction the character is going. Is your character so jaded that he can kill easily? Perhaps he is eager to kill monsters and demons and aliens. There is no dehumanization necessary in the case of orcs and trolls, especially if the cannon of the RPG world has determined them to be irrefutably evil. Another possibility is that he thinks nothing at all of the morality of what he does and acts simply to protect the rest of the party/platoon/team. This can mean surrendering judgement of what is good and evil to another Player Character, something that some might be hesitant to do, but something that combat soldiers do all of the time when following the orders of their commanders. This especially easy if the enemy consists of the definitely "evil" monsters that are the hallmark of so many games, and there is little reason for a warrior to question the judgement of killing them.

Where things get complicated is when good and evil are not so clear-cut. People killing people is a tricky prospect to consider. Whether it is war, duels, or police shooting criminals, in real life, killing is not taken lightly, even by those with "permission" to do it, and they often have to answer for their actions later. Some games do illustrate this very well, while others see killing in the same way as action movies: the bad guys are there to be killed. Many games play on this by providing "extras" or "lackeys" or "grunts" that are especially easy to take down. For the most part, it can be said that the characters are acting in self-defence when fighting the multitudes of inept masses that come their way, and imposing the harshness of reality on these kinds of games would do much more harm than good.

Perhaps the question that you should ask is "how does my character view death?" The answers can range anywhere from " timid kind-hearted pacifist" to "vicious blood-thirsty murderer." Maybe your character is hesitant to kill even in self-defence, or is hesitant to let anything survive. This is something that you can decide in advance, often with traits, perks, or flaws, or something that can be decided during play, ie "your character comes across his sworn enemy, but finds him utterly defenseless, what do you do?" It helps to think these sorts of choices through, as often, the wrong one can make your character quite dead. (That enemy wasn't so defenseless after all...)

That last bit there, the quite dead thing, is definitely worth talking about. The fact of the matter is that characters die. Warrior characters (hopefully) die in combat. Every now and again, we get out fought, out sniped, blown up, torn to pieces, burned to a crisp, eaten, dissolved, vaporized, drowned, beheaded, liquefied (ewww!), used as a base ball, crushed flat, flung off a cliff, or sometimes just plain shot. Humans have a lot of self- preservation reflexes that are designed to protect them from harm. If you touch your hand to something burning hot, you reflexively recoil from it, if you see something moving towards your face, you pull away and close your eyes, and if you perceive an immediate threat, you either attack it or try to escape. Sometimes these reflexes, even when combined with training and equipment, are not good enough to escape the danger presented. This when all of those previously mentioned nasty things start to happen. How a warrior character handles the prospect of his own death is often worth exploring. Is he terrified by the thought of it? Doe he even think about it at all? Maybe, deep down, he is looking forward to his own death and fighting some one capable of killing him. Maybe the idea of death doesn't bother him at all, but he is terrified of being maimed, or blinded, or burned.

Whatever the warrior's fear may be, if he has any at all, (most do, even Thrag the Barbarian is afraid of being maimed and a burden to those around him, although if you ask him about it he will probably introduce his axe to your face, as he has few reservations about killing anyone who would question his bravery.) it is the ability to overcome that fear and fight the enemy that is the true mark of the warrior.

Next month I'll be back with a rant on the tools of the trade. But until then I leave you with a reminder from General George Patton: "The object of war is not to die for your country but to make that other bastard die for his."

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What do you think?

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  • Downtime by Steve Bergeron, 26feb03
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