Battlefield 1 and Modern Memory

Battlefield 1 will be an action-stuffed, blockbuster-style war game... about a conflict that many people still feel very strongly about, and about deaths that many people still consider sacred.

For whatever reason, I’ve spent a lot of time this year reading about the First World War. It was on February 21, 1916, that the German Army launched an offensive against the French at Verdun which eventually sucked in two million. On May 16 Joseph Joffre, the French commander, told the British that if they did not mount their own attack by August "the French Army would cease to exist". And on July 1, on the north bank of the river Somme, the British generals sent 13 divisions sometimes running but mostly walking towards a fortified defensive line which even the largest artillery barrage in history had failed to destroy. In the first half hour 30,000 men were killed or wounded, and in some units the effective casualty rate reached 90%.   

So perhaps you can understand why, when Battlefield 1 was announced in May, I thought of all that and heard a spectral marketer’s voice cry out: “Now, you can too!”

“Discover,” I heard him wheedle, “a nightmare landscaped of barbed wire and scorched tree stumps which seems to mock the very idea of civilization.” “Endure,” I saw the back of the box proclaim, “alternating periods of squalid boredom and terrifying bombardment before going over the top and bleeding to death in a waterlogged crater.” “Plunge,” I heard the deep voice intone over the TV ad, “into a flooded labyrinth of lice, rats and dysentery in which only a single scrap of narrow sky prevents you from succumbing to the conviction that you are already dead and inside one giant mass grave.” My friends, if in some smothering dream you too could experience these things, you would not quote so enthusiastically the old lie: “Join in epic multiplayer battles with up to 64 players.”

Watching the official reveal livestream only made things worse. I wasn’t the only one who was disturbed to see Wilfred Owen’s “green sea” of poison gas become just another exciting moment in a montage set to a grimy electronic remix of ‘Seven Nation Army’. As DICE developers and Microsoft flacks sat on stage, yapping excitedly about how players could “really drown in the experience” (like all those boys drowned in the mud of Paeschendaele?), I felt suddenly as if I were watching some ghoulish cooking program in which fresh-faced celebrity chefs cheerfully discussed the best way to braise and spiralize human flesh. 

Why did I have this reaction? After all, I’m not sure it makes sense. Yes, WW1 was an awful calamity that killed an estimated 18 million people. But WW2 killed more than three times that, and I doubt it was any more pleasant to live through. And there are dozens of games, including games I love and games in the Battlefield series, which adopt that conflict as a pretext for what is basically sport. Why does this game, and not any of those, inspire in me this intense and quite involuntary feeling of revulsion – in fact, of sacrilege?

Part of the answer is that it’s a European thing (as well as a Commonwealth thing). When I asked on Twitter if WW1 meant the same thing to Americans as it did in Britain, most people said no:

That computes: the USA only entered the war in 1917, whereas the British were involved from the beginning. And while Europe for Americans was always, as the popular song put it, “over there”, England was close enough to the Western Front that summer bathers on the southern coast could sometimes hear artillery fire. When 19 huge underground bombs opened the Battle of the Somme – then the largest man-made explosion in history – their noise could be heard in London. Indeed, the cross-channel postal system remained stable enough that one British general at the front who inquired into the fate of a wounded orderly back in England received a whole cake back to thank him for his concern. It is natural such a war would have a greater cultural effect in Europe than outside it.

But the meaning of WW1 in Europe, and its distinction from that of other wars, goes beyond mere proximity, into a place of deep national trauma. In 1914 British faith in European civilization was at its very height. This was an empire at the apex of its confidence and self-regard, with powerful ideals of progress, sacrifice, and honor. Those ideals were strongly reflected in the novels, poems, history books, and magazines of the time, which – widely read by a newly literate populace – combined them with the excitement of foreign adventure. Fusing pleasure with duty, they established a myth of war as jolly and jolly righteous.

When the war broke out, this myth helped drive a vast and unprecedented outpouring of patriotism from all sections of society. Whole towns and villages – or entire professions from the larger cities – joined up together, forming “Pals battalions”. Writers who were there depicted the summer before the war as a time of Edenic innocence – such as the novelist Christopher Isherwood, who described his mother’s 1914 diaries as follows: 

“The morbid fascination of a document which records, without the dishonesty of hindsight, the day by day approach to a catastrophe by an utterly unsuspecting victim.”

Or, as the historian Paul Fussell put it:

“Out of the world of summer, 1914, marched a unique generation. It believed in Progress and Art and in no way doubted the benignity even of technology. The word ‘machine’ was not yet invariably coupled with the word ‘gun’.”

What followed was an equally vast disillusionment. Advances in artillery and machine gun technology had created a new tactical reality which heavily favored defenders and inflicted shocking casualties on attackers. The ramshackle trench systems the British thought would only need to last them a few months became their permanent and squalid home. The French countryside was transformed into a flat, apocalyptic wasteland which eerily presaged the nuclear ruins we have spent the last fifty years imagining.

This was also the continent’s first truly industrialized war, in which the same technologies many people assumed would soon abolish poverty were instead deployed for slaughter of unprecedented scale and speed. Pals battalions turned out to be a good way of wiping out huge numbers of a single town’s young men in the space of a few hours; after 1916, they were broken up to avoid mass grief. By then, the storybook myth of glorious adventure had died in No Man’s Land, along with the whole era of warfare which had inspired it. As the poet Philip Larkin later wrote: “Never such innocence again.”

In their place new myths arose, taking their shape from the memoirs of bitter veterans and the visions of avant-garde artists who saw in WW1 the psychic destruction of an entire civilization. TS Eliot’s The Waste Land remixed images from the trenches into a shattered landscape in which even meaning has fallen apart. Siegfried Sassoon, a former officer, fantasized about throwing grenades into crowds of civilians and politicians who had endorsed the war. Sigmund Freud looked at the whole mess and and wondered, in Civilization and its Discontents, how long “progress” could last. This analysis of WW1 – as the war which broke Britain’s psyche – was sealed into public memory by 1960s counterculture and its allies in academic history, who saw the war as everything wrong with the imperial elite whom they were trying to demolish. There’s a good reason why WW1 films generally occupy a much narrower range of tone and expression than films about WW2. There may be ironic comedy like Blackadder, but there is no Kelly’s Heroes of the Somme.

Even today, none of this is easily redeemed or given meaning. With WW2 we basically understand, or think we understand, the differences between the sides and the reasons why they thought. We can make an argument that it was a just war which led to a good outcome. But WW1 makes absolutely no sense to modern ethical sensibility, nor indeed did it make much to many people at the time. Despite the efforts of contemporary propagandists to depict it as a conflict between British “liberty” and German “militarism”, we now see it – rightly or wrongly – as the dementia of a discredited international system, in which stiff, blinkered elites locked into an intricate network of alliances and rivalries were thrown senselessly together by an obscure crime in a country many of the people who died knew very little about.

What’s more, we now know that ‘victory’ created the conditions which led to the next war, which was four times as deadly. So WW2 and WW1 occupy opposite poles of the British public’s attitude to war: one, a proud moment which proves war can be necessary and worthwhile; the other, a pointless debacle which may discredit war completely. This is why historical interpretation of WW1 remains a divisive political issue.

Moreover, the iconography of WW1 is now permanently woven into Britain’s memorial conventions. It was in 1915 that Fabian Ware, a mining executive and Red Cross ambulance commander, devoted his life to reforming the slapdash state of soldiers’ graves. Today his Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains 1.7 million graves in 153 countries using the same standardized design and in many cases the same type of stone he chose.

Meanwhile, the date and time of the 1918 truce became Britain’s day of remembrance for all its soldiers in all its wars, and the poppies that grew frequently in Flanders at the time have become their symbol. Together these conventions form a kind of secular religion whose annual ceremonies exert an emotional pull even on those like me who find their politics problematic. Like Christmas, poppy season seems to start earlier every year – and British politicians, citizens, or even search engines ignore it at their peril. 

This is why WW1 feels different to other European wars. For Britain it was materially worse than any which had preceded it, even though it began with more optimism than any that followed. Its unique cultural context made the contrast between its expectations and its results particularly stark. It occupies a unique place in national mythology, as the war which broke Britain’s psyche. And ever since then it has been a prism through which we view all wars, and war itself.

Yet this explanation contains the seeds of its own pointlessness. If the meaning of WW1 is specific to British or European culture – and particular sections of those cultures at that – I can’t see how I can justify expecting others to share my discomfort. It’s even murkier what kind of line I could draw which would forbid casual adoption of WW1 as a playground but permit the same use of WW2. Public memory has selectively edited both wars: WW1as a mess of “mud, blood and futility” and WW2 as a heroic series of rapid advances and combined-arms assaults (whereas in reality each had their share of both). Anyway, whose memory? Other games I find uncontroversial may strike some people as deeply horrific, and with good reason; perhaps I should simply accept that WW1 does not mean the same to everyone as it does to me. If any Battlefield game is acceptable at all, so is this one.

The alternative is a radical declaration: that all games which use real wars as multiplayer playgrounds, even ones which are concerned nakedly with providing a fun time rather than critiquing or commenting on war as such, are equally bad (let’s be clear that story-based singleplayer games are a different discussion in which different standards pertain). That it’s wrong for the game industry to treat any traumatic historical episode as just another ‘setting’ to be annexed by the sequel machine,  and that BF1 exposes the crassness of all of them. That’s a tempting argument, and there’s some truth in it. But I find it difficult to completely embrace.

Until society looks very different, and maybe even after that, people of all ages will always play at war. They will always get a kick – juvenile and atavistic, perhaps, but a kick – out of imaginary combat, and the kick will increase as it gets more realistic (before, perhaps, sharply dropping off). Hell, I do, and will probably enjoy BF1 very much; won’t you? Indeed, one of the most horrible truths about war is that war itself is fun, at least for some people; soldier after soldier after soldier admits it. As former New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges has written, war is a kind of addictive drug which “can give us what we long for in life...purpose, meaning, a reason for allows us to be noble." Of course we can read these war fantasies critically, dissect their ideology, skewer their deceptive or stereotypical depictions of the specifics of each conflict. Still, I hesitate to say there is no such thing as an ethical Battlefield game.

I also don't want all war games to be reverent. For one thing, some of the most interesting texts about WW1 have been comic and ridiculous. The best WW1 game I've played (okay, it's not a crowded field) is 1916: The War You Never Knew, in which the player navigates a trench system while pursued by literal dinosaurs. The introduction of so completely ludicrous and alien an element actually helps it express some of the terror and absurdity of the western front.

Anyway, stuffing all war games into some stiff morning suit of respectable memorialism, with each half-hour serving of power fantasy dutifully draped in mournful strings and sombre dedications to Those Who Died, would be worse than crass. Most of the time it would just mean jingoism by the back door. Advocating this would make me the very caricature of an Edwardian moralist, demanding all my thrills be either blatantly frivolous to avoid offense (as in the cartoonish Battlefield Heroes) or wrapped in false reverence before I nevertheless enjoy them. These thrills wouldn't vanish; they'd only be subjected to a kind of moral tax, thereby laundering them.

And yet. After watching the BF1 launch livestream I decided to see how Youtubers were reacting. One of them watched the trailer I had watched while squealing his reactions over the time. “Biplanes! Ohhmygodyes,” he gushed, as each new signifier of WW1-ness flashed onto the screen. “Ohymgod! War blimps!” And as I listened to him I was suddenly very scared and very freaked out. This guy looked like young, surely no older than 21, and here he was salivating over this stuff with seemingly very little consciousness of what it all meant. And all I could think about was how, 100 years ago, in 1916, this kid would probably have been fighting in France.

Then, war propaganda was about high ideals as well as adventure: glory, honor, service to your country, being able to look your children in the eye. Today, much of it is pure hedonism. Films like Lone Survivor sell war as some kind of spiritual, enriching gap year experience with an exultant post-rock soundtrack. Army recruitment videos offer a world of foreign travel and unforgettable experiences like they were touting on TripAdvisor. The Islamic State explicitly apes Call of Duty in its depiction of the Syrian quagmire as an exciting opportunity for spiritual self-actualization. It seems enough, in 2016, that war be exciting, and perhaps as a bonus that it look good on your CV.

Probably I can make my peace with BF1. Maybe there’s nothing more to my reaction than instinctive outrage at a trespass against something I’ve been trained to think of as sacred.  But in that Youtube video, and across our whole industry, I can see the ghost of a terrible machine – a machine which flourished at the dawn of the 20th century, whose function was to sow and to nourish a passion in young minds which could later be reaped by an empire. Of course I’m disturbed to see that machine still operating, still churning, and now reconstituting the very war which was supposed to have smashed it apart. It’s one thing to play at war; quite another for that play to be systematically provoked and facilitated in a society whose rulers systematically benefit from it. Without singling out BF1 in particular, it might be wise for all of us to pause and consider the ways in which our harmless and quite unblasphemous fun gives body to that machine.