TCS Daily

Halo 2 and the New Heroism

By James Pinkerton - December 23, 2004 12:00 AM

"Halo 2" is a summons to an Heroic Age -- although the identity of the new heroes may turn out to surprise us. After all, if technology is changing everything else about our lives, why shouldn't it change heroism, too? Yup, "H2" gives us a lot to think about it, making it the perfect Christmas present for a holiday season that has offered us uncheery tidings of blood, sweat and tears.

"H2" isn't just entertaining or diverting. It's entrancing. It gives you goosebumps. It has a majestic quality to it; to play it is to be in a chilly but magnificent cathedral, created, as those old churches were, to inspire awe. In that sense, it's like "2001: A Space Odyssey". But like gargoyles lurking in a grand house of worship, it has a nasty, zingy wit as well. The monsters, called collectively "The Covenant," have a trash-talking way about them; they taunt the player as they scuttle around like spiders: "I'm looking for you!" And they have their scary secrets, too, sort of like the movie "Alien". And did I mention the music? It has the most affecting soundtrack since "Titanic" - oops, that wasn't a game, that was a movie.

But for the ADD Generation, games are better than movies, because they are interactive. As I can personally attest, it's possible to watch "H2" like a movie, as others play, but those who find themselves tempted to yell out at a movie, especially when a character is in peril, will find videogames infinitely more satisfying in their interactivity. Instead of yelling "Turn around, Ripley!" in the "Alien" movies, the game player can now turn the character around himself.

And it's that interactivity, between player and machine -- and between players and machines, since "H2" can accommodate multiple players -- that opens up new vistas for heroism.

We could sure use some serious heroism now. And maybe the needed jolt of hero-juice will be found in the Xbox and all the related wonder-technologies developed for the military but not yet produced and deployed into action. Because if we don't make that quantum jump into transformation in real battlespace, we're in for some rough years ahead -- followed by even rougher years.

On the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I argued that America was about to enter into a "Heroic Age." That is, President George W. Bush had summoned us to war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in late 2001, and now, in early 2003, he was about to summon us to war against Saddam Hussein. As I wrote then, "We grew up reading about epics and epochs, about Iliads and Odysseys, about knights and grails. But perhaps we never thought we'd see such a day ourselves." I took note of the just-released film about Gettysburg, "Gods and Generals," and quoted Chuck Colson, the Watergater-turned-religious-proselytizer, to argue that "Gods" was a reminder that Christianity was "a religion for heroes." Onward, Christian Soldiers -- onward American heroes, writing new glorious pages in 21st century war annals.

But perhaps I was over-optimistic. Today, after 1,300 Americans have been killed in Iraq over the past 21 months -- a fraction of those lost at Gettysburg in just three days -- support for the President's vaulting vision to transform the Middle East and establish "liberty century" is faltering.

Consider the headline in Tuesday's Washington Post: "56 Percent in Survey Say Iraq War Was a Mistake." That's a body blow to the Bush Doctrine. And if there's doubt on the homefront, there's trouble in the ranks, too, as incidents of insubordination and desertion pile up to disturbing levels. Even more disturbing was this recent header in The San Diego Union-Tribune: "Marines urged to seek help as suicides on rise." The few, the proud -- getting therapy?

One sage Washington think-tanker saw this counter-heroic trend coming. We can now all see that Edward Luttwak, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, was on to something when he wrote in a 1996 Foreign Affairs essay that in the current era's small families -- relatively few sons to part with -- would necessitate a "post-heroic" military policy for the US.

Luttwak's argument was mostly ignored at the time; the 90s were bubblish years of rising enthusiasm for the use of American power. But now we see, in Iraq, that Uncle Sam has something of a glass jaw. The neoconservative-inspired Bush Doctrine would have been a great policy -- for a different country, for a nation more willing to part with its sons in pursuit of long-term objectives.

Yet Americans are hardly about to "cut and run" from Iraq. The same Washington Post poll showed that even though a majority think that Operation Iraqi Freedom was a mistake, 58 percent still think we should stay in Iraq until order is restored. In fact, even after the Mosul Massacre, the dovish New York Times had to concede that most Americans wanted to tough it out; the headline in Wednesday's paper was "Fighting On Is the Only Option, Americans Say."

So what to do? Should Bush continue to prosecute an unpopular war? He hasn't even been re-inaugurated yet, and the Post shows his approval/disapproval rating is 48:49. Not much of a second honeymoon there. And the news upcoming isn't so bright: American officials, burned so many times by over-optimism, are now loath to make predictions about the future. But British officials are talking about keeping their troops in Iraq for another 10 years, while the Italians are reportedly headed out in 2005. And so it's hard to see how, at this rate, America will be able to bring the blessings of freedom to, say, Syria, Iran, or Saudi Arabia.

Clearly, the way America fights its wars needs to be rethought. If we aren't quite as stoic and heroic as we thought two years ago, does that mean that we are out of options in the projection of military force? Do we risk becoming a "pitiful, helpless giant", as another Republican president, also bogged down in an unpopular war, worried more than three decades ago?

Richard Nixon, firm warrior that he was, could not stop America from losing in Vietnam. But today, technology could come to the rescue of this president, as well as future war-fighting presidents.

I gained a glimpse of how new military technology -- much of it lifted from video games -- was going to function when I visited the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Ca. earlier this year. There, in the middle of the Mojave, the Army is proving that high tech can obviate most risk to humans on the battlefield. Death coming down upon the enemy from above is a much better war scenario war than American KIA's reported on the evening news.

What I saw in those Fort Irwin simulations was amazing, but still too manpower intensive. The Army is only partially transformed if it is finds itself so short of young men that it must send 50-year-old National Guardsmen, headed to Iraq, huffing and puffing up and down stairs in war games, looking for stray AK-47s -- that's hardly in keeping with the heroic vision. And I will never forget talking to a sly and lithe young man from Baltimore, an "opfor" -- that is, playing an Iraqi insurgent -- who had just "killed" 13 American National Guardsmen in a laser-tag simulation. He was simply cooler and quicker than the other Americans, and so he got off all his shots while his targets were floundering in a narrow stairwell.

So the answer to manpower shortages is to go long on technology. That is, more input from the machines and less input, at least on the actual battlefield, from humans.

We have plenty of heroes and would-be heroes in America, but maybe not enough -- especially when families and a sentimentalizing media are factored into the politico-military equation.

But we have an infinite supply of heroic machines. Indeed, much of the story of the American military over the past two centuries has been the steady upping of materiel, so as to save manpower. Now we need to accelerate this effort.

In the past I have written about the ongoing "Starship Trooperization" of the US military. I was paying homage not only to Robert Heinlein's famous 1959 novel; I was also urging the Pentagon to go faster, please. Because even Starship Troopers put too much emphasis on the space-borne "mobile infantry," which was distinctly expendable in combat.

Of course, even the highest tech military will need a few Men of War. And that's where "H2" comes in. Forget Rasczak's Roughnecks, as envisioned by Heinlein. Think instead about the mostly solitary Master Chief as envisioned by Bungie Studios, a unit of Microsoft. And although the game's makers suggest that Master Chief is a human being, there's no real proof of that. But whatever he is -- man, mutant, cyborgs, robot -- he's a stone killer, and so, by extension, are the people controlling him on their Xboxes. And it shouldn't be long before the game goes to ground, when killer-controller combos are deployed into the real blood-and-guts battlefield.

That's symbiosis, between killer and controller, is the basis of the Next Heroism. And it will no doubt be more spectacular, more the source of future sagas and chansons, than any mere game.

But wait a second, some might protest -- how is it heroic to a push a button? How is it heroic to sit miles, or even continents, away from the actual carnage, working hand-eye coordination? No doubt such Luddite quibbles were heard when warriors first developed armor, or the tank, or the airplane, or the UAV. The blunt fact is that winners use their brains, while losers use nothing but their bare hands.

So the man-machine fusion is nothing new. We just have to make it newer, that's all. And if that means more use of robots, so that machines stalk and wheel and fly exclusively in the killzones, so be it. Besides, some day soon, those machines will be sapient enough to develop their own sense of the thrill of battle, or the joy of the knife, thus adding a whole new element to the heroic ethos. But with proper programming, there's no "Terminator"-type danger of rebellion; they will always be strong, obedient, and, above all, heroic.

Yet in spite of all logic and precedent, some might still insist that there's nothing heroic about sending machines into battle. And so for their benefit, allow me to make one last point about 21st century warfare. In an environment of weapons of mass destruction, long-range missiles, and particleized terror, there are no safe places anymore. So far, in the overall Global War on Terror that began on September 11, 2001, more American civilians have died than American military personnel. By that reckoning, the homefront is more dangerous than the battlefront.

So in the near future, when the Xboxers grow up a little, put on uniforms, and deploy three-dimensional Master Chiefs on search-and-destroy missions in faraway places, we must understand that they -- and their loved ones at home across these United States -- will still be at grave risk. Nothing soft or flabby or sissy about that.

In other words, Americans everywhere will still have their chance to be heroes. The Heroic Age is still upon us, like it or not. And if we must share our heroism with brave machines? Well, a country can never have too many heroes.


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