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War is All Hell: The use of moral ambiguity in Warcraft

Matthew Rossi

There's a long-standing rumor that Winston Churchill allowed the bombing of Coventry, even though he could have prevented it via intelligence gathered by cracking German war codes, in order to preserve the advantage of having cracked those codes. Is it true? I have no idea. More important for our discussion, however, is the idea of that decision. Imagine a leader having to decide to sacrifice civilians in order to preserve an advantage that might well win the entire conflict. It's often called the brutal algebra of warfare - you lose 10 million here, so that 20 million will live over there. You send a company off to die so that a regiment can survive and accomplish its mission. One of the great horrors of war is not just that people die, but that other people have to countenance their deaths.

One of my biggest problems with the Alliance/Horde conflict is that so far, it hasn't really demonstrated this idea. We've gotten to see the consequences of war - the survivors crying out for vengeance, settlements and towns destroyed, cities bombed, even the ruthless pragmatism of a leader willing to find and use any weapon he can to destroy his enemies. But while Garrosh Hellscream has played the role of relentless aggressor to the hilt, his opposite number hasn't shown how far he's willing to go. Varian Wrynn's participation in the 'A Little Patience' scenario shows that he's a more measured and contemplative leader than he once was, but we've yet to see just how extreme the measures he's willing to countenance are. So far, the only time the Alliance was willing to make morally questionable choices to win was in Dalaran, actions that were clearly the work of Jaina Proudmoore and Vereesa Windrunner. However you personally found those actions, it can't be denied that they not only advanced the story but showed a new side to Alliance leadership.

The reason I find myself musing about this is that I think that the 5.1 Dalaran quests did more to move the game's story forward than we've seen in some time, and they did so by making this war one where either side can and will do what is necessary to win. And it is that embodiment of that brutal alchemy - kill X to save Y and accomplish Z, even if X is your own - that makes for a compelling story. Absolutely, there were innocents whose only crime was being Sunreavers, who had nothing to do with the Divine Bell or its theft, who ended up in the Violet Hold for no other reason than that they got in the way. However you feel about the morality of that decision, the narrative weight of it resonates long after.We need more of this. We specifically need more of it from the Alliance, who have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to be good and honorable.

William Tecumseh Sherman was infamous for his pioneering of the concept of total war. During the American Civil War, Sherman deliberately marched a Union army into the very heart of the Confederacy, and his goal was to make war on civilian population centers and destroy the South's means of waging war. In the process, he waged a terror campaign against the entire Confederacy, burning cities, destroying railways, stealing food and supplies. He did this not in spite of the fact that it was barbaric and inhumane, but because of it. We could sit and discuss how Sherman did in fact give orders to minimize the suffering of the civilians to his own troops, but that isn't the point. The point is that the entire Atlanta campaign, and those that followed it, we designed first and foremost to win the war. This is where all wars ultimately go. Honor is a fine word and a noble sentiment, but in the end war demands nothing less than total commitment to victory.

The Horde has clearly displayed a mastery of this concept. For all the talk of honor, the battle cry of the Horde is Lok'tar Ogar - Victory or Death. When we first saw Garrosh Hellscream as a warchief, he still cared about honor. But he has since apparently moved past this concern, going so far as to Sha-taint his own people in order to try and harness the power of the Divine Bell, because without such measures victory is in doubt. From a narrative perspective, this is exactly the progression we might expect to see. As the Horde extends its battle-lines further, the war becomes ever more costly to prosecute, and the Horde simply doesn't have the resources to wage prolonged worldwide war against the Alliance in so many disparate locales. The entire Pandaria campaign is in fact aimed at gaining those resources, because without them, victory is impossible. The Horde fights a total war because the only alternative is defeat, surrender or encirclement and a slow death by strangulation as the Alliance cuts off their resources.

Patch 5.2, for all its interesting quests and new villains and its advancing of the Sunreaver/Kirin Tor plot, is ultimately something of a side-story. It's not the opening of a new battle-front, it's the exploration of what Garrosh's leadership has cost a Horde not fully united under the philosophy of Lok'tar Ogar - it clearly asks the question "If our only options are victory or death, and victory is improbably, what then?" in terms of the Sunreavers and the blood elves. Not all the Horde is willing to embrace so total a war as Hellscream desires. But from the Alliance perspective, it gives us Alliance leaders who fully have embraced total war. If Lor'themar is there to try and find leverage against his nominal Warchief, Jaina is there to prevent the Horde from accomplishing the least little thing. To a degree, Alliance strategy has become one of containment - since the Horde originally started this war during the Cataclysm by attacking and seizing territory, the Alliance will now simply keep forcing them to maintain an aggressive stance and wait for the pressure to crack their facade. And Jaina, at least, has proved able and willing to do what is needed no matter how personally objectionable it might be in order to successfully pursue that objective.

In general, I think the further the Alliance moves towards this kind of wartime pragmatism, the better the story in Mists has been. I found much of the Jade Forest fairly tedious from an Alliance perspective until suddenly Taylor had be arming fish men for an all out war with the Horde, completely injecting ourselves into a battle we didn't understand and had no real stake in. In order for the Alliance to be a credible opponent to the Horde, it needs to take actions that actually imperil the enemy - as interesting as Garrosh Hellscream's personality as Warchief might be, at the end of the day not all of the Horde's defeats and reversals can come from his poor leadership or decision making because that renders both sides weaker and less interesting. Camp Taurajo was an attempt at this kind of narrative, but it failed because Camp T simply wasn't significant and it fell hot on the hells of several much larger, more effective, and more brutal Horde offensives that negated Camp T's narrative weight. Instead of a tit for tat exchange, what is needed now is a clear Alliance action that destroys and destabilizes Horde forces, potentially kills Horde civilians, and is executed with no attempt at narrative symmetry. It could be anything - the Kirin Tor could fly Dalaran over the Plaguelands and take out Andorhal, the Seventh Legion could throw the Horde out of Gilneas and in the process establish forward camps on Fenris Isle and in the ruins of Alterac, poised to strike at the Horde in Undercity, Tarren Mill and beyond, or we could even see peaceful Mulgore fall under heavy attack from Alliance forces trying to divert the Horde away from Ashenvale.

War is all hell, it's been said many times. It's time this war showed the corrosive effect on morality wars have been known for throughout history.

Mists of Pandaria is here! The level cap has been raised to 90, many players have returned to Azeroth, and pet battles are taking the world by storm. Keep an eye out for all of the latest news, and check out our comprehensive guide to Mists of Pandaria for everything you'll ever need to know.

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