Back by popular demand, it’s another instalment of our Independent Philosophical Analysis of Spec Ops: The Line! (This one actually has really major plot spoilers. If you haven’t played the game through at least once, you should stop reading now. You’ve been warned)
In my last column I talked about the questions of ethics underlying Spec Ops: The Line. This time, we’ll be dealing with the impact of the main plot twist: Should actions of convenience be taken over actions of ethical correctness?
There’s a mission in the middle of Spec Ops: The Line, in which the only way for you to successfully advance is to make use of a white phosphorous mortar to wipe out an entire camp of US soldiers- and, as it turns out, local civilians whom the soldiers had been providing with medical care. At the end of this mission, Captain Walker makes radio contact for the first time with Colonel Konrad- the commanding officer of the US soldiers you’ve been fighting, and whom you’ve been pursuing more or less since arrival in Dubai.
As Delta Squad continue their advance through his forces, Konrad continues to antagonise Walker via radio. At one point you come across two people, bound and suspended from a beam, and Konrad informs you that you must choose which of them to execute, or you’ll be shot yourself.
Eventually, having carved your way through more or less the entire 33rd Battalion and a large number of locals, you finally confront Konrad- only to learn that he is a figment of Walker’s imagination. The real Colonel John Konrad died long before you arrived in Dubai, having committed suicide after sending out the broadcast you were initially sent to investigate. Walker has been hallucinating, most likely due to severe PTSD, ever since the incident with the white phosphorous. He’s broken by the aftermath of the white phosphorous on a camp filled not just with soldiers, but also civilians, and he comes up with a narrative that makes it not his fault.
It’s a narrative that Walker, the character, needs, but it’s also a narrative that most players accept without question, because it’s again playing into what we expect. The game doesn’t cheat on this point- when you’re paying much closer attention on a second play-through there’s a point where you actually see the radio is broken. There are multiple instances of your squad-mates responding to your “dialogue” with Konrad in a way that makes it clear that they can’t hear him. That scene with the two people hanging from the beam? They’d both been dead weeks, and your comrades’ responses at the time make much more sense when you’re aware of this.
So, getting back to our earlier question, should actions of convenience be taken over actions of ethical correctness?
In his book on Firmness, the Roman philosopher Seneca noted that wisdom in and of itself can prohibit wrong ethical decisions from taking place. He stated:
‘But the wise man can lose nothing. He has everything invested in himself, he trusts nothing to fortune, his own goods are secure, since he is content with virtue, which needs no gift from chance, and which, therefore, can neither be increased nor diminished.’ [p. 61]*
In Walker’s instance, the solution could be as simple as possessing the wisdom to accept that ethically wrong decisions are not viable compromises. In the instance of the white phosphorous attack on the refugee camp, before firing the mortar, Walker’s squamate John Lugo mentioned that the use of white phosphorus is ethically wrong. When Walker persists in using the white phosphorous, claiming that there are no other options, Lugo tells Walker that there is always a choice.
This element of choice is later reinforced by Walker’s own narrative. Later in the game, Walker attempts to justify his actions to Konrad, claiming that he had no choice in using the white phosphorous. However, Walker’s own fictional narrative begins to unravel when his subconsciously created antagonist, Konrad, confides to Walker that: There was always a choice. You just fucked it up. It’s worth noting that Walker doesn’t even attempt to rebut Konrad’s assessment of his total failure.
If Walker had possessed the wisdom to see Lugo’s point, and choose an ethical solution, rather than a solution that was convenient at the time, perhaps he wouldn’t have needed the narrative that he later engineered to justify his actions.
* Quote taken from Seneca, Moral Essays Volume 1 – Loeb Classical Library.