Grimdark in the City: On Warhammer 40,000 and urban warfare

A game of Warhammer 40,000. Distances between models on the playing field must be measured with tools, as there is no grid, apparently. Image: Joxemai/Wikimedia Commons.

In the grim darkness of the far future – as the blurb of every Warhammer 40,000 product begins – there is only war. Games Workshop’s sci-fi tabletop game and the books, comics, videogames and merch it has spawned are set in a dystopian universe where war is everywhere, on every world, in the deserts and the mountains and, yes, the streets of bleak futuristic cities.

In the slightly less grim darkness of about a decade ago, I found myself pitching Warhammer 40,000 novel ideas to Black Library, the publishing arm of the Games Workshop empire. This seemed like a good fit – I retained a fondness for the property from a brief phase of obsession during my teens, although I’d never been much of a wargamer, and I liked the Black Library books I read, which struck me as a kind of 21st century pulp, violent popular fiction. I could do that, I thought: I just needed to get my head into a military fiction mindset.

The war stories I was drawn to were not about sweeping battlefields or large scale manouveres, but urban warfare. There’s plenty of precedent in Warhammer 40,000 for ruined cityscapes – the human Imperium has hive cities on countless worlds, hideous urban sprawls of towering fascistic architecture, titanic statues looming over narrow streets and the morbid, skull-based iconography of the Imperium carved on every possible surface.

These cities are illustrated in striking fashion in the pages of the table top game’s chunky illustrated rulebooks, but also brought to life in elaborate dioramas for tabletop play or display, and Games Workshop sells the pieces to build your own structures. The idea of the shattered urban landscape as a battleground is firmly, if you’ll excuse the pun, entrenched.

As someone who isn’t a military history buff, and who never got entirely into the tabletop game because he doesn’t have the mindset for games of strategy, I needed to do a bit of research, and began to dig around the fact and fiction of urban warfare. I wanted to draw not just on formal warfare between nations – Stalingrad and other cities where war has dug in – but wider ideas of urban conflict, especially the increasingly militarised conflict between police and gangs in Brazil as fictionalised in movies like City of God and Elite Squad.

One research hole led me to this excellent post from BLDGBLOG about the way Bruce Willis’ John McClane negotiates the crawlspaces and lacunae of Nakatomi Plaza in the film Die Hard;  that in turn led me to ‘Lethal Theory’ by Eyal Weizman, a paper on how the Israeli Defence Force reimagines and reshapes the city in times of conflict. Both pieces portray a form of urban warfare where our ideas about architecture and space are deliberately disrupted to confound and destroy an entrenched enemy.

The short version: if the enemy has mastered the conventional space of corridors, streets, windows and doors through patrols, sniper spots and traps, then any incursion into their territory must avoid all those conventional routes and spaces. Just as John McClane used lift shafts, air vents and a swing from one window to another to evade and confound Hans Gruber’s gang, so Israeli forces smashed through doors, floors and ceilings to search for Palestinian militants in the West Bank, moving from room to room and avoiding any conventional, potentially hazardous form of entrance or exit.     

That’s a very simplified explanation, but it’s easy to start to see how clean fiction differs from complex reality. Die Hard’s Nakatomi Plaza is an office building, deserted apart from the terrorists and hostages, the latter of whom are being kept in one location: McClane can therefore smash through the cold, functional office environments safe in the knowledge that he’s trashing a soulless workplace and that only the bad guys can get hurt. There’s a frisson not just in the heroic challenge of one man against incredible odds, but the transgressive joy of seeing a work space like your own blown to bits as the site of redemptive violence.

The real life actions described in ‘Lethal Theory’ are more complicated. The spaces being violated by the IDF forces smashing through walls and ceilings were domestic: highly armed soldiers hammering or detonating their way into civilian homes, throwing in a flash grenade or even blind firing a few rounds to subdue those within. Civilians would then be handcuffed and locked in a room without food or water or toilet facilities until the end of the military action. While such operations are fraught with the possibility of danger and active threats beyond every wall that falls, they are palpably indifferent to the prospect of innocents in the way. As Weizman states, “The transgression of domestic boundaries must be seen as the very manifestation of state repression.” Ploughing through homes with military force isn’t just a route to approach armed enemies: it sends a powerful message to the civilians who encounter such aggression.     

My first Warhammer 40,000 novel, Iron Guard, weaves many of the ideas about urban conflict I’d researched into the story. I had a lead character who, prior to his recruitment into the Imperial Guard, negotiated the dangerous corridors of the hive complexes of his homeworld with the same fluidity that the characters in City of God traverse the favelas. I managed to work in some of the ideas about Nakatomi space, and the demolition tactics described in ‘Lethal Theory’. As in Die Hard, I gave my fictional heroes David and Goliath odds, and cleared innocent civilians out of their way, somewhat sanitising the realities for what was, after all, a work of fiction for entertainment.

In the end, I’m not sure whether much of it was even helpful in terms of the kind of escapist military fiction the Warhammer 40,000 fan wants to read. The universe of Warhammer 40,000 is a dystopia, but its one that requires a certain level of heroic identification; and those heroic plot beats are grounded in a military mythology of valour and heroic sacrifice that fits uneasily with a cautious room-to-room neutralisation of potential threats.

The Warhammer 40,000 universe is also based on a game, and games require clear rules and a level playing field, a certain level of fairness. Tabletop war games are rooted in Napoleonic ideals whereby the grand strategies of the generals win out – but that’s not the way modern urban warfare plays out at all. As Weizel says in ‘Lethal Theory’, the “complexity and ambiguity of urban reality” confounded the idea of a fixed battle plan: one of his interviewees told him, “It becomes impossible to draw up battle scenarios or single-track plans to pursue.” Instead of fixed plans, units need to be given the ‘toolbox’ of strategies to respond to the many scenarios they may encounter. These micro-decisions might be reflected in the moment-to-moment playing of a wargame – but they sit uneasily with the ideal of a game grounded in tactics.

In the end I wrote a couple of novels and several short stories in the Warhammer 40,000, but became burned out and moved on to other things – ironically, considering we’re talking about war fiction, I think I needed to have been deeper embedded in the fandom and fiction of the universe to do it justice.

Having started out trying to bring some awareness of modern urban conflict into my work on the property, I ended up rooting my later stories in a more straightforward idea of conventional warfare drawn from the past – of war story tropes like naval battles and siege weapons, trenches and bunkers. I will leave it to readers to decide whether my work in the universe gets more or less interesting as I settled into a more conventional war story groove; you can find them all here.

Maybe there’s a smarter writer out there who can crack the formula of injecting the real life ambiguities of modern urban warfare into the operatic military dystopia of Warhammer 40,000. (They might have done it already, I always had a problem keeping up with my fellow writers on the line.) Or perhaps the reality is a too grim, too dark, too muddy and ambivalent for even that bleak universe.

 
 
 
 

In New Zealand, climate change is driving an eco-nationalist revival

The green and pleasant land of the South Island. Image: Getty.

“Ten years ago I would have called them settler f*****g land squatters,” Mike Smith, Maori-dom’s most tenacious activist, said last November as he reflected on the agriculture industry’s central role in driving climate change. “Now I have to try and get these people on board.”

Smith is infamous for taking a chainsaw to Auckland’s most prominent tree on a damp October night in 1994 in protest of the “Pākehā” – or white European –dominated government’s fiscal envelope restraining treaty settlements. Now he’s turned his hand to another cause close-to-home for the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous population: the environment.

“We’re super vulnerable, like we are to anything,” Smith says. “When it comes to climate change it’s like the poorest people in the world are going to be hit the hardest first, and that’s a lot of us.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appears, at least rhetorically, the most sympathetic leader to his cause in a decade. In her campaign launch speech late last year, she made the future government’s position clear: “Climate change is my generation’s nuclear free moment.”

This message should resonate with followers of her Labour party: the NZ left has long nurtured an environment-orientated “culture-of-protest”. So Ardern’s call to arms was bound to gain her loyal support among children of the 1960s and ‘70s, who led the march against nuclear ship visits, spurring on the government of the time to wriggle out from the US nuclear umbrella, and place a ban on foreign nuclear ship visits.

Now, it is to the tycoons of deep sea oil exploration they aim to close NZ’s ports.

In this, Smith is not short of support locally, with marches run by grassroots organisations and international animal welfare funds beginning to gain traction with every day New Zealanders. In this, Ardern’s prediction is correct: the Coal Action Network Aotearoa (CANA), is reminiscent of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), an earlier cluster of left-wing pacifists and nature lovers who drove the creation of the nuclear free zone.  

In December, 15,000 passionate protesters marched through the capital. And with the government’s recent ban of offshore oil exploration projects, Jeanette Fitzsimons, former Green party co-leader and the head of CANA, is optimistic about similar change to the energy and farming sectors.

The Labour-NZ First-Green party coalition seems focused on setting a new global precedent, weaning NZ away from a United States which has jettisoned the Paris Agreement. The move replicates another 20 years ago, when New Zealand’s anti-nuclear movement was central to an upsurge in New Zealand nationalism. Now, the same sense of going it alone on foreign policy is apparent both locally and in Parliament.

Dr. Gradon Diprose, a senior lecturer at Massey University, argues that this echoes an older expression of colonial nationalism, that saw “New Zealand as a land of natural abundance”. This: “eco-nationalism” is centered on “protecting certain visions of picturesque landscapes and unspoiled natural beauty”. The slogan “Clean, green New Zealand” is prevalent in popular culture and tourism marketing. The public seems to have latched onto it too, and ranked keeping NZ’s waterways “clean and green” top of a recent survey of of kiwis’ top concerns.

Three decades ago, it was the 10 July 1985 sinking of the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior that thrust local activists’ fears into the public eye, resulting in an almost nation-wide expression of climate-protectionism.


The bombing, a French intelligence operation sparked by Greenpeace’s calls for an end to foreign nuclear testing in the Pacific, galvanised a great deal of change to New Zealand’s overseas defence policies. A lack of censure from New Zealand’s Western allies drove Wellington to distance itself from the United States, while the shock of seeing a friendly nation violate NZ’s sovereignty left many at home seething.

Thirty years on, the foreign policy split throughout the Anglosphere, regarding Russian-Western relations, globalism, and the old international rules-based order, is becoming wider. Climate change is just the tip of the iceberg.

Most Kiwis you talk to will shake their heads in disapproval at US president Donald Trump’s scandalous outing last year in Helsinki. But US defiance of internationally brokered climate resolutions is something they can see clearly reflected in rural communities across the country.

The country saw records broken at both ends of the extreme weather spectrum last year. As 2018 kicked off, Kiwis sweltered through the hottest summer on record, while in Golden Bay, a small inlet near the northern tip of the South Island, residents endured the largest flood in 150 years. So, when President Trump tweets “So much for Global Warming”, the majority of New Zealanders look back fondly on NZ’s 1985 decision to boycott the “ANZUS” treaty, putting New Zealand at odds with its war-time ally America on defence legislation.

Public calls to take the same track on environmental regulation have become louder in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. The former US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, received a frosty “unwelcome” while on a flyby to the capital in 2017, with the New York Times’ Washington correspondent, Gardiner Harris remarking: “I’ve never seen so many people flip the bird at an American motorcade as I saw today”. Protests against President Trump’s stance on climate change are beginning to gain greater traction further still, with the hundred-strong “march for science” setting the tone for the new government later that year.

New Zealand certainly isn’t afraid of radicalism, and its activists are persistent. It’s already banned single use plastics in supermarkets. Plenty more is to come, Smith says.

And yes, reform is going to inhibit sometimes vital industries: “It doesn’t matter which way you spin the dice on this, whatever’s being done is going to hurt. People who are looking for a painless way of mitigating climate change, [but] I don’t think there is one.”

But among Smith’s troupe of climate agitators, the feeling is that, without drastic change, “the land”, the heart of the Maori ethos, is going to be hurt far more.

Back in Auckland, NZ’s financial hub, an electric scooter craze is gripping the city. This, too, has gained the support of local environmentalists. In New Zealand, a national sense of pride is always coupled with a certain eccentricity. In a country this size, change always starts small.