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.

 
 
 
 

Podcast: Global Britain and local Liverpool

Liverpool. Image: Getty.

This week, two disparate segments linked by the idea of trading with the world. Well, vaguely. It’s there, but you have to squint.

First up: I make my regular visit to the Centre for Cities office for the Ask the Experts slot with head of policy Paul Swinney. This week, he teaches me why cities need businesses that export internationally to truly thrive.

After that, we’re off to Liverpool, with New Statesman politics correspondent Patrick Maguire. He tells me why the local Labour party tried to oust mayor Joe Anderson; how the city became the party’s heartlands; and how it ended up with quite so many mayors.

The episode itself is below. You can subscribe to the podcast on AcastiTunes, or RSS. Enjoy.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

Skylines is produced by Nick Hilton.

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