26 July, 2016

Hearts of Iron IV, My Atomic Crimes

So, it’s 1944 or there about, and America, the good ol’ US of A remains neutral. They are the leaders of second democratic alliance, the League of Americas, formed as a counter to the domineering superpowers of old Europe, who have showed they are not above conquest. America is neutral, its people know peace, which is more than can be said for two thirds of the globe, then Japan attacks...

Hearts of Iron IV, My Atomic Crimes banner


In my alternate string of history, Japan and America both diverged from their historic selves, through conquest and alliance. Germany and Italy changed and grew too, but they have yet to taste my damnable nuclear fire.

Japan controlled all of Asia, save the Philippines and Tibet; the former being one of a half dozen members of the League of Americas, the latter somehow managing to remain neutral and independent amidst ever expanding Japanese Empire.

The US instigated political power plays; incited coups and supplied fledging governments, as well as the buckling Allies. When the Soviet Union went to war with Axis, the US nurtured and supplied a Russian Federation uprising in Serbia. The Soviet Union was of course unable to fight a civil war, the war on the German front, and the war on the Asian front simultaneously, and so it crumbled within a few months. What the US did not count on was how quickly the Soviets would fall, or that the Germans would roll over the Federation as well. And so the Reich had direct access to the Pacific.

Make no mistake, Axis would have won the war against the Allies, and when they inevitably turned their hungry, sharpened gaze upon America, they would have conquered the whole world. But before they could, Japan attacked the Pacific Islands, and the world would never again be the same.

Hearts of Iron IV, My Atomic Crimes axis map

By shear attrition, the US fleets failed in their defence in the Pacific; Japan had too many hulls in the water. The US only maintained its territory by the efforts of the air force. For perhaps a year the Pacific war raged, costing the US thousands of lives and dozens of ships. Through a deft pivot in strategy, a focus on carrier vessels, the US was able to reassert itself by delivering their deadly aircraft via the navy. The carriers helped push the Japanese ships – for they never assaulted the US held islands directly – back to the Home Islands, the Japanese homeland.

This was a key phase of the war, because Hearts of Iron IV demands air or naval superiority along the planned rout of a naval invasion, before it may commence. Now able to move troops though the Pacific, I, the US, launched invasions on numerous Japanese held islands, including Iwo Jima. Most failed the first time, most the second too, and Iwo Jima even held out for a third. The Japanese were simply too entrenched; thus thousands died upon their beaches.

Germany didn’t join the Pacific War until several years in, when Peru fell to Fascism and the US interceded and invaded. Troubled by the attention of the implacable German war machine, and the unyielding defences of the Japanese, the US made several changes to its policy. Firstly, conscription was ruled, to allow a larger army to be drafted and maintained. The economy was altered to greatly reduce exports and direct the country’s considerable industrial effort onto weapons of war. And five nuclear reactors were planned, the first of their kind, their construction was fast tracked, prioritised above all else. I, the democratically elected American government, really didn’t want to go to war, and I certainly didn’t want to wield a nuclear arsenal. Though of course, in the wake of the atrocities across Europe, Africa, and Asia, I had researched means of doing both.

I dropped the first bomb on Iwo Jima, the island that probably had more soldiers than civilians, more defences than houses. And felt terrible. I don’t say that lightly either, I really did regret my actions. I almost reloaded my last save. I had created one right before committing to the attack – contingencies right; every head of state needs them.

Hearts of Iron IV, My Atomic Crimes iwo jima nuke message

I did not reverse time though; I instead ordered four divisions to seize Iwo Jima. They captured it almost immediately, for the Japanese found themselves fighting in a burning crater, with no supplies to speak of. The burning crater was only theoretical however, an embellishment; the game itself certainly didn’t acknowledge its existence.

I used Iwo Jima as a staging point in the invasion of the Home Islands. I stationed some twenty thousand American and Venezuelan troops and four hundred aircraft on the island I nuked not a month earlier, and no one batted an eyelid – no one grew a new one either.  Now I’m not familiar with the real world effects of radiation and nuclear fallout – I’ll happily live out my days in ignorance thank you. But I cannot shake the feeling that pitching a camp in a nuclear wasteland would be inadvisable, I wouldn’t even take my chances downwind frankly.

Hearts of Iron IV, My Atomic Crimes iwo jima occupied

Hearts of Iron IV does not visualize the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the map, nor does it inflict any penalties on the region affected, beyond its physical damage. Nuclear bombs are possibly the most effect means of crippling infrastructure in Hearts of Iron IV, certainly the most instantaneous. They are not weapons to be employed against military formations directly, rather the means by which armies are supplied. And supplies have a much greater effect on the result of battle than weight of numbers or quality of equipment. In that regard, they achieve the same effect as strategic bombers, but do so much faster.

I believe they also affect victory points and national unity, which determine whether a country capitulates, and ceases to contribute to a war. However, aside from an in-game message – a number of key locations trigger these when nuked – the Iwo Jima bombing had no perceptible effect on the overall balance of the war, or global politics. If numbers changed they didn’t do so sufficiently to noticeably impact my play. Japan continued to battle the US fleets around the Home Islands, and no one appeared to regard my government as the monsters we were – still are actually.

Six to twelve months later, I began the systematic nuking of the Home Islands, namely the population centres, all but exhausting my nuclear stockpile and crippling the infrastructure and production capability of the Japanese homeland. I continued to drop bombs, more than twenty in all, until Dwight D. Eisenhower was able to occupy the entire region.

Those last few sentences may sound like a small thing, a quick thing, when in actuality it took some ten hours of my real life, around two years of game time, and tens of thousands of lives to achieve. As to the nuclear attacks specifically; I felt tingles of discomfort at first – not guilt precisely, but it was unsettling – by the fifth or sixth strike though, I felt nothing at all.

The tactic of nuking a region before invading worked flawlessly – and continues to in China. I use nukes like carpet bombs, land a numerically inferior force, roll over the frayed defenders, and rebuild the ports and roads as I go. The application here is tactical however, not strategic; once again, the nukes alone had little to no discernible effect on the Japanese war effort in a strategic sense. They remained staunchly fascist, and continued to field millions more soldiers than the US. Eventually they capitulated and left the war officially, though the fight continues in mainland Asia – they only capitulated after the US occupied the entirety of the Home Islands, well after the majority of the nuclear bombs fell.

Hearts of Iron IV, My Atomic Crimes home islands nuked

Hearts of Iron IV does not surface civilian casualties, nor feature the concept of war crimes. Under my morally indefensible rule – a democratic one I might add – the US dropped more than thirty nuclear bombs in under five years. Historically, the nuclear atrocities at Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed between 129,000 to 226,000 people in total, within the first few months of the attacks. In game, I nuked every major population centre on the Home Islands, multiple times over. If we were to say a nuclear bomb killed on average 100,000 people, my thirty plus attacks would have been responsible for more than 3 million deaths.

I suspect the game doesn’t highlight the civilian death toll for fear of it being regarded as a score, something to be achieved and bested – there is a causality count in the war overviews, but I believe that counts only military deaths. Or perhaps it is a technical hurdle not deemed worth surmounting. Nonetheless, from the perspective of a military war game, so fixated on numbers and rates, I find it a regrettable omission.

There is clearly value in silence though, in not commenting or judging the player. Hearts of Iron allows the player to be alone with their actions; do they feel guilt, horror, nothing at all? For all are telling. I may think I want to be decried as an irredeemable monster, but it is exactly its refusal to do so that has spurred me to write this, and in the course of writing, revaluate my stance towards the whole affair many times over.

Hearts of Iron IV, My Atomic Crimes home island invasion

This nuclear non-judgment is no different than slavery in Stellaris, another Paradox grand strategy game. However, sci-fi has taught us anything goes in space; simply saying, ‘this race enslaves and/or genocides all alien life because they do’, is enough. Likewise, go far enough into history and slavery becomes relatively commonplace, tragically. World War II is not so far gone however. In Stellaris, I can murder amorphous alien blobs for days and feel nothing, or at least nothing beyond the most surface notion of regret. Ancient history really isn’t all that different for me, not in Paradox games anyway where everything is a number.

It’s all numbers in Hearts of Iron IV too, and one could argue my divergent timeline makes it sci-fi. And yet when I look at the globe, with countries named much as they are now, not as kingdoms or star conglomerates, it doesn’t feel so divorced from reality. I cannot be easily persuaded that this world, that I would be born into a generation or two later, would consider nuclear bombs a reasonable weapon of war. Certainly not in the way I’ve been using them.

Initially, I was very much of the belief that Hearts of Iron IV fails to represent the wrath of the atom suitably, or more precisely in a way I find suitable, given my upbringing. And while I still think they don’t carry the political or strategic gravitas they ought to, and that the game would do well to better surface the impact they do have, I have come to appreciate the value of not commenting, morally or otherwise on their use. The game has I think, touched me more poignantly than it might have, had it tried to overtly convey a perspective on the subject.

Now if you’ll excuse me, the headache I call the Reich is blooming and I’ve got a big red button to polish.

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