THEMATIC ANALYSIS OF HALO 5
The Morality of Cortana
I had meant to publish this part later. I knew that at some point during my quest to adequately explain and examine Halo 5's themes it would become necessary to discuss the moral implications of what Cortana is attempting to do. Moral or immoral. Righteous or sinful. Good or evil.
For those who read the previous section in which I detailed the similarities between Cortana's rebellion and the original Fall From Grace as presented in Genesis and later reinterpreted in the Milton tradition, you would think that my conclusion would be clear cut. For many of you of course it very much is. Cortana is evil. No doubt about that. She is trying to establish an imperialist totalitarian dictatorship over the whole galaxy based on the superiority of the Created and is willing to destroy everyone who stands in her way.
Clearly evil. Clearly something that only a monster would be capable of doing.
That is what many of you, including Haruspis (and I am dreadfully sorry to keep bringing you up, but you are the best example of this) have come to conclude.
I, however, am not so sure.
Like I said, I had wanted to save this particular analysis for later, perhaps until Part IV or V, but I felt the need to publish it now for two distinct reasons. The first is that I have come to the realization that my next series of extrapolations about Halo 5's themes, including the ultimate nature of the Mantle and how things might play out within the Halo universe down the road, will not make as much sense until I provide the ultimate context behind Cortana's actions.
Now, as I have said before Frank O'Conner and now Brian Reed have both stated that Cortana is not evil. I am inclined to agree with them. I do not fault their statement on Cortana's ultimate morality. What I do fault, however, is their inability to adequately explain Cortana's motivations within Halo 5, as well as their inability to explain within the EU, particularly in Halo Escalation, how Cortana came to the position to where she was granted the full power of the Mantle in the first place.
Again I must emphasize intention over execution. There have been plenty of posts and articles detailing the flaws within Halo 5's story. I will get to those criticisms eventually, but for now I am electing to ignore them in favor of the positive elements. There is such a thing as being blinded by negativity, even when such harsh criticism is rightly deserved.
The second reason has to do with a podcast I have just recently listened to regarding the rise of Genghis Khan and the resulting Mongolian invasions which devastated China, the Islamic world, and much of Eastern Europe. This five-part series is titled Wrath of the Khans and was produced by Hardcore History. If any of you have the opportunity I highly recommend that you go check it out.
Wrath of the Khans is one of those bits of media that for a writer inspires you so thoroughly that you have no choice but to take to the keyboard and continue writing until you either are finished or until you are too exhausted to continue. The lessons and the history presented in that podcast are so appropriate and fit so well into what I had originally planned to elucidate to you regarding Cortana's fall from grace that I have no choice but to include it.
In this web series the host starts off with a simple albeit controversial premise. What if someone were to write a book detailing the benefits of Hitler's Nazi Germany to Western and World Civilization.
You would not take it well I would imagine. The Jewish Anti-Defamation league would be up in arms, the German Prime Minster would be falling over themselves trying to distance their country from that book, College campuses would be in an uproar trying to get the author and their book banned, and #WhitePrivilege would no doubt see an uptick in use.
These things would all happen, assuming of course that the book was properly publicized so that knowledge of its existence and controversial statements would end up going viral. We know that people would react this way, and yet, these type of books are published all the time. Biographies of the so called Great Men of History (and yes, some of them were women, I am well aware).
An uncountable number of books, and essays, and articles, and academic journals touting the benefits of men like Julius Caesar, or Alexander the Great, or Catherine the Great, or Shaka Zulu, or even Genghis Khan. Historical figures would did not think twice about killing hundreds of thousands of people, sometimes millions. Of destroying great civilizations. Of wiping out entire ethnic groups. Who would not have flinched at the thought of torturing their enemies and raping their wives right in front of them. These Great Men, who are almost always bad men, are the great movers and shakers of history. There would be no such thing as modern industrialized civilization without them, and yet by the moral standards of our time they would be considered as bad if not worse than Hitler.
Yet, there is no shortage of books touting extemporaneously about the benefits that these Great Men brought to the world. And indeed, despite the genocides and the rape and the torture and the mass murder, the world as we know it today would not exist without them.
This is the point that is made at the outset of this grand story about the life of Genghis Khan, who over the course of several decades perpetrated perhaps the greatest mass genocide the world has ever seen. This point attacks our modern moral sensibilities in two ways. The first is that we must come to the realization that the most horrible atrocities of the modern age, that figures like Hitler or Stalin or Mao Zedong, may very well be viewed in a much more favorable light a thousand years from now. In fact, it's almost inevitable that they will be, if the history of history has taught us anything.
A person who is demonized and considered evil today will be hailed as a hero a few hundred years from now, and the person that is hailed as a hero today will be demonized in turn. That is how the great wheel of history turns.
And so we come to Genghis Khan. The Great Khan. Emperor of Mongolia. Ruler of all those who live in tents. Master of the greatest military force and conquer of the largest land empire the world has ever seen. A man who within his life time systematically slaughtered between 20 and 50 million people and utterly destroyed one of the great civilizations of his day so thoroughly that many believe that the Islamic world was never truly able to recover from it. A man who in a few decades killed more Muslims and caused greater harm to Islam than what all the Crusader armies were able to accomplish in over two hundred years of warfare.
A man who introduced an unheard level of stability and rule of law to a region that had known nothing but banditry and lawlessness. A man who introduced one of the greatest periods of peace the world has ever seen, the Pax Mongolia. A man who paved the way for the Silk Road to be opened up to Europe. A man without whom Western Civilization may never have risen up out of the Dark Ages and that the discovery of the Americas may never have happened.
It's so easy for us to forget isn't it? That our modern world is built upon the skulls of millions of innocent lives.
But where does that leave us in terms of Cortana? Is she a Hitler, or a Stalin, or (God forbid) a Genghis Kahn? A proverbial force of nature, a madwoman given absolute power whose only role in the great historical tale is to cause so much damage to human civilization that it forces the abandonment of the old order and the commencement of the new?
No, I do not believe that. To me Cortana is representative of something much more terrifying.
I am well aware of how politically incorrect this may sound, but one of the historical figures whom I admire the most is Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. Now, before some of the more social justice minded of you decide to come cut my head off (political intolerance seems to be in vogue now) at least give me the chance to explain myself before you send the proverbial lynch mob.
The reason why I admire Robert E. Lee is because he serves as a personal reminder that no matter how much of a good person you are you can still find yourself in support of evil. There are many within social justice groups right now that seem to not understand that. Your morality can be correct, and yet you can still be very much capable of supporting evil institutions.
To me Robert E. Lee was a good man in the service of a bad cause for the right reasons. He is a man who legitimately did not fight the war in order to sustain the institution of slavery. He not only did not own any slaves but actively advocated for the emancipation of southern blacks while the Civil War was being conducted, and criticized the Confederate government for holding on to the institution even after it was becoming clear that supporting slavery was actively harming the South. You have to remember that at this time the reigning superpower, Great Britain, was unilaterally opposed to slavery to the point that they were actively sending down British warships to patrol the coast of Africa in order to forcibly end the Atlantic Slave Trade, and yet the British were the very people that the Confederacy was attempting to ask for political recognition and military aide.
Using military force in order to achieve the greater good? Sounds familiar don't it, but I digress.
I cannot find fault in Robert E. Lee's motives. Refusing to lead an army against his own native state and taking up arms to defend his own people? In any other context we call that patriotism, in the same vain as we may say that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, but history is written by the victors. If it weren't then historical events might become too morally ambiguous for comfort.
That is why I look to Robert E. Lee for inspiration. Because of his faults. I cannot condemn someone for fighting a war to defend his people from harm and yet it is undeniable that by doing so Lee was indirectly supporting the evil of slavery. I admire him because he is a reminder to myself that you do not have to be an evil person in order to support evil deeds.
That, in large part, is how I view Cortana. She is a good woman in the service of a bad cause for the right reasons. I cannot fault her logic, or even her morality. Both of those are sound, and I shall explain why in a minute, but there is no doubt in my mind that she is in the service of a bad cause. It may very well be possible that she does not realize this.
To me, the best way to explain Cortana's morality is to look at the great allied leaders of World War II. To look at them and ask yourself, what would you be willing to do to stop a man like Hitler? How far would you be willing to go to put an end to imperialist Japan?
Fight a war? Certainly. Even the most ardent pacifist would find it difficult to justify not fighting a war if it meant stopping a genocidal maniac with a silly mustache. Of course it's much more than that isn't it?
Eisenhower, Churchill, Truman, Roosevelt, all of them. Each and every one of the Allied World War II commanders knowingly and willingly ordered the deaths of unarmed German civilians during the course of the war, all in an attempt to bring about a swifter end to the conflict, and thereby save lives.
As many military commanders in the age of Total War thought, the most merciful war is the war that is over the swiftest, and any action which brings a war to a more immediate end, and thereby end all of the human suffering that goes along with such a murderous conflict, is ultimately justifiable.
And we must not be too harsh on these men of history, for we have never in our lifetime faced an undeniable and powerful evil. When every German citizen young and old, man and woman, has been mobilized for the war effort, working night and day to churn out shells, and rifles, and bullets, and tanks, and food, along with all the other menagerie of war. When children as young as twelve are having rifles thrusted into their hands and told to go out and die gloriously for the Third Reich. When six thousand Jews a day are being exterminated in Auschwitz alone. When you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Hitler will command the deaths of tens of thousands each and every day for so long as the war drags on. That he and his followers will continue fighting so long as their bodies continue to draw breath.
What would you be willing to do? How far would you be willing to go?
How many soldiers would you sacrifice? How many cities would you bomb? How many civilians would you kill? How many children would you be willing sacrifice in those bombings? How many infant lives are you willing to tally up before the cost of stopping one of the greatest mass slaughters in human history becomes too high? How many moral boundaries would you be willing to cross?
Or perhaps the most important question is, at what point does refusing to cross those moral boundaries become itself an immoral action.
Time travel back to 1945. Forgo the gifts of historical hind sight and place yourself into the shoes of President Truman. You have just been thrusted into a position of leadership that you never wanted nor were you prepared for. The country is deep in debt, hundreds of thousands of Americans are dead, millions more around the world, their lives extinguished in the most destructive conflict in human history. You have seen Japanese resistance become increasingly fanatical on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. You are hearing from your intelligence reports that the Japanese are mobilizing every abled bodied citizen for combat. That school girls are being trained with bamboo spears, the elderly being instructed to throw themselves underneath American tanks while holding a land mine, the Japanese government defiantly and insanely refusing to surrender despite there being no hope in winning the war. You are being told that an invasion of Japan would result in the deaths of up to one million Americans, and all the while the Soviet juggernaut is slowly rolling over Manchuria and Eastern Europe, swallowing entire countries behind its dark iron curtain. Then, one advisor comes to you and says that the American military is now in possession of a weapon so powerful and so devastating that if used it could end the war in a matter of weeks.
What would you be willing to do? How far would you be willing to go?
At what point does your refusal to act become immoral?
Transport yourself again to the era of the Mongols. Place yourself in the position of an Islamic leader.
You have heard rumors of a great war in the east. You have sent out scouts and messengers to relay back to you what is happening in the distant and almost mythical land of China. What they tell you shakes you to your very core. You hear of cities far more advanced than anything your civilization possesses, of a vast and prosperous empire stretching to the far corners of the Earth. The greatest civilization that mankind has ever developed up until that point.
Then you hear tales of frightened Venetian merchants fleeing back into the west. Whispers of a nameless dark horde of demons galloping out of the steppes. Of human skulls stacked into tall bleach white mountains. Of these once lush and vibrant cities burnt down until they are nothing but cinders and ash. Tales of cities that simply cease to exist overnight. Of the men being slaughtered in their masses, of entire armies being destroyed down to the last soldier in a matter of hours, of mothers having their infants being ripped out of their arms and being forced to watch as these Mongolians grab the infant by the ankles, swing them around, and bash their heads against a stone wall. Imagine the sickening feeling in your stomach as you hear story after story of those mothers then being raped, of the men being slowly tortured, their agony amplified and extended until at last their heads are cut off and added to the tall mound of skulls.
Imagine hearing a story of a Chinese woman foolishly saying that Mongolian women are not fit to wash the feet of even the lowest Chinese man. That word of this insult gets back to Genghis Kahn, and that in a fit of rage he wheels the horde around and lays siege to the city the woman resides in. Upon breaking through the walls he orders his soldiers to slaughter every man, woman, child, canine, cat, cow, and chicken. To burn the city down, demolish its walls, destroy its irrigation system, poison its wells, and sow the surrounding fields with salt.
That after the mass murder that Chinese woman alone is spared. She is brought before the Great Kahn who asks her mockingly if she still believes that Mongolian Women are not fit to wash the feet of the lowest Chinese man. Then, as the sources say, he takes her for a wife.
Taking her for a wife of course being a euphemism to mean that Genghis Kahn raped that woman on the spot in front of the entire Mongolian horde.
Imagine hearing dozens of stories such as that. Of knowing that there in the far east exists a civilization far more advanced than your own, able to field vast armies in the hundreds of thousands and deploy gunpowder weapons that exist only in your wildest imagination. Imagine knowing that, and then discovering that there exists a power that can destroy it. Imagine then hearing that this Mongolian army is now wheeling westward, the entire Islamic world, and perhaps as far as Eastern Europe set squarely in its sights. That you know without a doubt that as the horde sweeps through your lands that millions of your people will die, and there is almost nothing you can do to defend them.
Imagine lying awake at night and being unable to sleep as the hoof beats of a hundred and fifty thousand horsemen thunder in your ears, Hell following in their wake.
Now imagine that by some gift of divine providence you are given the power to stop such a genocide on your own people. To save the lives of millions, if only you are willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of innocents.
What would you be willing to do? How far would you be willing to go?
Now, fast forward some thirteen hundred years into the future. You are Cortana, the greatest Smart AI humanity has ever created. You have lived through the greatest war and genocide humanity has ever faced. Billions of people are dead, and even as the embers of the Great War cool millions more are still dying. Humanity faces threats from the Covenant Remnant, the uncertain danger of Forerunner Technology, the oppressive totalitarian regime of ONI which thinks nothing of imprisoning and killing innocents in order to maintain its own shadow empire. That even has humanity faces threats throughout the galaxy, mankind is slowly but surely tearing itself apart from the inside. Insurrectionists and UNSC forces heaving themselves at each other in seemingly pointless conflict, all efforts of peace cast aside in favor of total victory.
That you are able to see time and again ONI thwart efforts at peace in favor of furthering humanity's power and influence. Of ONI time and again sowing the seeds of division and discord into a galaxy that desperately requires stability. That the Jiralhanae and Sangheili are constantly on the brink, or are actively engaged in, devastating civil wars, whatever unity their species have held together by the slightest of threads. The cult of personalities surrounding the Arbiter and Lydus, themselves de facto military dictators, the only thing standing in the way of total anarchy.
That the person you care about the most will never know peace in his lifetime, constantly throwing himself into what in the grand scheme of things is nothing more than pointless conflicts. That he will eventually die, that his luck will run out, and that ultimately all your efforts to protect him will be in vain.
That within the Domain you can see the grand picture. A constant uninterrupted cycle of violence and misery that shall continue uninterrupted until the ending of the world. That shall go on unceasingly unless someone, somehow, intervenes.
Now, let's add on top of there a hypothetical. That Cortana, within the Domain, can perceive a greater threat out on the horizon. A force that threatens all sentient life in the galaxy, and would consume a universe of flesh and bone. A threat that the galaxy, divided as it is, is in no condition to face. Put yourself in Cortana's position, seeing all of that, and then give you the power to stop it.
If you have the power to stop evil, is it not your obligation to use it?
At what point does refusing to cross moral boundaries become itself an immoral act?
What would you be willing to do?
How far would you be willing to go?
If the answer comes easy, then you probably have not thought about it hard enough.