New Vegas: Honest Hearts & post-apocalyptic post-colonialism

Honest Hearts - bomber

Honest Hearts, the second piece of DLC for Fallout: New Vegas, takes you to the valley of Zion – what was once Utah’s Zion National Park. It’s one of the few places of genuine beauty in post-apocalyptic America, somehow recovering from the worst of the fallout more rapidly than other regions of the wasteland. The DLC begins with you joining a caravan from the Happy Trails company and setting off into Zion to re-establish trade routes with the New Canaanites of Utah – Zion being the only place safe and direct enough to manage trade between the Mojave wasteland and Utah. What takes place afterwards sees you caught up in the destinies of three tribes: the White Legs, the Dead Horses, and the Sorrows.

This paragraph is an obligatory spoiler warning for people who want to play the DLC and have everything in it surprise them. I’m about to talk about events and characters from late in the story it tells.

The conclusion to Honest Hearts involves a disagreement between Joshua Graham – the Burned Man, a war leader driven by a desire for vengeance – and Daniel, a New Canaanite missionary and pacifistic leader.

Joshua Graham is the most obviously interesting character, having once been the champion of Caesar’s Legion (the seemingly unstoppable martial nation of slavers), punished for failing in the first assault on Hoover Dam. He’s a changed man, and the player has the opportunity to guide his destiny to varying conclusions, but ultimately his story is one of vengeance. Daniel, the Mormon missionary, is a far more interesting character.

Daniel is obsessed with a tribe known as the Sorrows, who are presented as a band of hunters with no skill in warfare. The Sorrows are themselves a peaceful people who have been raised to believe in legends of the Father in the Hills, a caring god who watches over them with compassion and kindness. In this Daniel sees his own Christian faith reflected.

What’s most interesting about this in the context of the game is the paternalistic way in which Daniel expresses his respect for the Sorrows. To some extent he is a man whose home and people have been destroyed and scattered, and to someone driven by faith this could represent a great challenge that might lead to them seizing onto anything that symbolises what they still desperately want to believe in. I believe that this is what the Sorrows represent to Daniel (and hell, it’s even right there in their name): the goodness of people before the fall. This is both the Christian Fall, before civilization’s light was extinguished in nuclear Armageddon, and before New Canaan was crushed by the White Legs.

But looked at another way Daniel is a white Christian missionary from a community known as the New Canaanites. Now, I’m unclear on how deliberate the choice of name was. There aren’t for me any obvious parallels with either the Biblical or historical Canaanites, but I’m not a Biblical scholar nor an expert on the ancient history of the Levantine people. So let’s skip past that and focus on the more modern role of Christian missionaries.

During the European colonial era both the Catholic and Protestant Churches – and their most evangelistic followers – were inextricably entwined with the activities of the major European powers around the world. There’s a rather fine quote – which I will ‘fess up to finding on wikipedia – which states that by the time the post-colonial era of the 1950s had come around, missionaries were viewed as “ideological shock troops for colonial invasion whose zealotry blinded them.”

A theme that quickly emerges from any serious historical exploration of imperial and colonial history is the paternalistic attitudes towards the colonised held among their imperial masters. The most well-known explication of this is the oft-derided doctrine of “the White Man’s Burdern” (named for a poem by Rudyard Kipling – a notable champion of British imperialism and an appalling racist to boot). Interpretations still differ but in the context of colonialism Kipling’s poem was a sort of “useful idiot” that helped colonisers justify their position, born of superiority of force, as superiority of culture and race. It put a homely humanitarian spin on the role of colonisers, arguing that they were there to help people who were too primitive to otherwise flourish, or too constrained by their inferior biology, and thereby disguising the barbarity with which they extracted wealth from the colonies and brutally suppressed both armed and non-violent dissidence among the natives (all ably explored in grisly and horrifying detail in John Newsinger’s The Blood Never Dried).

I mention all of this – and really I have only provided a very poor crash course in post-colonialism and imperial history – not because Daniel the New Canaanite extols any such theories or undertakes any such expropriation, or even because the dark side of colonial history is something that is explored in Honest Hearts, but because this is what his speeches about the “innocence” of the Sorrows remind me of. He, a white Christian, plans to protect their innocence by leading them from Zion Valley and to the Grand Staircase, a place where they will be free of the raiders who prey upon them. What a fatherlike, messianic authority figure he imagines himself to be, leading his chosen people to their future! (*)

In contrast, Joshua Graham wants to teach the Sorrows how to fight. Together with their allies the Dead Horse tribe they will smash the White Legs in Zion valley, kill their war chief, and drive the band of murderers and thieves from the territory they have invaded.

Given how explicitly Daniel’s words and attitudes evoke that history of colonialism(**), it was not difficult for me to decide to stand with Graham. I’ll teach these people how to fight, and how to protect their home from those who would take it from them – by any means.

I continue to love that New Vegas affords me these decisions; decisions underpinned by the richness and terribleness of human history.

Honest Hearts - ranger

(*) There is a lot of irony layered into the story here, given that Daniel is in fact leading the Sorrows from, not to, paradise – the Grand Staircase will afford them a desperate living whereas Zion is unpolluted, free of radiation and even has fish swimming about its rivers – and also that the god-figure of the Sorrows, the Father in the Hills, was unbeknownst to them a highly-trained survivalist who spent sixty years after the apocalypse slaughtering those who invaded the Valley and attacked its inhabitants. In the last year of his life he began to care for the migrants who came to Zion and would later become the Sorrows tribe.

(**) I’m pretty sure whoever designed Honest Hearts knew exactly what they were up to. There’s also a perk available called ‘Sneering Imperialist’. Oh yeah. Daniel’s not much better just because he believes he cares about the welfare of the Sorrows; he’s every bit as blinkered and arrogant.

Honest Hearts - god