Suikoden 2 and the Morality of War

As I’ve mentioned before, I have been playing through many famous JRPGs I missed in the late 90s that people online insist are the best in the genre.  I recently finished playing through Suikoden 2, which is often cited as one of the best JRPGs ever.  I wasn’t sure what to expect because the original Suikoden was a bit too simple for my tastes, but now that I’ve finished it I can safely say Suikoden 2 is great (it’s basically a fleshed out version of the good ideas in Suikoden 1).  It’s a much more grounded story than most JRPGs, with a focus on politics and military strategy over saving the world.  As a result, it lends itself well to discussing the morality of war from a Catholic point of view (so some spoilers below, although less than normal).

The overarching plot of Suikoden 2 is relatively straight forward, with the complexities in the details.  The main character and his friend Jowy are part of a youth brigade of the Highland military, which is at war with the neighboring Jowston city states.  

After a peace treaty the brigade is about to head home when it is suddenly attacked, resulting in the death of everyone but the main character and Jowy.  It turns out the Highland prince, Luca Blight, decided to massacre the brigade and blame Jowston to justify restarting the war.  The two friends end up pulled into the war on opposite sides, with the main character leading the Jowston resistance to stop Luca, and Jowy ending up one of Luca’s soldiers to try to stop him from within his army.  Most of the drama of the plot comes from these two friends ending up against each other due to the circumstances of the war, but what I want to focus on is the Catholic “Just War” theory and the idea that the ends justify the means.

The Catholic idea of a just war (one that can be morally fought) is in the Catechism on paragraph 2039 (here’s a Catholic Answers link that quotes it:  https://www.catholic.com/qa/what-is-a-just-war).  There are four main criteria for a war to be a just war:

  1. The damage done by the aggressor must be lasting, grave and certain.
  2. Other ways of ending the war are impractical or ineffective.
  3. There must be a serious chance at success.
  4. The war must not cause greater evils than those being stopped.

It’s actually pretty tough to meet these conditions.  For example, World War 2 is only debatably a just war (the first three points are all met, but the last one is debatable when you consider that all sides had no problem attacking civilians).  So what about the war in Suikoden 2?  I actually think it meets all four criteria and thus would be a moral war for the main character fight.  First, Luca Blight is a monster that enjoys slaughtering the people of Jowston.  The first thing he does after restarting the war is murder everyone in nearby villages and burn them to the ground. 

 Later in the game he sacrifices the entire population of a major city to get some great magic power.  It is clear that if Luca has his way everyone in Jowston will be killed, thus the damage of the aggressor is lasting, grave and certain.  Trying to end the war through peace treaties also hasn’t worked, as Luca immediately broke the treaty at the start of the game.  The third criteria is the least certain.  Early in the game, it doesn’t seem like there is a serious chance at success, as each city in Jowston is mainly interested in protecting itself rather than working together to push back Highland.  The result is that at the start of the war, it doesn’t appear like Jowston can do more than temporarily hold off Highland.  That said, the fact that you do manage to win in the end after reuniting everyone means there was a serious chance at success even if it didn’t seem like it at the start.  Finally, the main character’s army doesn’t seem to be causing any more evil than the fighting itself, meeting the final condition.  Thus, I’d argue that all four conditions are met and the war in the game is a just war.  Now that we’ve discussed the war in the game from the protagonist’s side, let’s look at it from Jowy’s perspective and the idea that the ends justify the means.

Early on in the game, Jowy gets captured by Highland and ends up joining them.  His idea is that if he can gain Luca’s trust, he can one day stop him from within.  To facilitate this, he assassinates a Jowston leader, starves out a Jowston city to let him capture it, helps Luca assassinate the king and ultimately tricks Luca into falling into a trap and being killed by the main character.  After Luca is dead, however, Jowy continues the war instead of stopping it because he believes that the war will inevitably restart unless one of the two countries is completely conquered, forcing the main character to continue fighting.  Jowy’s entire mindset after being captured resolves around the ends justifying the means.  Specifically, he believes some killing now will ultimately lead to a greater peace in the future.   The Catholic Church has always been against the idea that the ends justify the means.  It is not ok to do an immoral act so that a greater good may come from it.  For an extreme example, consider the idea of paying someone to kill everyone as they walk out of the confessional.  If you were to kill someone right out of confession, they would die in a state of grace and thus would ultimately end up in heaven, a greater good than the evil of murdering them, but that clearly is not acceptable.  For a more serious and controversial example, look at the use of the atomic bomb in World War 2.  The justification of its use has always been that ending the war fast would ultimately save more lives than were lost due to the bomb.  In addition, you can argue that ending the war fast prevented the Soviet Union from invading and leading to half the country being suppressed under communist rule for the next 50 years.  Both of these are good things, but despite that it is still immoral to kill innocents in a war, let alone hundreds of thousands.  This is one of those teachings that can be kind of hard for a modern person to take in, as doing bad acts for the greater good was super common in the 20th century and is super prevalent in our media.  So despite Jowy’s good intentions, his actions during the game are ultimately immoral.

So there are some thoughts on Suikoden 2 and the morality of the war in the game from a Catholic point of view.  I think of all the PS1 JRPGs I’ve played recently, this one holds up the best so I’d highly recommend playing it if you get the chance (Suikoden 1, while not as good, is short if you want to check it out first).  I’ve actually avoided talking about spoilers from the end of the game for once so you’ll still be able to experience most of the plot.  If you are looking for a much more grounded take on war, I can’t think of a better JRPG.

Song of the Post-

Battlefield Without Light

Suikoden 2

This song actual reminds me of modern Fire Emblem music, so that’s appropriate

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