X Legion: Empathy in the 40K Battlefield
Within the universal decay of the 31st, and 41st millennium, the tragedy of the human factions highlights through ultraviolence and physical glory what superior mental mindsets and precious human experiences elevate us as individuals and what we do collectively.
Compassion and humanity are yes, at odds with the nature of the Imperium, as much as perpetuality and an alien form. Rather than resources, ‘too much’ empathy is absolutely a novel and dangerous thing, a weapon, coming from the view of the biggest pragmatists and cynics of any science fiction universe. Espionage and utter disregard for formation or the imperial truth too were clear subversions, but obvious ones. So obvious that they circle back into incredulity, a very 30k motif playing into the insane over the top nature of the world, where eaters of flesh and angels are beloved, yet antithetical to the supposedly atheistic empire. At this point The Emperor needs empathy to make sense, or just accept godhood was necessary to fulfil his goals, which it certainly is for such power and to counter Chaos. The being does distasteful things constantly, why balk at one more on an ideological basis? At one point unless he was a monster, taking lives and at least losing those he treasures was accepted as necessity. Sacrifices are necessary. It being too much to be given power in addition to pain? I don’t buy it.
And perhaps no greater example of the awful and tangible loss of empathy striving from grief, misplacing and badly addressing loss comes from the Xth Legion. The Iron Hands, who in-universe continue a glacial descent, then avalanche as pride regarding their technophilia and engineering genius takes their ‘hands’ in the sense of their reach.
The uncomfortable decision to slice is literal, to carve away graphic though cartoonish, making many forget the grave implications.
So much of the Great Crusade, the supposed golden age is instead given to suggestions and answers to the transhuman question; what happens when one is an overman beyond account, perceiving themselves as above negative emotions? How is the machine unyielding when dug into the flesh? The notion of shame and honour persists, in a way more lasting than rage due to its sociological nature. Standing, deeds, the need to tally appeal to the animal and individual, as well as faction within us.
The Iron ‘Hands’ are often framed without the human hand, without the reach taken into perspective. They are, to my eyes a faction that is defined by being continually denied.
The shaming by Akurduana in Gorgon of Medusa, the fantastic but mismatched sparring bought between the Primarch Ferrus and the simple Astarte is intended to highlight the unintended slight, the perception of arrogance against an unconsciously successful warrior. And the losing Astartes heedless of their own ruin without resignation, ruining themselves from emotion rather than pure stubbornness become tragic knowing their short amount of material and coming decimation.
What the Iron Hands cannot just defeat, but thoroughly crush, it causes resentment much as the increasing passive aggressive, then openly treacherous behaviour to allies.
In being such ruthless, little fleshed out and difficult beings, in many ways more than the beatific but ghoulish blood angels the Iron Hands make the ugly nature of avoiding humanity apparent, so that we may better recognise what we do have.
A subdued tragedy, working against their likability is the motif of iron hands being defeated by those more stoic or mechanically efficient than themselves. A good example being ‘The Either’ Tybalt Marr beheading Meduson, ending another hero of the story and main character liked in and out of universe. The nature of a literal beheading, death in the style of an execution is ruthless and brutal, furthermore the same death being delivered to a firebrand trying to hold the shattered Legion together and take revenge upon the Sons of Horus who broke them in battle.
It’s an ugly testament we know ourselves, our years of planning and ideals or philosophy is undone in rash action, not even that. We can fall permanently, uncomfortably easily. And worse than maiming or death, our own turning against us, and against our memory save the shame of a place. We can be beaten cleanly, gracelessly, and the defeat can be mocked. The Iron Hands do what many of us have done pulling away from the work setting, or a shattered relationship. Rage. Our eyes clouded over, trying to smooth our faces, pulling ourselves into a furious focus and forcing an equilibrium for the sake of recuperating.
Veneration of the physical as spiritual, or at least reverenced much like the Clan system caused a mental fracture of an understated nature. The Legions are reflections, imitators. Children, literally calling themselves children acknowledging a kingly father. The Iron Hand’s father, the “Great Iron Father” was revered above all for physicality.
Seeing such a figure destroyed, that body broken, stolen is akin to a toppled idol. There is not spirit of martyrdom to cling to, chance of seeing the hopeful, redemptive or healing aspect of such a loss. No believe in the afterlife, the numinous, or honestly in mental strength leaves the machine waiting. Where the spirit fails, the demigod and the myth falls, these more mundane beings essentially overmedicate. The augmetics, less prosthetics than an equivalent of our plastic surgery and treatmentphilia become an addiction with the bite of need sought after. If one cannot beat a stronger physical opponent, fight harder. take more augmentations. The survivors choose an option akin to performance enhancers to resume the sense of strength. Not even superiority, but physical surety.
The tragedy is such physical surety never existed. The Iron Hands never felt comfortable within their own skin at their height. Rather than be coated in alien metal from destroying an evil, rather than championing improvement, negative judgement is given to ‘weak’ flesh.
‘The flesh is weak!”
A disdainful mantra, short rhetoric initially sounding appealing with the attempt to bolster ultimately turns harmfully upon its bearers. It’s a more unhealthy version of “winter is coming”; not a reminder of mortality and difficulty but the assurance that failure is inevitable. The entire core tenant of the culture is inherently self-defeating. The notion of being bolstered by technology, that is subsumed by removing more of the self, physical repression to the degree that it amputates the mental, and the looming and continuing decline of the Iron Hands amplifies this to a virtual necrosis. To be defeated becomes less of an acknowledged or beneficial thing, as the Iron Hands themselves descend into alternating political strife, in many ways their varied and flavourful organisation coming at the cost of inner reflection or greater Imperial impact; likely an intentional choice.
Acceptance of defeat, on a mental level interestingly breaks the Xth Legion much like the IV, another more technological faction who seem to exchange resilience and impressive modern technology such as guns and robotics for the absence of contentment, likability or fatherly affection.
The repression of emotion is as impossible logically as removing the flesh we are made of. It is part of natural biology, easier to handle, face, accept it’s wild nature, or best of all to embrace in our unique ways or together as families or communities. To deny it physically brings the analogy to literal-physical self-harm. After all, the Tenth are not physically disabled, granted transhuman strength and biology they are wilfully amputating. An ‘augmentation’, truly is intended and worthy of the term if applied to a person, for example a person in need of a prosthetic limb, or in a more common way choosing tailored glasses to aid their vision.
The Iron Hands augment nothing, in a mental way. As depicted in the complex and slow burn Voice of Mars, Stronos indeed is beaten soundly despite his clearly impressive mechanical advantages. Rather than reflect in terms of improving himself, testing his body with its replacements, he thinks of removing more. The veneer of logic really places a thin disguise for distain of other factions, and a spiritual flagellation rather than do something like asking for aid. Because the dysphoria has the individual entirely within their grip, literally unable to even properly see themselves relationally, closing themselves away from outside aid.
Often the mechanical within Black Library literature is associated with the nature of weaponry; specifically the living being as a human. It is worthy of note that the Astartes, sterile, prematurely aged and mutated sub-species of humanity feel no fear, or at the very least for certain have many typical human emotional reactions amputated, or rewired at the fundamental level. The Emperor, the mind behind these creatures is also deemed a weapon by vastly older intelligences, be it the supernatural entities of Chaos, or alien academics and warlords. The Emperor, clearly detached and inhuman to a deliberately ambiguous extent, possessed of inhuman powers but direct affect upon ‘baseline’ humanity also by intention or accident caused a similar monodominant bond between function and psyche. As he is ‘Emperor’, great ruler, without name and premier in authority, the Astartes is a monastic, loveless warrior. Destruction is the primary, almost always the only purpose for their being (and the notion of choice, or lack of it to be made so is also a fascinatingly important touch when considering their motifs), and many appearing to ‘serve’ well ironically became part of the Traitor Legions, or those like the Iron Hands who would turn upon allies and impede efficiency and unity.
Presently the arc remains unfinished, and a gap missing where hopefully David Guymer writes the third book of his Iron Hands trilogy. As it stands, eventually a long-awaited in universe reckoning will come, and re-evaluation made.
“With steel we are stronger; but without a soul we are nothing.”
Disclaimer: All Black Library and Warhammer material is the intellectual property of Games Workshop. I do not own the rights or have any association to the property and literature, and only make this article and recommendation as an individual consumer.