Line by Line

Animorphs as Anti-war War Story


Tags: Animorphs, morals and ethics

Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, I was a big fan of the Animorphs books written by K.A. Applegate and her uncredited co-author and husband Michael Grant (and several ghostwriters). The premise of the series is that five human teenagers, and their alien friend, have the ability to transform (“morph”) for two hours at a time into any animal whose DNA they can acquire by touching it. They use this ability to wage a secret guerrilla war against an invading army of alien brain-control slugs bent on enslaving humanity as they've already enslaved other alien species.

These days, the series is fondly remembered in Internet circles because of its brutally honest (and, honestly, brutal) depiction of violence. It's hailed as a critique of war and a cautionary tale about the horrors thereof.

For me, though, it fails at that purpose.

The issues are most apparent in the series finale and the several books leading up to it, so obviously I can't discuss this without spoilers. If you want to read the series yourself first, stop here. I wish you luck, since the books can be hard to find.

Before I continue, let me say up front that I haven't read the books in over fifteen years. My plan is to get my opinions out, and then see if they change after a re-read.

I don't want to summarize the entire series, but no critique of the ending will make sense if you don't have at least a passing familiarity with the premise and how the series ended up, so here's the bare minimum:

Fans will notice I'm leaving out a lot of significant stuff, like Erek, David, Eva, Loren, Elfangor, Aftran, Taylor, James, the Hork-Bajir, the Taxxons, the Vissers' rivalry, Alloran, and even the Ellimist. As Lord Ravenscraft says in the first of his Animorphs video essays (which I highly recommend), you've got Wikipedia. No point in making the summary (which already exceeds 400 words) even longer with a lore dump that doesn't even figure into my critique of the series' central theme.

The ending disappointed a lot of fans, for a lot of reasons. Some were upset that Cassie and Jake's romance ended. Some felt that the cliffhanger ending was cheap. My main complaints at the time were Rachel's death, the Animorphs' penchant for war crimes making them hard for me to like, and the ending just feeling unsatisfying. Sure, Tobias abandoning his humanity and Jake's postwar life being a dull blur made sense after what they'd been through, but I know I'm not the only one who felt like that isn't the ending I wanted for the characters I'd spent dozens of books rooting for.

That last one was my biggest gripe at the time and I still feel that way. I even think there's some extent to which it's a valid criticism and not just a mismatch between the story I wanted and the one Applegate told. It's not what I want to focus on, however. I'll come back to Rachel's death, but mainly I want to zero in on the Animorphs' ethics of war.

Ravenscroft aptly sums up the Animorphs' position, and what seems to be that of the series itself, in the parts discussing Cassie and Marco: He says that Cassie is a hypocrite, but in war it's necessary to have hypocrites. The reason she's a hypocrite, he says, is that she always questions the morality of the Animorphs' actions and especially whether it's right to kill, even though she's fighting a war.

The Animorphs, especially in the later books, often justify their actions by saying it's a war, and in war you do terrible things. Marco does this the most, but Cassie is the only one who usually doesn't. She frequently objects when the others do, but she generally ends up going along with whatever the rest of the team already decided anyway. Her role as the group's conscience is less about stopping the team from crossing lines than about bearing the burden of feeling bad about it when they do.

In that sense, then, Ravenscroft is right: Cassie is a hypocrite. He's also right that wars need people who are willing to ask questions about the ethics of wartime behavior. But he's wrong to say that asking those questions is inherently hypocritical.

War presents two related but distinct ethical questions: Whether you're justified in going to war, and whether you justified in what you do in war, or in other (Latin) words, jus ad bellum and jus in bello, respectively.

Here's how the International Committee of the Red Cross, citing the United Nations Charter of 1945, explains the principles under international law:

Jus ad bellum refers to the conditions under which States may resort to war or to the use of armed force in general. The prohibition against the use of force amongst States and the exceptions to it (self-defence and UN authorization for the use of force) […] are the core ingredients of jus ad bellum[…]. Jus in bello regulates the conduct of parties engaged in an armed conflict. IHL [International Humanitarian Law] is synonymous with jus in bello; it seeks to minimize suffering in armed conflicts, notably by protecting and assisting all victims of armed conflict to the greatest extent possible.

IHL applies to the belligerent parties irrespective of the reasons for the conflict or the justness of the causes for which they are fighting. If it were otherwise, implementing the law would be impossible, since every party would claim to be a victim of aggression. Moreover, IHL is intended to protect victims of armed conflicts regardless of party affiliation. That is why jus in bello must remain independent of jus ad bellum.

I'm Catholic, so let's go ahead and add the Catechism of the Catholic Church's section on just war. It runs from CCC 2302 to 2317, but I'll just include some relevant excerpts from 2308, 2309, and 2312:

2308 All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.

However, "as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed."

2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. the gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy.


2312 The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. "The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties."

So it's not just me. The need to consider the ethics of wartime behavior separately from the ethics of going to war in the first place is long-established, and recognized by both religious and secular authorities.

Which means it's not inconsistent, and therefore not hypocritical, to fight for a good cause and still question whether what you do in support of that cause is right.

Of course, this could be just poor wording on Ravenscroft's part, or me projecting my half-remembered reading of the series onto him. So let's look at the author's own interpretation of her work. After the ending was published, Applegate wrote a letter to disappointed fans. Seemingly annoyed at the fan response, she explains her rationale: Awful things happened to the characters because real wars are awful, and they don't have triumphant endings “that leave the good guys standing tall and the bad guys lying in the dirt.”

Applegate says her writing repeatedly “challenged readers to think about what they were reading. To think about the right and wrong, not just the who-beat-who.” I'm just not sure what purpose that serves if the only allowed conclusions are “do the thing” and “do the thing but then have Cassie cry about it.”

I'm also not sure it's true: It's not unheard of for the series to provide easy outs so nobody has to do any thinking. For instance, when a buffalo acquires the morphing ability and transforms into a human, it raises the question of whether the buffalo now qualifies as a person, and what to do about it. Before anyone can attempt to answer this question, the Yeerks vaporize the buffalo. In another book, the Animorphs face ant-sized aliens who only pose any threat because of their shrink ray. The ethical question is whether to just morph an anteater and start killing them, and the answer is that they're literally impossible to kill because their minds just get reabsorbed into a previously unmentioned hive mind and reincarnated.

Of course, those are ghostwritten filler books. What about something more central to the series' plot and themes? That brings me back to Rachel.

Rachel's character arc throughout the series was about how the war changed her. How the tough but pretty gymnast and mall crawler gradually faded away in favor of the grizzly and the gore and the thrill of battle. How that violent warrior was an integral part of her. > It centered on the question of who she had become due to the war and, more importantly, who she would be without it.

When the war actually does end and we see how all the other Animorphs' lives turned out, Rachel is not part of that. Sure, she was brave. Sure, she mattered. But who is she now? I guess that doesn't matter.

Just before the letter's conclusion, Applegate says:

So, you don't like the way our little fictional war came out? You don't like Rachel dead and Tobias shattered and Jake guilt-ridden? You don't like that one war simply led to another? Fine. Pretty soon you'll all be of voting age, and of draft age. So when someone proposes a war, remember that even the most necessary wars, even the rare wars where the lines of good and evil are clear and clean, end with a lot of people dead, a lot of people crippled, and a lot of orphans, widows and grieving parents.

So what's the proposed solution? Just don't go to war? Don't get me wrong, “vote against war hawks” is excellent advice, but it has nothing to do with jus in bello.

Besides, it's not an option the Animorphs ever had. The Yeerk-Andalite war and even the Yeerk invasion of Earth had been going on for decades before the Animorphs got dragged into it. Some Yeerks could be convinced to pursue peace, but the leadership was not open to negotiating with “meat.” There was going to be a war either way, even if not all the Yeerks were on the same side of it. This goes double for the “seamless transition to another war” in the final scenes, since the enemy that captured Ax is basically the Yeerks but more so. These enemies had every intention of killing or enslaving everyone if someone didn't stop them.

This is fitting, if the point was to show the terrible consequences of “even the most necessary wars,” but the very existence of necessary wars, however rare, seems to contradict the idea that voting is the only solution.

And if this theory of war is correct, if the only moral thing to do is to avoid war in the first place, if once it starts you do what you have to do to win, then Jake was right to blow up the underground pool, to flush the shipboard one, to send his cousin to die fighting his brother, and all the rest. He was right, because it's a war and war is just that awful. He was right. No thinking required.

As the series' present-day fans are eager to point out, the finale came just months before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and the extremely successful US military propaganda campaign telling us that Islamist terrorists were willing and able to kill or enslave everyone if someone didn't stop them. If the Animorphs' theory of war is correct, then the government was right to launch into an open-ended war, to occupy Afghanistan, to enact the PATRIOT Act, to imprison suspected terrorists with no due process and then torture them, and all the rest, because it's a war and war is just that awful. No thinking required.

I'm ashamed to admit that the propaganda largely worked on me regardless, though in my defense I was in my early teens. Still, if I had let the Animorphs' ethics of war be my guide, I am fairly certain that I would not have concluded that we shouldn't have fought the War On Terror.

So that, in a very large nutshell, is how I feel about Animorphs' ending and its failure as an anti-war message. Again, though, and crucially, it's been over a decade since I actually read the series. Let's see if I feel differently after reading it as an adult.