Saturday, 29 September 2012

Virtue and Wargaming

I suspect that I may be flogging a dead horse, or at least boring most of the readers of this blog (that would be both of them….) but I am still pondering the reasons why some argue that only modern warfare (more or less from World War Two onwards) is subject to some degree of angst from some members, at least, of the wargame fraternity, while other periods are not.

I think I have sufficiently argued that, at least from a utilitarian point of view, the issue is not an issue at all; it is simply a matter of giving or receiving offence, which is not an ethical issue.

So, is there an alternative point of view from which the wargaming of World War Two Germans could be argued as being problematic? I think there might be, and so I shall try to describe what it is, in my view at least, here.

The underlying issue seems to be this: we become what we do habitually. This is an argument or claim that, in fact, goes back to Aristotle. It suggests that, in order to become virtuous, and to live the good life, we have to practice. So, for example, if we habitually rob banks, our lives are unlikely to be virtuous ones. On the other hand, if we habitually go and work in a charity shelter, our lives are, at least in theory going to be virtuous ones, at least if we do not combine the two.

In this idea, I suspect, lies the problem that makes people uneasy, or at least feel they have to justify themselves, while wargaming WWII Germans. The idea is that by habitually wargaming WWII Germans, we might become like them.

I suppose the first question to tackle is why the Germans and not, say, the Assyrians or Babylonians, or even the Romans, all of whose track records when it comes to modern human right is dubious, to say the least. Wargaming Romans, even campaigns like the Spartacus slave revolt, does not seem to fill us with the same angst as, say, the Korsun pocket. Why not?

I think the answer to this one lies within our ability to identify with some fictional characters. We cannot, I suggest, really identify with characters from the Roman Empire. Their world view was simply too different to ours for us to manage that. While there is much decent material out there on the Romans, it just does not help us to identify ourselves with the world view, but simply makes it alien.

While literature and film can also take us to this other world, often the concepts and themes tied up in it are simply our own. The same is true of science fiction, of course. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is, at least in part, a response to Vietnam, while Miller’s A Canticle to Leibowitz is a response to World War Two. Similarly, without wishing to push things too far, Rosemary Sutcliffe’s A Sword at Sunset could be interpreted as focussed around the end of the British Empire. The contemporary issues behind Gladiator and 300 are left to the reader.

The difference between the nasty empires of the past and that of Nazi Germany is a matter of memory. We cannot remember the atrocities carried out by, say, the Romans when the crucified revolted slaves every few hundred yards along a road. We cannot have known these people, and while we can have pity on them, it is a bit hard really to empathise; this may be in part because the Romans who did the crucifixions also wrote the history recording them.

With the Nazi regime, of course, things are different. It was a system that obsessively recorded things. The names and even faces of those slaughtered are available to us should we choose to find them. There are tours to places to Auschwitz, where the horrors took place, and there is scholarly analysis of why it happened, the mind sets which enabled people to follow orders and permit, without question, unimaginable awfulness.

The difficulty, then, in terms of wargaming Nazi Germany, is that we too live in a system which is not wildly dissimilar. While I am sure that no western style democracy is headed in that direction, Nazi Germany is close enough to us to permit us to imagine that it could. In short, we can much more easily identify with the people on the ground, receiving orders that they either execute or get executed themselves. This places the moral question directly before us: what would you have done?

A second issue here is, I suspect, that World War Two is a highly charged political issue. Even writing about it here, in wargame terms, makes me feel a little jumpy, wondering who I might upset, or whether I am going to be lambasted by some secret Nazi sympathiser. The fact that this is unlikely is neither here nor there; the issue is highly charged and sensitive, and we, as wargamers, have to live with that.

So, what advice could we give to someone who is interested in wargaming World War Two Germans but worried that they might upset people, of be morally compromised?

From the utilitarian point of view, the answer is ‘it is not a problem’. However, from the virtue ethics side, these is an issue of some description.

The advice, therefore, would be along the lines of:
Remember always that, no matter how heroic, innovative or how cool the uniforms, these toy soldiers are representative of an utterly evil regime. It is perfectly legitimate to wargame with them, but always remember, when reading and thinking about them, that the politics and actions of many leading the regime and the orders they issued and enforced have no place in any society at all.

I suppose that, as I suggested before, the major danger of wargaming World War Two Germans is that of running across Nazi apologia in books, not representing battlefield occurences.


  1. David,
    Six of us from our club went on a tour of the Normandy beaches in June. Part of the tour incuded a visit to a German cemetery. All very poignant, particularly as many of the graves contain two or more unidentified German soldiers under a stone simply inscribed 'Zwei Deutche soldaten'. Many of the ones who were identified were just kids - born 1926, died 1944.

    One particular grave was pointed out to us - Ober-something-or-other Michael Wittman. He was a tank 'ace' who had killed no end of Russians and 'took out' a whole battalion of the Rifle Brigade on his own at Villers Bocage. He was killed in Normandy by a cobbler called Joe from Northampton with one of the only three shots he fired in the whole war.

    Anyway, our lads who were 'in the know' about WWII were quite excited about seeing the grave; they knew all about Wittman's story. One said it was the highlight of the trip.

    It was one of the ladies on the trip who brought us all up short later by pointing out that Wittman was SS and a pretty nasty piece of work to boot. I don't think any of us had looked further than his alleged prowess as a soldier; we had completely overlooked his nazi-ness. Far less had we considered that these kids we had felt sorry for were very likely Hitler Youth fanatics.

    I am really not sure what any of that proves. Was it simply that, being wargamers, we focus on the bones of the subject - the fighting and not the cause - and so lose sight of it altogether? Or are we equating the fighting men with the wee metal and plastic chaps on the table so closely that we have sanitised our view of them? The battle's over; put everything back in the box until next week.

    To put it another way, are there wargamers whose participation in the hobby is an indication of their support for nazism, or any other dodgy politcal -ism? Somehow I doubt it, unless that's me being niaive (again). I think the opposite is true, and when we encounter someone from outside the hobby who has extreme views, we somehow find it incongruous.


  2. Hi,

    I think there is one more point to think about. If you are worring about moral issue of playing Germans, why not so about Japanese, who mutiliated and killed millions? Why not about soviets, who did likewise to more millions, including millions of soldiers, treated like cattle for slaugther. And for that part, why not about Americans who have bombed Dresden, Nagasaki, Hiroshima and other nice cities? I suppose that if conducting atrocities would make us resign from playing some period of military history or some army, we would be left with very little to play with. If anything at all.


  3. Hi,

    I guess that these two points simply point up the problems we run into. War, as Adam says, is not nice. If we try to find a "nice" war, say something from the Age of reason, we quite quickly find that it was not civilized at all. It is interesting to note, though, that most of our problems relate to World War Two and later.

    There is also a tendency to hero worship (and, conversely, to debunk) individuals. To try to pick a non-WW2 subject, was Julius Caesar a manic self publicist, war monger, conquering hero or an opportunist? I am fairly sure that all of these and more can be found in the historiography, so take your pick.

    With respect to Wittman and those German war graves, I have met someone who was in the Hitler Youth, but was certainly no fanatic and couldn't avoid it (I believe the current Pope was as well).

    The problem is, I suspect, that we like our lines nice and clearly drawn, but, in general, they are not. Someone can be a good general but a nasty bit of work, and someone can be a bad general but a nice bloke. Add to that that generalship and politics get entangled (c.f. Caesar again) and the world is much more complex that we really want to deal with most of the time.

  4. Well, ok - perhaps I should have said likely Hitler Youth and possibly fanatics.
    And yes, distance in time seems to be the only arbiter of whether a particular period is good taste or not. We could happily refight the Battle of the Boyne or siege of Londonderry with a clear conscience (and have) but not the bandit country of Crossmaglen in the 1980s.

    My own all time favourite army, the Civil War Covenanters, wasn't averse to murdering Catholic prisoners on occasion, but it was all in the spirit of the time, wasn't it? No hard feelings.

    I think my point (if I had one) was that my group of wargamers, who might represent the average of the type, far from being apologists or supporters of the nazi regime, had effectively blanked it out of any consideration of that particular character. It took a non-wargamer to remind us.

    Hero worship is in the way you tell it. Heaven forfend we should promote the actions of murderous terrorists like William Wallace or Bertrand du Guesclin.


  5. Coming to this one a bit late, but I have to agree with Chris. As wargamers we focus on the hardware, the cool toys that we get to play with. The political and moral situation rarely makes it onto the table, except in a few distasteful instances. So, gaming WW2 generally leaves the bad stuff behind, and the player who takes the Germans does so because they get to use the big cats. This has been my experience anyway. When we become too aware of the political situation and the moral and ethical problems that encompasses, then we start to lose our will to game these eras. I found this with games like 'AK47 Republic'. It was great as long as I distanced my armies from the reality of African warfare by fitting them into a cosy paradigm that I constructed for them. Once I started to relate the games to the reality, I found I could no longer comfortably play that game. The same would apply to the Battle of the Boyne or any of the other Irish situations that Chris mentioned. I would be extremely uncomfortable gaming anything related to those because of my awareness and perception of the other dimensions of the situations.

  6. I suppose the problem (such as there is a problem) is that external viewers of a wargame may not recognize that we are drawing a line between the hardware and the strategy or tactics and the politics and morality.

    That could be summarized by asking a WW2 German player "how can you plan to have your side win?". I suppose the answer to that is "it is a game - have some sense of perspective".

    The nexus seems to be 'how do we justify leaving the bad stuff behind'. Chris' comments suggest that we do, but Ruaridh's indicate that if the bad stuff emerges it does make us uncomfortable.

    I suppose this is the same reasoning as why the BBC pulled a show which had police being shot at after two police were killed on duty.

    It is not necessarily logical or strictly a moral or ethical dilemma. Are we back to simple tastelessness again?

  7. Do you remember occasional wargames shows in the 1970s/80s where you'd get a handful of anti-war demonstrators outside the venue with placards that said "War is not a game"?

    And the stock wargamer's answer "Wouldn't it be better if it were?"

  8. Hi,

    I think this comes from magical way of thinking: "If we do not talk about it, it will not happen." The same is with death - most people are really afraid of saying something about death in future terms. Like not saying the word could stop anybody from dying. It is a sure thing that I will die one day, maybe tomorrow. Every one of us will.

    I am pretty sure there was not a single day in human history without war going on somewhere. I am also pretty sure wargaming has nothing to do with it. So actions of those demonstrators were not going to ease suffering anywhere in the world.

    Personally, I have a feeling that wargamers are more peaceful people than many around. It may have some distant connection to people who have lived through war. They really do not want it to happen again. Maybe interest in history gives people some small inside into what happens during war and their attitude follows. Or maybe I am just idealizing.


  9. I do recall the protests, and even as a mere stripling felt that the protesters were rather missing the point...

    I also think the Adam has a point; we do not like to talk about these things as a society, even though they are a regular occurrence. Interestingly, about 150 years ago in the UK at least, death was a popular topic of conversation, while sex was never mentioned. Now it is more or less the other way around.

    Perhaps the issue of war as morality is only relevant to societies where it is a choice, say in government in the 18th century, and across a broader reach of society in modern democracy.