Saturday 13 October 2012

Context and Criticality

To summarize where I am at present in the ethics and wargames debate: I am not sure I entirely understand what the question is. I have proposed a number of positions, but I have found that none of them apply strictly enough to wargaming to really give a decent handle on why wargaming might be considered unethical.

A number of people have been kind enough to comment on the issue. Firstly, it was suggested that perhaps using utilitarianism and Mill’s harm principle was too broad. Mill argues that you can offend people, but if you do it does not count as harming them. The problem is that some forms of offence are counted, by many people, as being harmful, and so, practically, the argument fails. I have tried to answer this criticism by switching meta-ethical theory, and arguing from virtue ethics that wargaming armies from evil regimes makes us more likely to be evil. I’m not convinced that this works any better, but it is at least different.

Secondly, it was also suggested that ethical concerns are simply a reflection of our (perhaps overly) politically correct culture. It is certainly true that few people would have raised objections to wargaming a few hundred years ago, but then few people had the time, money or leisure to wargame. I reached a tentative conclusion that perhaps the ethical issue with wargaming reflects a broader ambivalence to warfare in our society.

Finally, at least at time of writing, it was noted that wargames are often played without context and without critical engagement with the two sides. In effect, both sides in a wargame are treated as ethically neutral, even though one may consist of an SS Panzer division. They are simply tokens on the table which are used to create an narrative between the two adversaries.

To quote Phil Sabin, quoting Tim Cornell:

“The trouble precisely with wargames which take you back into periods about which we know nothing, or very little, and cannot understand, is that you do it in a moral vacuum. I don’t think wargaming is wicked in itself, or that war is necessarily bad at all. I think there is a very strong moral dimension and you’ve got to have good reason to engage in war, and this should be reflected at the level of games too.”

Now, I know that this is a quote of a quote, and that the context of this paragraph might well be something different, but I think there are a number of things going on here.

Firstly, there is a very strong historical dimension to the idea of wargaming presented here. The periods, it is argued, are ones about which we know little and can know little. I am not entirely sure that the statement is quite accurate, put as baldly as that. It does need some nuance: historians can and do tell us a lot about many periods. We do not have to operate in a historical vacuum, we can choose, for example, to examine the origins of the English Civil War and decide for ourselves who was right and who was wrong.

Of course, the problem with history is that it does tend to move in fashions. With the ECW interpretations vary wildly, from neo-Marxist arguments about the rise of the gentry to revisionist historians arguing that the problem was really Charles I. With such variation in historical accounts, even within the last 50 years or so, it is hardly surprising that wargamers do not engage with this sort of historiography, but simply reach for the nearest Osprey and call that research.

Nevertheless, it is possible to contextualise our table-top armies, and perhaps it is a moral requirement of them that we do so. We can then wargame SS divisions knowing full well what they stood for in the broader context. I do wonder, however, if that should mitigate our pleasure when we win.

The second thing that is going on in the quoted paragraph is, of course, a projection of our moral dilemma, in a liberal, western democracy, over the use of force.  There is a moral dimension, and, it argues, we have to reflect that in a wargame. This is an interesting point, as it indicates an issue that I have touched on  in the past, and rather dismissed as not being very helpful.

The issue is that of the western tradition of the just war. This arose from the Judaeo-Christian context, and is still much debated today. For example, most theorists consider the first Iraq war to have been a reasonably just one, but considerable doubts have been raised about the second, as I’m sure most people are aware. Governments are accused of fixing the evidence and ignoring the precepts of the just war tradition.

Nevertheless, the just war does give us a yardstick to measure the justice of a given conflict against. The problem I have with it is transferring that from the real world (where it is usually an ideal but never fully implemented) to the wargame table.

To see the problem, let us transfer back to the World War Two example of, say, a US Marine company against an SS Panzer Grenadier one. Clearly, we have a moral context here. One side, most people would agree, are the goodies, and the other are the baddies. According to the just war argument, the baddies should simply surrender, or at least, not fight hard in a bad cause, or even deliberately lose to increase the justice in the world.

As I’m sure you can see this lands us up with no wargame at all.

So yes, I’m all for context, and I think it is vital that someone wargaming world war two Germans knows the context in which they are wargaming. I also think that such a person should undertake a critical look at what their army prototype stood for, and carefully differentiate themselves from that political position.

The problems is, so far as I can tell, knowing when to stop, so that there still exists the opportunity of having a wargame at all.


  1. Sounds dangerous territory to me.
    All well and good to differentiate the armies as the goodies and the baddies (Not sure the US Marines ever fought the SS, by the way.)but how to be sure we have the whole story? History is written by the victors, after all, so is that how we can tell who the goodies are; they won?

    You said in an earlier post that we only know of Marathon from Greek sources - the Persians barely noticed it took place - so how to be sure the Greeks were in the right? 'Cos they told us.

    What was the moral context of, say, Bosworth? Both Richard and Henry were heroes or pretty unpleasant characters, depending on who you believe.

    The Sellars and Yeatman quote struck me as I was reading this - about the Civil War being fought between the Cavaliers (wrong but wromantic) and the Roundheads (right but repulsive.)Probably personal taste here overriding morals, when choosing sides.

    AJP Taylor blamed the British for the Napoleonic Wars - don't remember Pitt and Castlereagh being vilified as evil.

    Perhaps it is just safer for our sanity to enjoy the game and treat the moral context like an embarrassing older relative - be aware of it, but don't invite it to the game.

  2. I suppose that some regimes are clearly 'baddies'; after all, the question usually comes up in terms of WW2, although it does have to be admitted that some of the goodies were not gloriously squeaky clean...

    As we go further back, this becomes less clear. Were the royalists goodies or baddies, romantics or crypto-catholics, and so on. Some like Richard III, some prefer Henry Tudor. How are we to choose? Is it even a moral question?

    Incidentally, there is an interesting spat going on at the moment between Eamonn Duffy and Dairmud McCulloch over whether Duffy is a historian who is a Roman Catholic or a Catholic historian. So the pre-historical commitments of historians can also make a difference, not just an idea of who won and wrote the history. Would Duffy have become a historian of the reformation if he had not been a Catholic?

    On the other hand, treating the moral and historiographical issue like an embarrassing relative can also cause problems, when we trip over them, or, to change the metaphor, step into the pile of dung delivered by the elephant in the room...

  3. I enter into this with some trepidation - this is good material for chewing over, but really there are some serious principles in the background which I find bothering. I am nervous that I become disenchanted with my hobby by reason of its being inappropriate...

    It would be lame to just fall back on a consideration of why I "do" wargaming in the first place, but I think it may be central to my view. I've always been fascinated by history, and warfare is a major element of history. Thus I am fascinated by warfare - partly because I can't quite understand how such an abhorrence can exist, and partly because it holds a fascination in its own right - all those lovely soldiers, all that passion and heroism, all that dreadful mess.

    My periods of choice - and I'm probably too old now to develop any new ones - are Napoleonic and ECW. These periods are both long enough ago to allow a measure of detachment in my consideration of them, yet they are colourful and have a pleasing balance of arms. I don't play to win - thank goodness, because my track record is not impressive. I play solo quite a lot. My games, as much as anything, are the facilitation of an event - pseudo-history, if you like. I get to witness a scaled-down, safe version of something which fascinates me and which otherwise I could never see, nor would wish to.

    As much as a player, I am a watcher - I want to see what happens. I want to try to understand. I am not consciously celebrating or glorifying the people or the event, I don't think.

    1. Hi,

      Thank you for your comments.

      If I have learnt one thing from writing this blog, it is that some bits of wargaming make us a bit uncomfortable, and we tend to hide them from ourselves as wargamers.

      On the other hand, it is in some respects a good things to haul the uncomfortable bits out and examine them, lest we forget what war is really about. That is not to say that wargaming is a 'bad' thing for us; our society tends to gloss over the unpleasant bits of warfare itself.

      As for what we are doing when we wargame, it is an interesting point. as I mentioned in a comment last week, I'm trying to write a bit on narrative in wargames, and I think it might help the pondering in this area.