Ruaridh asked recently whether wargaming would have been regarded as even ethically questionable in past ages. The short answer is, of course, that I have no idea. On a more considered reflection, however, I might be able to offer some tentative suggestions.
Firstly, there has always been a strand of peace, and yearning for peace, in our culture. A recent book, called “The Glorious Art of Peace” by John Gittings ((2012) Oxford: OUP) examines some of these aspects, as the subtitle says, ‘from the Iliad to Iraq’.
Gittings is not interested in wargaming, of course, but he does point out that in almost all cultures, peace has been an ideal, particularly as it is often associated with prosperity for the peasant farmers, who could and did lose everything when land was despoiled during campaigns.
An interesting start is to be made in, in fact, the Iliad. Here, Gittings argues that while about a third of the poem is devoted to battle scenes, many of them gory, Homer does not give unequivocal backing to the idea that war is a good thing. For example, the exploits of the heroes, their blessings in their own country, exploits, wives and families are often given; and then they die, gruesomely in most cases. Heroes, even in Homer, are not bomb (or even spear) proof.
A second Homeric item is the shield of Achilles, which was decorated with scenes of both peace and war. Gittings suggests that Homer is arguing that peace is the true aspiration of the human race; that what we really want to do is eat, drink and make merry, but the cares of the world (including warfare) often, if not usually interfere, and even the noble and heroic are not immune.
So, even as far back as the Iliad, peace and war are juxtaposed, in tension, and not to be accepted at face value. Of course, that is not how the text has necessarily been treated down the centuries. Alexander the “Great” is said to have slept on it on campaign, and it influenced generations of Greek and Roman scholars, poets and authors.
It is not just the Greeks, or the western tradition which has put forth this ambiguous view of warfare. In China the literature from the Warring States era also presents a less than fulsome picture of warfare. Gittings multiplies his examples from history, but the point remains: war has never been a straightforward issue.
It can hardly be a surprise, then, if wargaming has its ambiguities. If, as it does, our culture has a tense relationship with war, then a hobby which represents war cannot be without its own issues. What they are, exactly, is of course more difficult to define, as some of the posts on this blog have demonstrated.
So, when did wargaming acquire the status of being something polite society did not mention?
I am not sure, as I said, that I can really answer that question. However, we can, I think, see that it is linked with the rise of leisure time in the West. Speaking very broadly, before the Victorian era, (late 19th century) few people would have had the leisure to indulge in wargaming, and if they did, there was not much in the way of equipment to assist them. Of course, there are a few exceptions among the super-rich, and the Prussian army started to use wargames for professional reasons during the same century. However, it is Robert Louis Stevenson and H G Wells who start wargaming as a leisure practice in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Before the first world war there were, I think, two things going on. Firstly, there was a good deal of nationalism, jingoism if you will. This led, for example, to the Prince of Wales storming out of the first night of Shaw’s ‘Arms and the Man’ when one of the actors inadvertently referred to the ‘British Army’ rather than the ‘Bulgarian Army’ running away. Even after the Boer war (and even, perhaps, particularly after the Boer war) the British army simply did not do that.
Secondly, there was what HG Wells called a lot of “whoosh” going on. Certainly from the point of view of the British (and probably US) middle classes, things were getting a lot better and were going to continue doing so. The British authorities were shocked, for example, to find how many young men from poor areas were unfit for war service due to ill health and poor nourishment. The society which was so forward looking was found to be mired in poverty.
Similarly, although revisionist historians have had a good go at this, the battles of the first world war were a profound shock, particularly as the Pals battalions were mown down and the war poets started to write (OK, not all of them, but Sassoon and Owen, at least). Now the view from 1918 or 1919 was that the allies had won, but the cost had been horrific. Peace movements (League of Nations, Peace Pledge Union and so on) grew and peaked during the 1920’s and 1930’s.
So I submit that, sometime around the end of World War One, wargaming (which was in its infancy) probably ran into ethical issues. Why, you can imagine people asking, would you want to wargame with the recent war to end all wars so vivid and awful in memory; when there are so many widows and unmarried women around because the death toll was so high?
I guess that this sort of question, which is akin to the ones Ruaridh was asked, are the ones that continue to dog the hobby to this day. On the one hand there are good reasons to wargame: to remember, to understand, to investigate what happened and why. On the other hand, there are the reasons not to wargame: it revisits the horror and pain, even vicariously.
So it could be the ‘wargame ethics’ debates we are having here are, in fact, related to our society’s ambiguous relationship with warfare, and that neither war nor wargaming have ever not had these issues hanging around the margins.