As you probably recall, I suggested that a wargame, in terms of what the participants are doing, was a trial of conflicting narrative with mutually exclusive goals. That is, if I am playing a wargame against you, my goal is that I win the game, and your goal is that you win it. It is very hard to find situations where both of these outcomes obtain. Some scenario games may approach it, as may some campaign games, but in most wargames there are winners and losers, or, alternatively, a draw where neither outcomes have been delivered.
It occurred to me that this might give another angle on the issue of wargame ethics, or why we play some things and not others. The evidence so far that I have found, or people have commented about, or I have seen as games suggest that there are few wargame eras, even up to the fracas in Afghanistan, which you will not find someone, somewhere, playing and producing figures and rules for.
Similarly (or perhaps, oppositely), there are a good number of people who will not play certain games, or eras or particular sides – the Germans in World War Two is one such example. The have an ethical theory which will cover both of these camps has turned out to be a bit tricky, to say the least. None of the three main meta-ethical theories, virtue ethics, utilitarianism and deontological, have proved to give us a particularly good handle on the ethics of given historical wargames. As meta-ethical theories they cannot, in a general sense, take account of individual tastes and viewpoint anyway.
The idea of a wargame being formed of conflicting narratives does, however, give us a potential way in. As human beings we form ourselves, at least to a large extent, by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and those which we tell others. This is obviously trivial to some people, while others need some convincing. However, we do like to tell stories, and many of the stories are about ourselves, our values, our activities. As a minor example, ‘how was your day’ requires some sort of story in reply, if the question is not just to be dismissed as phatic speech.
The stories we tell ourselves, and tell of ourselves, arise from the sets of values and processes which are imposed upon us by our culture, society, education and personal life history. Again, this is reasonably obvious in some senses. If I have lost a leg in an industrial accident, that is going to inform my life story. If, like Roosevelt, I am disabled by childhood polio, that too will inform my life story, even if I spend a lot of my time hiding the fact of my disability from the general population.
Similarly, our society and culture can impact significantly on our stories. For example, the question ‘did you vote?’ is a fairly neutral one in most western liberal democracies, where voting is a right but not a requirement. In an oppressive one party state where a 100% turn out and vote for the party is expected, however, the question takes on much nastier overtones, and our own personal responses to it have a much greater impact, potentially, on our life stories.
How then do our own narratives of our lives in general impact upon our wargaming choices and hence, on our wargaming ethics?
Wargaming (believe it or not) is not the whole of life, and nor is it separated from the rest of our lives. Therefore, the wargaming narratives that we tell can impact on the stories we tell more generally. If, as I have suggested, our narratives of our lives represent to ourselves and to the world ourselves, our virtues and vices, our outlooks and choices, then our wargaming stories are going to represent something of those factors. Our wargaming stories will impact on the rest of our lives, and we have to justify them, at least to ourselves, somehow.
The give an example, suppose you have just been having a wargame where the two sides are Russian partisans in World War Two and one of those nasty SS rear area units whose job was to keep the partisans down. You return home having won the game. ‘How did it go?’ asks your nearest and dearest. ‘I won,’ you reply, ‘I shot thirty unarmed and surrendered partisans, plundered and burnt the village and raped and murdered the women after killing their children in front of them. Great game.’
You nearest and dearest may well, at this point, be reaching for the phone to call an ambulance to take you to a psychiatric hospital. The above scenario is not one that most of us want within our narratives. It is at odds with most right thinking people’s views and, as such, we do not even wish it to be included in a fictional part of our lives. It has no place in the narratives of decent western liberal people.
The reasons why this sort of (even fictional) behaviour is excluded from our narratives is an interesting and rather complex one. Clearly, given that the sorts of events outlines above did happen and are a matter of historical record means that that sort of behaviour is not outside the limits of the possible. But we temper the possible by the sorts of things we wish to represent to ourselves in our narratives, of which our wargaming activities are a part.
This sort of approach dates back to Aristotle, of course. He argued that the sorts of things that we do become habitual, and they can be habitually virtuous or habitually vicious. If, then, we habitually cultivate vicious behaviour, even at the level of the (imaginary) game described above, Aristotle argues that we will, ourselves, become more vicious, and if we act more virtuously, we will become more virtuous.
Therefore, I suggest that the wagames we feel uncomfortable with are those where we undertake behaviour that we would not feel comfortable with in the narratives of our whole lives. And that, it seems to me, is an issue which is, in the final analysis, a personal one.