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.