In the case of wargaming, where we are, at least in principle, recreating some pretty nasty bits of history, the activity referred to could be something like ‘commanding an SS unit that murdered people in cold blood’, or ‘commanding the New Model Army at Drogheda’. Where you stand on this ethically is, of course, up to you. It is your story, and depends on your own values.
For some, the value of playing with SS troops is that they were a disciplined unit with strong esprit de corps, cool uniforms (everyone loves black?) and wonder weapons. There may also be pinch of heroism, defending to the last a doomed cause. This need not be a political stance, of course; I’m sure many play SS themed wargames without buying into Nazi values.
On the other hand, it is rather easy to argue that the SS were simply organised thugs, the storm troopers of an evil regime who unthinkingly carried out orders of huge repugnance which no ordinary human would have countenanced. While someone could be willing to play the baddies in a World war Two game they could, reasonably coherently, refuse to command SS units.
However, despite the (hopefully) unique status of the Second World War in its carnage and horror, all wargaming faces some sort of ethical challenge, at least if we penetrate to any degree below the surface. Prufrock came up with a good example in the discussion of the original post: a small force had taken many prisoners and, as commander, he was concerned about security. His first thought was to put the prisoners in barns for the night and set fire to them. Problem, concern solved.
Now, one issue which immediately raised itself was the concern about the difference of real life (I believe the example was being kind to spiders) and the incorporation of unethical behaviour in a wargames campaign. How different can our ethics on the table be from those we have in real life?
Of course, the first question to ask is ‘why should we worry?’ Many wargamers, I am sure, would not worry at all about the question. Wargaming is a game; what happens on the table stays on the table. That is perhaps true, up to a point, but the concern which is there is that it simply does not happen in all cases. While murdering prisoners of war in a wargame has no impact on anyone outside the wargamers concerned it might have an impact on them, their morals, their virtues.
As I am sure I have already mentioned, Aristotle argued that what we do habitually becomes part of us, whether that is virtuous of vicious. If, as a schoolchild, we sell sweets to our friends at vastly inflated prices then, in later life, we might become a fraudster, gangster or international banker (or all three). How much, as wargamers, do we want to keep our real world consciences clear of even fictional unethical behaviour?
Of course, if our wargames are anywhere near realistic, we much also land up with realistic moral dilemmas. The issue of prisoners was a real one in real battles. For example, one of the best known battles, Agincourt, had precisely this dilemma. Henry V was stuck with a small and ill army facing a large and well fed one. After some of the battle, he could reasonably assume that his troops were becoming exhausted and that the enemy still has fresh troops to throw at him. While his position was a strong one, it could still be outflanked and so he ordered that the prisoners should be killed.
Was this an unethical decision? The argument has continued over the centuries with no real resolution. It is undeniable that it was a reasonable situation, given the context and Henry’s knowledge of the state of his own army and that of the enemy. The stakes were high; he felt he had to act for the safety of his own army and himself.
There are, in these circumstances, two conflicting views which would apply in an Agincourt wargame. Firstly, of course, the decision of the Henry V wargamer profoundly does not matter. Agincourt was fought nearly six centuries ago. A refight of the battle, if it goes according to the original, will land our modern day Henry in precisely the same dilemma as the real world one, except that, of course, no lives will be lost. Not killing the prisoners will take the refight into an interesting ‘what if’ world, but will not change the outcome of the battle.
The alternative view is that such behaviour, while explicable in the real world of the real battle, is not acceptable behaviour in terms of the context of the refight. While, whatever happens, no-one is going to get hurt, the idea of murdering prisoners is repugnant and cannot be countenanced, even in a game situation.
The decision which we make as a wargamer is, of course, linked to how strongly we feel that our activities on table and those off table are those of the same person. It may be that as the wargamer Henry V we assume some of the characteristics of the original and so make the decision to kill the prisoners in a perfectly rational way. We have to justify that behaviour, at least to ourselves, subsequently, even if that justification is ‘well, that’s how it happened in reality.’
On the other hand, we may believe in a greater continuity between our on table personality and our real world selves. In such a case we would not murder the prisoners, even if it meant that we lost the wargame. Again, this points up the difference between game and life: Henry V did not have the luxury of walking away from it as just a game.
So the resolution of these sorts of issues seems to come down to this: how closely tied to the action on the wargaming table are you, the wargamer?