Now, you might think that I have finally flipped my lid, and, of course, it is perfectly possible that I have, but let me try to explain, unpack what on earth Hegel was talking about, and what it has to do with this blog.
Minerva, as I am sure you are all aware, was the Roman equivalent of the Greek Athena, the goddess of wisdom. She was also, as I am sure you also know, the protector of Athens. Her symbol was an owl, and hence the Athenian coinage, the obol, was also embossed with an owl. An interesting reference to all this is, in fact, in the children’s TV series ‘Bagpuss’, where there is an episode called ‘The Owls of Athens’, which, as a bonus, also explains why nightingales sing and owls hoot. But I digress a little.
So, with “The Owl of Minerva” we have some sort of reference to wisdom, of, in Hegel’s case, philosophy. Flying at twilight, however, is a reference to the fact that we are usually philosophical in reflection, or, to put it more colloquially, wise after the event. So wisdom and philosophy are reflective, backward looking human intellectual undertakings.
This does not mean that philosophy is useless, however, but it does mean that without something to reflect upon, philosophy will not usefully happen. In my case, in an Anglo-American analytical philosophical tradition, I cannot really engage in philosophy until I have something empirical to try to understand. Anything else is dangerous speculative metaphysics, which Hegel is often accused of, and is best left to those weird people who want to undertake what is usually called (in the said Anglo-American tradition) ‘Continental Philosophy’, often with a sneering curl of the lip.
Now, far be it from me to join in the sneering. After all, as some of you might have worked out, I am something of a fan of Transcendental Thomism, which certainly does not fall within the normal Anglo-American tradition. Nevertheless, I think it is worth trying to unpick what Hegel’s comment might mean for this blog, at least.
Obviously, without wargaming in general existing, there would be nothing to reflect on and nothing to worry about ethically. Given that there is something like wargaming, we can attempt, as I do here from time to time, to reflect on what it might mean, and how, ethically, we might proceed about it. However, the issue is, of course, that the Owl only flies at twilight, that is, the pondering about it does not, itself, change the subject of the pondering. Thinking about wargaming does not, itself, alter wargaming.
This is clearest, I think, with the recent bits about ethics. As you might be aware, I have suggested that, ethically, we choose what we wargame because we accept those representations as being part of ourselves, of the narratives that we construct about ourselves and are prepared to tell other people. I might, for example, have a penchant for wargaming the nastier elements of the SS, but I may not wish to share that bit of myself, my narrative with anyone else. My public narrative could be squeaky clean, but my private one could be vicious. If you do not believe me, just have a quick look at the press stories about how some very squeaky clean public reputations have been found wanting recently.
As it happens, my private reputation, on the SS front, at least, is as intact as my public one; I do not wargame World War Two, so the question is irrelevant. But the ethical answer I have found to the question ‘What shall we wargame’ does rather beg a preceding one: why does having a coherent narrative matter?
There are some people, of course, who would argue that having a coherent narrative of our lives does not matter. Some existential philosophers (in the continental tradition) might well argue that it does not matter, for example some of the work of Sartre suggests that coherence is not an issue; we do not need to live our lives coherently. We could be vicious at one point and virtuous a few minutes later. As long as we exist in the moment, how we exist, compared to how we existed a moment ago, does not matter. The only thing that is important is now.
This is, of course, a point of view, but it is not one that I, at least, subscribe to. Many, if not most, people actually do seem to think that having a coherence to one’s life is important, at some level. Thus I can say that I would no more play the SS than I would fly to the moon unaided. It simply does not fit with my view of myself as a human.
Obviously, people do play the SS, even, occasionally, the nastier parts of it, and some players will play the baddies, and so on. The question then arises as to why this should be. Clearly, in, say a WW2 battle, someone has to play the Germans, or there is no battle. Similarly, in a role playing game, someone has to play the bad guys for the player characters to try to beat. How can these players assimilate these items to their narratives and still be true to themselves?
I think that there are two responses here. Firstly, that some players are quite willing to shave their narratives to include playing baddies, on the basis that no-one was all bad. The German army in WW2 was not stacked full of ideological Nazis, they might argue, and anyway, they had cool uniforms and equipment. Well, maybe that is a good enough reason, but it will not wash with me, I’m afraid. ‘Good’ weapons are not a sufficient reason in my book to play the army, not when compared with the murder and mayhem it caused in the world.
The second response, which might be a better one, is to admit the evil caused by the army and not to justify playing it in terms of its equipment, courage, organisation or anything else. This way needs to keep some sort of emotional and intellectual distance from the activity of the army historically, so the deeds of the original do not intersect with our narratives of ourselves. In effect, we invent a ‘clean’ version of the original, and wargame with that.
Of course, you could suggest that this is what we do with any historical army. I doubt if any ECW wargamer seriously considers the New Model Army as having committed war crimes. But, perhaps, with WW2 the issues are a lot more pointed, as well as more recent.