Saturday 13 April 2013

The Owl of Minerva

‘The Owl of Minerva,’ the philosopher Hegel wrote, ‘flies at twilight.’

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.


  1. " In effect, we invent a ‘clean’ version of the original, and wargame with that. "

    Can this actually be done? If I create an imagi-nation to fight the Allies in WW2, and it uses panzers, have I actually created much real distance?



  2. I'm not sure, but I suspect it can be done, because most of have to do it or we couldn't wargame at all. For example, if you were a Napoleonic wargamer, and had to loot the locals for your troops to survive, knowing that they will then starve to death, it might make you a little less willing to be Napoleon.

    But we don't have to do that. We bracket out all the nastiness and enjoy a good game. How much distance we can actually create is moot, I agree. But could we imagine a 'Germany' which has panzers and no death camps? I suspect it happens, a lot of the time anyway.

  3. Great post, as usual. I still believe that hindsight - especially the Official Received hindsight - colours our judgement as much as it increases our wisdom. Hanging Irishmen in Bolton in 1643 seems pretty close to a war crime to me, but I wasn't there, don't fully understand why they would feel strongly enough to do what turned out to be such an ill-advised thing.

    I could invent two imagi-Nations, set their activities at any point in history I choose, and make either or both of them purely evil. Maybe Warhammer already does that. I could tell you about it, or not. Would that be OK? - I'm not sure. If one of the armies was historically factual - especially if it was fairly recent - is that worse? If I am a fan of Genghis Khan, is that better than Mussolini?

    The Owl of Minerva - just to introduce a little bathos - unscrambling what it means reminds me of my old friend Ernie. Many, many years ago, when Ernie joined the Navy as a cadet, his dad said to him "always remember, what you keep in your pocket will strike no sparks". Now Ernie's dad was an ex-miner, and we could read all sorts of miners' sexual allegory into this - whatever. When his dad was very elderly, Ernie finally plucked up the courage to ask him what it meant, since he had always wondered about it.

    "No idea," said his dad, "means nothing to me at all".

    1. I think that you have some good points.

      Firstly, hanging Irishmen in the ECW was somewhat regarded as a public duty. It does not, of course, excuse it in our modern view, but we do have to understand how 'Irish' were viewed in the 1640s.

      I don't know about WH, but I suspect that it is viewed by its perpetrators as 'dark humour', but maybe the point about imagi-nations is that we don't have to worry about how good or evil they are, nobody gets hurt, either way.

      I just read Ernie's dad's comment to mean that his hankie wouldn't cause an explosion in the mine. It probably shows how naive I am....

  4. Thank you for another really excellent post. I very much enjoyed your earlier post on ethics generally. Sometimes I find “ethics and wargaming” a difficult subject to achieve any narrative in my own mind, let alone a coherent one. However, in this post I think you really drill down into one of the really difficult dichotomies of playing wargames, particularly in a period where war crimes and atrocities have taken place.

    I don’t have any solution to approach the assimilation of narrative in a manner which can always be personally comfortable. One of the things which really draws me to wargaming is the opportunity to recreate the fighting, heroism and endurance of ordinary soldiers – a grunt’s eye view if you will – placing that recreation in the context of historical fighting. So what do I do when my local club stages a Normandy 1944 game and I’m playing the 12th SS Hitlerjugend Division? Do I want to ignore the hideous ideology which had indoctrinated at least some of those soldiers? No, certainly not.

    Do I want to create a “clean” version of the original and wargame with that? I completely understand that approach and thoroughly respect the creation of emotional and intellectual distance in that regard. However, speaking personally and subjectively, I’m not sure I want to follow that approach either. I don’t want my history, or my wargaming to be antiseptic, purged of the darker tones of warfare and removed from the chaos and the fear of battle. Wargaming for me is primarily a social activity, with great friends. But second to that is the fascination of attempting (in whatever small, and possibly unsuccessful, way) to recreate history. I want in my games to acknowledge and try to understand better the nature of warfare. I don’t want to graphically recreate war crimes on the table, in the same way that I also don’t want to recreate some other aspects of combat (super-detailed logisitics, for example). But I don’t want to ignore them, or cleanse them either.

    Perhaps the immersion into the game when playing a unit like 12th SS Hitlerjugend comes in a different way. Not the immersion of watching “Triumph of the Will” before the game, but an attempt to understand more about why a division comprising young men of 17 and 18 could have fought with such feral intensity against the odds. In the narrative prepared for myself in playing such a unit, I don’t want to ignore the past, still less cleanse it; I don’t want to celebrate the grimness of history, but acknowledging and attempting to understand the darker horror of warfare is another opening our hobby can offer to us.

    1. Hi,

      An interesting and helpful comment, thank you.

      It is a tricky point, I think: history is history, in the past and fixed as to what happened. So while we may try to separate the Hitlerjugend division from its historical basis, can we really do so? I mean, if they were not HJ, would they have behaved in the same way? Is a cleaned up Nazi Germany really a possibility?

      I don't have any answers, either, but somehow those who do play, say WW2 Germans have to find a way of arguing away, ignoring or accepting the known facts about the historical basis of their forces.

      I think your last paragraph is a pointer to the way forward. Not to celebrate the nastiness, but to acknowledge it; not to glorify in war, but to try to understand.

  5. I continue to enjoy coming to this part of the wargaming blogosphere to put on my thinking cap and try to look attentive and hope to understand the discussion. I sort of know what a Thomist is, but I'm not sure I understand what a Transcendental Thomist is. I do know that the celery stalks at midnight, or at least, I once read a book to my daughter with that title, something about a vampire rabbit called Bunicula. But I too digress.

    I liked Sidney's conments about trying to understand the reality, conditions, and psychology of men at war. I think that works to some extent at the tactical level that governs most miniatures games. One can say "here are some soldiers, they had this task to achieve, they had this level or moral, motivation and training, let's see how they did against these opponents". Perhaps in the brief and confined crucible of comment, one can explore this question without having to accept the burden of moral judgement?

    Another aspect to consider would be the character of the gamer, if we define character, as the ancient Greeks did, as something which reveals itself in repeated, even habitual actions. If a certain player refuses to play the Germans in a WW2 game, ever, then I would respect his character and would be disappointed if I ever saw him do otherwise. If another person, say Sidney, agreed to take the Germans in a WW2 game for the reasons he has cited above, namely to think like an historian, then I would respect that as well. If however I met a third player who always played the SS, who collected figures of SS firing/death squads (no names, but such sculpts are out there), and was an SS reenactor in his spare time, I would want nothing to do with that person.

    A parting thought. What makes the 12th SS arguably worse than one of Julius Caesar's legions going about conquering and enslaving whole peoples? Was the Roman Empire quantitatively better than the Third Reich, or is it morally less problematic becuase it is so far from us?

    1. Interesting points, thank you.

      I suspect that, rather sadly, the Roman Empire is thought of as being morally better than the Third Reich because they are 'us', while the Nazis are not us. A lot of history until after WW2 was written with the concept that empire was good, and the Romans brought civilization much as western countries were doing to the rest of the world. education was much more about the classics then, too, so another locator in the pro-Roman argument was that.

      I am interested to ponder how much we can really learn from our games about the behavior of soldiers n different circumstances. Do we learn more about them, ourselves, or the rules?

      Similarly, i suppose, with players. If they refuse to play the bad guys, but then do, is it about us, them, their perceptions of the bad guys, or simply wanting a game?

      As I have said before here, I'm not sure there are many answers, but by asking some of the questions we might find some interesting things.

      A Transcendental Thomist, incidentally, is someone like Karl Rahner or Bernard Lonergan. I imagine that probably doesn't help one jot.

  6. Ref the above, for "confined crucible of comment", change "comment" to "combat".
    For "Bunicula", read "Bunnicula".

  7. Another interesting post, Polemarch.

    As I think I might have said here before, for me the problem is not how to justify playing the bad guys, but how it is justifiable to play at war at all. My view is that we are continually, as we go along, whether consciously or unconsciously, exploring what subjects we are comfortable gaming.

    I suppose from my perspective each game I play is a puzzle, seen mostly in mathematical terms - move distances, hit probabilities, morale failure probabilities - and conditional interactions - if "A" does this, what is the best way to counter it? If I do x, what can "A" do to counter that? This gives me the moral distance I need from the historical actors (if it is an historical game). Later, for amusement value, I will come back to this framework and overlay a story, but that story is all a fiction.

    I may compare that fiction to what really happened if gaming an historical battle, but I am not *really* the Germans, the Romans or whomever. YET, as you so clearly see, there are times when our ethical unconscious will step in and confront us with a challenge to our real selves, and at those moments it becomes more than a mathematical framework, a contest of decisions, or a fiction. At those times we may in fact see it as a test of moral selves. I think it is at those points that the player makes choices - perhaps known only to him- (or her) self - that may impact one's moral being, but I don't think it depends on which side you play, I think it depends on what you do with that side.

    I have encountered moral failings in gamers, but these usually amount to minor and forgivable instances of (debatable) cheating, sulking, or excessive triumphalism. I have not yet had the misfortune to meet an SS (or similar)-roleplayer/obsessive, so they (mercifully) are still mythical creatures to me. Perhaps if or when I do meet such a person, it will force a rethink!

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking post, and please forgive my long and rambling comments in response!


    1. Hi,

      I did once encounter a wargamer who seriously seemed to think he was Napoleon. It was a little unsettling.

      It is an interesting idea that in wargaming we are exploring our own moral space. Certainly most wargaming is sort of mechanical, a case of seeing what happens, or of solving puzzles, although many wargames seem to be of the 'line them up and shoot them down' variety, largely, perhaps, due to lack of time of anything else.

      I am starting to suspect that to wargame we do have to sanitize what we are actually representing, but as a wargame is abstract anyway, that is not so hard to do. But perhaps that is a result of the waving away of the awkward questions about justice, civilians and so on.

      the more I think about this, the more difficult (albeit interesting) it gets!

  8. To approach the matter from a different direction (a flank march?) I was musing on HGWells pacifist 'rant' as he compared Little Wars to Great Wars; he said something like: 'My game is as good as their game, but saner by reason of its size.'
    Perhaps we do ourselved a disservice; we should be looking at wargaming as an exemplar of warfare as she could be fought, if only mankind were more sensible?

    PS I would say all sides in the ECW committed war crimes, except the term is anachronistic. As you say, this behaviour was acceptable at the time. Perhaps we had to wait for the term to be invented before we realised it was wrong?

    1. I think that a wargame is, usually, a cleaned up version of real life; I've mentioned before somewhere that our lead toys are perfect Stoic warriors, and I dare say that these two things are linked.

      For example, often the Western Desert campaigns are submitted as 'pure warfare' almost knightly combat. I don't know enough about the campaigns to say with any certainty, but the few accounts I have read don't really sound like a joust. More a sort of frightening, nasty mess. But for our lead soldiers, it can be exactly a joust, with no harm done and no hard feelings on either side.

      And of course, we project onto previous ages our own sense of moral outrage. But I suppose that, too, is part of being human.