I do not, usually, post comments on books until I have finished them. However, I also believe that rules are there for the breaking if you have a sufficient cause, so I am going to pass comment on something I have recently read, but not yet finished.
The book in question is Nigel Biggar’s ‘In Defence of War’ (Oxford: OUP, 2013). This is a book which is aimed at all those pacifists out there who think that there can be no justification for using what is euphemistically called ‘violent coercion’ to achieve their ends. In an early part of the book Biggar gives some examples of the terrible things that happen in war – civilians being machine gunned in the Falaise Gap, for instance, or a description of a casualty from the US Marines who is still alive, despite having, apparently, only half a body. These, however, are balanced by some accounts of what happens when war is eschewed, such as Srebrenica and the massacre of Muslim men.
War, then, according to Biggar, is nasty and deeply unpleasant, but, as a committed realist, he has to defend the idea that sometimes it can be justified. In fact, as a Christian ethicist, he has to go further and argue that war is not only, on occasion, justified, but actually just, in terms of the just war theory developed by St Augustine and, in various forms, still with us today. Along the way Biggar has to deal with assorted pacifist positions, including those of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, as well as non-religious pacifists, and, so far as I can tell he is doing so with some style, although in my view he has missed the key modern nonviolence oriented theologian in Walter Wink.
But I am digressing, somewhat. One of the most interesting bits of the book so far are when Biggar shows real engagement with military history, something quite rare among moral philosophers in my experience. He has, for example, and extensive discussion of who was to blame for starting the First World War (Germany, in his view) and, in pursuit of discussion the proportionality clause in the jus in bello part of the just war theory, he has some interesting comments on generalship.
Biggar includes in this section a discussion of the planning for El Alamein. In this, the corps commander describes the duties during the battle of an armoured brigade. They are to break through the German lines and hold the gap, while the next armoured brigade rolls through to exploit it. The brigade commander comments ‘that could cost fifty per cent casualties’. The corps commander responds: ‘The general is prepared to accept one hundred per cent.’
Biggar notes that the general in question was Montgomery, who, despite any flaws which we might need to argue about (alongside whether he was actually any good) was immensely popular with his men. Part of this popularity was because the men believed that he would not waste their lives unnecessarily. Indeed, while not being a World War Two aficionado, when he came to command in Normandy, I believe that he could not be wasteful with lives as the British were pretty well at the end of their manpower reserves. Major losses could not be replaced at that point, and he had to substitute boots for guns.
How, then, do we deal with this apparent contradiction? It is not, incidentally, just Montgomery who behaved in this way. Douglas Haig is widely slated as disregarding the lives and welfare of his men. And yet Haig is documented as having visited units before the start of the Somme and having been prevented by his staff from visiting hospitals and aid stations after the start of the battle because the sights of his first visit practically incapacitated him.
So there appears to be a contradiction between the battle planning of the generals and their compassionate response to their men.
It seems to me that this might shed some light on why people respond somewhat negatively to wargaming as a hobby. Generals, it is widely believed in modern culture, are callous. They are ready and willing to put the lives of their men on the line without a care for their wellbeing, just to achieve something like an abstract breakthrough, or to gain a few yards of Flanders mud. It is not often mentioned that generals are often deeply concerned about their troops, and this not just because well fed and rested soldiers are better fighters.
In wargaming terms, of course, we can simply act as entirely callous generals. We can accept, for no particularly good reason, horrendous casualties among our troops because they are the perfect stoic warriors, with no dependents, and infinitely replaceable. While real world generals can be concerned about their men, at least before and after planning for the battle, wargamers do not have to do this.
Is there a sense here, then, that we are actually callous towards the real world battles (or, indeed, fictional ones) and the suffering that they inflict upon the participants? Our little lead troops are magnificently unswayed by either victory or defeat, in a way that real soldiers are not. As wargamers, when we concede defeat we can simply pack the little men away until next time, while a losing general has to deal with the shreds of his army, try to pull himself and them together, mount a rear guard action and so on. He also has to explain why he lost to political masters and, possibly, be vilified in the press and sacked.
I suspect that I have mentioned before that the context for these post battle activities is a campaign game, and I do wonder sometimes whether wargamers shy away from campaigns because it would engage them in these wider, and more ethical, considerations. On the other hand I confess that most of my campaign games handle these matters at an abstract level, and so I would be as guilty of ignoring them as the next wargamer.
But it is an interesting book.