Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Callousness of Generals

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.


  1. Interesting post. I have always found campaign-based war-games more satisfying and more sensible for a variety of reasons, and I am aware that the civilians usually only get involved (in mine, at least) as friction for the main action. Yes, I believe we are heartless, but if it makes us feel better we could claim that we were re-enacting a special type of "touch" warfare where no-one got hurt, or a miniature simulation of whatever the contemporary equivalent of paintball was. Whatever, it does not count for very much in the overall scheme of things.

    You mentioned that the author is a Christian ethicist. Good for him, but if there is any mercy in the universe than let it (please) spare us from people who justify war because God is on their side - crusaders, muslim extremists, European colonialists, Jews, etc etc - all the spin-merchants over the centuries who have claimed a righteous foundation for their own particular brand of frightfulness. The possible iniquity of anything we might do with little lead soldiers is dwarfed into total insignificance in comparison.

    1. Hm... So do we in fact wargame in a fantasy world anyway? I mean, the blitzkrieg in north-western Europe wouldn't have worked nearly as well if the roads hadn't been blocked by fleeing civilians. If we don't have them, are we playing a WW2 wargame?

      But on the whole I agree.

      And also Nigel Biggar is far to wise and erudite to think that God is on the side of any one side, no matter what claims are made by them.

    2. I'm sure you are right - my target was St Augustine rather than Mr Biggar, I think. Him and - amongst others - a lot of jolly good chaps like all the mealy-mouthed British vicars who lined up to cheer up their congregations with kill stats from the bombing of Germany in WW2.

    3. Well, I'm not even sure it is particularly fair on St Augustine. But the relations between Church and State are pretty complex, particularly so in times of war. The history of the churches generally and the two world wars are not particularly edifying; if you think it was bad at the local level, it was even worse at the national one.

      As Mr Peterson observed below, some clergy did object (particular, I think Bell of Chichester) to mass bombing, but frankly they were never going to be heard as the bombing was seen to be the only way to defeat Germany. whether it was or not is moot, of course, but I think that is how it was seen.

  2. I've always remembered something I read about Napoleon and Welllington, that the first professed to love his soldiers like his sons but poured their lives out like water, whereas Wellington regarded his soldiers as scum but was parsimonious with their lives. I suspect that says as much about their military situations as it does about their personalities and ethics, but it goes to show that soldiers should beware of soldiers who smile and wave and visit their camps frequently.
    So many good thoughts here, I shall address only a few. First, thanks for this note, I shall track down Biggar. Don't know him. To be fair to Hauerwas, whose work I know fairly well, I think he is willing to make grudging situational exceptions to his pacifism, as he did during the first Gulf War, but generally sees war as being inextricably bound up in American imperialism, which is, I would say, a fair cop.
    As to my friend Foy's comments, I would say, Amen, sir, and I speak as a minister in uniform, which is in itself a contradiction of sorts. I would note that a handful of British clerics broke ranks with the official storyline during the bombing of Germany, but only a few.
    Third, if you enjoyed Biggar, you may also know Michael Burleigh's book on the morality of WW2 - if not, I recommend it.
    Finally, as to campaigns, in my experience players do react differently and are more casualty adverse, but I'm not sure if that is because of ethical considerations or if it is because their troops are like poker chips - once gone, they have to leave the table.

    1. I'm reading about Alexander the "Great" at the moment. He didn't seem to have much care for his men at times. I seem to recall that with Napoleon, as Emperor, he had to win, whatever the cost, or the prestige would collapse, and with it the Empire.

      Hauerwas is always worth reading - it is from him that I derived the narrative ethics of wargaming, which seems to be where the matter rests for me, at present. War seems to be pretty well bound up with any sort of imperialism, be in Macedonian, Roman, British or American. I guess the Americans are just in the current frame.

      I don't know Burleigh, so thank you for the tip.

      And for campaigns, in a sense I suppose that is kind of what generals view their troops as, as well. But only in a sense.

  3. IIRC there is an episode of Star Trek: TNG which deals with this apparent contradiction rather well:

    I suspect that wargames commanders in campaigns do become more reluctant to commit their troops - and the motives are probably 'similar-ish' to those of real commanders: reluctance to 'waste' troops, whereas in a battle, the mission then becomes more important than conserving the troops.



    1. I guess that it depends on what is looming big from your perspective at the moment. 'This mission here' or the bigger picture, and so on.

      And of course some commanders lose sight of the overall picture in their urge to win this one.