Saturday 19 April 2014

Virtue Ethics and Wargames

As, probably, many of you have worked out by now, I am something of a fan of virtue ethics. I am sure I have already wittered on about how virtue ethics date back at least as far as Aristotle, but were largely ignored after the utilitarianism of the nineteenth century, and only fairly recently made a comeback.

Partly, I think, the ignoring of virtue ethics was because, at the end of the day, virtue ethics is a lot harder than utilitarianism or other sorts of rules based ethics. Utilitarianism offers a calculus for determining whether something is ethical or not, even though it fails to deliver on that promise. Rules based (deontological) ethics also appears to offer a neat solution, giving a clear boundary between right and wrong, until you realise that it cannot offer a rule for every situation that life throws at an ethical agent.

As a consequence of this, I was interested to stumble across a chapter in a book called ‘A Virtue Ethical Case for Pacifism’, by Franco V. Trivigno (in Virtues in Action: New Essays in Applied Virtue Ethics, edited by Michael Austin, New York: Palgrave Macmillan (2013)) and even more interested to find that the author had placed a copy on, where I snarfed it from. I am not exactly sure what the copyright implications of this are (I presume he had permission to post it), and I have no intention of making any money out of my use of it, so I guess it is above board. Mind you, the book itself is seriously expensive, so the circulation of the chapters would be very restricted if it were not for the internet.

My interest, of course, was at least partly related to the question of whether anything Trivigno says could possibly be related to the ethics of wargaming, and, if so, how it could be so related. In fact, Trivigno comes up with an argument for pacifism which I have not really seen before, certainly not as a standalone argument.

The key point of Trivigno’s argument is that modern military training is designed to overcome our innate resistance to killing other human beings. He argues two training strategies are used. Firstly, soldiers are trained in life like situations and rewarded for ‘kills’ and punished for failures. The idea here is that the troops, on a battlefield, engage in conditioned responses without actually thinking about what they are doing. What happens afterwards, of course, has been shown to be rather problematical, as the frequent diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder shows.

Secondly, the enemy is euphamised away. An enemy solider becomes a target. Units are degraded rather than killed or wounded. Civilians become collateral damaged rather than people killed though accident or intentional double effect. Once dehumanised, the enemy becomes easier to kill. They are no longer people, moral agents themselves with lives, interests, families and friends, but objects. Moral distance enables us not to treat them as people; dehumanisation, particularly, is easier where there are social and cultural gaps as well, as all too often there are.

Trivigno’s problem with warfare is not, a priori, therefore with the act of war in general, but with the moral damage that such training does to the soldiers. People who cannot empathise by training with another human being are damaged by that training, and so, Trivigno argues, the training for war in itself is immoral.

As a consequence of this, Trivigno argues that the state, which is responsible for the flourishing of its citizens, should not engage in war because the training for modern war involves damaging the flourishing of some of its citizens, even if the state does not participate in any wars at all. On the other hand he does admit that, for example, being invaded is not something that is likely to increase the flourishing of the citizens of a flourishing state. This latter is what Trivigno calls a narrow pacifism. The state may defend its citizens from invasion, but not engage in any other military activity.

I am not, here, trying to agree or disagree with this stance. It is to me a rather novel one and not one I can find described in the pacifist literature, for example John Howard Yoder’s Nevertheless, which outlines more pacifist positions than you can shake a stick at. But, as I said, I am a bit interested in the implications for wargaming.

Firstly, Trivigno claims that his virtue pacifism only works for post-World War Two wars, where these training methods were applied. The implication of this is, of course, that before this, troops were not trained to hate the enemy and did not have their innate resistance to killing broken down.

I do wonder if this is correct, because if it is, then we do perhaps have to rethink our views of morale and training. Having just finished Peter Wilson’s mighty work on the Thirty Years War it is clear that frequently, defeated troops were simply recruited to the victor’s side, even when one side was Protestant and the other Catholic (it worked both ways). Clearly the troops did not hate the other side, and also, at least on the ground, religion was not a major issue in the wars, whatever the propaganda said.

Secondly, if the argument (and it is based on Marshall’s investigations, which are not perhaps the most reliable ones) is correct, then casualties should be light, as indeed my memory of actions in the English Civil War suggests. Most people cannot bring themselves to actually try to harm a fellow human being. Only a few trying to be heroes or psychopaths will, without training, actively try to harm another human, at least without provocation. The other factor which may play here is the oversight of an authority, an officer standing over the men to make sure they did their duty.

Now, I expect you thought that this post would turn into another one of wargame ethics, and so, in fact, did I when I got the paper. But maybe it should cause us to think again about what we mean by morale and training for our wargame armies. 


  1. While I can't say I disagree, I think there are few points which need to be taken into account.

    While military authorities are at pains to encourage their soldiers to kill, it isn't always a success. There are still instances of 'shoot to miss' attitudes and the innate desire for self preservation also encourages the habit of 'suppressive fire', i.e., spraying rounds in the general direction of the enemy while remaining well under cover and unable to actually see the target. This is not the preserve of Middle East militias, not confined to modern wars.

    Nationalistic wars are a relatively new thing and it was common even as late as the American War of Independence for prisoners to switch sides if the opportunity arose. Trained, experienced soldiers have always been a premium commodity and, as such, worth keeping tabs on. There is a whole (almost) mythology about soldiers of the Thirty Years' War era who, quite openly fought for their captain (who secured their employment, victuals and pay - when it came) rather than for a cause and in a war where loot was an attraction. However, there was still a fairly strong feudal element in the armies which tempers the wholly mercenary image.

    As to actually hating the enemy, I think this is the exception rather than the rule for the common soldier. The attitude of the Japanese soldiers in Manchuria and during the Second World War is so exceptional as to be famous, though that of the US soldiers and marines to them in return is less famous, but no less vicious - probably more so.

    Battle casualties are more accurately expressed as a percentage of forces engaged. This does take a hell of a lot of research and becomes more difficult the further back in time one goes. It's those who fight and run away who cause the damage and infect those who wait in reserve with the sense of impending doom. Once a body of troops is in rout the casualty figure increases exponentially (assuming the victors pursue and in doing so, can maintain contact). However, these aren't strictly battle casualties. Even less so the consequent civilian casualties during this period of the battle which have been acknowledged for a long time, but frequently discounted. The most depressing representation of this is in Peter Watkins' 1964 TV drama-documentary of Culloden.

    So, finally, back to the original point about encouraging soldiers to kill. Change the circumstances to where those who have been trying to kill you (and it gets very personal here for those involved) are now fleeing, unarmed and, with their backs to you, virtually defenceless and the willingness to kill becomes all too prevalent. For millennia, the most dangerous career event for a soldier is when he's trying to surrender.

    I'm not sure that the outcome of training to kill people necessarily produces a regular crop of psychopaths. I think it's much more the case that the immunising effect of sustained exposure to killing is the cause - and even than it only seems to have appeared in the last couple of generations. There were 'episodes in America following Vietnam and both Gulf adventures, but, as far as I can remember, none anywhere else (maybe Russia, post Afghanistan?). So, I think the magnitude of the war and the overall moral attitudes of that society must hold sway. My father, nor my grandfather never spoke very much at all about their respective world wars and my friends had the same experience.

    So, how does all this translate to the wargames table? Damned if I know, I just play with toy soldiers . . . .

    1. I would agree that things are a lot more complex than is represented either by my post or by the original essay, but it did start me wondering about how we represent training on the wargames table, and I'm beginning to suspect that we do not pay enough attention to it.

      I guess the reason why so many armies are ready and willing, historically, to recruit from the opposition is exactly that trained soldiers are hard to come by.

      Battle casualties is an interesting topic; at some level it is about how many casualties are caused in combat, but also in pursuit, which determines whether a force remains in being or not. For example, at both Marston Moor and Naseby, the Royalists lost their foot, which meant that their response to the loss of the battle was hamstrung. I think Charles Coulson (?) 'Going to the Wars' is very interesting on the psychology of battle and of being on the losing side.

      As for training producing psychopaths, I think Trivingo is probably overstating the case in trying to strengthen his argument. After all, the percentage of troops who do run amok must be very low.

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  3. A lot of training in the World Wars was deliberately designed to create a "Hate" mentality in Allied troops - many Great War memoirs, for example, talking about extensive bayonet training mention the idea of "hate". In conventional war the actual degree of hate probably depends on several factors including racial and ideologically inspired animosities and the ethical norms established over time in a theatre of operations. Thus, American and Japanese troops in the later Pacific theatre were apt to be pretty savage with one another because of racial stereotypes and the Japanese code of Bushido which influenced their "Fight to the Last Man" mentality, and Russian and German troops on the Eastern Front, again, very savage. In contrast, British and German forces in the Western Desert treated each other comparatively humanely, developed their own norms of conflict and tended to respect one another.
    In modern wars of the last decade, western armies have been trained as much for counter-insurgency rather than conventional warfare. In COIN ops you can't develop the same spirit of hate because you want to win hearts and minds, but because the enemy is often invisible, and indistinguishable from the citizenry you want to win over, strange things happen to soldiers. The military training I've witnessed and experienced tries to combine normal battle skills (house clearing, fighting in built up areas, etc) with COIN tactics (running vehicle checkpoints, stability ops, low-impact patrolling, awareness of media, familiarization with local cultures, ethics, etc) and in that kind of mix it's counterproductive to train troops to "hate" the enemy.

    Unfortunately the hate develops anyway. Getting hit by rockets and IEDs without always having the ability to strike back, suspicion that the locals are colluding with and may be the guerrillas, plus the linguistic gaps, cultural unfamiliarity and even contempt of the locals for being backward creates situations of violence and heinous behaviour that western troops have unfortunately committed in Iraq and Afghanistan from time to time. It's not that the troops are bad or necessarily trained to hate, but they sustain psychological pressures and strains that are in some ways worse than conventional warfare where you know who the enemy is - the situation of Vietnam for US troops then is comparable in many ways to the wars of the last 12 years.

    Much of the military mental health literature I've seen and read of late focuses on the issues of PTSD and moral harm. Jonathan Shay's Achilles in Vietnam is probably the best book of this kind. PTSD is not new to warfare, of course, and has had many names in the last century (combat fatigue, etc). Calculating the endurance of soldiers to the effects of warfare, or their "resilience" to use a trendy word, is an inexact science.

    For wargames, I would say that "hate" and similar psychological factors could be factored into morale ratings, perhaps as an expression of fanaticism or something similar, but it would depend on the kind of war. For example, British troops in Helmand province are professionals whose training over the last decade has gotten better and better at reflecting the complexities of COIN ops in that environment. Are they trained to engage and neutralize targets? Yes. Are they trained to hate those targets? No, and in fact they are discouraged from "hating", though anyone who has lost a mate to "Terry Taliban" in an IED may have hate on his mind, but I don't know how you factor that on the gaming table, and maybe you shouldn't.
    Enough from me for now. Interesting topic.

    1. I suppose that it is a bit of a Hegelian thing. One outrage causes another, and so on. the savagery of the Japanese military or Wermacht or Russian army or whoever creates an atmosphere where retaliation in kind is made more reasonable. Plus there may well be the whole IED and the like are only used by cowards who won't come out and fight in the fine western tradition of slaughtering the foot soldiers.

      CION operations must be really difficult. i recall an account of a British army patrol in West Belfast during the troubles when the patrol was scouting across some open ground in the approved military fashion, a small child approached and gave his football to the point man. The soldier stood up, patted the child on the head, took the football and rolled it on for him to chase. A good military response?

      I think the thing that struck me about the original article was about whether military training has change over, say, the last century and whether that needs accounting for in rules for pre-20th century warfare. I confess, I have no idea of the answer to that one, but I am still trying.

    2. Conincidentally, I've just finished a classic of WW2 history, Joseph Balkoski's Beyond the Beachhead, The 29th (US) Infantry Division in Normandy (Stackpole 1989). He writes that early on in Normandy, US generals "were saying that the G.I.'s biggest problem was that he didn't hate the Germans enough" although later on "Most riflemen quickly learned that survival required a healthy hatred of the Germans. Animosity, in fact, was a kind of natural defines mechanism against the horrors of battle. If a terrified G.I. turned his agitated emotions inward instead of outward, he wold probably break down." B. offers several stories of incidents where rumours of German tricks and atrocities would inspire a "no prisoners" mentality, but reading between the lines, one gets the impression that hatred did not outweigh the instinct for self-definition. German officers who observed the American army felt that the troops lacked aggressive spirit and were easily cowed when they did not have sufficient firepower support and resources. German troops fought well using their advantages (terrain and plentiful equipment) but even superior units like the 29th's opponents (352nd Div, one of the better Heer units and 3rd FJ) could fragment and surrender in large numbers when they felt that they'd done enough.

    3. So a degree of hatred is necessary to enable a modern soldier to function effectively? But otherwise good units could collapse if their heart was not in it?

      It sounds a little like some of the Commonwealth units who were not a committed in Europe, feeling that they had done their bit. I suppose surrender was not a viable option for them, so they just hung back a bit and let others take the strain.

      The idea of turning emotions seems to prefigure PTSD a bit, so trained hatred or created animosity could be a psychological survival necessity.

      Very interesting, thank you.

  4. I feel almost embarrassed to point out that Warhammer Fantasy has a rule for hate. If your troops hate the opposition they must pursue them. Even a blind hen...

    1. I never thought that I'd admit it, but WHFB must have something going for it!

  5. In wargaming terms I think Aquahog has hit the nail on the head. Hate is another cause of indiscipline / loss of control.

    I don't know if there is, but maybe AWI rules should have something similar for when Rebels/loyalists have the other at their mercy. The Tarleton rule?

    Great posts by Gary and Michael. One of the most memorable things I've heard from Iraq was to do with "military contractors" - "when they jump in the back of the Hummer it's just like you getting on the train for the morning commute". I struggled to believe this, but it was pointed out they were employed for this ability to do a good job.

    1. I suppose that the problem with things like 'hate' rules is that the rules themselves simply become more complex.

      And I agree. Great posts all round!

      I guess that mercenaries have always been used because they were effective and, presumably, cost effective as well.

    2. Yes I guess it would complicate rulesets.

      It's that old "realism v playability" dichotomy. For certain wars/theatres though it might be seen as an essential part of a package which makes that field distinctive. [Heresy alert]Otherwise don't battles on the Steppe become the same as battles in the Western Desert just with different colour schemes?

      Increased complexity in one aspect could be traded for simplifying rules elsewhere.

      If you wanted to go there of course. Many people would find it distasteful (as you discussed on previous posts).

    3. I had in mind the old Tercio rules, where you had to count 'fear factors', 'standfast factors' and heaven knows what else, and they were determined, sometimes, by which troops you were facing.

      I only ever got to finish the game by ignoring most of the rules.

      Interesting point about the Russian Front and the Western Desert. I'm not sure I really know the answer to that one, but something to think about.

      Do you think there is an overall acceptable level of complexity, that just has to be divided out among the different bits of a rule set?

    4. Personally speaking I do. It might be personal to the player, but there's a level at which we all want to give up. Just that maybe we want complexity in different areas.

      I greatly admire GåPå (GNW/WSS rules) for their comprehensiveness. LOTS of good ideas. Everything you would want in grand tactical rules for that period, and sets realistic challenges and dilemmas for the player as commander. But I've never played it. Looks too daunting.

    5. I know that feeling, but on the other hand I've also had it with rule sets that look too simplistic. Maybe we, as wargamers, are simply hard to please.

      I suspect that wargame rules are inherently complex, given what they are trying to model. It is just a question of how the complexity is seen, where it is hidden in the rules.

  6. Hate effects baseline motivation, but the problem is it raises it for both sides: if I hate you I may fight harder, but I have just taken away any motivation you had for surrender, so casualties are likely to be higher on both sides and fights last a bit longer.

    More crucially however, I think that Trivigno is making a mistake (based on his reading of SLA Marshall) in assuming that all of Marshall's non-firers were simply averse to fighting and then didn't - at this point I'm going to recommend Brains and Bullets again, it really is a fascinating book for both real military types and wargamers . Similarly, I can't see how the historical record shows that hatred has as a rule increased as a result of training since WW2. Nothing I have heard or seen directly tallies with that. Additionally, I think it is unlikely that "troops, on a battlefield, engage in conditioned responses without actually thinking about what they are doing" as a phenomenon has increased in early C21 warfare compared to say, early C18 warfare.



    1. I think you are right - hate breeds hate, and does not really alter battlefield conditions except make them worse for both sides.

      I also suspect that Trivigno is reading Marshall, perhaps too optimistically. I'll get to Brains and Bullets eventually. I'm not sure the point is about hatred, though, it is simply about dehumanising the enemy, which may not amount to the same thing.

      I think it is also moot whether hatred is always a psychological harm. For example, I might hate someone who tortures kittens, but many people would argue that this is a healthy reaction. I'm not sure how that transfers to the wargaming table, though!

  7. "I'm not sure the point is about hatred, though, it is simply about dehumanising the enemy, which may not amount to the same thing."

    I totally agree, but I am struggle to see *any* objective measure by which someone could really identify that kind of change where the modern state comes off worse in terms of the indoctrination of its soldiers than any previous polity.

    1. I don't think I really know enough to be able to comment, but tentatively, I'm not sure that early modern states indoctrinated their soldiers. Threatened them, perhaps; preached at them, almost certainly. But not really indoctrinated in the modern sense,

      But I'm probably wrong.