Saturday, 2 July 2011

Disrespectful Wargaming

The intermittent discussion here on wargaming ethics has moved on a chunk or two with some of the more recent comments (thanks, JWH, in particular). The question we are now faced with is ‘are wargames in some sense disrespectful to those who fought and died?’

I think the first thing to note about this question is that it is different from some of the others we have tried to engage with. Previous questions have been based around wargaming as encouraging violence and similar areas. My own view of these at the moment is that the three level model of a wargame and the concept of speech acts at these different levels have more or less answered those concerns.

The first thing we need to establish with the question of wargaming being disrespectful is to whom could wargaming be disrespectful? There are some obvious actors to whom wargaming cannot be disrespectful – the players, rule writers and so on in the present. Therefore those to whom it may express disrespect are those who were actors in the original battles.

Now, the original actors will be the soldiers, generals and civilians caught up in the original battle, campaign, war, or whatever. Thus, the potential for disrespect to these people is in belittling their experiences of war – the horror, carnage, death and so on which is associated with every battle from the earliest times to today.

What form can the disrespect take? Here, I suspect that we are embarking on more difficult areas. For example, many nations refuse to countenance ‘disrespect’ of their flags – things like burning it or trampling it underfoot are held to be disrespectful to the nation, as symbolised in the flag. Other symbols of national pride and identity can be similarly upheld. For example, in the UK a few people have been in court over climbing on or otherwise misusing war memorials. This sort of activity is held to be disrespectful to the memory of those who died and are commemorated on these items.

So can wargaming be held to be disrespectful to the memory of those who died in war? I suppose in some sense it could be. For example, if we have a unit on the table that was known to be courageous in real life, but in the historical refight runs away at the first shot, that could, possibly be described as disrespectful. History being what it is, however, it is unlikely that anyone would land up in court over this. The contingencies of history are recognised widely, and I guess that an incident like that is unlikely to be regarded as disrespectful except in some totalitarian state where the activity of that unit is important to the self-image of the regime or nation.

I suspect that it is in this area that the disrespectful rubber hits the road. Suppose you were playing a wargame based on the Battle of Britain, as the British, and lost. Is that disrespectful to the RAF pilots who fought in the battle, and, perhaps more particularly, those who died? Or does it fall within the contingency of history, or that the rules are, in some way, flawed? Perhaps the onus is then one the rule writer to get things right, in order to respect the historical outcomes.

I think, however, that the overall issue is a broader one than respecting national self-image or historical outcome. The underlying issue seems to be the whole idea of turning a battle into a game, a war into an entertaining pastime. Is a wargame set on the Eastern Front in World War Two in any way disrespectful to the millions who died in the Great Patriotic War?

I suppose that on the positive side, the wargamer can argue that, by playing the game, he is keeping the memory of those awful events alive. It is all too easy to forget, even in a few decades, the disasters that can happen when a total war is declared. This may well, of course be true, but the objector could respond that while they are happy to see the memory of those events recalled, the wargamer would not be recalling them unless the activity was enjoyable in some sense. Thus, the wargamer is enjoying the suffering of others, and that is disrespectful to those who suffered.

This seems to me to be a bit tricky to answer, but my first line of defence would be to argue that the events represented happened anyway as a matter of historical fact. Yes, they were horrible, not to be repeated and caused terribly suffering, but the existence of a wargame about them does not mean that the suffering of the participants is in any way increased. Nor does it mean that the fact of their suffering is diminished. By recalling the events of the suffering and what caused it, the wargamer might cause more compassion in themselves and in others and a greater determination to avoid war so far as is possible.

This defence is, therefore, one which falls into the area of virtue ethics. What is important is the motivation and intentions of the individual. I do not set out to play a game based around the awful suffering that war can inflict. I do set out to play a game which is in some senses enjoyable, and which in some senses is historically accurate, but I do not set out to either ignore or emphasise the suffering which is caused. An accurate wargame can invoke feelings of pity and compassion for those who found themselves confronted by the evils of war, and can provide insight into why things happened as they did.

I think we would all recoil from someone who was gleeful over, say, the number of Russian ‘dead’ at the end of an Eastern Front game, rather than agreeing that the outcome was in some sense accurate. The former seems to be somewhat close to the SS re-enactors discussed earlier. They are somewhere outside our limits of the acceptable. Wargames, played in the spirit described above, do not have to be disrespectful, I think.


  1. Very well argued.

    I hope that in fact this problem does not come up very often. It is probably only ever likely to come up in respect to wargames set in C20 and C21, as most of us are likely to feel so far removed from anything earlier that any accusations of being disrespectful as humans in general rather than specifically disrespectful to a person or group that someone we are in contact with feels a genuine emotional bond with, so as long as we exult in victory as a general rather than as a tyrant wanting to count the skulls of the dead (so to speak!) we shouldn't cause much offence.

    One area of offence in more recent times isn't so likely to be based on outcomes as 'troop ratings'. Maybe our RAF forefathers would be more upset that we rate them (in some games) as tactically inferior in 1940 (for using vics) and then as just generally inferior in 1941 (the big expansion)?



  2. Thank you.

    I think in general you are probably right, but there may be a few specific cases where pre-C20 wargames might cause some upset - how about the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, or some of the colonial wars if your ancestors happen to have been on the loosing side? In some parts of the US the ACW can be a bit sensitive. I suppose here part of the issue is how history has been appropriated to underpin current self-understandings.

    Troop ratings are an interesting topic in themselves. I do recall one rule set which had a '+1 if English', which would be offensive to practically everyone else. +1 if veteran is OK, national characteristics are OK if related to tactics by the rule writer, but +1 for being 'us' is a bit out of order.

    Fortunately, most rules don't got there any more.

  3. I thought 'Spanish -2' was a particularly neat modifier...

    I do agree, though I think if the writer genuinely thinks that WW2 Germans should be a +1, I'd rather the writer just put that in rather than adding a lot of complex rules to achieve this exxact same effect.



  4. While at one level I agree with you, the problem is that it simply makes one side or the other look like supermen.

    For example, the men on Nelson's ships were not supermen, but they did have better training, more experience, better officers and so on, which added up to a big difference. just saying '+2' if British is, if you like, a bit lazy of the rule writer for not unpacking why they were better.