Saturday 29 September 2012

Virtue and Wargaming

I suspect that I may be flogging a dead horse, or at least boring most of the readers of this blog (that would be both of them….) but I am still pondering the reasons why some argue that only modern warfare (more or less from World War Two onwards) is subject to some degree of angst from some members, at least, of the wargame fraternity, while other periods are not.

I think I have sufficiently argued that, at least from a utilitarian point of view, the issue is not an issue at all; it is simply a matter of giving or receiving offence, which is not an ethical issue.

So, is there an alternative point of view from which the wargaming of World War Two Germans could be argued as being problematic? I think there might be, and so I shall try to describe what it is, in my view at least, here.

The underlying issue seems to be this: we become what we do habitually. This is an argument or claim that, in fact, goes back to Aristotle. It suggests that, in order to become virtuous, and to live the good life, we have to practice. So, for example, if we habitually rob banks, our lives are unlikely to be virtuous ones. On the other hand, if we habitually go and work in a charity shelter, our lives are, at least in theory going to be virtuous ones, at least if we do not combine the two.

In this idea, I suspect, lies the problem that makes people uneasy, or at least feel they have to justify themselves, while wargaming WWII Germans. The idea is that by habitually wargaming WWII Germans, we might become like them.

I suppose the first question to tackle is why the Germans and not, say, the Assyrians or Babylonians, or even the Romans, all of whose track records when it comes to modern human right is dubious, to say the least. Wargaming Romans, even campaigns like the Spartacus slave revolt, does not seem to fill us with the same angst as, say, the Korsun pocket. Why not?

I think the answer to this one lies within our ability to identify with some fictional characters. We cannot, I suggest, really identify with characters from the Roman Empire. Their world view was simply too different to ours for us to manage that. While there is much decent material out there on the Romans, it just does not help us to identify ourselves with the world view, but simply makes it alien.

While literature and film can also take us to this other world, often the concepts and themes tied up in it are simply our own. The same is true of science fiction, of course. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is, at least in part, a response to Vietnam, while Miller’s A Canticle to Leibowitz is a response to World War Two. Similarly, without wishing to push things too far, Rosemary Sutcliffe’s A Sword at Sunset could be interpreted as focussed around the end of the British Empire. The contemporary issues behind Gladiator and 300 are left to the reader.

The difference between the nasty empires of the past and that of Nazi Germany is a matter of memory. We cannot remember the atrocities carried out by, say, the Romans when the crucified revolted slaves every few hundred yards along a road. We cannot have known these people, and while we can have pity on them, it is a bit hard really to empathise; this may be in part because the Romans who did the crucifixions also wrote the history recording them.

With the Nazi regime, of course, things are different. It was a system that obsessively recorded things. The names and even faces of those slaughtered are available to us should we choose to find them. There are tours to places to Auschwitz, where the horrors took place, and there is scholarly analysis of why it happened, the mind sets which enabled people to follow orders and permit, without question, unimaginable awfulness.

The difficulty, then, in terms of wargaming Nazi Germany, is that we too live in a system which is not wildly dissimilar. While I am sure that no western style democracy is headed in that direction, Nazi Germany is close enough to us to permit us to imagine that it could. In short, we can much more easily identify with the people on the ground, receiving orders that they either execute or get executed themselves. This places the moral question directly before us: what would you have done?

A second issue here is, I suspect, that World War Two is a highly charged political issue. Even writing about it here, in wargame terms, makes me feel a little jumpy, wondering who I might upset, or whether I am going to be lambasted by some secret Nazi sympathiser. The fact that this is unlikely is neither here nor there; the issue is highly charged and sensitive, and we, as wargamers, have to live with that.

So, what advice could we give to someone who is interested in wargaming World War Two Germans but worried that they might upset people, of be morally compromised?

From the utilitarian point of view, the answer is ‘it is not a problem’. However, from the virtue ethics side, these is an issue of some description.

The advice, therefore, would be along the lines of:
Remember always that, no matter how heroic, innovative or how cool the uniforms, these toy soldiers are representative of an utterly evil regime. It is perfectly legitimate to wargame with them, but always remember, when reading and thinking about them, that the politics and actions of many leading the regime and the orders they issued and enforced have no place in any society at all.

I suppose that, as I suggested before, the major danger of wargaming World War Two Germans is that of running across Nazi apologia in books, not representing battlefield occurences.

Saturday 22 September 2012

Terrain Troubles

As some of you may be aware, I am running a (solo) campaign in a fictionalised Europe of the Roman era. It is fictionalised because I want to use both Late Republican and Early Empire troops. If you are not aware of this, you can find out by hitting the ‘Fuzigore’ posts on the blog, but I doubt if it will make much difference to what is below.

In Fuzigore, I have recently arrived at my first battle. I did this ‘properly’ for want of a better word. The movement of the two armies was plotted on hex paper, using a map I copied from an old road atlas of France. The protagonists are, of course, two tribes in my country of Cillag, who are the real world equivalents of Gauls.

Those of you with good memories will realise from the above that I must have finished painting the second Polemos army of said Gauls, which is quite correct. I have also finished eight half bases of civilians (my noble role playing character Ocram is with one of the armies as a civilian observer). This is the end (more or less) of the first phase of my ‘doubling’ project, which aims to provide tow each of the listed Polemos armies. This arises because, of any given nation in the time of the Romans, the answer to the question ‘Who did they fight most?’ is usually ‘Themselves’.

But I digress.

I have decided to try to do the terrain in a decent manner, not least because I would like a photo-record of the battles for my war diary. The armies are now in contact, in the real world a bit south of La Rochelle. The battlefield is fairly open with a few woods and two settlements.

Here, my troubles with terrain begin.

The settlements are not, in truth, too much of a problem. I have some old Baccus hovels which are already painted, so basing them up and making them look pretty, or at least similar to the bases of the soldiers is not a major problem. I did toy with the idea of making roundhouses out of card, but found it is very hard to make a card roundhouse round, so my citizens of Cillag will have to be content with longhouses.

The woods do not present too much of a problem, although I am thinking of making the sort of ‘roof wood’ that is described in the DBA rules, which consists of a base, some stalks to support the roof, and a roof with lichen on it to show the wood itself. I might; I will see how time goes.

The real problem I hit, however, was the enclosures.

Now, the issue is not materials. Over the years I have collected a fair bit of hedging in 6 mm scale. In fact, I discovered an alarming quantity of hedges in my terrain box, and so I happily sat down to consider how to use it. It came in single hedges of about four inches in length, and it is here that I hit a problem.

A 100 mm strip of hedge is, in 6 mm scale, 100 feet long. That is fine, and so a square of these hedge strips would constitute a reasonably sized ancient field.

However, in the ground scale of the rules, 40 mm is 200 paces, or, put another way, 10 mm is 50 paces and so 100 mm is 500 paces. This seems to be getting a bit big.

I case you do not believe me here, an acre is what a man can plough in a day, at least in medieval terms, and is 4840 square yards. 500 by 500 paces is 25000 square paces, which is a far too large an area of the battlefield.

Now I know that probably the farming would have been in strips, so the fields would have been bigger, but 50 or so strips seems to be a bit big.

I have mentioned before the dissonance there is between the figure scale on out wargames table and the battle scale. The terrain, as I mentioned there, is the mediator between the two. Buildings, it seems are not that much of a problem, on the whole you stick to the figure scale. Trees too are general of the figure scale. Even the hedges I have are the correct scale for 6 mm figures, being about 8 mm high.

But the area of enclosures seems to be a bit of an issue.

Looking at my rule sets, it seems that most dodge the issue. An area of enclosures is a set of fields and hedges, and does not need to be represented accurately on the wargame table because you need to get troops in and out and so just some representation of hedges or walls is sufficient.

I confess that Polemos: SPQR also dodges the issue, suggesting that a bit of felt with a few representative hedges on it is sufficient.

Having tried this out I am no longer so sure. A scattering of hedges does not look the part, I fear. But a full blown figure scale field is far, far too big for the ground scale of the table. So I am in a bit of a quandary.

Perhaps I should just experiment until I find something that looks right, but I fear that all this pondering what we are doing while we wargame is hitting me. How can I have a game with fields on the table knowing that the scale of them is wrong, one way or another.

Normally, in a post like this, the last paragraph would be a stunning resolution of the problem, in this case a visually acceptable method of representing fields which both looks correct and is a reasonable scale representation of the ground in the tabletop battlefield.

Not so here, I think.  I am still struggling with this one, so in desperation I as the obvious question:

Is it just me?

Saturday 15 September 2012

Why I Do Not Wargame World War II

I have finished Phil Sabin’s book Simulating War, and a worthwhile book it is too. Not that I agree with some of it, but it is a good and interesting read. Professor Sabin’s specialities are a slightly odd mix of ancient warfare and world war two, and most of the simulations described relate to the latter. This got me thinking as to why I do not tend to wargame the modern period.

Another slightly odd thing which I encountered, on pages 185-6 of the book, is in the discussion of the Korsun Pocket game. Here, the outcome of the battle is discussed, and the suggestion made (presumably as an outcome of the simulation, I don’t think it is particularly clear) that the number of German and allied troops who escaped from the pocket was less than half of that claimed by German sources.

This is followed by a slightly, to me anyway, odd sentence: “This is a very telling corrective to any suspicion that wargamers are closet Nazi sympathisers, blind to the moral aspects of the conflicts they seek to model”.

This to me raises more questions than it claims to answer. Firstly, there is the issue of why wargaming Nazi forces in World War Two should even slightly make you a sympathiser. Without wishing to turn this post into yet another one on wargame ethics, I suppose the argument is something like:

Wargamers are more likely to sympathise with the armies they select to game with.

Some wargamers may be Nazi sympathisers.

Therefore, wargamers who choose to use WW2 German forces are more likely to be Nazi sympathisers.

I am not sure, here, that the conclusion follows from the premises, and even if it is a valid argument, it only shows a probability of a given wargamer being a closet Nazi sympathiser, not that every wargamer who games with WW2 Germans is one.

As I said, I am trying not to turn this into another ethics post, but I might come back to the point another time.

All that being said, I still do not wargame WW2, and not, I confess, am I particularly interested in doing so. In the interests of disclosure, I do (or did) have a few micro-tanks around somewhere, from the days when I was just starting up, but I think that their existence points up why I do not tend to game WW2.

The problem for me is this: the scale of World War 2 operations is vast, and the ranges were relatively vast as well. While the battles had considerable amounts of courage, self-sacrifice, tactical interest and so on, they are extremely difficult to reconstruct in a meaningful manner on the wargame table.

I saw, fairly recently, a demonstration game of the battle of Beda Fomm. I am sure I am about to show my ignorance here, but I think it was in the Western Desert in 1941 or thereabouts (I dare say someone will correct me if I am wrong). It was a very striking demonstration game, with excellent terrain, beautifully painted vehicles and troops, defensive trenches and barbed wire and so on.

So why did I not like it?

The scale was 15 mm (I think), and the result of this was that, as I recall, a bunch of British armoured cars were deployed hub to hub on the near side of the table. My problem here is that any such vehicle concentration in daylight hours would be asking for a bomb or an artillery stonk. In order to make the game playable, scale has to be sacrificed to table space.

And that, I think, is the key problem. You can either play a WW2 skirmish game or you can try a battle but with a battlefield table which is even more ridiculously skewed than usual. In my view, this makes WW2 figure wargames practically unplayable.  Even in a skirmish game, the ranges of the weapons are such that they reach across the table anyway.

Now, I am sure that there are many fine WW2 wargames out there, and I will get jumped upon by people giving me examples of such. I have, in fact, seen Crossfire, which seems to me to be about as good as it gets for WW2 skirmish level games (I mean 1:1 figure scale). However, it only works if there is a lot of terrain on the table for troops to hide in. Many, perhaps most, WW2 battles were held in such areas, but some were not and I fear that Crossfire might struggle with that (but then, so did the troops in real life). However, as I recall weapons have no range on the table and so one, at least of the problems is avoided, while compromising other things to make the game playable.

So, the reason that I do not play World War Two games is, therefore, nothing to do with the ethics and morality of representing the forces of an evil regime on the table. It is much more to do with the limitations of the possibilities of the wargame representation of the troops and, particularly, the weaponry, as well as the fact that battles were usually decided by the broad sweep of logistics and reinforcement rather than on the area depicted by the wargame table itself.

Finally, I do recall a number of amusing accounts of WW2 wargames by Charles Grant in his Table Top Teasers articles. His book ‘Battle’ is one of the best I recall on wargaming in general and WW2 in particular. I think, though, that it does go for a more ‘Hollywood’ style of wargame. One beach landing scenario he described had all the officers named after actors in the file The Longest Day and, as I recall, off table artillery and air strikes were not included. They may have been excellent games, but I am not sure whether they really count as World War Two any more…

To summarise, I do not play World War Two wargames. However, this is not because I fear being labelled a  Nazi sympathiser for painting the Afrika Corps, but because I really cannot see how, except in very limited circumstances, a interesting game can be played which has some relevance to reality.

And also, of course, I would have to buy a lot more books, which is where, I fear, we really do start to see Nazi apologists coming out. 

Saturday 8 September 2012

Wargame Ethics – What is the Problem?

Reflecting on some of the issues raised by the terms wargame ethics or wargame morality has led me to something of a startling conclusion: I do not really know what the ethical problem is with wargaming.

In a sense I suppose that this should not be a major surprise. I think the problem here is that I simply have not found a suitable definition of the issue, in part, at least, because I have not really looked that herd.

I mentioned that a problem with the discussions of wargame ethics I have so far seen in fact collapse to questions of whether this or that wargame or period is tasteless or offensive. 

To me, this is not really the issue around ethics. I have not, in general, done harm to someone if I have offended them. They might object and appeal to the court of public opinion against me (and quite likely win), or even go to law if I have really offended their taste, but that is not strictly an ethical issue.

So what could the underlying ethical issue be for wargaming?

I think I have hinted at this view before. The issue is in the portrayal, explicit or implied, of violence.

So, the objection to wargaming could look something like this:

P1 All portrayals of violence are unethical.
P2 Wargaming portrays violence either explicitly (role playing or skirmish games, or implicitly in board and figure games).
C Therefore, wergaming is unethical.

Now of the two premises, P2 seems to be fairly uncontroversial. Wargaming does portray violence, in that participants explicitly use violence (at least in terms of speech acts, along the lines of ‘My Grand Battery opens fire’) to resolve the game and move it along.

The problems come with P1, of course. As it stands, P1 would not only declare wargaming unethical, but also films with any violence in them, Tom and Jerry cartoons (the old ones are really violent) and Popeye, the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky (cannon going off), Bach’s St Matthew Passion and most of the Old testament.

In short, P1 is far too swingeing a statement of the issues of violence and culture to be accepted.

So P1 needs some sort of nuancing. How do we go about this, still having an ethical condemnation of wargaming, but allowing, at least to some extent, films, books and the rest of culture to continue.

I think the first thing we can do is to add some sort of individual involvement to P1, so it would read:

P1 All portrayals of violence which engage the individual are unethical.

Now, this is perhaps a little better, but it still, in my view, does not work as a premise to our argument. It is still, I think, too wide in scope as firstly, most films, books and other art is designed to engage the individual and secondly, in order to educate someone about, say, war, we need to engage them in thinking about it. So under this premise art is dubious still while education is probably disallowed.

So we need to add these concerns to our premise:

P1 All portrayals of violence which engage the individual are unethical unless they are artistic expressions or educational, or for news and information.

So now we can still get our fix of daily violence from news broadcasts, and educate our children about the Second World War and other conflicts, and even accept artistic expressions of violence in picture, film or literature.

The issue is that now, wargaming does not appear to be necessarily excluded. We can argue, for example, that some wargaming is educational. Phil Sabin uses it on academic courses, for example, and armies the world over use wargames for training.

Furthermore, we can argue that wargaming is an artistic expression of violence. For example, a nicely sculpted and painted wargame figure is, on some views anyway, an object of art. It is, I think, rather hard to argue that wargame figures, or indeed games when they are set up and in play, are not, in some ways, aesthetically pleasing objects.

So what then is this ethical worry that wargamers are supposed to spend so much time thinking about?

I suspect that the issue is really something to do with the fact of wargames as pastimes. If that is the case, then P1 could read:

P1 All portrayals of violence are unethical if they are used as pastimes.

But then we run into the same problems as we did above with books, films and other works of art. On the whole, such objects are also pastimes, and so our revised premise falls again. Other problems also mount, as some people’s pastimes may include learning; the boundaries of pastimes are not at all clear.

I think the problem I am running into again here is a bit of a lack of definition as to why portrayals of violence are problematic. This anxiety seems to come from societies (i.e. western, liberal democracies, mainly) that portrayals of violence lower the threshold for actual violence. That is, the underlying issue of P1 is that portrayals of violence are bad for society.

I suppose that there are two points here. Firstly, that portrayal of violence increases the propensity to violence in our society. While there are enough tragic incidents of violence in the world to suggest this might be the case, and the press tends to leap on any incidence of violence where the perpetrator has viewed, say, violent video games or films, I am not aware of any serious research work this confirms this link.

In other words, violence is not linked in any strong way to violent incidents in society. Such incidents are, sadly, much more often linked to mental health issues.  I seem to recall that there were moves to ban war toys in the 1970’s, but I do not think they had any real impact on societal violence.

The second point is that, even if the case were proven, wargames, being a fairly marginal hobby in the world, can hardly contribute to portrayals of violence in the same way that the Rambo movies did.

So, I seem to be no nearer defining what the ethical worry with wargaming might be.

Sometimes, wargamers are described as worrying about the games they play. I have to say that, aside from this blog and one or two other places I have mentioned, I have not seen wargamers worrying themselves silly about their games. Perhaps we should, but we need to know what the question is before we start trying to answer it.

Saturday 1 September 2012

More Ethics

Suddenly, it would seem that discussing the ethics and / or morality of wargaming is all the rage. I may well be exaggerating a little bit, but two items have come to my attention recently which suggest that there is a modicum of thinking through these issues.

Firstly, there is a podcast on the Meeples and Miniatures page (, in the View from the Veranda bit, Episode 2 ‘The Morality of Wargaming’. Here, the two gentlemen on the veranda, Neil and Henry, discuss at some length issues of morality in wargaming, or at least their take on it.

Now, this is a very long ‘cast; I gave up at about an hour and a half, having based everything I was trying to get based that morning. But it seems to me that the basic idea was that the questionable bit of wargaming, ethically, is the decision whether to game a modern combat or not. The historical line is not very clear, in this, but it is something to do with the conflict being in living memory, or post World War Two anyway.

One part of the discussion centres on the fact that people can play, say, the Assyrian or Genghis Khan without batting an eyelid, while wargamers worry about playing Second World War Germans. The Assyrians, it was posited, were a nasty, brutal and conquering people, but we do not worry about portraying them. The reason is that it was so long ago that no-one really minds, these days.

A second string to this account was delivered by the surprising number of soldiers who did not mind at all playing games based around modern combat, even those conflicts in which they themselves had played a part and, possibly, lost friends and comrades.

Various wargaming luminaries were mentioned in this context: Brigadier Peter Young, Charles Grant, Donald Featherstone and a number of unnamed serving personnel, all of whom enjoyed a tabletop battle.

The second item to tweak my attention is on pages 162 - 163 of Simulating War by Philip Sabin. There, he discusses the objections of non-professional wargamers to playing modern conflicts, where the images and memories of combats and casualties are fresh.

As a professional conflict simulator, Sabin does not much discuss this attitude, arguing that professional wargame players are interested in, and have to model even unsavoury parts of the conflicts they are interested in, and that to be of use, those models have to be reasonably up to date. Wargames have to abstract their subject, and present simplified versions of history, much as books or films do. Anything is thus decontextualized and can be accused of perpetrating horror, or glamourizing it, or something close to those unpalatable outcomes.

Wargaming, as Sabin quotes Cornell as writing, often takes place in a moral vacuum. The people, times and places we represent in a wargame are too alien to us to understand in and of themselves. There is no reason to engage in the conflict as a wargame, and such moral dimensions should be depicted in them.

I hope, in my summaries of these items that I have not misrepresented anyone, nor projected views unfairly onto those making these points.

Now, my take on these ideas is that they are somewhat mistaken. I think the Meeples and Miniatures podcast has rather collapsed a consideration of the morality of wargaming in a desire not to give offence. I think I have written before on the differences, but let me just restate them if I have.

The idea from the podcast seems to be that modern conflicts are questionable in wargaming terms because they are representations of horror in the recent past, to which participants and grieving relatives may take exception. This seems to me to conflate the morality of wargaming as a representation of violence in a game or pastime mode with the possibility of causing offence or being open to accusations of bad taste.

The point is that causing offence is not immoral. In modern ethics, this relates to J S Mill’s harm principle, where I cannot do you harm by offending you. Offence is not harm; doing things in bad taste is not harm. Harm only occurs when I affect your rights and interests.

On this basis, of course, a wargame, carried out between consenting adults in a closed or perhaps semi-public place like a wargames show, can never be more than offensive or in bad taste. The approval of currently or former serving military personnel of these activities is simply, it seems to me, a statement that these people do not find a wargame on these subjects offensive or in bad taste.

Sabin also suggests that some amateur wargamers fall into this category, finding modern combat wargames distasteful, but not unethical, and they therefore execute their free choice not to participate in such activities.

There is no criticism here – I do not play modern wargames, in part because of similar concerns. My Grandfather had some lurid tales of working in a field hospital in France just after D-Day. However, I have also never felt particularly attracted to modern games. I suppose I just like to see the enemy (Sabin remarked somewhere that he once won a prize at a show for a modern game because the judges could not see his tanks…).

Sabin’s second point, in the quote from Cornell is more germane, but is still not an ethical objection. There is a terrible tendency for wargames to occur in moral vacuums, but that does not mean that a wargame in a moral vacuum is unethical; it may simply be daft in its assumptions.

An extreme example of this might be a tournament game of, say, Assyrians against the armies of the Great Khan. Two unpleasant regimes who could never have met historically facing each other commanded by players who may not be able to explain their choices except that they max out under a certain set of rules.

So, in my view, neither Meeples and Miniatures nor Sabin’s first point really are about the morality or ethics of wargaming. Sabin’s (Cornell’s) second point is a bit more significant, but, arguably, has nothing to do with historical wargaming, just some odd sort of fantasy where armies are plucked from their historical context.

In my view, the real issue in wargaming ethics is to try to justify the representations of violence which are implied, whatever the period represented. Causing offence is not part of that discussion, I think.