Saturday 6 October 2012

When Did Wargaming Become Unethical?

Ruaridh asked recently whether wargaming would have been regarded as even ethically questionable in past ages. The short answer is, of course, that I have no idea. On a more considered reflection, however, I might be able to offer some tentative suggestions.

Firstly, there has always been a strand of peace, and yearning for peace, in our culture. A recent book, called “The Glorious Art of Peace” by John Gittings ((2012) Oxford: OUP) examines some of these aspects, as the subtitle says, ‘from the Iliad to Iraq’.

Gittings is not interested in wargaming, of course, but he does point out that in almost all cultures, peace has been an ideal, particularly as it is often associated with prosperity for the peasant farmers, who could and did lose everything when land was despoiled during campaigns.

An interesting start is to be made in, in fact, the Iliad. Here, Gittings argues that while about a third of the poem is devoted to battle scenes, many of them gory, Homer does not give unequivocal backing to the idea that war is a good thing. For example, the exploits of the heroes, their blessings in their own country, exploits, wives and families are often given; and then they die, gruesomely in most cases. Heroes, even in Homer, are not bomb (or even spear) proof.

A second Homeric item is the shield of Achilles, which was decorated with scenes of both peace and war. Gittings suggests that Homer is arguing that peace is the true aspiration of the human race; that what we really want to do is eat, drink and make merry, but the cares of the world (including warfare) often, if not usually interfere, and even the noble and heroic are not immune.

So, even as far back as the Iliad, peace and war are juxtaposed, in tension, and not to be accepted at face value. Of course, that is not how the text has necessarily been treated down the centuries. Alexander the “Great” is said to have slept on it on campaign, and it influenced generations of Greek and Roman scholars, poets and authors.

It is not just the Greeks, or the western tradition which has put forth this ambiguous view of warfare. In China the literature from the Warring States era also presents a less than fulsome picture of warfare. Gittings multiplies his examples from history, but the point remains: war has never been a straightforward issue.

It can hardly be a surprise, then, if wargaming has its ambiguities. If, as it does, our culture has a tense relationship with war, then a hobby which represents war cannot be without its own issues. What they are, exactly, is of course more difficult to define, as some of the posts on this blog have demonstrated.

So, when did wargaming acquire the status of being something polite society did not mention?

I am not sure, as I said, that I can really answer that question. However, we can, I think, see that it is linked with the rise of leisure time in the West. Speaking very broadly, before the Victorian era, (late 19th century) few people would have had the leisure to indulge in wargaming, and if they did, there was not much in the way of equipment to assist them. Of course, there are a few exceptions among the super-rich, and the Prussian army started to use wargames for professional reasons during the same century. However, it is Robert Louis Stevenson and H G Wells who start wargaming as a leisure practice in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Before the first world war there were, I think, two things going on. Firstly, there was a good deal of nationalism, jingoism if you will. This led, for example, to the Prince of Wales storming out of the first night of Shaw’s ‘Arms and the Man’ when one of the actors inadvertently referred to the ‘British Army’ rather than the ‘Bulgarian Army’ running away. Even after the Boer war (and even, perhaps, particularly after the Boer war) the British army simply did not do that.

Secondly, there was what HG Wells called a lot of “whoosh” going on. Certainly from the point of view of the British (and probably US) middle classes, things were getting a lot better and were going to continue doing so.  The British authorities were shocked, for example, to find how many young men from poor areas were unfit for war service due to ill health and poor nourishment.  The society which was so forward looking was found to be mired in poverty.

Similarly, although revisionist historians have had a good go at this, the battles of the first world war were a profound shock, particularly as the Pals battalions were mown down and the war poets started to write (OK, not all of them, but Sassoon and Owen, at least). Now the view from 1918 or 1919 was that the allies had won, but the cost had been horrific. Peace movements (League of Nations, Peace Pledge Union and so on) grew and peaked during the 1920’s and 1930’s.

So I submit that, sometime around the end of World War One, wargaming (which was in its infancy) probably ran into ethical issues. Why, you can imagine people asking, would you want to wargame with the recent war to end all wars so vivid and awful in memory; when there are so many widows and unmarried women around because the death toll was so high?

I guess that this sort of question, which is akin to the ones Ruaridh was asked, are the ones that continue to dog the hobby to this day. On the one hand there are good reasons to wargame: to remember, to understand, to investigate what happened and why. On the other hand, there are the reasons not to wargame: it revisits the horror and pain, even vicariously.

So it could be the ‘wargame ethics’ debates we are having here are, in fact, related to our society’s ambiguous relationship with warfare, and that neither war nor wargaming have ever not had these issues hanging around the margins.


  1. I'm pleased you addressed this issue in a post. The answers you come up with are similar to my gut feeling about the situation: the industrialisation of warfare may well have led to a bitter taste when it comes to wargaming too.

    Just to add to your reasons to wargame, one reason I have come across for some wargaming is to help old soldiers deal with what they saw in actual wars. I wish I could remember the reference now, but it was an interesting idea that I think merits exploration at some point.

  2. Don't forget that, from a British perspective anyway, war was pretty much a minority participation exercise before WWI. Up until that time the participants in war either made it their career from personal choice or from lack of alternative. (Or being too drunk to evade the pressgang) The actual horror of war wasn't really unleashed on the nation at large until about 1916; before that it had all been a bit of Boys Own Paper derring-do and showing Johnnie Foreigner where to get off to the comfortable civvy at home - essentially remote.

    Any movement for peace in Britain during any age up to 1916 was generally on grounds of financial expense, not human cost.

  3. It does seem that WWI had a profound impact on our view of war; I suspect that the industrialization of war had a significant impact, was did the mass call-up, and widespread casualties.

    It may well be also that many of the British wars, anyway, had been remote and against some 'other' - colonial small wars; I think the Boer war was a bit of a shock to the system as well.

    Another UK issue may be the navy, rather than the army, being seen as the vital arm. Naval battles, even big ones, had smaller casualty lists, I suspect, than the average land battle.

    It would be interesting to hear from some of our non-UK based readers if any of this stuff is relevant to them in their context. For example, the US was not hugely involved in the destruction which was the first world war, so I do wonder if it had the same impact.

    I guess that some old soldiers could use wargaming as catharsis, in many cases seeing battles from a different point of view might well help. The absence of colleagues dying and so on could also help with some form of perspective, I guess. Some of the founders of wargaming were on active service in WW2 and still wargamed the war, so it cannot of been bad for their mental health.

    Thank you for the comments.

  4. It's a good point Chris made about the impact on the British psyche of WWI being our first "mass participation war". Echoes what Harry Pearson said in Achtung Schweinhund about why we as a nation are so fixated on the World Wars. But personally I wouldn't be so sure that was when wargaming acquired any kind of pariah status.

    Our impression of post-Great War society's view of that conflict is dominated by the writings of a relatively small number of writers and intellectuals. Arguably the work with the single widest impact was written by someone on the losing side(Erich Maria Remarque). Polite society it may have been, but only part of it.

    My money is on a much later period - the sixties (coincidentally when wargaming grew as a mass hobby). And possibly boosted during the early 80s so-called "Looney Left" era.

  5. I suspect that wargaming did not get pariah status (if such it has) after WWI, but that war itself did. Jingoism was an invention of the late 19th century:

    We don't want to fight but by Jingo if we do
    We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too

    but, to overstate the rhetoric, died in Flanders.

    The sixties did give a negative twist to the view of the first world war - 'Oh! What a Lovely War', which leads in a fairly direct thread to such cultural offerings at 'The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace' and 'Blackadder Goes Forth'.

    Incidentally, was it only me who noticed that Blackadder IV nicked one of the episodes from Biggles?

    So I think that wargaming, in ethical and moral terms, is as conflicted as our societies are by the concept of war in general. There is always room, I suppose for another 'Dulce et decorum est' on either the war poets side or in its original meaning, and then the view of wargaming may shift again.

  6. All good comments here, and an excellent discussion.

    Thinking about pariah status, I do not think that wargaming has that any more. My experience in the eighties suggests that it did have it then, because people conflated the concepts of war and wargaming, assuming that both were essentially the same. Nowadays, I find that admitting to wargaming is more of a slightly embarrassing faux pas that leads to some teasing and an injunction to 'grow up' by the uninitiated. I am sure that some people still consider wargaming unethical and wargamers to be monstrous warmongers, but I encounter that attitude less frequently these days.

  7. Just had a flashback to my uni days with that Jingo reference. Not the original version but a spoof from (if I remember correctly) the Boer War period:

    I don't want to fight I'll be slaughtered if I do
    The Russians can have Constantinople

    (Can't seem to find the lyric for this)

    I think you're right Ruaridh. It's more about the nerdiness than the warmongering these days.

  8. There now. So the rise of wargaming as a pastime coincided with the decline in the public's attitude to actual warfare? Obviously, I'm not trying to make it out as cause and effect but it's an interesting paradox, isn't it?

    It's clearly a coincidence that H G Wells, a well known pacifist, wrote Little Wars in, what, 1913? Just in time for WWI. Very perceptive chap, our Herbert.

  9. Well, my experience of anti-wargame protesters as a few bedraggled placard wavers outside the Hexagon in Reading. I always thought that it was more to do with the show being called Armageddon than wargaming itself, as this was in the days of cruise missiles and Star Wars (the program, not the film).

    I suspect the link might be a little more subtle than Chris suggests:

    Rising prosperity => more people wargaming.
    "Bad" wars => decline of public attitude to wars.

    And then some link between perception of wars and of wargaming.

    One of HG Well's short stories, IIRC, was about the advent of tank warfare, so I guess he was into the imagination aspect of wargaming...

  10. Well no, I think the decline in the public's perception of war came from, firstly, the fact that it suddenly involved people they knew and wasn't so remote any more, and second, that the realities of it have become more immediate in the news media.
    I'm not convinced there is any link at all with wargaming and the public perception of real warfare, hence the slightly puzzled reaction of most wargamers to anti war protestors. I remember them particularly at Leeds, but I also seem to remember Leeds Wargames Club's secretary was a CND member.

    Wells predicted quite a few things to come, including aerial bombardment and submarine warfare; he thought it was fantasy and would never actually happen.

  11. Well, I said 'some link' because it is by no means clear what it might be, except in some people's minds (probably the same who thought that 'When the wind blows' was pro-war propaganda).

    As for Wells, his last book was, I think, 'Mind at the end of its tether', published in 1945, which may well sum up how he felt by then in the title.

  12. Hi,

    I am sorry I did not post earlier, but maybe someone will read it anyway.

    As non-UK based reader I suppose I can give some input about outsider's feelings and attitude towards war. I will try to be short although it is not easy.

    I think Polish perspective is much different, because until recently we, as a country or nation, did not conduct agressive war for nearly four centuries, but we took part in many wars, either as defender or unwilling canon fodder in armies of our occupants. Wars were waged on our own soil and routinely resulted in large human and material loses. Since end of eighteenth century, we had to fight for our freedom against much more powerful opressors, with roughly 7 wars (or uprisings) lost and only 2 won. It is important to note that we ended WWII liberated from Germans but occupied by Soviets, which cannot be counted as a won fight.

    Concerning WWI, it is remembered not for its meatgrinder, but because it started wars for our independence, culminating in crushing victory over Soviet Russia despite seemingly impossible odds (for instance you probably do not know, but British dockers, among others, delayed war equipment bought and scheduled for Poland during the darkest days of this war). WWI lasted 7 years in Poland if we add subsequent wars for independence.

    The WWII experiences dominate our attitude, because it is the most recent and some remembering it are still alive. It lasted almost 6 years (8-9 if we count until pacification of major underground organisations fighting with soviet regime; the resistance lasted much longer, but on smaller scale - the last armed fighter was killed in combat on 20/21 october 1963 - over 24 years since start of WWII). Human and material loses were so huge it seemed almost irreversible (e.g. around 50% of educated people were missing - professors, teachers, doctors, engineers etc.; over 800 villages were burnt down in the current territory of Poland alone and hundreds more over our eastern border, in territories lost after the war; Warsaw alone was destroyed in ca.86% etc. etc.). Deeds of Germans, Soviets, Ukrainians and Russians in Poland were so cruel it is simply unimaginable.

    To be continued...


    Another thing which has impact on the way of thinking is almost 50 years of communist regime, which on its part used patriotic feelings of people to intensify "war readiness" by propaganda means. Being a pacifist was deemed stupidity at best, until later eighties in XX century.

    I think in popular mindset all this means several conclusions (as much as we can generalise such attitudes):
    -war is greviously evil, because you lose your relatives, homes and possessions; suffering is huge,
    -being a soldier you fight for freedom and peace for your land; if you kill, it is the enemy who started first and he is responsible for the mess, so it is clear self-defense.

    From my personal experience I would say that attitude towards wargaming is like this: it is perfectly all right for children and teenagers and a strange hobby for grown-ups, but nothing at all along the line: "You guys are crazy warmongers!". I have not met any moral pondering about "How can you play those $%^&#@ Germans?" in wargaming. I suppose our memory is still so clear on what they did that nobody takes seriously into consideration any warm feelings towards such guys.


  14. Hi Adam,

    Thank you for your contribution; it does suggest strongly that attitudes towards wargaming vary quite strongly with respect to the context of the wargamer, in terms of nationality, history and politics. I can well imagine that in Poland wargaming WW2 might stir up strong emotions, either of memory or politics.

    I wonder if wargaming is more popular in the UK and USA than in Europe because we have not been successfully invaded recently, and also perhaps that in the wars we have engaged in we have finished up on the winning side?

    It does seem that in many European countries, wargaming is even more of a minority hobby than in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, NZ, etc. Or maybe I'm barking up the wrong tree.


  15. Hi,

    I do not know if suffering from defeat and occupation is much related to interest in wargaming. In fact war-related activities are quite popular in Poland (board games, reenactment groups, paintball and airsoft games, simulated combat etc.). Miniature wargaming is less widespread, mainly in fantasy/sci-fi area, although historical wargaming is also growing slowly. The biggest barrier in growth of any hobby is money limits, I suppose.

    The fact that miniature wargaming seems to be most widespread in Anglo-Saxon countries may originate from the fact that it started there as a hobby and had more time to expand. I know that English are very fond of gardening, but I also know other nations do gardening too :), even if this is not so widespread (or is it?). Also the population of these countries is similar to that of rest of EU minus UK taken together, which makes a large community speaking the same language and having similar cultural habits - expansion of ideas is faster.

    Summing up I would guess there are two major factors affecting wargaming popularity - cultural habits and wealth of particular society. War experiences has minor influence, although I think Germans may not be very much into the hobby, but I do not know any numbers, so I may be wrong.


  16. Hi,

    I guess that the opportunity to wargame and the penetration of the hobby into society are probably, as you suggest, the determining factors, plus a wide English speaking audience. For example, you can occasionally find mainstream wargame journals in railway station bookshops, so it is there in the consciousness somewhere.

    As for gardening, it is snowing here at the moment, so in my household anyway, its popularity has taken a big hit...