Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Weird War Two: An Ethical Cop Out?

Definition: A cop-out (phrase): "A failure ... to face a difficulty squarely".

Regular visitors to this blog will know that I have been mildly obssessed for the last six months with a gaming project along the lines of something popularly called "Weird War Two". This subgenre admits a number of possibilities (occult, pulp, late war mecha) and in a later post I'll address how I understand these taxonomies. For now, though, I need to work through the ethics of a game concept which takes a dark premise (Nazis and the Third Reich) and then amps it up by adding additional badness to the bad guys (eg, my SS Vampire character, whose skin these days is somewhat less green).

For the last few weeks I've been thinking about the moral implications of this project, and of the "Weird War" subgenre in general. Perhaps it will seem to you as if I am overthinking this, but humour me for a moment. My questions began thanks to a number of gamers I greatly respect, who have issues with playing the bad guys, and who make convincing arguments that playing the Nazis in a WW2 game is problematic for anyone concerned with being virtuous. If you are interested in exploring this argument, an excellent place to start is the post "Virtue And Wargaming" (see http://ancientrules.blogspot.ca/2012/09/virtue-and-wargaming.html) by Polemarch, one of the smartest and most provactive wargaming bloggers I know of.

In this post, Polemarch asks why it is that we don't usually hear debates about the ethics of playing the Ancient Romans, whose empire was founded on highly organized and brutal repression conducted at a geopolitical level, whereas we sometimes hear arguments about the ethics of representing the SS on the gaming table. Polemarch argues that because the Romans are safely removed in the lost world of the distant past, we don't feel many moral qualms in thinking about Rome. With the Nazis, Polemarch argues, it is quite different:

"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?"

So as I understand his argument, because the society and the people represented in our WW2 games are much more similar to us than, say, the Ancient Romans, our games become models of moral choices that should, at the least, discomfort us as gamers. I suppose one could say the same thing about representing modern societies other than Nazi Germany on the gaming table. Are there moral challenges in representing NKVD units, or western forces engaged in Operation Phoenix (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenix_Program) in a Vietnam game? Surely the problem is much broader than just a few SS figures on a tabletop, since modern wargaming allows the representation of many evil regimes and armies? But perhaps I digress.

So here's my point. Any game which adds "Weird" to "World War Two" will inevitably make the Nazis ever nastier, albeit in a highly fictive form of narrative. An example I saw recently is a Kickstarter RPG project that adds Cthonic elements from the Lovecraft sub genre to Nazi Germany. One might ask why anyone would want to add yet more horror and evil to a conflict that set the modern standard for horror and evil. Conrad Kinch posed this question quite well in the gaming ezine The Gazebo, when he asked, in effect, how could we possibly make World War Two even more horrific by adding mythic/pulp elements such as, say, zombies? Isn't the real horror of that war enough for anyone?

On a related line of thought, assuming, pace Kinch, that one decides to add mythic or pulp horror elements to World War Two, does that not trivialize the scope of the evil committed by actual human beings? How could an SS vampire be even more horrfying, any more evil, than an actual figure such as SS General Reinhard Heydrich, seen in this link as portrayed in the HBO film Conspiracy by Kenneth Branagh? I like Conspiracy, and the German film it emulates, The Wannsee Conference, because they capture what Hannah Arendt famously called "the banality of evil". If a monumental evil such as the Final Solution could be set into motion by bureaucrats calmly sitting around a conference table, then do we really need Nazi vampires? If we transpose evil into the realm of the mythic, do we run the risk of forgetting and ignoring the evil that ordinary people can achieve in the real world?

Setting aside these objections, it seems to me that the Weird War Two genre, if we are to pursue it, offsets the amped up evil of the villains (Nazi vampires and the like) by adding superheroic, juiced up good guys (see my blog header for an example). In my own Weird War Two world, I have deliberately set it in the early days of World War Two, just after the Fall of France, when only a few people in Britain realize that occult forces are stirring within the Reich. By creating an atmosphere where "Project Alice" and its characters are mobilizing as a small army of light to fight the darkness, I am trying to pay tribute to that pivotal moment of existential danger in 1940 when Britain and her colonies stood alone against Hitler and the fate of the world hung in the balance. My good guys thus complement the mythic nature of the storytelling by adding caricatures of good (saintly padres, lantern-jawed soldiers, brave and resourceful women resistance fighters vs the forces of darkness in Nazi uniforms). That's the idea behind my Weird War Two setting, but does that approach of mythic good versus mythic evil not deepen the cop-out by substituting fictitious good guys for flawed, human, banal guys who may or may not have been good, but who were on the winning side?

As the Polemarch has said, it all depends on how postmodernist your view of history is. Seeing the summer of 1940 as an historical hinge moment, an existential crisis of good versus evil, is one interpretation of history, but it is a modernist view that buys into one narrative for World War Two. The actual narrative of World War Two was far more complex. Britain went to war for Poland and then sold Poland out at Yalta. For reasons that seemed to make perfect strategic sense, the Allies escalated the bombing of military targets into the bombing of whole cities, while refusing to commit bombers to attacking the infrastructure of the Holocaust. Churchill may have stood for defiance and freedom in 1940, but he also fought to preserve the Empire, something his American allies never supported. The reality is complicated, messy, and considerably less mythic than the stories we would tell of it. Turning World War Two into Weird War Two could be seen as an ethical cop-out, in that it overlays a messy and difficult conflict with a mythic narrative that allows us to avoid the moral nuance of history.

I would agree that a postmodernist caution of single narratives is helpful, but I also think (and here I nail my colours to the mast, finally!) that it is still possible to speak with moral clarity about a subject like World War Two. For all the awful or ambiguous things that the Allies did or did not do, it was a fight for the survival of a vision of humanity that transcended race or ideology. British historian Michael Burleigh makes this point with great clarity in his 2011 book, Moral Combat: Good and Evil In World War Two (New York: Harper Collins, 2011).As Burleigh describes it, the central narrative of the war is of millions of responsible adults who were confronted with difficult decisions and an often “overpowering” temptation to immorality. In such a context, Burleigh says, it is remarkable that the number of those people who made good decisions was such that “a vestigial regard for decent or lawful conduct survived at all”.

To summarize, after thinking this through, I don't believe that Weird War Two has to be an ethical cop out. Going ahead, I will try to let the following principles guide me. One, Weird War Two is a way of telling the story of some aspects of the actual war in a mythic way. Two, my villains will point to the reality of evil in World War Two, without trying to replace or trivilaize that reality with caricatures. Three, my heroes will honour the moral heroism of real men and women in that war, without trying to minimize the complexity of the choices faced by them and the courage it required to make those choices. Four, the project will try to tell its own story, using creativity, humour, and broad strokes, rather in the way that the old films of the 1940s and 1950s did, while remaining respectful of the historical stories as we understand them. Fith and last, the project will be guided by Burleigh's these that World War Two was indeed Moral Combat, a struggle between good and evil at a fundamental level, and needs to be remembered as such. I hope I can succeed at these goals, and hope that you will tell me what you think as I go along, for that is the fun and the goal of a blog.



  1. A well argued defence of your position Padre. Bravo!

  2. I have to agree, I've read several books on some Thule WW2 stories and plots but it's how you play it or manage it, I didn't have a problem myself when I gamed this period.

    1. Thanks Fran. Pray say more about the Thule WW2 stories, I'm not familiar with them.

  3. Wow. It would probably be quicker just to list all the thoughts I *didn't* have from the above post. My thoughts...

    Firstly, dealing with the wider issue of wargaming the darker sides of history. I hold my hand up to having a fairly large collection of WW2 Germans (along with a more modest set of Brits and US) - some of which include the Latvian Legion, a foreign SS unit with a more than dubious service record. For me the key issue is one of hypocrisy - if you dig a little, ANY non-fictional army has shades of darkness which would probably be very just grounds for not gaming them.

    Of course, there's no doubt as to the scale and nature of the Nazi war crimes in WW2 - that's just an appreciation that others may have reservations about wargaming (say) a British destroyer in a WW2 naval game, given the widely-documented cases of allied warships refusing to pick up German survivors or even attacking survivors in the water for operational reasons (for example - just an appreciation that every controversial issue has two sides).

    I think it's a question of hats. Some gamers feel strongly about this moral aspect and, quite understandably, refuse to play certain nations. Morality is not absolute - in the sense of judging history at least, since records and opinions differ, and different people may have different views as to what constitutes a sufficiently 'bad' army.

    On the other hand, there are gamers who I think can play the 'bad' sides, perhaps for painting or tactical or historical reasons - or even just to make up the 'bad guy' numbers in a campaign. The real and present danger is, of course, that the moral aspect is forgotten as people get obsessed with uniforms and tactics on the board. Also, this camp is a rallying banner for the tiny minority of apologists and revisionists who wilfully ignore or distort the crimes of these 'bad' forces.

    In summary, I think the safe option is to avoid an army if you have moral doubts. I believe it's acceptable to game these 'bad' armies but it's no moral cakewalk and requires a certain amount careful self-observation to make sure its healthy.

    As for the use of the setting for dramatic or comic purposes, I believe this is entirely healthy, moral, and would go so far as to say it was necessary. As a Brit I spent an awful lot of my childhood laughing at 70s/80s British comedies taking the mickey out of Germans, and the issue is essentially the same as the 'Weird War' conundrum. It was (and is) argued that such media trivialises the war and the horrific crimes that were committed. I don't agree - I have enough faith that people will appreciate the surreality of such settings and divorce them from their knowledge of things like the Holocaust. All it does is bring the setting and the characters to a new and wider audience. In short, I believe most people would know the moral difference between a wargame and real history, and tell the difference, treating both sides with the reverence they deserve respectfully.

    One crucial caveat to the above - when dealing with children and young people who are in danger of innocently confusing the boundaries, or genuinely being unaware of the moral/criminal aspects of these regimes, must be made explicitly aware of it until they're old enough to spot the boundaries themselves.

    Just my two cents :)

    1. My dear Colonel, I am pleased that my post made you think, and thank you for your articulate and rich response.
      When I first got to thinking about wargaming as storytelling in response to something said on the Polemarch's blog, I thought, as you said above, someone has to make up the bad guy numbers. If I am playing a game about Normandy, someone has to play the Germans. We can disagree about whether Germans like Kurt Meyer and Michael Wittman were good soldiers doing their best in a bad cause, or whether they were ardent supporters of the Nazi regime, but they were there and if you want to play a Normandy game, someone has to wear the bad hat with the skull on it. One could argue that the act of "playing" is, like theatre, merely a mode of storytelling. After all, we don't think any the worse of an actor who plays Iago or Richard III once he is off the stage, and we find value in Shakespeare's plays even though there are baddies in them.

      Your comment about RN destroyers behaving badly reminded me of the scene in The Cruel Sea where Capt. Erickson deliberately drops depth charges in water where shipwrecked sailors are swimming, knowing that he must commit the evil of killing them to prevent the greater evil of allowing a UBoat to sink more ships. Without descending into moral relativism, that scene reminds us, as Erickson (well played by the late Jack Hawkins) says, "it's just the war".

      I liked your comments about WW2 TV series and will address that in another post.

      Thanks, mate.

  4. You have broached an uneasy topic, Padre, and one that has me at times questioning why I wargame at all. Like you, I find the whole area complex - a pastiche of black and white merging into each other to form all kinds of grey - and other colours, many of them red...

    To start with: armies. Possibly my yardstick here is the American Civil War - where my war gaming sort of began. Now, from a 'sporting' point of view, I'm very much a Confederate, though my Union army is the larger. It is hard not to admire an army that fought so well and for so long against odds that (in hind-sight) they were never going to overcome.

    But I have a decidedly different view of the political leadership. On both sides the leadership was ambiguous (I include Abe Lincoln, here, much as I agree he was probably the greatest president the U.S. has ever elected to office), but it is hard to go past Jeff Davis and his pals for utter bloody-minded obstinate stupidity. But the decider, of course, is the issue that led to the war in the first place: slavery. The Confederate soldier might imagine he was fighting for States Rights, and probably he was at that, so few being slave holders and all, but in effect he was fighting to preserve 'the peculiar institution' as well. (I could develop this argument further and with greater complexity, but I won't, here). I do believe Robert E. Lee saw a (the) moral dilemma, as I gather he manumitted his slaves before the war really got under way. I like to think that he did, anyway.

    I do WW2 myself, but, so far, I draw the line at the Waffen SS - my Germans are (so far) strictly Wehrmacht. This line is not especially moral - part of it is practicalities as well. My German army would get too big! I don't have parachute troops, either. If my army expands, I reckon the Paras of Northern Europe will get the nod. In any case, if you are going to do WW2, the Germans have got to be in there somewhere, and it's no good shoving whatever moral opprobrium attaches onto someone else.

    The thing with the Nazi regime, is that History has denied it a single redeeming feature. It stands as the acme of evil in this world, the benchmark, the non plus ultra, if you like. At least, that's the way it seems to me. And I have a problem with this.

    Before continuing, let me say that I don't 'do' horror as a genre in the sense of vampires, zombies, ghosties, long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night. I just can't be bothered. Nor do I 'get' their point. And that is because of the real horrors that exist in this world. Show me a creature you don't want to meet down a dark alley, and I'll show you a human being. We are the scariest things on this planet. Even the Ebola virus can't destroy the thing... We can.

    But there is a further difficulty I have about setting the Nazi Regime up as le dernier cri of evil. It gets shoved back in the past, trotted out for display sometimes, as if to contrast with the modern day. Them bad: us good. For mine, the way this world is going - its global scale socio-econo-political evils with the horrific body counts - Hitler and World War Two might as well never have happened. I will go further: the Holocaust might as well never have happened. What has this world learned from them? What were the lessons? The only lesson that I can see that has been taught is that the perpetrators know better how to get away with it.

    OK someone is going to tell me Idi Amin didn't get away with it, no more did Pol Pot, Muammar Qaddafi nor Saddam Hussein. Small fry. The really big global criminals have been getting away with it for decades.


    1. Hello Ion:

      Thanks for this great response, mate. I'll try to do it justice.

      Like you, my gaming began in the ACW and it was always my first love as a period. I think it is one of those wars that points to something noble and redemptive in human nature, and that, like WW2, it can be seen as an event of which we can speak with moral clarity. I don't believe that it was all angels vs demons. I think the evolution of Lincoln's views on the slaves, moving from his wish to simply deport back to Liberia to finally abolishing slavery, shows how individuals can evolve in their moral views. The Lincoln at the start of the war was a different man than the one who saw the end of it. Was he morally preferable to say, Nathan Bedford Forrest? I would say yes, and I would even say he was morally prefereable to Lee, a good man who chose a bad cause for bad reasons, and while I know that others will disagree with me, I think my view is morally defensible.

      When I was a Civil War reenactor, I almost always wore Union blue because I wanted to play the good guys. On several occasions, howewever, I agreed to join friends doing a confederate impression. While we were interested in understanding the everyday life and lot of the rebel soldier as best we could, I recall one occasion where we were waiting to go on the field and a group of US black reenactors portraing US Coloured Troops marched past us, and I was ashamed of myself. For all my historian's curiousity and interest in understanding a situation and moment in time, I could not rid myself to my present day understanding of (and revulsion) of how the Confederate flag has become an emblem of intolerance in popular culture. Now if a black friend of mine wanted to wargame the Civil War and asked me to play the rebs because he only wanted to play the Union, I could do that, because, I suppose, game and story are removed enough from real life to be safe, whereas ACW reenacting, as I learned, has a healthy share of southern apologists and race politics.

      Your comments on how we today understand the Nazi regime are well taken, but I think sometimes we need to see what evil looks like. The international war crimes tribunal in The Hague is a direct consequence of the legal precedents set by the postwar Nuremburg Trials, so I think we have made some progress, though I do admit that grounds for cynicism exist.

      Thanks again, Ion.

  5. Just a clarification to the above. Just because I don't 'do' horror, or the occult, or post 1945 moderns, does not mean I have any quarrel with those who do. A good deal of it has simply to do with personal interest, with taste, or with the limitations of the wallety regions. These can always change.

    1. Clarification understood, no offence taken. Sometimes I ask myself where this sudden obsession with spooks comes from. Too many Hammer films when I was young, maybe? :)

  6. A very well thought out and reasoned post. The morality of gaming is something that I find very interesting myself. I'd like to write more on my views but I feel this would take some time... possibly a future blog post of my own, as there are many issues which this topics offers up.



    1. Thanks Pete, much appreciated. I am looking forward to reading that post of yours when you write it.

    2. I actually had a very slight ethical dilemma yesterday whilst entertaining my oldest nephew who is 5. He is starting to get interested in 'army stuff' so I showed him the picture of me in the tank that I had put on my blog. He said was it a British tank? I said no it was a Russian tank, then he asked the awkward question of were the Russian goodies or baddies? Given my head was filled with the intricacies or Cold War politics and the changing patterns of alliances I just said that they were the goodies in WW2(and was thankful he didn't press me further) . It is very hard to explain the realities and complexities of war to 5 year olds...



  7. Good post, Padre. The ethical concerns are real although the games are not. I've had some of the same concerns, even over the Thirty-Years War. I, for one, do have Waffen SS troops for our WWII skirmish games, although I decry the excesses perepetrated by such. We play games of conflict and do not game atrocities. Why? Because of political correctness, yes, but mainly because there would be no challange to it, and more importantly, no fun! I doubt any of us would have any interest in table-top atrocities, whether done by the SS, the NKVD, the Guardia Civil, the Black-and-Tans, the troops as Wounded Knee or Mai Lai, or Late Romans on the Rhine... let along the fall of Jericho. All of that makes me sad and I can take no enjoyment in it. I game for fun and I deal with moral qualms as they arrive. (When I was a monastic with a vow of poverty, my biggest qualm was the cost of purchase and storage of figures! Of course, I didn't have many.)

    1. Hi John!
      Great comment. When we get together (in good Lutheran fashion) for a beer we will have to talk about the monastic life.
      I take your points that WW2 is not unique in terms of horrors. The 30 years war must be one of the nastiest eras in human history. We wouldn't have the Enlightenment and modern secularism without its horrors.
      I also take your point that the game should pose a challenge, with ideally a chance of winning on both sides. I suppose one could play a game where there was no chance for one side to win, such as the Hebrews at Masada, where one could explore that moment in time while feeling an appropriate degree of respect (and even sadness) for the human dimension of that moment? Perhaps this is why Imaginations and Funny Wars gaming is popular, because it is all fantasy and thus free of these moral entanglements?

  8. Actually I going to come at this from an off side position. I think people add the occult, which broadly defines everything from vampires to Cthulhu, as a way of lightening the moral load of the conflict through the introduction of metaphorical images.

    As for the moral and ethical implications of Nazi Germany, if I were modelling the period I would have a distribution according to the tables of organization and equipment, or orders of battle. Anything less is ahistorical. Whether or not players fielding ahistorical units on the table top is ethical, or not is really mediated by the fact that they are typically playing with toy soldiers, and can be ridiculed as such, or not as the case may be.

    Of course fielding ahistorical units with a political and moral agenda would be another matter. So, for me, intent is the key here. YMMV, T&CA, E&OE.

  9. This is a most thought evoking post and I have taken all day to think of a considered reply to this question. I don't wish to offend anyone with the following reply but I take a view whether it is moral or immoral is entirely open to an individuals interpretation of his or her own view of morality.

    Which I suspect is exactly what happens when we play a game.

    The real problem in all of this is mankind, we as a race are the most immoral of races hell bent on waging wars for either political, territorial or religious reasons. We judge others far too easily by creed, colour or religion and remove those who get in our way by subjugation or extermination.
    This is clearly shown throughout history, and indeed is documented in many religious teachings the world over.

    The shameful thing is it is the victors of conflicts tend to write the history, so the full picture of the horrors inflicted by both sides throughout history get distorted and we often only get a one sided opinion. Heavily biased to the loser being immoral in one form or another.

    Now there is no getting away from the fact that Nazi Germany had elements that practised totally immoral behaviour, however other nations have benefited from the research since the war carried out by Nazis (atom bombs, DNA, rockets etc). But history omits any shred of good the Nazis did because of the horrors they also committed.

    Now the problem with the SS is the fact that elements of this political faction went to extremes, but not every SS soldier was a heartless murderer, but they are all treated by history as monsters. People forget the Russians played a major part in this area too and were hell bent on exterminating the Polish.
    The British have committed countless acts of immorality whilst empire building, from slave trading (Africa), concentration camps(BOER WAR), mass subjugation of nations (INDIA,IRELAND,SCOTLAND)and a whole host of other nasty things upon those they consider enemies, but this is rarely mentioned when we game. Why? Simply because they were the victors so the horrors barely get a mention.

    I play for the enjoyment of a game and can see past the fog of morality, its not that I don't think about it. But it is history and to represent that you need all the elements.
    I dont play much fantasy gaming but, fantasy is just fiction characterized by highly fanciful or supernatural elements. They are not real and never existed (at least I think so). To me characters for any game of this genre regardless of the historical setting can present no moral dilemma.
    I say play with what ever you want too because no matter what side you stand on morally there will always be someone willing to argue the opposite.

  10. I can only give my short answer to this intriguing post and debate about the morality of wargaming the "baddies", I am quite happy to play SS, I do not think of the atrocities while playing, but show me a photo or a video or even talk at length about the Holocaust and other war-crimes committed and I find myself tearing up, Humans are capable of being the greatest good and simultaneously the greatest evil on the planet


  11. I will largely cop out and shamelessly provide a link to a post I wrote last summer on this same topic:


    As a summation, I believe that from time-to-time we should step back and be aware of what we're 'playing at'. What we play on the tabletop is NOT checkers or chess, we are not simply removing our opponents' gaming pieces from the table. No, what we replicate, whether consciously or unconsiously, is the killing and maiming of people, plain and simple. We may come to it with an intellectual interest in strategy, history and perhaps inquiring upon the 'human condition', but in essence we are making entertainment of the most unflattering elements of our nature.

    Though I don't prescribe to his personal politics, I do largely agree with Niall Ferguson's assessment from his book 'The Pity of War', that the core reason why humanity fights with itself is because we are naturally competitive - in essence we like (if not love) to fight. Our core instinct is that we want to dominate, we want to impose our will on others - and many of us will take that desire to its extremity.

    So, you can rationalize as much as you like, but the truth remains the same: we hobbyists make a game of war.

    I know, it's not a heart warming perspective, but I think it is one that rings the most truth with me. With this in mind I carry on with a clear conscience knowing that I'm merely following my nature, but perhaps in a more aware, civilized and certainly less destructive fashion.

  12. Not to trivialise anything said here,but after reading thru this post and its comments my first reaction was to rewatch this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hn1VxaMEjRU


Blog Archive