Saturday, 19 November 2016

Radetzky’s March

In a possibly desperate attempt to justify my claims about framing and history, I would like to comment, briefly, on an all-round Austrian hero, about whom only a few, even among wargamers, ever seem to hear. The interest is not so much in the content of our hero’s life, but it the circumstances which have made him so obscure.

An article in December’s History Today magazine (yes, even history magazines run ahead of the calendar) about Josef Radetzky is about his contemporary fame and his subsequent obscurity. Radetzky fought the Turks in the 1780’s, the French in 1813 and crushed the 1848 uprisings in Italy. Now, however, he is rarely recalled, except through an obscure 1932 novel, and Johan Strauss’ March in his honour.

In his lifetime, (1766 – 1858) he was hailed as a military genius; his accomplishments were lauded across Europe. At his death he lay in state in Milan, then in Vienna, and then in Heldenburg, where he was buried.  The Times of London compared him to Wellington, an honour which, at that time, no higher could be paid to a foreigner.

So why has Radetzky slipped into obscurity. The answer seems to be that he was just a bit unfortunate with the results of the timing of his achievements.

For example, from 1809 – 1817 he was chief of staff of the Austrian army. He has been described as the chief architect of the defeat of Napoleon. However, the major success of this time was the Battle of Leipzig and the 1813 – 1814 campaign. This led to Napoleon’s abdication, of course. But it was then overshadowed by Napoleon’s return and the subsequent Waterloo campaign, in which the Austrian army was no involved. Rather fewer people cared about the success in 1814 when it all had to be done again in 1815.

Similarly, Radetzky was the commander of Austrian forces in Italy in 1848. He ignored his superiors, went on the offensive, crushed the Piedmontese and pretty well finished the revolutionary war before it started. Again, he was badly served by history. His activities in Italy were undone within a year of his death as the Risorgimento took place. What might have happened if Radetzky had still been in command? It is, of course, hard to say, but Italy might look rather different today if he had.

So what happened? It is possibly, of course, that Radetzky’s achievements are still lauded in Austria and similar parts of the former Empire. Anglo-American historiography, however, has almost entirely ignored him.

Firstly, as noted, his main achievements were largely undone by the next steps in history. It is not exactly Radetzky’s fault that Napoleon escaped from Elba, or that Italy was reunified in a way which no-one expected. It is not his fault, either, that history can argue that Napoleon defeated himself in 1812 in Russia, and everything else was a mopping up operation. As a military officer Radetzky defeated Napoleon in 1809 at Aspern, and it could be claimed that Wagram was a stalemate. The politics of the situations overshadowed the purely military aspects.

Thus, in our historiography, at least, we remember Wellington and Nelson, but not Radetzky. But there is a wider and further framing question here. We can regard Radetzky as simply being on the wrong side of history. He fought for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which collapsed in 1918. Historians ever since have been picking over the corpse to establish the causes of that failure.  The empire, according to one view, was simply a conservative, reactionary state with little hope of surviving in the longer term anyway. Successes like Radetzky were just bumps in the road to inevitable failure and collapse. A multi-ethnic, multi-national empire like that could never survive the transition to modernism and the nation state. The empire was justly kicked out of Italy, Germany and, of course, was responsible for the outbreak of World War One. On this analysis Radetzky fought, and won, in vain.

Our interpretation of Radetzky thus lies in the frame in which we try to understand him. In the frame of 1813-1814 he might well stand as ‘the Great’, a Field Marshall of outstanding ability. But in the frame of even 1813-1815 his success is a little more nuanced; Leipzig was not the final world. Similarly, in the context of the 1848 revolutions, his contribution is a success, at least when viewed from the side of the Empire. By 1860 that view is much less focussing on success; it is overshadowed by subsequent events.

Of course, on an even broader canvas, Radetzky becomes ever less important. Most of the achievements he could lay claim to were undone by 1918. The Empire collapsed. The post-Napoleon Europe his victories achieved had died on the Western and Eastern fronts. From the viewpoint of this history, Radetzky is at best a side-show, a tragic figure trying to hold back the tide of historical inevitability.

Radetzky, of course, would not, and could not see it like that. He did what he had to do (all right, he did not have to father a child in his eighties on a woman who was not his wife). As chief of staff and governor in Italy, he did what the context of his times required. It is not his fault that he was on the wrong side of our current (or at least recent) historiographical debates and viewpoints. He would not have seen, I suspect, his activities as either tragic or irrelevant.

So hopefully this idea of framing history is coming into a little bit of perspective. The importance of someone is a function, at least in part, of the time frame we impose on them. Similarly, the importance of an event is, in part, a function of the time frame. Further, both are limited by our concepts of what happened next. Leipzig is trumped by Waterloo. Finally, the importance of people and events are also framed by our impressions of what went forward. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was doomed to fail (and it did, of course) and so anyone appearing to oppose that decline and fall is, simply put, irrelevant.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Historiographical Greatness

The discussion we have had about how Alexander III of Macedon came to be known as ‘the Great’ has been, to me, at least, fascinating. There is a great deal there about how we view, receive, and consume, even, history. Even those of you who basically said that Alexander was great are taking a historiographical view.  Greatness is, of course, is the eye of the beholder.

As was pointed out, other people through history have been given the epithet of ‘the Great’ – Peter, Catherine, Frederick, Alfred. In many cases it seems that this is so because they have a historical achievement to their name, or at least a set of spectacular bits of achievement which have accumulated around their name. Peter did a bit of westernising and beat the Swedes. Catherine did a bit of land expanding (not personally, I don’t think). Alfred did a bit of defending and brought in some literacy. And so on. Whether a leader is a great one depends on what you care to examine.

More recently, of course, there has been a decline in greatness. In part, I suspect, this is because historiography has changed rather. Instead of the ‘great man’ (or ‘great woman’} view of history, which allows alexander to conquer the world and gives him the credit, there has been the rise of other historiographical viewpoints.

I may have mentioned before that there are a variety of views about the causes, course and conclusion of the English Civil Wars (which were neither English nor Civil, but let us leave that argument for another day).  These views include religion, the rise of the gentry, the fall of the gentry, the poor weather in the first half of the seventeenth century, the fissiparous nature of the three kingdoms (and one principality), the increasing power of Parliament, the decreasing power of Parliament and so on.

Similarly, depending on what you focus on, you can make a case for the wars being won by Puritan discipline, or by the fact that the navy backed Parliament, or by the victory of the hard liners in London in 1644 leading to the creation of the New Model Army, and so on. History, and more importantly, the interpretation of history, is never that simple.

Perhaps that is why I do feel a little disappointed in those wargamers who simply argue that Alexander was great, and deserves his plus three on the general-ship dice. Firstly, they decline to engage in any historiographical comparisons, and secondly they miss out on a good deal of interesting stuff. Maybe Alexander was great, but he did have to work and win battles in a certain strategic and historical context. He had no access to machine guns, and so had to make the pike work as hard as possible.

The context in which any general works is something of a given. Generals are notorious for entering into a war ready to fight the last one, but as someone pointed out recently in the news, really, given funding constraints, particularly in peace time, the generals have little choice in the matter. Alexander came to the throne in a kingdom already committed to invading Asia; in fact, it already had done so. While it would be theoretically possible for Alexander to have withdrawn the expeditionary force, it would probably not have gone down too well at home. The invasion was pretty well forced upon him by circumstances.

Similarly, the arguments on the Parliamentary side in late 1644 pretty well forced a change in the nature of the armies and general-ship. A number of factors were recognised, implicitly if not explicitly. Firstly, and most importantly, there was the question of what winning the war might look like. What would happen if the war was lost was perfectly clear – the Parliamentary leaders would hang. What winning would look like was more difficult. How do you negotiate with a defeated king who is still king?

Despite these issues, the most pressing factor was that the war had to be won. This consisted in a number of facets, such as creating the NMA, although actually that army was only one of a number of forces operating in 1644-5. The difference is that Fairfax was permitted to do what it took to win the war without constantly referring to London. Thus came about the string of victories in the summer and autumn of 1645.

The freeing up of the military strategy of the Parliamentary forces was a major factor, but not the only factor, in winning the first Civil War. The country was weary of troops and fighting. Trade was depressed and taxation was high. Some sort of solution was needed. This is the context for the political decisions which eventually won the war.

What, then, of the great man thesis? Was Alexander just lucky to hit the Persian Empire just when it was at its most rocky? Did the political and economic situation in the Empire simply suit an invader with a reasonably good army that, even when he made mistakes, could fight its way out of trouble? These are historiographical questions, and are unlikely to be decided one way or the other.

On a similar theme, of course, we can question whether Cromwell was a great leader or just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Again, as I’ve tried to point out, the context was specific. The war was won before Cromwell really came to prominence as a war leader, but we see him as the person of the wars. Whig history of the late Victorian era has a lot to answer for here.

As I mentioned, there are no real answers here. The evidence is, broadly speaking, given. All we argue about are interpretations. In ECW studies, the debate is swinging back from the Marxist sort of economic and radical politics explanations towards to view that the major problems were the King himself and unresolved (and probably, unresolvable) issues in religion, which themselves related back to differences between Charles and a lot of his subjects. But this is a change of interpretation, a change of emphasis in how we view the importance of what was going on. We could suggest that it has arisen as a consequence of the realisation that in the contemporary world, religion is more important than the secular Marxist historians might have thought.

But the point, I think, is that the question is never quite so straightforward as ‘was Alexander the great?’

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Alexander the What?

I have by my side two books, both of them interesting in their own way, but between them I think they augment the point I was trying to make last time about the framing we do when we do history. Indeed, there was no post last week because I was trying to finish the second book, as I had already had this as an idea.

The first of the books I want to discuss is ‘The Genius of Alexander the Great, by Nicholas Hammond (1997, London: Duckworth). Hammond was a well known classical scholar, and did an awful lot of work of Greece and Macedon during the classical age. The thesis of the book is well summed up in the title: Alexander was not just the Great, but he was a genius. His logistics were first rate, for example. His military acumen was second to none.  He set out to, and achieved, conquest of the known world and, if others had not go cold feet, he would have conquered the rest of it as well. Indeed, had an early death not overcome him, he would have got as far as the Gates of Hercules within another campaigning season or so.

In this, of course, Hammond has to explain a few bits of history away. For example, Darius got between Alexander’s army and his base just before Issus, which does not seem to be the mark of a particularly great leader. We all have bad days at the office, granted, but Alexander had to rely on his army to fight their way out of the predicament. Similarly, the debacle in leading part of the army across the desert has to be explained, especially in the light of the excellent logistical mind that Hammond credits Alexander with.

There are a few other anomalies that have to be smoothed over, as well, such as drunkenness and murder, but on the whole, Hammond’s alexander is a rather likeable chap, at least in terms of despots of the era, who could do a nice turn is cross-cultural relations and with whom you could have a drink (or seventeen).

The other book is Alexander the Great Failure, by John D Grainger (2007, Continuum: London). I do not think that Grainger is a classicist, but a more general historian. In fact I recall reading one of his previous books, Cromwell Against the Scots, which finished with an appeal for England and Scotland to remain united, on the basis that when they fell out, mayhem and military government ensued.

Grainger’s point is that alexander did nothing to fix any of the problems he inherited from his father, including the personal nature of the Macedonian monarchy. This caused problems in Macedonia when the king was absent, as Alexander was for most of the time. He also failed to fix the heir, by, despite being urged to before invading Asia, not marrying and begetting a son. In the end, he did gain an heir, but that heir was posthumous and got murdered before any significant activity too place.

Aside from that, Grainger rather grudgingly admits that Alexander was a good commander, although he points out that Macedonian progress in Asia would have been harder if Darius III had been more secure on the throne, and the Egyptians had been less restive. The biggest charge against Alexander that is laid is that he failed to sort any administration out for the conquered areas. They were left to Macedonians he appointed, or, more frequently, the already existing satraps were left in post. They quite frequently revolted.

Grainger’s evidence for Alexander’s failure comes from pushing beyond his death in the historical record. The collapse of Alexander’s empire was not, according to Grainger, inevitable, even on Alexander’s early death. Several of the successors had a good go at conquering the empire and holding it, but all failed. If Alexander had had a viable, teenage heir, then the empire might have held together. But he did not, and it fell apart as the successors lost trust in each other, and grabbed what they could hold.

The upshot of this is that the empire collapsed. The eastern satraps became independent, or were reconquered by the resurgent Indian states. Macedonia was exhausted and failed to defend itself from the Galatian invasion, and the successor states slugged it out to mutual exhaustion and, in doing so, permitted power to arise further west, in the shape of Rome, which eventually conquered the whole lot.

The interesting thing about these two accounts is that, whichever one you might like, they are both based on the same set of historical data. There are no new facts, no astounding discoveries in either volume. Both base their account of the reign of Alexander and beyond on the existing historical record. So far as I can tell, neither author has bent that record out of shape to accommodate their views.

We have, then, what we can call a ‘maximal’ and a ‘minimal’ view of Alexander. Maximally, with Hammond, we can call him a genius. Minimally, with Grainger, we can call him a disaster. Either view is acceptably academic: it is based on reasonable interpretations of the sources. Both authors admit that there is a lot we will never know about Alexander and his forebears and successors.

So we have here two historical frames, one in which Alexander is the Great, and one in which he is a failure. Which do we choose? Do we have to choose?

In fact, I don’t think that the two pictures are incompatible. Grainger admits that Alexander was a good general. Hammond does not really discuss administration. But somewhere in these (perhaps rather extreme) views of Alexander there might be considered to be some ‘truth’, whatever that might be. As historical wargamers, are we committed to a framework of history for the specific periods we game in?

We could wonder if this mattered, but I think it does, even at the level of whether Alexander gets +3 on his command dice for being a genius, or being at -1 for being a drunkard. Somehow, we have to make a judgment.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Wargame Frames

A wargame table is a frame for the action which takes place upon it. Whether it is a lovingly detailed miniature reconstruction of an actual battlefield, or a hastily slapped together chalk and felt concoction, it still frames the action. What I mean by ‘frame’ is a bit diffuse, though.

To start with, the wargamer has come to a decision, somehow, about where the game action is going to be. This might be as part of a campaign, whereby the narrative of the campaign drives the location of the action. It could be a scenario, or simply a player designating the crossroads as of strategic importance. By some sort of decision we come to the conclusion that this is where the action is going to be.

By this act we have ‘framed’, in an important way, the wargame we are going to have. In a wargame there are two distinct areas: on the table, and off the table.  What happens on the table is the subject of our attention. What happens off the table we need to make a conscious decision to consider.  The frame focusses our attention, and defocuses it on other things.

The same is true in a play or a film. The stage, the camera angle and location, frame what we see or do not see. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth’s suicide occurs off stage. In part, of course, this is because it is rather hard to stage someone throwing themselves off a battlement (although they manage it in Tosca), but it also shows the distance that has grown between husband and wife. Macbeth shrugs off her death as something that would have happened anyway. The focus remains on Macbeth and his actions and inactions. The frame ensures our attention remains focussed.

In novels and other written works a similar, although perhaps more subtle, focussing occurs. I have spent a part of the last few weeks trying to convince some research students that they cannot just chuck everything they have done in the last few years into a thesis. Firstly, they will not have room, and secondly it will just be a confused mess. They have to pick their material, choose an angle, a viewpoint, and develop that. One of them quoted myself back to me: The hard thing about thesis writing is choosing what not to put in. That sounds a bit too profound for me, but it is probably true.

So it is with historical writing, I think. An angle is chosen, the data amassed, but a choice still has to be made. In the book on the 1659 Commonwealth, the frame, in this case a time frame, has to be chosen: April – November. The geographical frame is a bit easier, perhaps, it being Great Britain, but as I noted a week or two ago that is not too easy as foreign policy, both to outlying bits of England and towards other states has to be considered. Nevertheless, the material has to be organised and decision made about inclusion and exclusion, which to consign to foot notes and which to write paragraphs about. This is an ongoing exercise in framing.

Wargames are no different, I think. We choose what to focus on and, inevitably, choose what to ignore or downgrade. This sort of framing activity occurs across the different activities of staging a wargame. It can also have different results. For example, the fact that side A had five crossbowmen may be ignored in a game where hundreds of men are represented. Where each side is 20 men in a skirmish game, then those five crossbowmen take on a new importance. There is not just a frame of action, but a frame of scale.

The frame of action is where the attention is. Over the years I have read a wide variety of wargame rules, and one of the things that I find interesting to see is how the author deals with troops that go ‘off table’. They have left the frame of attention; how do we handle that? Some rules leave them there for a turn or two and then allow them to re-enter the frame. Some rules count them as lost. Some count them as half-value for the purposes of deciding who won, and so on. The point is that the unit being within or outwith the frame matters. We struggle to deal with such situations.

I think this point is exacerbated by the habit of wargamers of filling up the tables with troops. I confess to being guilty of this, but perhaps I have grown up (or grown lazy) and my table is now far bigger than the location of the action is likely to be. There are now no flanks anchored in empty space on the left or right wing. Troops rarely run off the table unless they rout there. The action is, of course, focussed in one part of the table, but at least I can see that part in some sort of context.  Of course, I have yet to solve the problem of the action taking place in one small corner of the table, yielding the same problems as above, but a big enough table is a start, at least.

Framing our wargames is something we cannot do without. Any realistic wargame of, say, Waterloo is not going to be able to cover the march of the Prussians and Grouchy’s  corps as well. In this case we can self-consciously wave the issue away with some sort of timetable for their arrival on table. Perhaps the more tricky issue is when we are not conscious of our framing and its consequences.  In a historical battle the time framing might be more important. You would get a different view of the options in many battles depending on what stage, precisely, you took for the start of the game.

So there are many facets, I think, to framing our games, and I have probably only touched on one or two here. There would be many more, depending on our reading of history, categorising of troop types and so on. I think the point is that we need to make ourselves conscious of our framing activity.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

More Spiritual Wargaming

There is usually a range of opinion regarding some of the posts I make to this blog, and last week one on ‘The Spirituality of Wargaming’ is no exception. As you have probably already noticed, the term ‘spirituality’ was intentionally left vague. Any attempt to nail it down runs the risk of becoming like those sociologists of religion who try to understand what people mean when they say they are ‘spiritual but not religious’. To be honest, that expression reminds me of a Not the Nine O’clock News sketch called, I think ‘The Agnostic’s Creed’, which began ‘I believe in God, or at least it stands to reason that there is something out there, doesn’t it; did you see that program on BBC2?’ I dare say someone can dig up a YouTube clip of it….

Anyway, I chose the term ‘spiritual’ to differentiate some parts of wargaming, those which go on in our heads, from the material components of wargaming, the soldiers, terrain and so on. One of the things that does go on in our heads is the narrative component of the game. Someone on The Miniatures Page commented that the last post was a long winded way of saying that we liked the narrative part of the game. That would, I think, be true (I’ve never made claims to brevity, here) but I do not think it is the whole story.

Another comment was to the end of someone plonking badly painted figures on the table and attempting to use all the rule tricks in the book to win the game. There is nothing, I suppose, intrinsically wrong with that, but it is not really helping anyone else whose interest might be in the narrative flow, the imaginative parts of the game. We could describe our figure plonker (for want of a better expression) as a wargaming materialist, in the sense that the other aspects of the wargame mean less to them. That is not to say, I suppose, that winning is a material aspect of the game, but that the material parts, such as just using the figures as counters, count for more.

This is, I think, where it starts to be shown that even the material aspects of the game have a spiritual expression. The Estimable Mrs P used to tease me massively about the advent of ‘Grey Armies’, those unpainted figures that you just wanted (at least, in the first flush of youth) to get onto the table and have a game with. Maybe it was an expression of enthusiasm, or youthful callowness, but now, as a solo wargamer, I still shudder a bit to recall that I did use unpainted figures. It is not something I would consider doing now.

The point, at which I am slowly and long windedly aiming, is that the material components of the wargame can also have a spiritual dimension. In the book about the Spirituality of wine, which started this whole idea, the author comments that there are few pleasures in the world better than slowly sipping a glass of well-crafted wine in good company, and preferably with good food as well. In terms of human social activity, she is probably right.
In terms of wargaming activity, what is the equivalent? I think, and I am becoming more convinced of it as I get older, that a wargame with nicely painted figures on nicely made and laid out terrain, with a good reason for having a wargame (a scenario or as part of a campaign) is probably as good as wargaming gets. The rest is down to the company. Using half- or un-painted figures detracts from that. Having a game just because you want a game also detracts from it. It is not that such a sort of game is a bad thing, but that it is not the best. In the same way that industrial-technology wine turned out by the million bottles is better than no wine at all, any wargame is better than none, but should we not, as wargamers, be aiming for the best games that we can have, the best overall experience?

Most wargamers, I think, would agree. The quantity of effort that goes into, say, demonstration games at shows is remarkable. The figure painting, terrain making and so on are true creations of a craft form which, in many other walks of life, is being squeezed out. And, perhaps, there, in that last sentence, it the key to the pleasures of wargaming, and also, maybe, to the paradox of the hobby.

If nothing else, wargaming, as I have described it, is creative. We create our soldiers, our units, our armies. Even though many of us buy toy soldiers, their painting and basing is our creation. The terrain too is ours. The Estimable Mrs P looked in on a Fuzigore game once, there the Romans were being ambushed, and noted that the terrain was creative, the game narrative was so as well. As a hobby, wargaming can release our creative expression, even if the rest of life consists in sitting in front of computer screens.

The paradox this reveals, of course, is that warfare is anything but creative. Wars, at least as they have been practiced in the twentieth century, are the ultimate in the capacity of the human race for destruction. Even before the unleashing of the destructive powers of the military-industrial complex, wars could be seriously destructive. You only have to read Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis to realise that.

And yet some part of humanity can work with that destructiveness and turn it into something creative. Even a Second World War Russian front game can have an aesthetic creativity to it. It is most emphatically not my thing, but I can accept that, to those interested, the wargaming activity can be a thing of aesthetic pleasure. Perhaps it is just that there is nothing so awful that humanity cannot redeem it a little bit. I am not sure. But I can see it happening.

So I shall leave this one on this note of paradox. Creativity in chaos; a wargame full of craft and aesthetic delight from a field of destruction. What will we think of next?

Saturday, 8 October 2016

The Spirituality of Wargaming

Now, there is a title to send most readers, of whatever religious persuasion, running for the nearest hill, or, possible, loading up their intercontinental ballistic armoury of arguments for God / atheism /whatever-ism you might choose, and aiming it in the general direction of chez Polemarch. Please don’t. A blog post is hardly a cause for a flame war and, anyway, if that is what you are thinking of doing, this blog post will be a sad disappointment to you.

The estimable Mrs P has been reading a book about the spirituality of wine. Yes, really, she has and, I am told, it is very good, written by a real vintner. It is now on my book pile, but I thought I would pre-empt my reading of it by pondering what sort of spirituality goes along with wargaming. You might consider that the answer to that is ‘none’, but I think I might, by the end of the post, respectfully demur.

Right, well, obviously, wargaming is about toy soldiers being pushed around on tables. Actually, that is only one sort of wargaming. Role playing games may also have miniatures, but they do not have to. Similarly, computer games have figures, but they are not material. And that is surely the first point about spirituality and wargaming. A wargame happens much more in the mind than on the table.

I have mentioned before that the wargame figures, singly or in blocks, on the table are a sort of counter, a symbol of the unit they represent. To some extent the counter has resemblances to the original (assuming that there is one, in fact or fiction). It shows us what the unit is, horse or foot, perhaps something about its capabilities too. But the fact that, for example, coloured pieces of lead or cardboard mean something is imputed by the human mind. A wargame is not, or at least, not only, something material. A lot of it goes on in our heads.

There is something, therefore, transcendent about a wargame. It is something beyond the material, empirical world of the figures on the table. The figures are only part of it. The rules, similarly, are part of but do not exhaust the wargame. We need them to conduct the game, granted, but in all honesty, as someone who has perpetrated a few rule sets, they are pretty dull. Reading a set of wargame rules is not going to convert anyone to wargaming as a hobby.

The real part of a wargame, I suspect, which does get the pulses racing (albeit in a rather relaxed, staid sort of way) is the imagination. The figures on the table, the terrain, the rules and so on go together to make something interesting, and that interest is sustained by our imaginations. The lancer’s charge on the square is interesting. It captures our imagination. We crane over the relevant dice rolls to see what will happen. Our joy or disappointment is due, at least in part, to our imagination of the drama of the event.

A boring wargame, therefore, is one which does not do this. That does not mean, I think, that a one sided wargame is necessarily boring. There are always dramatic incidents along the way. The drama is in, say, how many of Blue force can escape before they are trapped. The fact that Red will inevitably win does not necessarily to create a dull game. A boring game is one where there is no drama.

I suppose I could go on along this theme, but I think there are other things going on with regard to the spirituality of the game. Why, for example, do so many of us spend so much time and effort in painting figures to the best of our ability? I suspect that the answer is something to do with the transcendence of the game. We want our figures to represent the best we can do. This of course varies from one wargamer to the next (I am, I happily confess, a fairly rubbish painter. But it is the best I can do). As objects of our imagination, our figures seem to somehow represent us. ‘This is what UI can do’ they say. Somehow, the figure is me.

All of this seems to add up to a statement that materialism is wrong, or at least that empiricism is not the whole story. Our wargames mean something beyond the mere pushing of objects around a table. The figures mean something to us, and within the narrative of the wargame itself. The narrative of the game is something that is hard to project. Many blogs ‘write up’ the battles the author engages in. I confess, I find them hard to follow. Even a large quantity of pictures and a good description does not ease this difficulty. I think that is because the word and image cannot capture the drama of the game.

A further point might also be that the drama of the game is intrinsic within the game itself. The dramatic crux of the whole story is one that can only be seen in retrospect. The story of, say, Marston Moor could have several cruxes, so to speak: the Scots running away early crying ‘Wae’s us, we’re all undone’, or the destruction of the Parliamentarian right could have been the points at which the battle was lost and won. As it happens, they were not, but that was not obvious to the participants. It is only in retrospect that the importance of these and other events can be described.

Thus, at least in the sense that a wargame is more than the material, a wargame is spiritual. Of course, any pure empiricist out there will be spitting nails by now, or priming their missiles, as described above. If so, I hope they try to identify, before committing to launch, exactly why they are so upset. I fear they might find that it is nothing to do with the empirical realm. It might just be because their beliefs, those things so hard to pin down empirically, have been undermined.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Constructing the Past

It would seem that I am back. I confess, my enforced silence over the last month has not been all due to eye problems, but a severe outbreak of Real Life has also contrived to drive me from the keyboard. Still, RL seems to be settling down into its more usual torpor, and I have nearly finished the treatment for the eye, so I think it is high time to get back into the saddle and ride off on further adventures in the weird world of wargames.

I have not, as you might imagine, actually done an awful lot of wargaming in the past month or so. I did finish off the wargame which was on table at the point of my eye giving up. The Persians won, in case you were interested, defeating the Thracian horde and occupying the port. They did not even need to burn it. I learnt a lot about my rule set from the game, mostly glaring bits that I had missed out.

Aside from that, I have attempted to regain my painting mojo, and did fifteen 6 mm Moorish cavalry figures. They are now awaiting basing, along with the other lot I did in, um, January. My only excuse is that I painted 151 ancient galleys between the two. But painting has not been going well this year.

The point of the title is, perhaps, a bit contentious. The argument behind it is that we cannot reconstruct the past. That is, we do not have sufficient evidence to reconstruct the past. The mind set of, say, a first century AD Stoic is inaccessible to us. To read, say, the Letters of St Paul, about how his flock once were pagans asleep in their sins but now they have turned to the true Way is not, really, to give us any insight into what pagan worship was, nor what the people thought they were doing when they did ‘turn away’ from their sinful lives and put on Christ. We simply do not have access to the world view that might have made sense of this.

To put the same point another way, we know that units of the Roman army built altars and sacrificed on them to the gods. Exactly what they thought they were doing or achieving by this is obscure. We know that it happened; it is just that the world view is alien to us. There is a gap, so to speak, between the evidence of something occurring and an understanding of why it occurred.

Of course, we can use intelligent guess work. There is a certain amount of evidence of, for example, thank offerings for safe return of individuals from perilous journeys. It does not take an awful lot of imagination to suggest that perhaps the units were making offerings for similar sorts of things, or perhaps just general thanksgiving for getting through  another year. Whatever the regime, the human soul will usually find a way of celebrating something, somehow.

However, we do need to be cautious. Ezra Pound once wrote a fragment of a poem in the style of Sappho:
Too long…
What tends to happen is that the blanks are filled in by enthusiastic editors and translators:
Spring [sends forth the flowers, but for me]
Too long [have I suffered with desire for the lovely]
Gongyla [who has departed]
The bits in square brackets are the editorial insertions. They tell us nothing about Sappho, even assuming that the fragment came from her. They tell us a lot more (often, an awful lot more than we want to know) about the editor, the translator, and their times.

In part this is inevitable, but we need to be careful. The first annals of Alexander the ‘Great’ we have were written four hundred years or so after his death. Granted, Arrian may have had access to ancient sources. He certainly claimed to have done. But what can we really be certain of? After all, Paul’s letters were a lot more contemporary with his subject than Arrian’s Anabasis was to Alexander.  As I mentioned, despite Paul’s letters, access to its world view is difficult, if not impossible.

The problem is, then, that we insert our own ideas and concepts into the ancient text. We can view Alexander as a great man, a glorious general leading an obscure, peripheral nation onto the world stage. In that sense we can project ideas of, say, Nelson and the British Empire back onto the ancient world. Here is a man who did everything, beat the odds and so on.

On the other hand, we can view alexander as a destructive force, exporting war to otherwise peaceful parts of the world, destroying nations and ways of life. He can be portrayed as a ruthless power-monger, and drunken, deluded despot. One modern view of Alexander has him as ‘a reckless alcoholic, a vicious psychopath, and a destructive barbarian.’

How true are these views? Did Alexander export destruction of Greek civilisation? Is the former view, that of a despotic destroyer, a child of our age of anti-imperialist suspicion? Is the view that he exported what later became known as Hellenism only important because the Romans made it part of the civilization of the western world? Of course, there is the possibility that the collapse of the view of classical civilisation as being the highest point of aim for society could also play a part in our turn against Alexander as a good thing.

This does affect us as wargamers. Firstly, there is an issue of epistemology in history. We do not know many of the things we would like to know about the military forces we put on the table. We have to approximate, make best use of the sources and, in short, guess. History was not written for us.

Secondly, our view of the past is inevitably shaped by both our zeitgeist and the historiography that we read. If we stick with early twentieth century history, we may well find a historiography that is approving of empire building. The second half of the century is probably the opposite view. Exporting civilisation becomes imperial colonialism. What Alexander did moves from a glorious campaign of bringing enlightenment to the masses to a despotic, nearly fascist, destruction of an alternate world.

Which should we wargame? Does it really matter?