Wargaming occurs in a cultural context. Certain conditions have to be met before people can wargame. For example, I do not have to grow my own food, and that gives me a certain amount of leisure time in which to pursue other activates, which might include the reading of history and, ultimately, wargaming.
This, however, has certain implications for how we wargame. For example, I have long suspected that the most important part of any real war is the capture and holding of territory. Think of the battles in history which came about as a result of sieges. The Persians besieged the Greek cities in Ionia. Those who had no walls either surrendered or came out to fight. In the English Civil war the Royalists besieged and captured Leicester to draw the Parliamentarians away from Chester. This ultimately led to Naseby and the demise of the main royal army. More recently, Tobruk was a lengthy siege that distracted the Afrika Korps from the main aim of capturing Egypt, while I suppose that we could view the whole of the western front in World War One as a lengthy and very bloody siege, even ignoring such episodes as Verdun.
Waterloo is perhaps the paradigm counter-example. On the other hand, you could argue that Waterloo stands out as a counter example precisely because it was unusual. In 100 days there wasn’t much time to man fortresses and bring up the heavy artillery. The whole point, from both sides, was to prevent that from happening by obtaining a quick victory.
So why do we focus on the battle in wargaming? Professional soldiers, I’m told, focus on logistics while amateurs look at tactics. I’m an amateur; fair enough, and logistics is boring. But battles tend to have all the ‘glamour’ items: heroism, pageant, colour, movement, action, adventure and so on. Sieges tend to be nearly as dull as logistics.
I remember mentioning my idea that battles were largely unimportant while sieges and capturing territory were vital on an email list (now defunct). I was shouted down (as far as one can be in cyberspace), although I did challenge the list to provide in period examples of battles that were not fought as a consequence of besieging or a desire to lay siege to somewhere. I don’t recall the details, but there were few in the period which could be put forward.
So we seem to have this discourse in wargaming, that battles are important. That is true enough, as in many cases they are. Furthermore, we believe in the decisive battle. But actually, this is hiding something. Within wargaming, battle is important because that is all we can reproduce, interestingly and frequently. So the hidden need to fight wargame battles may be part of the motivation for the wargamer-ly focus on battles in the first place.
Now, this has slightly interesting consequences, I think. The battles wargamers are interested in tend to be the ones that are regarded as being decisive in terms of western history, culture or understanding of war. But not everyone in the world has this idea of war, necessarily. The Mexica culture before the conquest had a highly developed concept of the “Flower War”. This was an agreed combat between warriors on each side, but not the whole armies. Its meaning and effects are not entirely clear (not to me, anyway, and it is a while since I read Hassig’s account of it), but it is an entirely different understanding of decisive combat. But I’ve never seen a wargame based around it.
There are other implications. I’ve mentioned before the issue of the Persians being seen through Greek eyes. I discovered the other day on Amazon a book called ‘Military Orientalism’. Orientalism, in case you didn’t know, is a concept originally developed by an Egyptian-American scholar called Edward Said, which basically argues that Occidental attitudes to the East (I think Said started with the Middle East but the concept has been broadened) is a mixture of fear and arrogance. According to what I’ve seen of the Military Orientalism book blurb, the argument is that ever since Herodotus, the occident has misunderstood and misinterpreted the ways of fighting of the orient. The point is that the strategy and tactics make sense to those using them, even if to western eyes (and often, the only accounts we have are from western accounts) they look odd, cowardly, counter-productive, ineffective, or whatever.
The classic case of this might well be Afghanistan, where, in all of western involvement there, the strategy of the Afghans has not been to fight pitched battles, but to sit in the hills and cause such casualties and difficulties for the invaders that they’ve simply got bored and gone home (I generalise, but only a bit). The politics of the forces being there may well vary, but the argument is that western politicians in their capitals misunderstand the situation on the ground, and the strategy of the enemy.
So, where I’m trying to get to here is a complex place where we, as wargamers, wargame the things that interest us, which are battles in the western tradition of war, and, then, in many cases, impose these ways of doing battle (on the wargame table, at least) on other cultures which do not (or would not have been able to) recognise warfare in these terms. ‘Wargame Orientalism’, anybody?