Saturday, 18 June 2011

Postmodern wargaming?

Having waffled on a bit about the Greeks defining themselves as Greek via the Persian wars, and how that presents us with a problem because the Greek writers are the only major narrative source for the wars, I suppose it is time to get all postmodern. By this I mean: how can we actually know anything about ancient history?

Actually, the answer is not quite as bad as it could be. We do have a certain amount of information which does not derive from the Greeks, such as archaeology and other artefacts. So we are not wholly reliant on Greek sources for the Persians. To some extent, the documents and monuments of the Persians can counteract some of the inherent bias of the sources.

But can it really? I am whom I am, too, born and brought up in a certain culture, with a certain world view (which includes wargaming as a hobby) and an Anglo-American analytic educational and philosophical outlook. If you think that doesn’t matter, go and talk to a philosopher of education. Not only that, but I belong to a minority hobby which is also based in those traditions and, worse, requires some specific and concrete answers to certain unanswerable questions to function. These are questions which most classical historians and archaeologists would simply shrug off as impossible to respond to.

Another problem, I’m finding (as I’ve grumbled about before) is that wargamers are a fairly conservative lot. Much of our understanding of our periods of interest come from some fairly old and, it has to be said, dubious stock. Now, I’m not really out to do a disservice to the dead white male amateur historian, but why is it that wargamers rely so heavily on, say, Sir Charles Oman for medieval and early modern wargames. It isn’t that Oman is wrong, strictly speaking, but that his world view, understandings and interpretations were framed by his time, and probably would not survive in a modern academic forum.

Yet still Oman is relied upon. Why? My best guess is that there is not much else out there which actually fits the wargamer’s bill. We like the nice Victorian maps with the clear blocks of troops and the battle narratives, quoting original sources. But most modern, professional historians, even those who are military historians, do not write that sort of book. In fact, that sort of book, starting I suppose with ‘Decisive battles of the world’ and finishing somewhere about Hodge and Oman, simply don’t seem to be written any more. The major synthesis seems to be a thing of the past.

So, the upshot of this so far is that as a hobby, we rely on 100 year old interpretations of battles by retired military men, which we like because they tell us, clearly enough, what we want to know so we can get on with a game.

You might argue that rules writers are different. They, at least, surely must go back and try to work things out from first principles. I’d like to agree, but can’t find it in myself to do so. The other day I was flicking idly through my collection of army lists for ancient wargaming, and happened upon the Persian lists. Having now read Herodotus, I noted a pattern, with a sinking feeling. The list of troops was the same as that given by Herodotus for Xerxes’ expedition.

‘Great’, you might say, ‘original source!’

Yes. But. An original source which probably has little to do with the army, yet, because it is there, we take it a make it into a list which is then handed on down from one generation of rule writers to another. Unfortunately, the early authors were not textual critics and, like all of us, the later writers can be a bit lazy rely on what has gone before.

And, of course, this is where our post-modern trap bites. We cannot dismiss the source, because it is all we have. Nor can we accept it, because some of what Herodotus says is clearly bonkers. Furthermore, we have a conception of the Persian Empire which is formed by our culture and education, which likes to portray the other, the eastern as decadent, wealthy, tyrannous and generally not like us. So of course we want to accept the picture Herodotus paints. He, Herodotus, was a founder of our historiographical methods.

It goes beyond the Greeks, of course. Have you ever wondered, for example, why the Romans are always the good guys? Consider the Rosemary Sutcliffe novels, particularly Eagle of the Ninth (if you’ve not read it, do so now, then come back and finish the post). Who are the good guys? Of course, the picture is nuanced, but noble savages are also a good stock fiction character. Has anyone ever read a novel or seen a film where the (say) Celtic British are the heros, before King Arthur? I’m not sure I have. It is always the Romans point of view that wins, because they did the building and writing.

So, in terms of postmodern wargaming, are we really stuffed? Nearly, but not quite, I think. Once we recognise our ingrained prejudices we can work to overcome them. The Celtic British were not unthinking woad-covered thugs who provided a target for legionary pilum-practice, nor were the Persians as autocratic, rich and bad at fighting as we’d like to think. But we do have to dig a bit deeper to find out what really went on.


  1. Postmodernism is so twentieth century though! Perhaps we need a theory of wargaming that embraces textual archaeology and cognitive analysis.

    Good comments by the way and very true in many ways.

  2. Is wargaming actually quite a good medium to try and redress some of these imbalances? After all, there are plenty of owners of Gallic armies (for example) keen and eager to work out, even if only by analysis or hypothesis, why Gallic armies and troops did reasonably well against the Romans for over three hundred years?



  3. I think wargaming might be. Phil Sabin's Lost Battles stuff aims to create an ensemble of results which allow the examination of the factors involved - you can have a game, vary something, have another and see how it changes things.

    Of course, history is contingent and so are wargames,so the only way to do it is with a large number of games.