Saturday 17 September 2011

Are We Supposed to Enjoy This?

On a shelf on my bookcase there is a book of Bloom County cartoons. Somewhere in this there is a cartoon where three characters are watching the television.

‘Is this a war movie?’ says one.

‘I think it is the news,’ says another. ‘Those guns look real’

‘I’m sure it’s a movie,’ the first responds, ‘Go on, Kerpow! Boom!’

The third character then speaks: ‘Could someone tell me if I’m supposed to be enjoying this?’

Here, I think, is, in some part, the dilemma posed by wargaming. If the programme the characters are watching is the news, then it cannot be termed ‘entertainment’ (even by some news channels, which do their best to show everything as entertainment). If, on the other hand it is a film, it is supposed to be entertainment, and the violence can be enjoyed.

Now, there is a very odd thing about enjoying violence. It is part of the human experience, and, I should think unusual among the animal kingdom. Most animals do not appear to enjoy violence. Even some of the more violent creatures, those who fight for domination such a lions or stags, do not go out of their way to watch it. But we do. And we enjoy it.

We also draw a distinction between real violence and representations of that violence. We can enjoy a war film, but not a report from some God-forsaken battlefront somewhere. We can read and enjoy military history, but might feel a little uncomfortable if it is too modern.

Similarly, we can enjoy a good wargame, but get uncomfortable if our brief is to kill civilians or engage in wanton destruction of agricultural products or urban environments. If these things happen as a part of the game, we can call that realism, but if that destruction is our aim we regard that with at least a little moral discomfort.

Strange, then, that many military expeditions set out with that idea of wanton destruction in mind. I’ve mentioned before the English raids across France during the Hundred Years wars. There are also the activities of the armies of both sides during the Peloponnesian wars, as chronicled by Thucydides. The examples multiply throughout history, I’m sure. But we do not game them, on the whole.

There are I imagine a variety of reasons for this. Firstly, burning stuff is a fairly boring activity, at least as a game or simulation. Battles are far more interesting and dramatic. The same argument applies, I think to sieges. While you do occasionally see siege wargames in progress at shows, and they can be spectacular, they also can make fairly boring wargames. Most sieges were determined, let us face it, by supplies and diseases, rather than decisive military action.

Secondly, we see on our TV screens too easily these days the effects of crop failures. It may well be that we shy away from reproducing that on the wargames table. We know that the consequences are dire for people, and we can see what that means on the screen with small children lying practically comatose in front of the camera. Wargaming by devastation links us, in some way, in our imagination to such scenes.

In history, this devastation tends to get tidied away. For example, the destruction of much of Germany during the Thirty years War gets limited to a few maps, and maybe a quotation or two from contemporary sources. The individual tragedy is hidden from us; we cannot imagine it. The brush with death of a child on TV news engages us with horror far more easily than the depopulation of Germany 350 years ago. Maybe we just cannot cope with the numbers.

Thirdly, I suspect that unless the scenario is specifically designed for it, resource destruction in a wargame is pointless. The only circumstances wereby it could be a useful use of the forces available is during a campaign game. In a normal, one off, wargame it is far better to concentrate those forces on the battle. Defeating the enemy is of far greater import than destroying their resources.

In real life, of course, this may not be quite the same. Battles were not as decisive as we may like to believe, although they were much more important than most historians seem to think. In the English Civil war, for example, there were lots of battles, but only (roughly speaking) three or four of them were truly decisive. The winners tended to dissipate their strength into new garrisons, while the losers recouped theirs from garrisons. The actual domination of the ground altered a bit, but the battle was certainly not a knock out blow.

Even some of the decisive battles were not that decisive. At Poitiers the English even managed to capture the French king, but endless wrangling ensued and the final outcome was not what someone regarding the political situation in 1357 would have expected. Similarly, after Agincourt, the English appeared to hold all the aces, but some aspects of French society simply refused to accept the results of battle and treaty and, eventually, won.

So where have we landed up. The relationship between table top battles and real life ones is, fortunately, rather tenuous. Thus we can regard wargames as entertainment, in much the same ways as war movies are. Perhaps the difficulties really occur during wargame campaigns where it is important to attack the enemy resources, not just their forces. But of course, we can abstract that away and supress the human suffering this would cause in real life because it is only a game.


  1. Are our games in fact the 'heroic' version of history - our toy soldiers or cardboard counters fighting wars as we desire them to be fought? Our medieval battles are full of cavalry charges but absent of slaughters of prisoners too poor to be ransomed and our WW2 map campaigns are in an imaginary world where Einsatzgruppen do not exist.



  2. I think that we do, at least partly, model the heroic version of history. Wargaming connects with pageant, drama and, even, crisis.

    Perhaps that is why it has become more popular as our lives themselves have become safer and more mundane.