Why do we wargame?
As I’ve probably written far too often on this blog, wargaming can have a wide variety of responses, ranging from mild interest to derision to implications that it supports violent activities. But that does not actually answer the question of why we, as normal (so far as anyone is normal) healthy adults spend a lot of time wargaming.
Firstly, I suppose the answer is ‘because we can’. Some people hang glide, some play golf, and some wargame. Our society is such that we do not have to struggle to survive; every waking minute does not have to be spent in backbreaking agricultural work which was the lot of most of our ancestors. If, as Josef Pieper argues, Leisure is the basis for Culture, then all of these things contribute to a diverse and vibrant culture in which ordinary people can do things that their great-grandparents could only have dreamt about.
Secondly, as has been mentioned a few times before, there is a basic interest in battles. This shows itself in a variety of manifestations in society, from war films to wargames to video games, books, DVDs and so on. Indeed, to look at the bookshelves of many libraries or bookshops one would start believing that military history started with World War 1, peaked in World War 2 and has continued at a lower level ever since. It is also true that publishing books about World War 2 is about as lucrative as book publishing gets these days.
Now, battles are intensely dramatic and emotional events. I’ve just read Juliet Baker’s excellent book on Agincourt. Discussing the killing of the French prisoners towards the end of the battle, she remarks that probably Henry V, who gave the order, had little choice because his men were emotionally and physically exhausted by what had gone before. He had to protect his army from the possibility of being attacked by both fresh enemy forces and escaped prisoners, rearmed by weapons picked up on the field.
Films, too, tend to have a climax with a battle, unless they are about the battle as a whole (think ‘The Longest Day’). Books too, if set against a background of war, tend to have battles as dramatic plot forcers. If the film or book is a decent one it does not tend to get accused of encouraging war. I suppose the question here is ‘why not?’
Often, films present war in considerable nastiness, although they do have to stay within some limits. On the other hand, they also present war as an opportunity for ordinary people to do extraordinary things. The representation of on screen of courage, self-sacrifice, team spirit and so on more than makes up for the inevitable depiction, if only in long shot, of the carnage that is battle.
So where does this leave wargaming? To some extent, as has been mentioned in the comments recently, wargaming represents the heroic ideal of battle. We abstract away most of the gory, nasty bits, and focus on the courage, the strategy and tactics, and the pageantry in a convivial social atmosphere with like-minded people. The games are mildly competitive but not particularly addictive, and are normally played for bragging rights, as opposed to the perfectly socially acceptable occupation of, say, poker playing.
We can also say that wargamers know, perhaps, more history than many in general society, and also probably know more about the consequences of war than many. One of the slightly depressing things to do as a wargamer is to go through the magazine articles and note how frequently certain parts of the world have been the arena for battles. At Agincourt, again, the route of the English army takes the traveller across the front line trenches of World War I near Amiens; indeed, there was a story of Agincourt archers, in ghostly form, joining in the battle of Mons. But then we can start to reflect that none of these battles actually seem to have solved anything in particular.
We wargame, perhaps, to give us some connection with the past, however tenuous and remote it may seem to be. This is not so obvious as it is in more popular culture, however. The films of Shakespeare’s Henry V are an interesting case in point. Olivier’s Henry V, of World War II vintage, was aimed at a world about to invade France in the cause of liberty. Interestingly, Churchill asked that the Southampton plot was removed; the country needed to appear to be united. Kenneth Branagh’s version was anti-war and produced after the Falkland’s War, while a stage version with a black actor in the title role came after the invasion of Iraq. I’m not sure we can detect such political views in our wargames.
So wargames seem to link us to the glory and pageantry of battles, but do not, on the whole, make any particular political point. Is wargaming then, simply a pastime, of value only to its participants? Is it undertaken so unthinkingly as to be amoral and apolitical? It is rather hard to suppose that it is, being, as I said above, part of a wide band of social and cultural activities. There must be some link with modern politics or wargaming becomes mere fantasy and escapism.
Now, there is nothing wrong with fantasy and escapism per se, but to ignore the other currents that might be swirling around our hobby might be foolish. At least, we probably have to accept that most of our wargaming is based on the easy availability of decent texts on the campaigns and battles that we play. Thus, through that link if no other, wargaming represents some aspect of the society in which it is embedded. Perhaps this does explain why increasingly exotic (from our point of view) wargames are promoted such as the Chinese Civil war of the 1920’s. From our western point of view it is (to misquote Neville Chamberlain) a war among people of whom we know nothing, and thus is ‘safe’ compared to say the Black and Tans campaigns of the same sort of era.
Anyway, why do you wargame?