Saturday 3 November 2012

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

I am sure that I have mentioned some of the work of Walter Wink before, but he says much more than simply observations about the behaviour of crowds. Wink is a theologian, but you do not have to buy into his metaphysics in order to hear some of the things he has to say.

One of the interesting things Wink does talk about is the issue of violence in our society, or at least in society in North America. He starts from a Popeye cartoon. If you think of the standard narrative trajectory of a Popeye cartoon, Popeye gets duffed up by an opponent, usually Bluto, and Olive Oyl gets ‘stolen’, either kidnapped or willingly because Popeye has upset her. After some futile efforts at rescue, Popeye ingests some spinach, defeats his enemy in a major fight and recaptures Olive Oyl. Might and right have triumphed.

Wink’s argument is that, in the case of Popeye, the violence displayed is redemptive. Popeye is defeated by a baddie in the first instance, and his efforts to win are unsuccessful until, with wit, guile and additional strength, he returns to the foe and defeats him, much more decisively than Popeye himself was originally defeated. The violence, then, not only restores the status quo ante bellum, but has improved the situation. Olive Oyl is Popeye’s girl again, practically worshipping him; the enemy is heavily defeated and practically annihilated, certainly for all practical purposes no longer a threat, but often an object of laughter and derision.

Wink traces this myth of redemptive violence though a number of generations of US culture. He notes that, for example, Tom and Jerry cartoon are inherently violent, and the remakes of them which attempted not to be were, more or less failures. In film, he observes that many are violent, and uses, for example, Rambo. Here, he argues, the myth is presented in a very clear form. Rambo blows up and shoots practically everything in sight to make the world a better place.

While Wink does not claim that the myth of redemptive violence is the only strand in North American culture, he does suggest strongly that it is pervasive in that society and thus, given the relative dominance of US culture on the world stage, that it is influential across the world. He notes links to other ideas in culture and warfare, such as the idea of “gunboat diplomacy”, as well as frantic efforts by international agencies to ameliorate or deflect the idea that shooting first and negotiating second is the correct way to conduct international affairs.

Now, I imagine that you, gentle reader, are sitting there and wondering what on earth this has to do with wargaming. If you have read this far, take courage, for we are nearly there.

One of the aspects of the myth of redemptive violence is, I think, that the violence often happens in a poorly defined context. For example, one of Raymond Chandler’s novellas (called Red.. something, Thursday?), has, by the end of the first page or so, a body count of startling proportions. The point is that there is no context as to why this should need to be the case. These are simply the enemy, the other, the baddies, while the point of view of the narrator is the goodies side. (Of course, Chandler is a bit more subtle than that, but I am not here indulging in literary criticism).

If Wink is correct in his assessment of the influence of the myth, then we might be able to see one of the aspects of wargaming which makes people uneasy in a new light. As was noted by a comment a while ago, context in the history and historiography of warfare is everything. History (or historians and their readers, anyway) judge wars as to whether they are justified or not.  A decontextualized war is a ‘bad’ war, an immoral war.

Most wargames, I suspect, are exactly decontextualized, even if there is the opportunity to provide context. For example, most tournament or competition games can have no context, for the sides never met on the field of battle in history. The battle depicted, therefore, can have no meaning and, to an outside observer, is simply violence (or rather, the abstract depiction of violence) for the sake of it.

Even when some context is provided, for example in a magazine article or a demonstration game, the context is, largely, that of the campaign, armies, commanders and tactics. The even larger backdrop is not given. Having perpetrated a few magazine articles, at least, in my time, I know that an author cannot give the full meaning and context, and provide a summary of the rest of the campaign and battles in the space provided. So inevitably some sort of decontextualization is going to happen.

The upshot of this, of course, is that unless we provide a huge book detailing the social, economic, political and military backdrop to our battles, we have to ignore some of the context at least. And that, I suspect, starts to makes us, or at least some observers, uncomfortable. The decontextualisation of the implied violence makes us, as wargames, look like schoolchildren taking irrational dislikes to others, picking on them and so on. Warfare, in context, might be acceptable, wargaming looks too adolescent, because the context is lacking.

Finally, Wink observes that violence is not redemptive. To some extent historians accept this, focussing usually on how wars start and end rather than how they are conducted (this is frustrating to wargamers, of course). Violence breeds more violence. The victory at Agincourt led to Treaty of Troyes, but that then led to a half century of further warfare as the Dauphin tried to regain his birthright. Gunboats may achieve a certain amount, but someone has to go in a clear up the mess afterwards.

Does this help us in our quest to find out why wargaming might make us uncomfortable?

Perhaps a little. It shows that the ambivalence towards violence is deeply seated in our society and that our sometimes simplistic approach to it can be unsettling if we consider the implications.


  1. History tends to be written in episodes too, just like a film. Sellars and Yeatman, as always, sum it up neatly with a comment about someone being left over from the previous reign.

    The difference between Hollywood and history is that you know from the opening credits of a film who the good guy is. With history, you have to wait until it's over and the books are written by the winners.

    I sometimes think our approach is less juvenile than the real thing.

  2. I guess you are right.

    The funny thing about history is that it keeps going, in spite of our attempts to split it up. I remember reading about the Duke of Newcastle in post-restoration England, and eventually realizing that he was the same guy who had whitecoats at Marston Moor.

    Often, however, as wargamers we can name the battles of a war in order, but can't say what the soldiers ate. Contextualization is important.

    1. Yes, sometimes historical characters make a guest appearance in the next episode. The Argyll who stripped his coat off at Malplaquet to show the men he wasn't wearing armour is the same bloke who led the Government forces against the Jacobites at Sheriffmuir.

      It actually throws us when a person who was a 'goodie' in one historical soundbite is a 'baddie' in the next or vicey versy - Bloody Claverhouse/Bonnie Dundee?

    2. Doh!

      History can be so confusing! Why won't people stay in our nicely organised moral categories as good and bad guys.

      Mind you, increasing numbers of people seem to think that Alexander was no so Great, so maybe our historiographical categories shift as well.