Saturday, 28 April 2012

General Problems

Inevitably, I suppose, I’ve run in to a major problem in writing rules for the classical period, by which I mean roughly speaking Greece from Marathon to the Successors. The problem is with generalship, and so I’m putting it here in the hope that someone can have a good idea to solve it. I’ve been reading a paper by Meissner (Journal of Military and Strategic Studies (2010) 13, 1, 4-27) and it has rather thrown the issue into stark relief.

Basically speaking, early Greek generals did not do very much. At Marathon in 490 BC there were ten generals and a Polemarch. So there was no central command, and the Athenian forces were commanded on a ‘tribal’ basis. This system itself only dated from 510 BC, and the generals, or ‘army commanders’ came along a bit later to supplement the polemarch (‘war leader’), which was an aristocratic post. Anyway, as you probably know, the strategoi were divided and Militades waited until it was his day in command to attack the Persians.

The invasion of Greece in 480 BC forced further changes. Cities entered into alliance, set up a council to debate decisions and had an overall commander, a Spartan on land and an Athenian by sea. The Greeks actually did not agree on strategy very closely – the Spartans preferring to defend the Isthmus of Corinth and the Athenians wanting to be further forward, largely because Athens would be undefended. After Salamis, in the winter of 480 – 479, this nearly broke the alliance.

Incidentally, Herodotus’ description of Thermopylae indicates that the Greeks varied their hoplite tactics, by introducing feigned retreats to draw the Persians on. Try finding that in any set of wargame rules on the period…

Anyway, control of the army was exerted directly by the Spartan general Leonidas. He, despite his own doubts and preferences, carried out the orders he had been given. There was no local council to decide on the battle – the strategic plan, of defending the pass, had been drawn up and Leonidas was to execute it. There was a supreme command and a council of war making the decisions, and no actual argument on the battlefield, a significant change from Marathon.

As the century evolved, so did command structures. In Athens the democratic government kept control over military operations by popular assembly and the personal accountability of post holding commanders. Accountability for the vast cost of military adventures was, in particular, kept by the assembly. The commanders of expeditions were given their orders and resources, although obviously, the local commanders in theatre were able to make some sorts of decisions. They could not, however, simply go somewhere else.

Obviously, this sort of control could occasionally go awry, particularly after the Peloponnesian war when mercenaries were attracted into Persian service. Xenophon gives an account of his adventures after the battle of Cunaxa, which sees to Ten Thousand reorganise itself (on a democratic basis) after the main commanders had been killed, and march to the Black Sea.

With Xenophon we arrive at a period when there started to be theorizing about warfare, strategy and tactics. Xenophon himself was at the fore of these developments, although his writings about them are mainly part of his attacks on the Sophists. Xenophon argues that the Sophists teach tactics, but not logistics or judgement, and certainly not strategy. Nevertheless, there was clearly a debate to be had, and we have now come a long way from Marathon in just one hundred years.

Alexander, of course, bought his own particular (and possibly peculiar) personality to the whole question of strategy and tactics. Due to his victories the world, and the requirements of the military situation, changed. While the campaigning was fairly straightforward and the aim of the battle was the destruction of the enemy army, the control of the general, Alexander himself, could be clear, direct and personal. It was part of the mystique of Alexander that he intervened at the critical point, when the battle was in the balance. In short, he did the hero thing.

When, however, Alexander was having problems in, for example, the Hundu Kush against, essentially, an insurgency, his charisma and control started to slip. The Macedonians had to operate in smaller groups under lesser commanders. Overall direction had to be decentralised; there were, simply insufficient Alexanders to go around. This lead to dissention in the high command and, ultimately, violence as Alexander felt he had to act against some of his commanders. Perhaps they really were plotting against him. Or maybe he was just getting paranoid.

Nevertheless, we now have a more or less complete change in the mode of command of an army. From a diverse group of ‘democratically’ elected representative, through a supreme command with a council, to a charismatic leader with a group of companions to a diffused anti-insurgency campaign, we see a major alteration in the method of command.

The problem is that all of these, if we are going to have a single set of rules to cover the period, have to be assimilated in one command system. It will not be good enough, I think, just to assume that Militades is simply an earlier version of Alexander. On the other hand, the other generals at Marathon may have had more influence than we think; who else ordered the Greek wings to turn in, after all, but the tribal generals?

I’m not sure I can really think of another period of history where the structure of command changed so radically in one ‘era’. Granted things did change during, for example, the English Civil War, but not quite so significantly, and Roman command structures remained pretty well as they were during the early Empire.

So, short of having something really complex, how can this be accommodated in a rule set? Or am I worrying to no sense?

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Qualia in Wargaming

I seem to be slowly hitting a wall in understanding how wargames work. The problem goes something like this:

Firstly, wargames need to have something to do with history.

Secondly, historical accounts of battles are inadequate

Thirdly, even if historical accounts were adequate, Hume's problem about induction will still mean that we cannot predict what is going to happen in a given situation.

Finally, we seem to be forced back into a situation where a set of wargame rules rely on our a priori understanding of what might happen.

Now, here we hit another snag, I think, to do with our minds.

The thought experiment goes something like this:

Imagine someone who lives in a monochromatic world. All they see are black, white and various scales of grey. Suppose that they were a research scientist, and came across this fascinating concept of the colour red. They become very, very interested in red, and read about it extensively. They do experiments with red light, and measure the effects of it. In short, they become the world’s leading expert on the colour red.

But something is missing, something which you and I take for granted.

Suppose our research scientist opens a forbidden door and steps into our world. A welcoming committee is there, all wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with the words ‘This is RED’.

Our scientist will have now had an experience that she has never had before – seeing red. Even though she knew everything there was to know about the colour red, she had never, ever experienced it before. Something had been missing from her knowledge.

In technical terms, the thing that was missing is called a ‘qualia’. It denotes a certain quality that experience of something gives to a person. In the above example, the qualia are that of experiencing seeing the colour red. That, of course, is something we have all (or most of us, anyway) already experienced, and it is kind of hard to imagine not have done so. But, nevertheless, there is a distinct difference between knowing about something and having experienced it.

A similar sort of example might be some craft activities. Watching some of these historical farming programs, you come across people doing barrel making or basket weaving. Mostly, they work by eye, by touch, by feel, by hearing and even tasting. This cannot be measured, they argue, you need to be apprenticed to it, to learn the craft over many years. There are qualia here.

You see this lack of understanding of qualia a fair bit in historiography. Academic historians do a good line in pontificating as to how, for example, English Civil War armies formed up. There is a certain amount of historical evidence for this, in terms of manuals, sketches of deployment, and descriptions of the armies just before battles and so on. A good description can be written, and often is.

However, what is lacking is a degree of experience. How, precisely, do 600 pikemen form up into a block? How do the commanders prevent them from falling into disorder? These are not, particularly, questions that can be easily answered from the sources. There is some sort of answer, of course, in terms of sections of block, and files and so on. But there is no understanding as to why this is so.

The answer is, of course, to try it out. The re-enactment societies do this, and it turns out that the structure within the pike block allows it to function without falling into disorder. File leaders and file closers become important men. NCOs are given their proper place in the overall scheme of commanding and ordering the troops. And so on.

Again, there are qualia between reading about the formation and trying it out. In this case, the re-enactors have a point. Only by doing, trying to recreate what happened, can you understand why it happened. The qualia come to the fore.

Now, as wargamers we are, of course, not just interested in how armies deployed, but how they fought. And here, not even re-enactors can help. Despite the sometimes significant rivalry between the different re-enactor sides, when they come into ‘combat’, no one is really trying to kill them. It is, as has been described to me, ‘cream puffs at five paces’.

And yet, surely, here is a qualia set. How does it feel to be encased in armour with an eighteen foot pike in your hand, surrounded by comrades and with someone, somewhere, trying to kill you?

We cannot know. There is a qualia gap too great for us to cross.

Now, perhaps we can gain some understanding from recent combat experiences that too many people have. And, indeed, reading their memoirs or talking to them may help in terms of what it is like to have someone trying to kill you because of the uniform you wear.

But that is not what it was like in the seventeenth century. Again, we have closed the qualia gap a bit, but not by enough to know very much more than where we started from.

Overall, then, there seems to be little we are able to do to close what I have termed the qualia gap. We are forced back on that most difficult thing of the entire human mind to use, our reason.

As I’ve noted before, we can have some reasonable expectation of outcomes from particular combat contexts. We can expect a given range of results from, say, two musket armed units coming to combat. We have a range of possible outcomes, which, if we want to posh it up a bit, we can call a manifold of possibilities.

Unfortunately, as I’ve also noted before, it is very difficult to assign probabilities to these outcomes, even relatively. We do not really have a statistically significant sample size, to start off with, nor do we have repeated experiments. All we can do is assign some sort of reasonable looking probability, based on what we can achieve, usually with a couple of six sided dice.

One of the truisms of wargaming seems to be, therefore, that a lot of it depends on the properties of six sided dice.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Writing Rules

Writing wargame rules is, when you come to think of it, a very odd pastime indeed. On the one hand you steep yourself in the historical evidence, whatever that may be, or at least read a popular book or two on the subject, and on the other you try to reduce what you have read to a single set of cogent guidelines for reproducing it on a table top with toy soldiers.

It is little wonder that it is a more difficult task than may immediately strike the consciousness. On the other hand, the fact that it looks easier than it is is probably a good thing, or no-one would embark on such an undertaking, and we would not have the variety of rule sets that now exist.

Rule writing does, however, possess a deep problem which is, I think, insurmountable. As a human race, we like to detect patterns. If something happened this way in one instance, and then another, we predict, often accurately, that it will happen thus in a third.

This, for those of a philosophical turn of mind, is nothing but the problem of induction, as outlined by the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume.

The problem, Hume argues, is this: The sun has come up on every day of my life so far, and, therefore, I expect the sun to come up tomorrow.

How can I justify this belief? Well, Hume says, I cannot. Just because the event has happened every day of my experience so far, it does not mean it will happen again. There is no proof that it will happen the same tomorrow, absolutely none.

Now Hume was no fool, and he recognised that induction is something which we use every day, many times a day. Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue if induction did not work? If, every time you turned the wheel of your car left you were uncertain whether the car would turn left or right?

Whatever its faults, induction does work, which is probably just as well. However, Hume’s point remains, that we cannot justify the use of it. This has been, and still is, a problem for the philosophy of science, because science relies on induction to work.

In science, we make an observation of A, and we observe that associated with A is always a B. We make a sizeable set of observations, and every time we see an A, we see a B too. And so we declare a law of nature – if you see an A, a B is there as well. And so science progresses.

However, if you look closely at the structure of that argument, you should see Hume’s problem. Actually, we have proved nothing, except that there is a certain, probably (or hopefully) rather high, probability of seeing a B if you see an A. Without getting into complexities, we are relying on something called Bayesian probabilities, which allows us to use induction to get the best explanation, and accounts for increasing amounts of evidence improving the odds that our explanation is right.

So, what has this got to do with writing wargame rules?

Well, we are in a far worse situation with wargame rules and historical accounts than scientists are with induction. A scientist can always go and repeat the experiment, while we, as wargamers, cannot.

What we are left with is a series of contingent events and no way of working out how likely they are to be repeated in a similar situation. Given that each historical event has its own context, even if we had sufficient data to directly compare events, we would still be struggling because the contingent contexts are different.

Now, history is all right on the battlefield. What I mean is that no-one bothers to calculate the probability of this volley of musket fire turning out all right. They just shout ‘fire’ and hope it goes well. If, by some low probability event, all the musket balls strike home and disable an opponent, the commanders are not going to stop and explain how remarkable it was. They are simply going to shout ‘charge’.

The problem for us as wargame rule writers is that these probabilities are important to us. A set of wargame rules is exactly a means of writing some laws to govern these contingent outcomes. We are relying on induction to say something along the lines of ‘a unit of fresh musketeers shooting at a unit of militia will, on average, have X result’, and we then adjust the average by a random factor to make life a little uncertain.

The problem is, of course, Hume’s. We have no justification for doing this and, indeed, cannot. The empirical evidence is simply not there. On how many occasions did a unit of musketeers fire on one of militia under equal, controlled circumstances and recorded the outcome? I’ve not done an archive search, but at a rough guess I’d say, with, I think a reasonably high chance of being right, precisely none.

Thus, we have a major problem in rule writing. We cannot know the probabilities, and so we cannot base rules on empirical evidence. We can only work with what we have and hope that our mechanics give some sort of acceptable result.

In short, in writing wargame rules, we have to have some a priori concept of what we are about and what the probabilities of the outcomes should be, even if these are not explicit in our thinking. We expect, rationally, even logically, that a trained unit of professionals should, all other things being equal (and there is the catch), defeat a unit of hastily raised militia.

But the point is that this is something which we apply to the world, an expectation drawn from how the world works, in general. Providing specific evidence for it is hard, even impossible, so ultimately we cannot base our rules on empirical evidence.

And even if we do manage some evidence, Hume’s argument about induction still bites us.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

On Logistics

There is an old aphorism that states, in terms of military activity, that amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics. Given the great deal of difficulty which modern armies experience in getting into and out of theatres of war, this does seem to be true. The logistical tail of even a relatively small combat force is, in modern armies, huge.

This, of course, has a major knock on effect, in terms of speed of deployment, supply lines and security. One of the aspects of the modern campaigns in Afghanistan are the vulnerability of the supply lines from outside the country to the borders, and also, naturally, within the country itself. One of the factors, I think, in persuading the Russians to quit was the difficulty of resupply and the frequency of convoy ambush.

This is not a modern phenomenon, as I’m sure you know. The French had significant difficulty in Spain. Wellington could shut himself up behind practically impregnable defences, supported by command of the sea, and simply wait for the French armies to run out of supplies and, therefore, be forced to retreat. And that doesn’t say anything about the painful fiasco Napoleon engineered in Russia.

Now, on a tiny scale, I do some vegetable growing. The idea is to get some fresh air during the summer (rather to sit here looking at the garden). One of the things I’ve noticed has been how much effort is required to produce even a small crop. What I produce is by no means sufficient to supply a person even for a week, and that is with modern amenities such as slug repellent and finely honed composts.

I concede that there are probably economies of scale, so if I planted a whole field of, say, cabbages, and looked after them properly (i.e. stopped the slugs before they started), then, at the end of the season, I would probably have a large-ish number of cabbages, possibly enough to feed a company for a week, if they like cabbage soup.

Even modern, peace time, logistic chains can break down, though. There was a recent story on the BBC News site about a tarragon crisis. Apparently, you cannot buy tarragon in UK supermarkets at the moment, because the foreign (I think Spanish) growers have had a bad season, and British supplies have not kicked in yet. Indeed, I’m sitting next to a pot of tarragon seedlings as I type.

All this has set me thinking a bit more about generalship and logistics. An army of, say, ten to fifteen thousand men must consume a fantastic amount of food, let alone anything else. The Persian army invading Greece before Plataea is, after all, reported by Herodotus to have drunk several rivers dry. That may be hyperbole, but the pressure on resources that such a force, even if it were ‘only’ twenty thousand strong, would place on those parts where it passed would be massive.

I seem to recall reading an argument that, towards the end of the Thirty Years Was in Germany, the armies became much lighter, and more cavalry and musketeer focussed. It was claimed that this was because the lands being fought over were so devastated that only lighter, faster moving and smaller armies could survive. Mind you, some also argued that this was because of a shift in tactics, so the claim is not so clear cut.

In the English Civil war there was also a trend towards cavalry dominated armies, at least on the Royalist side. This does not seem to have been strictly tactical, but more to do with the fact that infantry are expensive and became difficult to recruit, while cavalry are much easier to retain. While the Parliamentary side had slightly less trouble with this, examination suggests that their logistics were very much centred on some major civilian contractors in London. Without the financial clout of the city, and the control of the sea, the Parliamentary cause would have struggled much more. Mind you, given those facts, you have to be quite impressed that the King lasted as long as he did.

What effects does this have on our wargaming?

It has to be admitted that the usual reply is ‘not much’. The battle is the thing; we are, after all, amateurs, and the thing is that logistics is dull as ditchwater. But it need not be; I’ve referred before to a very simple system of controlling reinforcements which led to some surprisingly realistic results. I’m sure I recall that there are some rules out there for logistics, although mostly they are not used. Even the incorporation of supply lines, with suitable penalties for having them cut would increase our sensitivity to the problem, if not solve it.

Obviously, some people will complain at that and argue ‘the game is the thing’, and to some extent that is the case. But to focus on the battle and tactics alone is to miss out on a large chunk of the constraints and concomitant opportunities which did present themselves to the original generals. Attention to the state of supply of the armies could determine the course of the battle and explain some of the tactical and strategic factors.

For example, the battle of Plataea happened because the Persian cavalry got between the Greeks and their water supply. On a grander scale, the Ottomans were besieging Vienna because they had a series of logistical bases all the way back to Constantinople. They were there because they could be, while the Austrians did not have such a logistical base. Similarly, the Holy Roman Emperor hung on against Gustavus Adolphus in the Thirty Years War because Wallenstein had a massive logistic support and distribution base behind him. Wallenstein was not a particularly brilliant general, but a large army, well fed, has a quality all of its own.

Finally, consider this. We tend to rate generals as good or bad by their battlefield performance. I’ve noted before that generals do not make many decisions actually on the battlefield. The true measure of success of a general is, therefore, their ability to get an army to the field of battle in a reasonable condition to fight at all. Maybe all generals who fought battles should therefore be rated as good.