Saturday, 24 November 2012

Modernity and Wargaming

Ah, I hear my loyal reader think, this is about modern wargames. That pre-1700 curmudgeon has finally seen the light and is about to launch forth on the SAS, asymmetric wargaming and all the jolly technology that gets modern (did someone mutter ‘ultra-modern’?) wagaming its good, or bad, name, depending on how you look at it.

In fact, that is not the case. I am as unreconstructed as ever, especially after my experiment last week with baking spelt bread. Spelt, in case you were not aware (as I was not until a few weeks ago) is an ancient grain that was grown in Britain (among other places) in the later Iron Age. The good thing about it, from my point of view, is that the gluten is fragile, so it does not need much kneading, which is great for lazy bakers like me. On the other hand, it does not do well in the bread maker, so it is all hand labour.

Spelt produces a dense (or perhaps that is my kneading), slightly nutty loaf which is nice for a change but will not, I think, become part of our staple diet. However, Mrs P, who is a seed biochemist by origin, did remark as we were trying to track down what sort of grain spelt is, ‘Now, at last, you are doing something interesting.’

But I digress, probably because I am trying to avoid writing about the subject, which I know a little about but not really enough to spout confidently. The subject is modernity, and how it has influenced wargaming, so with some trepidation, here goes.

The first problem, of course, is to define ‘modernity’ anyway. It is one of those things, I think, which we all know when we see it, but it impossible to nail down. It is the train of thought that started during the later medieval period, got going in the seventeenth century with the birth of the natural sciences, and reached its peak, perhaps, with the Enlightenment of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It then proceeded, fairly happily, through the twentieth century until sometime, say, in the nineteen eighties, when some of its certainties started to fracture under criticism from, for example, feminists, ecological activists and some French thinkers like Derrida.

It is probably true to say that, whether we acknowledge it or not, all the readers of this blog, along with its writer, are children of modernism. Its way of thinking is deeply ingrained in us. We do analysis, reductionism, and, when we have reduced something complex to its components, we categorize them. Things get nailed down, become mathematical in nature. Indeed, one of the themes, it seems to me, anyway, of modern philosophy is its attempt, from Descartes through to Kant and Whitehead, to nail philosophy as tightly as mathematics had nailed physics.

Obviously, modernity has had profound effects on the way we think and do things. For example, history has been moved from a basically narrative viewpoint to one of themes and sweeps of history. Marxist analysis (one of the upshots from modernity) has focussed historians attention on economics, viewing historical actors as trapped in inevitable cycles of ‘progress’, or of Hegelian ‘thesis, antithesis, synthesis’ cycles. Historians want ‘facts’, they want to be going through account sheets of early modern companies to understand what was going on with the economics of the time.

How does this sort of thing affect wargaming? Well, I suspect that you might be able to see where wargaming fits into this idea of modernity. As wargamers, as rule writers and players, we categorize events and armies. We start off with, perhaps, the idea of a cavalry army, or an infantry army. We go from there and reduce our infantry to light, medium and heavy foot. Each has different properties, depending on our understanding of our sources (whatever they may be), our hunches, our mental models of what it means to be a medium infantryman armed with a shield and spear.

In short, we subject our subjects to a thoroughgoing modernist analysis, and insist, as a consequence, that our troops fit our categories. We can see the effect of this in some rules and, perhaps most particularly, in army lists. There we find, for example, Aztecs categorised in a certain way, perhaps as ‘blades’ or ‘heavy foot’ or some such idea. In effect, we have taken a modern category, say ‘tribal foot’ and imposed it on a different, in the case of the Aztecs, totally alien, culture.

Fortunately, wargaming has never had to defend itself from charges of imperialism and neo-colonialism, but I do suspect that this, at heart, is what we are doing.

Of course, if we do not do this categorization, then perhaps we would not be able to play a wargame at all. All we would have would be a bewildering array of different troop types to find the capabilities of which we would have to leaf through several large volumes of rules and army lists to find an answer.

Actually, as I type this, it does start to remind me of some rule sets I could name. However, many of them only do this because they have a core system and blot on all the oddities like Aztecs and Samurai as additional rules. I guess the charge of neo-colonialism still applies.

Other effects of modernity include the over reliance on technology. I have lost count of the number of times I read in army lists words to the effect of ‘these troops are recorded as having shields and so are counted as superior’. Well, possibly, but perhaps they were issued with shields to make them feel braver? Technology is not a single edged weapon.

Finally, one of the effects of modernity is to focus attention on the individual. In this regard, human rights, for example, have come to the fore, as they are individual rights, asserted against everyone else. Wargaming, of course, started out with individual soldiers performing acts of derring-do. It them went to something a bit more collective, perhaps, with bases, but now a reaction has set in and old school wargaming is back, proclaiming the power of the individual toy soldier.

Or may I am getting to postmodern for the good of my own mental health.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Black, Grey and White Wargames

A comment from Aaron a bit ago has refreshed my memory as to where my ponderings about the ethics of wargaming started. A long, long time ago, Paddy Griffiths has a couple of articles in Lone Warrior which questioned why some periods were simply not popular.

I cannot find my copies of those articles, but I vaguely remember the arguments and upshot, which I will try to summarize below. Aaron’s point, as I understood it, was that we self-select those wars which we do not wish to game for ethical or taste reasons. If we can identify these wars, and the reasons why they are not wargamed, then we might get what we might call an empirical handle on wargame ethics.

Griffiths, as I recall, decided that there were three categories of wargame which we do not play. The first were the boring games. In this category he placed trench warfare on the western front in the First World War, for example.

The second category were games which were far too one sided to make a good game. Here, I believe he referred to a variety of colonial small wars where a Stone Age technology tribe went up against a high firepower modern army and, inevitably, lost.

The third category Griffith defined, I think, were games that were too raw or political. By this, I think he meant wargames where some of the participants may have more riding on the outcome that was realistic for the game to manage. His examples of this were Elizabeth’s Irish Wars, where anyone with an Irish background might take offence at the representation of early colonialism, and, I think, he observed that an American Civil War wargame could, at least in some parts of the United States, cause offence as well, especially if the “wrong” side won.

Griffiths was writing a long time ago, sometime in the mid-1970’s, I think, and it seems to me that his list of examples may not be sustained today. Even as he wrote, Charlie Wesencraft was publishing ‘With Pike and Musket: Sixteenth and Seventeenth-century Battles for the Wargamer’ (Elmfield: Morley, 1975). This included four scenarios from Elizabeth’s Irish Wars out of twenty seven battles included. It has to be admitted that all except one of the rest were English Civil War, but nevertheless it was a definite indicator that someone, at least, did not find that war too politically hot to handle.

So, can we update Griffiths’ lists of examples? To be perfectly honest, I am finding this a bit of a struggle. Over the years since he wrote many of the subjects he ruled as grey wargames have, in fact, been played and, more often than not, become mainstream.

For example, First World War trench warfare is now frequently seen; at least, I have seen a number of articles on the subject in magazines, and also a few demonstration games at shows. I confess, it is not my thing, but they do exist as games and presumably people play them. I suspect that one of the things that makes the games playable is the design of decent winnable scenarios, although the fact that the war and its carnage has faded from living memory might help a bit too.

Again, with wargames that are deemed too one sided, sophisticated scenario design can make a big difference. This, I suspect, is related to the idea that the natives should stand up and fight like civilised people do – in ranks like real men. They can then be mown down my western firepower, and the result, of course, is a boring and one sided wargame. If the ‘native’ side is allowed to use its own tactics, with a scenario of which the winning outcome is not the standard wargame ‘annihilation of the opposing forces’, then an interesting and (so far as a wargame ever can be) instructive battle can be had.

I suspect that this second category reflects on the type and style or rules which were available then (and mostly still are today), where the non-western forces are forced into categories of western troops into which they do not really fit. The ‘Skulking Way of War’, to quote early North American settlers about the aboriginals, did not fit into the rules of war at the time, nor does it fit easily into our wargame concepts today. The upshot was that the colonists went and destroyed native villages, leaving only death and starvation, while our wargame forces do not really have a battle on their hands.

The final category that Griffiths defined is more of a moving target, I suspect. It is quite possible that a game based on Elizabeth’s Irish Wars would not play well in, say Dublin, even today. I have been trying to come up with a list of games that would today, fall into the ‘too politically hot to handle’ camp, and I am not sure I can. If you can, please let me know via the comments button!

Even so, I think that there probably are some currents in contemporary wargaming where things just are not done. I suspect, for example, that some things which were highly acceptable in the 1970’s might raise an eyebrow or two today. For example, some colonial games may well have been rebalanced, or at least renamed as such titles as ‘The Indian Mutiny’ may well be deemed to be inappropriate. For that matter I vaguely recall an episode of ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ where the events of that war had to be rapidly re-invented when an Indian politician came to visit.

I do not seem to be getting very far along this track, however. I cannot think of any particular period that wargamers in general avoid. Perhaps that is a sign of the times, or perhaps it is counter-cultural, in that wargamers, qua historians, at least accept that battles happened, they were not pleasant and someone often won. Maybe, our politically correct historical narratives cannot bear those unpleasant truths today.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

The End of the Tribe

Those few of you who purchased a copy of Polemos: SPQR may have noted the demise of the term ‘warband’, much loved of players of DBA, DBM and, for all I know, various other rules. In the descriptions of the different troop types I actually offer no explanation of why I have described what other rules might call warbands as ‘tribal infantry’ or ‘tribal foot’.

Firstly, of course, there was the desire to be different. The term warband had passed into wargaming language and would be freighted with certain expectations which I was by no means certain the rules would deliver. So some change in the language seemed to be required.

Secondly, my reading suggested that the expression warband should, perhaps, be reserved for the immediately available following of a chief or leader. These would be the ‘comitatus’ or noble’s retinue. According to Tacitus, the power of a noble would be displayed by the size of his comitatus, at least for the Germans, and these would be the men who rode out on raids and so on, so would be better trained and equipped.

However, the bulk of the foot for big battles would not be formed from the comitatus of the noble elite. Firstly, many of those men may have been equipped as cavalry within an army, and secondly, even if they were not, they would be likely to be the leaders of the rest of the foot. The rest of the foot would, of course, consist of agricultural labourers, peasant farmers and the like.

As Polemos: SPQR was designed to be a big battle rule set, I decided that the term warband would be unhelpful, and renamed by foot of the northern barbarians ‘tribal’.

Recently, I have read a very interesting paper, entitled ‘Detribalizing the later prehistoric past: Concepts of tribes in Iron Age and Roman studies’ (T. Moore, Journal of Social Achaeology 11(3) 334-360 (2011)), which I happened on by accident. In this paper Moore examines the idea of tribes in late pre-Roman Britain. The conclusions do not bode well for my nomenclature.

Essentially, as I understand it, Moore argues that the first sighting we have of tribes in Britain is during the second century AD. That is both Tacitus and Ptolemy note certain tribes and locations within Britain which they describe as ethnic and geographical entities. Thus, we get maps based on Ptolemy of the tribal areas of Britain, with such stars as the Votadini in the Scottish Borders and the Brigantines in the north.

The issue is, of course, that there is precious little evidence for these tribes existing before the invasion by the Romans. While Caesar encountered native forces, he does not really describe them as a distinct tribe. Indeed, at one point he observes that there were four kings in Kent (Conquest of Gaul V.22), an area usually described as belonging to the Cantiaci alone.

There are also issues of translation hidden in these depths. The texts of the authors of note here were often translated into English by men during the nineteenth century. As such, they imported into the texts a number of imperial and colonial concepts, such as tribe and state and nation. These terms are interpretations of such words as ‘civitas’ and ‘gens’ and may not have a one to one relationship with our concepts of their translations as ‘tribe’ or ‘people’. Confusion thus can abound.

Moore then goes on to suggest that, before contact with the Romans, there was no such thing as a tribe in Britain, and that the tribes described in the second century were formed by reaction to the invasion of the country.

The narrative goes something like this: The first contact was via long distance trade and gave the elite extra clout, as they were the people obtaining the valuable trade goods. Thus the elite became more so. Then, when the invasion happened, war leaders emerged who either were already the elite, or became so. As the Romans occupied the country, they would deal with the native elite only on terms that the Romans understood, that is, only by dealing with a select few of native nobles who were held responsible for the behaviour of the rest of those that the Romans defined as their responsibility.

The upshot of this, of course, is to argue that the tribes of Britain were, effectively, Roman constructs, together with the cities which are attributed to them. These were the places where the Roman administration decided to administrate from, and the conquered peoples had to conform. Even in a hostile colonial situation, there has to be some sort of contact between conquered people and conquering forces, and this contact is conducted on the terms of the conqueror.

This has a number of consequences for some  of the ideas that are around of the continuity of these tribes from pre-history through the Roman era to post-Roman kingdoms and  even, as has been claimed, to the English county boundaries. The fact is that, even if continuity can be traced from the Roman imposed ‘tribal’ system, the geographical boundaries cannot be traced through a stable tribal system pre-dating the Romans. Such a thing simply did not exist, and it is doubtful that the aboriginal Britons thought in those terms anyway.

So, what does this have to do with wargaming?

Well, as I mentioned above, I renamed warbands as tribal foot. Perhaps that term too is freighted with ignorance, and I should find some other description. It has to be said, though, that ‘political entity imposed by the Romans foot’ lacks a little as a snappy term for wargame rule use.

Aside from that, I think what this shows is that we need to be very careful in terms of our assumptions about the political entities from which our toy soldiers spring. Mostly, we have assumptions which, as the above shows, are based on nineteenth century concepts such as ‘tribe’ and ‘nation’ which may not fit the originals entities which they were designed for. History, for those who care to look into it, is fraught with these sorts of difficulties.

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.