Saturday, 5 January 2013

Wargame Horizons

I am conscious that, in my last post, I kind of ducked the question about what forms our outlooks and viewpoints and hence, I ducked the issue about where the basis for our ethical decisions come from.

There are several possible approaches to this question, but really it all turns upon what you think are the formative events in your life which give rise to the idea that this is good and that is not, that this action is moral or that is immoral. So far as I recall, Aristotle describes the things we do as habits and that these make up our moral character as either virtuous or vicious, but does not really give a list of what experiences might go to form these habits, at least, not in any detail.

As an example, Stanley Hauerwas, in his ethics primer ‘The Peaceable Kingdom’ (SCM: London 2nd edition 2003) describes a situation where a man was on a plane with few passengers. Towards the end of the flight he was approached by an air stewardess who asked him if he would like to come with her to a hotel room on disembarkation for a few hours, and see what happened. The man refused, and the question Hauerwas asks is why?

He argues that this man’s answer to the proposition was inevitable, given his background, upbringing, and beliefs and so on. In short, the man’s character was already formed by his previous experiences to refuse the stewardesses kind offer and return to his wife and children directly. His character, his habits, to use Aristotle’s expression, precluded him from acting in the manner suggested.

One way of looking at this sort of thing, which has, I think, wider implications for wargaming than just ethics, is to consider our attitudes in terms of our horizon. This gives us a model to understand how we react to suggestions and how we interact with new situations, like a new ancient text. Ultimately, I think the idea derives from Heidegger and was developed by Gadamer, who was one of his students.

Normally, to me at least, the appearance of the names Heidegger or Gadamer in a sentence are red flags, as is that of Wittgenstein. Normally it means that we are going to get a postmodern mish-mash of poorly understood regurgitated ideas which these thinkers put forward, usually in hideously complex forms. I will try to avoid that temptation.

According to one interpretation of the idea of a horizon, we can define three areas of knowledge. There are the known knowns, wherein we can ask questions and give answers. There are the known unknowns, wherein we can ask questions but not answer them. In this case, however, the questions are intelligible and we can imagine, at least, that we could answer them if only we thought a bit harder, read a bit more widely, or whatever. The third area is that of the unknown unknowns. In this area we cannot ask intelligible questions; it is meaningless to me. The boundary between the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns is our horizon.

Now, just because something is beyond our horizon, that is, it is in the region of the unknown unknowns only means that, to me, the questions that may be asked are unintelligible. It does not mean that to someone else, perhaps in a different era or culture, the questions are meaningless or unintelligible. My horizons is bounded by my own experiences, education, knowledge and so on.

The upshot of this is that, within the area of ethics, a new situation is dealt with within my horizon. The question is answered within the context of my previous knowledge, upbringing and so on.  The answer to the scenario posed last week about wiping out a village with brutal violence in a wargame is answered within this context. We may not have thought about it before, and therefore the question is in the known unknowns area, but it is within our horizon to answer. How we answer is, of course, another issue, but our answer is mediated by our horizon of experience and knowledge.

As I mentioned, this seems to me to have another impact on us as wargamers. Gadamer suggests that, when we read a text, we have to fuse the horizon of the author of the text with our own. This can never be a wholly successful endeavour, because the author of the text will have a different horizon than we do. Our understanding is never perfect, even if the author is writing within the same culture as we are.

Incidentally, this is why Gadamer thinks that we can never get to a final translation of any text. A translation has to transform one culture into another, and cultures are not static. Even though, for example, the ancient Greek culture is static, being in the past and unchangeable, ours is not and our concepts, and hence the objects into which the original is transformed, change. So there is no such thing as a definitive translation.

The upshot of this, as wargamers, is that we always fuse our own horizon with that of the account of a battle that we are reading. Thus, as I described quite a while ago, we might read Tacitus’ description of a battle and translate it into wargame terms which are quite inappropriate for what the author was actually doing.  We need, in short, to be aware of our own horizon.

Obviously, we can and do change our horizons. We can learn new stuff, we can apply old knowledge in new ways, we can interrogate our texts with different questions. This, however, is hard work and not always successful. For example, simply changing job does not necessarily change your horizon in any important way. Getting more material stuff also does not change our horizon of itself. Another pile of unpainted soldiers is simply a pile of unpainted soldiers; we need to press beyond that to actually develop our horizon.

I am sure there is much more to be said about this, but it does perhaps account for the innate conservatism of many wargamers. Their concept of a wargame is one of individual toy soldiers behaving heroically, or of bases of soldiers or whatever and, without some significant effort on the part of the wargamer, the two remain incompatible.


  1. I am interested in this concept of the horizon, which appears to delineate in some way the boundaries of what we know, what we can envisage or imagine, and how we behave in consequence.

    Consider the situation of a conscripted, basically civilian army - the armies of Revolutionary France and WW1 Britain might provide good examples. Since the vast majority of infants are not raised by their mothers to use canister shot or flame-throwing equipment on live human beings, some formal conditioning is required to ready the recruits for warfare. We can train them to march, load, manoeuvre and so on, but preparing them to commit brutal violence against other people will normally require some modification of a hard-wired value set. To achieve this, their commanders might use any or all of

    (1) religious doctrine, or some other form of extreme political vision which is, fundamentally, unreasoning hatred
    (2) the need to defend home and loved ones (personal stake)
    (3) patriotism/loyalty - whatever that means
    (4) fear - kill the enemy or they will kill you
    (5) the possibility of personal gain - plunder, advancement, whatever
    (6) the chance to avenge the loss of friends and other hardships
    (7) an internal disciplinary system which is more immediate and more terrifying than the threat offered by the enemy
    (8) anything else you can think of.

    The requirement, essentially, is to get ordinary men - albeit trained - to carry out unspeakably violent acts in situations of extreme personal danger - well outside their experience and possibly beyond their imagination.

    It works, it happens. Two years later, as a result of their collective experience, the individual horizons of the soldiers will have changed. They will know how to approach situations which they could not have imagined in the beginning; there will probably be an increased acceptance of what, by any standards of decency, is simply unspeakable. Have they just learned some new stuff?

    Regards - Tony

  2. Hi,

    I think that I agree with your analysis, provided we are careful about what we mean by 'learned' or 'knowledge'. There is a lot of tacit learning or experience going on here as well, which is the reason why well trained but untried units behave differently from well trained but experienced units.

    I guess you can do a lot of things in training, but the experience of the other guy really trying to kill you is unachievable in most circumstances.

    Incidentally, I've just been reading something which suggests that any experience of battle is unspeakable, and so any account of a battle is limited by language and the historical accounts of other battles that the reporter my be aware of.


    1. I would never equate 'learned' with 'delivered in a training environment' - there are some links, though.

      This is probably well off-topic, but, in the context of conditioning and received views, I am reminded of an old guy I used to work with long ago, who had been a gunner on RAF bombers in WW2. He wouldn't talk about the Germans, he would not travel in or even discuss German cars - very extreme. At his retirement party, after a few beers, he explained that he had been shot down over Hamburg during one of the great firestorm raids - the crew bailed out safely, but unfortunately landed in a residential area which had been largely flattened during the same raid. John was taken prisoner, but one of the crew was killed by the civilians they had just been dropping bombs on - he couldn't see any possible justification for such dreadful behaviour, and never forgave the entire nation. Animals, he said.

      I told you it wasn't relevant.

    2. Well, we would hope that there were links between training, learning and the real world, otherwise we would simply keep making the same mistakes over and again.

      Mind you, in the light of history, politics and economics, perhaps we do.

      I guess your example is an extreme one of conditioning by fear (or something close to that) which quite understandably affects the rest of your life. It takes a lot to shift mental stuff like that, even if it is possible without destroying the person along the way.

      I note that most of the ex-servicemen I meet are smart, punctual and have very shiny shoes. that too is conditioning, and makes me feel like an undisciplined slob alongside (but then, perhaps I am).

    3. Apologies - I promise I am not going to keep this going, but it occurs to me that dehumanising the enemy (by making them gooks, or infidels, or child-eaters) is one recognised form of the conditioning to facilitate brutality - if the target of our violence is not human then it is easier. Maybe old John found it easier to accept his own wartime actions against German civilians if he could find a reason to regard them as animals.

      As you will have gathered, I really wouldn't know.

    4. I think you are right - it is part of changing the horizon of your troops, from 'don't hurt anyone' to 'kill them if they are not surrendering and are wearing this uniform' to other things which breach the Hague and Geneva conventions...

  3. That de-humanising of the enemy is a tactic which has been around for centuries - the tribe from over the hill are gibbering, misshapen goblins, so it's ok to kill them on sight. Witness the surprise you often get when a soldier sees the enemy close up for the first time in a non-hostile situation. 'They are just like us after all.'

    You are spot on with the horizons, but you have to remember that you also get the false horizon.
    My all time favourite:
    A hundred and more years ago, Fortescue, Oman, et al sat down to consider the known, known bit of the horizon where the British lines always beat the French columns. European armies used a pretty similar drill book to the one the British used and they often lost. Why is this? Asked the renowned historians.
    Because at the time it was a perfectly reasonable conclusion to come to, the answer came back in a flash - the British are just superior! Of course! - The horizon is stabilised.
    And British +1 still appears in wargames rules to this day; it has become a fixed part of the horizon.
    I would say that the historians were asking the right question in search of their known unknown, but they were asking it of the wrong people.

    Oh, and training and the real world do have links, but they are sometimes tenuous ones; that's why we have Trained and Veteran as different troop categories.

  4. Hi,

    Well, no-one can be sure that they have the right answer to a known unknown. Epistemologically, everything has to be held with a certain degree of tentativeness, and can be revised or discarded when new information comes to light.

    Of course, the Dead White Males of earlier military history could only answer questions from within their own horizon, which may have biased them towards a certain outcome, but that is a general problem with history; we fuse our horizon with that of the history, and thus transmit our own prejudices onto that history.

    Mind you, it still isn't as bad as a set of renaissance ship wargame rules where the English got +4 for being English...

    1. Doesn't epistemology make the existence of known knowns impossible, then? Tentative horizons? Before you grace this with an answer, I must point out that it is not a serious question - though it may seem like one...

      I spent some time in a commercial environment teaching systems analysts about De Bono's "Water Logic" - this was in the days before I realised that De Bono's main talent was for making money by constantly repackaging a small number of original ideas. All I remember about Epistemology is that it was identified as the branch of science most likely to disappear up its own exhaust pipe, but it is still a great word for frightening them silly at cheese and wine parties.

      Maybe we should all get out more?

      Somewhere, in an old book (is it Kipling?), I half-remember a reference to fuzzy-wuzzies whch is quite affectionate - respectful of their courage and their fighting qualities. I failed to find it yesterday, but when I think about it, it probably does dehumanise them, since the preferred form of fuzzy-wuzzy is a dead one. Their preparedness to be machine-gunned in large numbers is seen as valiant and somehow sporting - I must have another look for it.

    2. Well, the saving grace of epistemology is that we don't have to take it too seriously...

      But yes, one of the problems is that a serious attempt at a theory of knowledge usually lands up, either quickly or slowly, in scepticism, if not solipsism. it is usually a sign that a philosopher could do to go out more,as could all wargamers, probably.

      It is quite an interesting thing that those who met the 'other' in combat don't seem to be able to hate them quite as much as the 'home front' can. I guess propaganda has its effect when the other is really other (experiences such as your airman to the contrary, of course). After all, Tacitus used the Germans to try to get the perceived soft and effete Romans to man up a bit.

  5. Off the top of my head:
    So 'ere's to you, Fuzzy Wuzzy, at your 'ome in the Sudan.
    You're a pore benighted heathen, but a first class fighting man.
    (Got to love Kipling - racist, but so nice about it.)

  6. In full (and at great length...):