Saturday, 16 February 2013

Language and Models

I have written quite a lot in the past here about the use of models in wargaming. The idea of a set of wargame rules is, in essence, to model some sort of real world combat situation, deciding on what is important and what is trivial. The important bits are assimilated into a model which, hopefully, when all the bits are assembled, articulates something approximating to the ‘real thing’.

As I have mentioned before, I am sure, the problems associated with models are manifold. In fact, if we did not have to use them in order to do any wargaming at all, we probably would not. Models can cause almost as many problems as they solve; we can consider some bit of our model so crucial that we believe that that bit, at least, has to be real, has to be a real representation of the existent world. Our model thus starts to shape our ontology, our understanding of what is really out there.

This attitude is, of course, shaped further by the reports of battles that we read. I can practically guarantee that, in a given battle report, be it by someone who was there, or from a secondary source, that, whatever the era, someone will say something like ‘the third regiment were pushed back’, or ‘the lancers recoiled’, or ‘the destruction of the tank brigade opened a gap into which the infantry poured’ or something of the kind. I am sure that you, as well as me, could pull numerous books off our shelves which would use this sort of language.

 Of course, we use the language ourselves. I confess that I skip over the battle reports on most of the blogs I read; I have not been convinced of the value of ‘after action reports’, certainly as straight reportage of a battle. Perhaps if the authors put in a ‘things I have learnt from this’ the value of such items may improve (and yes, I do know that I have perpetrated a few AARs myself here). But the language we use is similar – ‘the phalanx pushed on’, ‘the foot gave ground’ and so on.

Even the rule sets we use have such language – ‘recoil’, advance’, ‘follow up’ and so on. This is even described somewhere (I think in the introduction to one of the DB* sets of rules) as being the basic information which is available to commanders. Generals can see if a unit is being staggered by shot, recoiling, advancing to victory or running for the hills. They do not know the basic status of the casualties of a given unit, or its current state of morale, and so on.

There is thus a basic set of language which we use about battles, but it is important to realise that this language itself is based upon metaphors and models. For example, in an account of a modern (say World war Two) battle, it is perfectly acceptable to report that ‘the 21st brigade was pushed back’. But we need to pause for a moment and have a bit of a closer look at that statement.
How, exactly, was the brigade pushed back? This is the key question, and one to which there is no particularly good answer in a literal sense. No-one actually pushed the brigade. In the original sense, push back may well have derived from account of phalanx fighting, where it is possible (although controversial) to argue that the two sets of hoplites or phalagites did actually physically push against each other. However, by the twentieth century this was almost certainly not the case. The pushing is metaphorical and it is not actually clear exactly what it means.

How then does a brigade (or any other sort of unit) really get pushed back in modern combat? I am not expert at all, but I would hazard a guess that it is via intensity of fire, perceived threat to front and flanks, orders to withdraw due to increasing casualties or threat thereof, officers and senior NCOs saying ‘back lads, keep your heads down’ and so on. No-one is actually pushing. A whole complex set of activities by the enemy and by friends are encompassed in a rather simple, broadly and vaguely defined metaphor, that of the push back.

Now, it is arguable that a battle is one of those things which are indescribable. It is so awful, so complex, so confusing and terrifying that language breaks down. The participants cannot find the words to describe the sheer terror and horror of the combat, and so they resort to vague metaphor, to language which is designed to give some sort of feel for the situation without pinning down particular emotions or activities. Some things, as Wittgenstein observed, fall beyond language, and that of which we cannot speak we have to remain silent about.

The upshot of this is that it leaves battle reports and accounts vulnerable to the reporter simply recounting the action using other people’s language. For example, in the seventeenth century there are descriptions of the phenomena called ‘push of pike’, where two blocks of pikemen clash and push until one side breaks. Fair enough, let us put that in the rules.

On the other hand, H.J.C. von Grimmelshausen, in Simplicious Simplicissimus, his magnum opus about the Thirty Years War, argues that to kill a pikeman in a battle is to murder an innocent man, as pikemen cannot do or achieve anything in those circumstances.

What are we to make of this? We could dismiss the latter as being a literary construct, a conceit trying to make a point about the pointlessness of war, and continue with our pike scrums. On the other hand, we could observe that early modern military theory was shot through with ideas from the classical era, and the classical authors did describe pushes of pikes, at least in some way, so our reporters from the English Civil War included them as well, as that is what was expected.

Of course, we could continue and argue that pike only emerged onto the seventeenth century battlefield because everyone was following Alexander or Caesar or someone similar, so they had to be there, so they were used and did come to the push of pike, but only because the literature of military theory said they had to be there.


  1. I'd always assumed pikes were used in the 17th century because they'd been demonstrated to be useful (Swiss pikemen of the 15th/16th centruy and all that).

    There was a half-hearted attempt to bring them back in the 18th century by pundits (e.g. Folard, Saxe and even Old Fritz temporarily) who explicitly cited the authority of the ancients. But before that it was surely more pragmatic - just as pikes disappeared when bayonet-wielding muskets became more reliable firearms.

    None of which detracts from your basic argument.

  2. Hi,

    I think this is an interesting but unresolved question; by the end of the ECW Royalist regiments were increasingly musket heavy, I think.

    Was this due to lack of manpower or tactical decision? I'm not sure anyone knows. Parliamentarian troops were pike armed, but they didn't have the same recruitment problems (or not as badly). But infantry tactics seem to have been increasingly firepower led. Stuart Peachey in The Mechanics of Infantry Combat in the first ECW (Stuart Press 1992) concludes that infantry fights were protracted firefights in close country.

    Of course, facing cavalry was a different thing, and most pike wounds are recorded as being to mounted troops, but that raises the question of how many pike are needed to ward off cavalry. Another explanation of the Royalist situation might be that they had good cavalry and so did not need to worry about the enemy horse...