Lynn, as I have already mentioned, does not believe that warfare is technologically determined. This is not to say that he ignores the fact that technology changes, and that that does imply changes in how armies are organised and campaigns conducted, let alone how battles are fought, but, he argues, that of more importance is what the people involved in such activities though about them, or, perhaps more specifically, how they thought of them.
The concept of a battle, Lynn suggests, varies over time. A Greek hoplite thought of a battle as a specific thing, in which certain things happen, such as sacrifices, and rousing oration, a chanting of war cries and a horrid clash of two lines. To a Scottish spearman of the fourteenth century a battle might be a plod uphill to be shot down by English arrows after being ordered to by King and landowner. And so on. The Battle of Britain was a different object in many ways from the Battle of Marathon.
I have previously suggested that the threads of the Enlightenment were present in military thinking. Enlightenment thinking was strongly influenced by rationalism and the rise of science in the early modern period, and hence military thinkers and, more pertinently, commanders, thought in terms of mechanics, lines and timetables. Battles, being unpredictable, were somewhat frowned upon as irrational and risky ways to decide anything. Winning a campaign or war without a battle was deemed perfectly acceptable and, in fact, to be encouraged.
This viewpoint changed, of course, as a result of the French Revolution.
Obligatory joke: Chairman Mao (or someone similar, accounts vary) was once asked what he thought the effects of the French Revolution were. He replied ‘It is too soon to tell.’
Follow up joke: Someone asked Gandhi what he thought of western civilization. He replied that he thought it would be a good idea.
The French Revolution, whatever else it did, created much larger armies than the eighteenth century armies, of conscripts, often motivated by ideological ideas and flung across the continent of Europe in badly supported but almost unstoppable campaigns. Napoleon, even after the establishment of the Empire, still fought battle which did bring the campaigns to an end and, more often than not, forced to opponent to surrender.
The age of the decisive battle had arrived.
Intellectually, the French Revolution also went along with Romanticism. This was a movement of individualisation and the acceptance of, for example, the mysteries of nature (rather than believing that the universe was a mechanical device). It accepted (or tried to) that life was messy and that things were often chancy, dicey and with unclear outcomes.
These two events, the French Revolution and the rise of Romanticism, led to a different view of warfare. This view is, of course that it is perfectly possible to knock an enemy out of the campaign, and hopefully the war in a single action which destroys their field army and, hence, their will to resist.
The principle agent of this view was Clausewitz, who, himself, was heavily embedded both in some of the warfare, as a commander and staff officer in the Prussian army, and, subsequently, in intellectual life in Berlin. There are lots of intellectual influences on Clausewitz’s views which I will not delve into here, but it is worth, I think, considering the implications of the decisive battle, romantic view of war.
Historically, Lynn argues that Clausewitz’s most unfortunate legacy to the world was World War 1. The Schlieffen Plan, for example, envisaged a decisive campaign and, possibly, a decisive battle, to knock the enemy out of the war. France was to be bought to terms before Russia managed to mobilize.
Similarly, during the war, this decisive push mentality led to many more battles which petered out into bloody futility, such as The Somme and Verdun. Military Romanticism was not, of course, the only reason for the various powers launching these offensives; political considerations were always writ large, but the discourse of ‘one last push’ was still involved.
Indeed, Lynn suggests that Clausewitz still pervades our thinking about war today, although in a slightly different form. Limited war, and how to win one, is much more in the forefront, but I think that we can still see the influence of the decisive battle on modern military campaigns.
This romantic discourse of war is, I think, highly influential on us as wargamers. Given that our culture and society is still heavily influenced by Romanticism, it can hardly fail to be. If you do not believe that we are heavily influenced by Romanticism, then just walk down my road on a nice summer’s day and view the number of people enjoying the countryside. Pure Romanticism.
And surely we, as wargamers, are interested in battles, and really not much else. The influence of Clausewitz and Napoleon pervade our thinking about warfare, and lead us along the lines of focussing on the, well, romance of battle. The courage, heroism, tragedy and cowardice of all forms of battle, the more decisive the better.
Furthermore, we then project this back on to other periods of warfare. Our pre-Revolution armies attempt to fight decisive battles, which their originals would have baulked at. Few commanders would have started a battle on equal terms, although many, if not most, wargames have some sort of equality built in, if not equal numbers then equal ‘points’, whatever they might mean.
So, to try to summarise, we are all military romantics, and, just in case you were still wondering, I do not mean schmoozing by the base line. I mean that we buy in to this discourse of the decisive battle, and play our games accordingly. But the concept of varying military discourses may suggest that wargames do not have to be this way.