Saturday, 15 June 2013

Wargame Entrenchment

No, do not panic. I have not suddenly become an aficionado of the Western Front. What I do want to do, really, is consider how our wargame rules are structured.

I have been reading a book about the philosophy of science (Simon Altmann, Is Nature Supernatural? 2002, Prometheus Books: New York), and very interesting it is too. One of the concepts introduced is that of entrenchment. For example, the idea of atoms was well entrenched before the actual empirical discovery of such objects in the physical world. This was not least because thermodynamical understanding required such objects to exist, as well as various other bits of information, for example from chemistry. The actual observation of atoms therefore came as rather less of a surprise than might otherwise have been expected.

There was, of course, a sceptical wing, led by Ernst Mach, who argued coherently and well that no such objects, too small to be ever observed directly, could possibly exist, and that it was all a fake, or at least atoms were a concept with no ontological reality. Mach and his party were, of course, wrong, but the argument needed to happen, to entrench the concept of the atom in our scientific web.

The idea of the scientific web is that no single idea actually dominates science. The concepts link to each other. So we have a concept, say, of a magnetic field, and the concept of an electric field, and they seem to be linked somehow, and then a genius like James Clark Maxwell comes along and, bingo! we see that electric and magnetic fields are simply two aspects of a single thing, a wave, which we can identify with light. And so this particular concept, uniting some others, clarifies a particular bit of the scientific web, and, therefore, entrenches and is entrenched by it.

This, incidentally, is why cranks and crackpots believe that the scientific establishment conspires against their own pet ideas. Suppose someone came up with the idea that the speed of light, as an information carrier, can be breached. This would, quite likely, be dismissed by the vast majority of scientists, simply because the idea of the speed of light as an information speed limit is heavily entrenched in modern physics. The crank’s idea would have to be able to clarify a whole section of the scientific web and to work within what is already known to be even marginally acceptable to the establishment. Even then, a considerable amount of careful work, both experimental and theoretical would have to take place before the concept would be embedded.

Now, you may recall a few posts ago I claimed that most of the items we calculate using a set of wargame rules were fictitious, or at least not separable in reality in the way  we separate things in the rules themselves. This is, of course, a case of reductionism, where we have a set of different concepts, try to analyse what happens into these concepts, put them back together and hope to get some sort of outcome which matches the original.

As you may have noticed, this is sort of similar to the way science progresses. We have a set of concepts which are well entrenched, such as the morale of an army or a unit.  We cannot, in reality, measure the morale of a unit easily, and certainly not during the course of a battle.  Can you imagine a social studies researcher dodging bullets to distribute a questionnaire to the ranks with the question ‘How do you feel about things now?’ and ‘If you were outflanked by enemy cavalry, would you feel a, better, b, worse, or c, the same?’

Despite such difficulties, I think that the concept of morale is a well entrenched one, and no-one, really, is going to shake that.  We can argue about whether a unit which is outflanked does take a hit in morale, and if so by how much, but the concept itself is, pretty well, established and is not going to go away any time soon.

To some extent, then, we are back with Mach and his supporters. We are relying on a concept which we cannot, in the final analysis, see, but which we are convinced is important for us. Mach would have us acknowledge that such a concept has no ontological importance for us, but I am not sure that many wargamers would agree, nor, in fact, many generals or unit commanders. Just because we cannot see it, it does not mean it does not exist.

The way in which, of course, scientists got around Mach’s objections was to make indirect observations, and lots of them. We might not be able to see atoms directly (and indeed we still cannot; the films of atoms which are around are, in fact, still indirect observations, just very sophisticated ones), but we can obtain good evidence that they exist. The more indirect evidence we accumulate that fits with our model of an atom, the better, and the more entrenched the concept becomes within science.

As with science, so with wargaming. We cannot necessarily see the rules which we create; all we can observe are the outcomes of particular sets of circumstances. But we can analyse them and put them back together and hope that the sum of the parts which we have invented add up to the total of the original outcome, or at least to an outcome which is a believable one from the original situation.

Thus, while, in my example, morale cannot be separated or, indeed, measured in the original we can see the outcomes which having morale (or, mostly, lack of morale) creates in the original, and attempt to model the situations which lead to that outcome.

Of course, all of this is somewhat subjective. War, after all, is an art, not a science, and there may well be multiple ways of obtaining a given outcome, even in a concept that is so well entrenched as morale.  But that is part of life; we find a rule set that we like and, usually, stick toit.


  1. Yes, well reasoned. We judge not just the rule but the effect of the concept of morale in real life by looking at effect and outcomes. So in wargaming rules we can try to model it as a discrete entity without understanding it by studying the evidence for causes and effects, or we can model the effect without treating it as distinct from other aspects. (for example WRG vs DBA)

    In the end the result can be judged either by how well they support our theory or on how closely they reflect or reproduce historical observations . The trick then is how well they predict future events. Although in this case I've heard from vets that its still disorienting and scary to be surprised from a flank you thought was secure.

  2. Yes, and the problem with the reductionist approach is that it misses something of the overall problem, meaning that our testing cycle has to be endless.

    I do think we massively underestimate the issues of shock, flank attacks and so on. At one WW1 battle (Arras, I think, a rather late one) the initial bombardment meant that the German MGs and artillery did not open fire until 5 minutes after the infantry had gone over the top, by which time the positions were already overrun (and the artillery was shooting at an empty British front line).

    Five minutes is a lot of shock; but then accounts from civilian disasters also suggest that some things just happen slowly when entirely unexpected events take place.