Saturday, 6 July 2013

The Politics of Army Choice

I have mentioned before that our choice of army can be a highly personal one and, and also that we tend to reflect in our choices our own society. We do, perhaps, expect that the discourse on war which our society holds reflects back on the armies which we, as wargamers, chose to build and play with.

The discourse of war which obtains at present is not, of course, the same as those of armies and societies of the past. As I have tried to illustrate over the last couple of posts, decisive battle discourse is really something that only came to be popular in the last two hundred years or so. Prior to that, generals were normally advised to avoid battle if at all possible, and to only fight at an advantage.

One of the discourses available to us today about warfare, and within wargaming this is often the one, I think, most heard, is that of technological determinism. The idea that a man with a pointy stick in the word BC is the same as a man with a pointy stick AD should, I hope, by now be one met with an indulgent smile from my readers.  

This is not the only issue within technological determinism, however. Consider the question of the German Army in 1940. Its tanks were not the best tanks in the world. French tanks had thicker armour, better guns and so on. But it was the Germans who were rolling into Paris by mid-summer, not the French in Berlin, even though the former had poorer technology, by any technologist’s measure.

Now, I am sure that voices will be raised pointing out that the Germans made better use of their crews, had better radios (which is certainly technology) and so on, and I would agree. The point is, however, that these factors became true because the discourse of war which the German Army spoke regarded movement, communication and good shooting as important, and designed their tanks accordingly.

This discourse of war proved to be, temporarily but sufficiently, superior to that of their opponents, and victory, as decisive as can be obtained, was achieved.

The discourse of war of a particular army or culture is, therefore, at least in good measure, determinative of the manner of combat and expectations of battle that that army or culture has. Then, along come some wargamers who read about the campaigns and think ‘That looks interesting’, and proceed to write some rules and collect some figures.

Technology, at this point, is a lot easier to measure and handle than the cultural discourses of the opposing sides. A man with a pointy stick, or a bloke in a tank, can, at one level or another, be considered to be the ‘same’. The problem is, however, that they are, in fact, clearly not, and we then look closer at the technology than at the discourses.

These things are also reflected in our games. In a France 1940 game, by technological rights, the French should win, and, so far as my very limited experience goes, often do. How is this reflective of the history? I think it does show that technological determinism is, at least, not the whole story.

So, then, when we chose a wargame era or army, we are choosing not only a set of technologies which they used, by also a discourse of war which the culture from which it came held. The latter, almost inevitably, is much harder to understand and model than the former, and many rules, particularly those covering centuries or more, simply model the technology. A spearman is a spearman is the mantra here.

The next thing that happens is that our discourse of war, or wargaming, is then projected back onto the period in question. We look for the decisive battle, or the siege that changed the course of history. Mostly, as wargamers, it is the former we are interested in, or we would have no wargame.

But the fact is that in most warfare, there are no decisive battles. For example, during the English Civil War most of the battles, whoever won, were strategically unimportant. The winning side split up and went off to capture places, the losers recruited their strength from garrisons and pretty well carried on.

This is not because our ancestors were stupid (Isaac Newton, after all, was born in 1642) but because the discourse of war at the time did not include a crippling, decisive defeat for one side or the other. You could suggest (and I am not sure this has been done, but it is possible) that the formation what has come to be known as the ‘New Model Army’ indicated, in fact, a change in the discourse of war. The NMA was formed precisely to defeat the Royalist main field army, and fighting a big battle, and that is what, eventually, Fairfax was ordered to do.

So, as wargamers and wargame rule writers, we have to be careful. It is very easy to rush in with our technological determinism and our Romantic discourse of war, and create something which, in all probability, is a good and enjoyable game, but which reflects neither the real technical issues that were at stake nor the cultural discourses of war which were prevalent at the time.

In ‘Goths, Huns and Romans’ (Argus: 1990), Simon MacDowall has an interesting bit about choosing armies (p. 27). Do you see the Romans as tragic heroes defending the remnants of civilisation, or the German tribes as fighting for freedom from a decaying and decadent empire? Does this inform your choice of army for late Roman warfare?

I suspect that the fact is that the historical answer is that the originals would not have understood the descriptions given of them in the last paragraph. ‘freedom’ and ‘civilisation’ are loaded terms in our modern political discourses, and the choice we make is simply projecting our choices and values back onto an earlier, and different, discourse.

But then, given this, we have to do so to make any sort of choice at all, don’t we?


  1. I admit to being completely baffled at how you can support the first pair of assertions. Every treatise with advice for generals that I have read from Greek and Roman days to modern times (admittedly in translation) all deal with the decisive battle as the goal of a successful general and there have been ample examples brought forward though more can be offered it it would help. I see nothing in modern writing, not even Clauswewitz, that urges a general to fight a battle which he expects to lose if he can avoid doing so. I certainly see no evidence of that attitude catching on there would have been no retreats when outflanked strategically, no fortresses maintained, no defensive positions, no WW1 trench lines etc etc if that were the case. The evidence seems to support a view that a general should seek to conduct a campaign so as to force a decisive battle in which he would be victorious after taking all the necessary steps to maximize his chances. But enough on that topic from me.

    I do agree that technology is a poor basis for analysing warfare or writing rules.

    Technology may have an affect on tactics but they rarely dictate them and it is tactics that win battles. Superior tactics, training, organization and discipline with inferior technology will usually to defeat superior technology with inferior tactics etc.

    Cultural, sociological, religious, political and philosophical beliefs may be factors in which tactics and organization a society adopts but it is the tactics, discipline etc which win or lose battles not the beliefs that gave rise to them. Modelling the tactics and behaviours of past armies will give results closer to the original than trying to model belief systems or trying to get casual players to role play a modern conception of the possible beliefs of past generals. Rule systems that account for basic military principles and human nature and which are flexible enough to portray the effects of different technologies, tactics, degrees of organization and discipline actually allow us to see the difference between different eras and periods of warfare much like translations of books allow us a glimpse into the worlds of authors whose language we do not speak.

    As for the Goths & Romans, I don't want to put words in Simon's mouth, especially after so many years but while there is evidence that there was some concept of civilization in terms of being 'of the empire' if I can put it that way and of not being subject to it, I would agree that the average modern player will load his own personal views into the paragraph and choose on that basis. But the point at the time wasn't to fool the player into thinking he had an understanding of either but merely to get wargamers to at least think about the context that their armies came from and about possible attitudes and goals of the individuals, to design scenarios with context and to just maybe to go find out more and think about the whole setting rather than just picking the most cost-effective troops from a points list for a competition style face off. I think he actually succeeded fairly well in at least nudging things in that direction.

  2. Well, I have written a post which will appear in a bit about what we might mean by a decisive battle. Often, keeping an army in being is sufficient; if two such opponents take the field, there is perhaps an indecisive campaign, or a lot of maneuvering.

    I agree on the range of factors to be considered, but fear that most sets of rules tale little account of the actual tactics etc used; more often than not the era is forced into the language and organisation of a different period altogether.

    I wasn't meaning to criticize MacDowell; there is engagement with what wagames might mean to us as wargamers, or to others who see what we do. I was trying to generalize: does our choice of army reflect something about our beliefs, or simply maxing out the chances of success in a given rule set. If the latter, that too reflects something of our choices and culture...

  3. The army that I have gamed for the longest continuous period is Frederician Prussian. This came about more by accident than design. Like most wargamers on my vintage I'd played with Airfix figures (WWII, Naps etc.). But I somehow always had had a fascination for the age of tricorns and mitres. When I got a copy of WRG's 1685-1845 rules and saw the army lists for WSS and SYW I thought I've got to get into one or the other. Then I found out a lad in the school wargames club actually had some SYW Austrians but no opponent (now there's an interesting choice) the decision was made.

    There was no consideration of my views and choices in the contemporary world. I knew next to nothing about the SYW (in central Europe) so had no pre-conceived views about which army most suited me. I was however delighted to see that it would cost me less to assemble a 1000 point Prussian army cheaper than an Austrian one would have cost, and much less than a French army (Raw Infantry, 3 points - hah!)

  4. Oh yes. I once planned a late C 17 Polish army, on the basis that the Hussars were the most expensive troop type going, and so the army would be cheap. Didn't know anything about Poland, though.

    However, that sort of choice is still a (sort of) choice, albeit based on ignorance and someone else's view of the world. An army dropped into a vacuum of understanding is, possibly, more dubious than an overtly politically projective army. Or, perhaps, ignorance really is bliss.

    Now, where did I put those Poles...?

  5. It's not a bad way to spark your interest in a country/culture though is it?

    Through that route you would have learned how important Poland-Lithuania was pre-18th century, about its unique constitution and probably gained a better understanding of international relations in east Europe today.

    Actually, Poland is a great example of how a culture can trump technology (and resources) in war. As a country it failed to protect itself throughout the 18th century until almost the last minute. Completely hamstrung by the noble assembly.

    1. Oh yes, I did eventually learn an awful lot about Poland in the C 17 and C 18, and exactly how dysfunctional it was. Probably the best army (in parts, anyway), the most democratic state in Europe of the time, and almost totally unable to defend itself because of the politics.

      Also, an interesting example of a wargamer's interest (the troops) managing to ignore the problems of the politics of the country. According to the rules, the Poles should have dominated Europe and Asia.

      I never got around to painting the figures, though...

  6. Democratic. If you were a noble*.

    "Your count votes".

    * though I read (in Vanished Kingdoms I think) that there were an awful lot of them

    1. The same sort of thing that unbalanced pre-revolutionary France, I think. everyone became noble; nobles didn't pay taxes (they were 'taxed in blood' defending the realm). No income for the crown, hence looming bankruptcy.

  7. Hi,
    I agree with Ross that there was a tendency to seek decisive battle since a long time ago. Yet, I also think that those who waged wars were very often afraid to give battle - only few are curageous or foolhardy enough to start such an uncertain and costly affair. Probably that is the reason why there were relatively few decisive battles. This correlates finely with what du Piq writes about people in battle - only a minority actually try to do harm to its opponent, most just try to stay alive and unharmed. I suppose this also happens on the high level of command.

    Eventually we end up with theory that prefers decisive battle and practice which dodges it and we can find many examples for supporting either situation.

    Concerning the subject I would say that choosing somebody's army very often is based on "These fellows have such and such cool uniforms or weapons or I have read they did something special." - just a general impression with no deep research. As we can see in comments above, only after "starting an army" one is looking for more information.

    I cannot restrain myself not to comment on Poland. :)
    I do not know much about C 17-18 - it was never my favourite. Nevertheless I can recall that around 10% of population was allowed to vote - I suppose it is clearly a record for its times.
    The feel of freedom in Poland was so great that we have some proverbs on this, for example:
    "Noble at his farm is equal to the voivode." (meaning a poor noble which had to work with his own hands to support his family has equal rights with a high ranked and wealthy official).
    Another goes like that (although I am not sure if it generated back than or in the C 20): "Russians have to obey [orders], in Poland man does as he wishes".
    I tried to make translations understandable, so they are not as beautiful as in polish. Try to break your tongue on this:
    "Szlachcic na zagrodzie równy wojewodzie."
    "Musi to na Rusi a w Polsce jak kto chce."

    One of the main reasons of fall of the Republic (Rzeczpospolita in polish) was the rise of strong, centralized monarchies focused on waging aggresive war and extending their territories this way (Sweden, Russia, Prussia), whereas the Republic almost exclusively resorted to defensive policy. Faced with agressive neighbours from three sides, the Republic struggled to survive, but did not abandon its republican values. In the essence, centralized monarchies were able to gain on wars, while Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth only lost - in people, territories and wealth, no matter what the battle results were. Eventually its neighbours became so strong that first Russia than Prussia dominated the internal state of affairs in the Republic which eventually led to so called partitions. In fact partitions and erasure of the Republic from the map were directly caused by reforms to strengthen the state. This caused threat to our neighbours and they acted accordingly, abandoning bribery and political fussing to direct use of force.

    P.S. Poland is in central, not eastern Europe - at least according to International Geographical Union. This shows nicely what differences in discourse can be. :)
    P.P.S. I think you noticed Poles have some peculiar inclination to talk about their country. I hope you will forgive us if I tell you that this is a consequence of our recent not so bright past. Struggling for two centuries for freedom resulted in two main mental stands. One is to hate your own nation and history and wishing it finally dies, rests in grave and lets you begin anew. The other is to make it live again and flourish.
    Part of the second attitude is talking about Poland to anybody that listens. If one is also fond of history, as I do, it makes him hardly bareable to many, I suppose.

  8. Hi,

    presumably the ones who won decisive battles were courageous, and those who lost were foolhardy :) Of course some major battles, like the Somme, were fought for political and well as strategic reasons, although the distinction is probably lost to those on the ground.

    I suspect that everyone likes to talk about history, particularly wargamers. The little western historiography I recall is to regard Poland as a tragedy, constantly betrayed by 'great powers' (by which I think they mean picked on and carved up). As you say, attempts to strengthen the state often lead to wars (and not just in Poland, either).

    And, of course, from the western side of the Iron Curtain, everything else was 'east'. The concept of 'Central Europe' seems to have disappeared from our geo-political discourse since the end of WW2.