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?