Saturday, 22 February 2014

A Few Random Shots

My ponderings, if such they be, here over the last few weeks seem to have been rather all over the place, and so I think I will take the liberty of this post to try to sum them up a bit and forge such links as there may be between them.

Mostly, I have been considering history, in its application to wargaming. This has taken the form, more or less, of initially considering the historian and her work. More or less, we have to come to the conclusion that the historian approaches history through the lenses of his or her own time. Thus, in Peter Wilson’s tome on the Thirty Years War he observes that CV Wedgewood, in her volume on the war, was writing in the late 1930’s, and she may well have seen similarities between Hitler (an Austrian dictator) and Ferdinand. Certainly she is not very sympathetic to the latter. Of course, similar claims could also be for, say, Franco and Philip IV of Spain, but I do not think Wedgewood made such. Similarly, Wilson observes, post war Eastern European historians saw the war in terms of class conflict and economic issues. Being under a Marxist system they could scarcely see it any other way. In fact, it is quite possible that the histories written by such historians tells us more about the time of writing than the time written about.

So much, perhaps, for historiography, which as a subject I have never much liked. But the point is germane. Each historical age writes the history that it is interested in. Perhaps that is why it is quite difficult to move in the classics these days for studies in homosexuality in the Ancient World. It could be argued that the modern world is so interested in sex generally, and, perhaps, homosexuality in particular, that future historians are going to define our own societies as obsessed with the subject.  Nevertheless, this is the history that we, as wargamers, are presented with by professional historians and the academy.

Now, it could, I suppose, be argued that we can do the same for military history. For example, the current arguments about the First World War could be arguments about whether it is right to go to war at all. The Germans always accused the British that they went to war over a piece of paper – the paper in question being the guarantee of Belgian neutrality. The British response was that Germany was a threat to civilisation. The ins and outs of this argument are really neither here nor there. But, given the present difficulties about military expenditure and military expeditions and the rights and wrongs of them, it is not, surely, a major step to suggest that arguments about WW1 fit in there, somewhere.

Do these sorts of arguments affect or inform wargaming at all? Insofar as a number of manufacturers are putting WW1 ranges out there, of course, the general interest in the topic does affect us. More models of the subjects, more rules, and so on probably means that more people wargame it, possibly read more about it and even, in some way, inform the public debate about the war. Perhaps too, although this would be incredibly difficult to prove, wargaming the war could inform us about how difficult it was to control a battle, to even find a way to advance in trench warfare on the Western front.

That suggestion brings us to another thread running through recent posts, which is something about what historians do when they research and write and, by analogy, what wargamers do when they wargame. It can be suggested that the job of the historian is to recreate in their own minds what happened in the period that they are researching, and to write it down to do a similar job in the reader’s minds. This is tricky and somewhat controversial (as far as anything in the philosophy of history is such), but I think it is possible to see what the argument shape is. In Thomist terms, the historian, through reading and imagination, creates in his own mind the phantasm of past, which is then available to him to have an insight into the past. Having thus examined it and judged it to be a true image of the past, it is then the historian’s task to pass that insight on.

So what about wargaming? Wargaming actually gives a physical model of a past event (given that the battle happened). Through it, as I am sure I have probably said before, we can try to obtain insights into how the battle went, or could have gone, something about the manifold of possibility available to the original participants.

Now, of course, wargaming is a fairly indirect method of trying to obtain historical insight, although it is probably no worse than some other methods of doing so. For example, writing a set of wargame rules forces the author to try to gather a full set of data about the troops, and to make reasonable assumption when this is not available. Now, this process could easily be accused of going beyond the historically known, but, on the other hand, it also highlights the fact that some things cannot be known but are, nevertheless, important to our understanding of a historical event.  Knowing that we are ignorant is probably better than not knowing.

Finally, I think I am still trying to get a handle on the relationship between history and wargaming in, as it were, the round. Possibly I am looking in the wrong place. If all (or almost all) history is based around present assumptions and preoccupations, then perhaps we should look at those to understand our wargaming. As a brief example, consider the recent movement away from individually based model soldiers to grouped ones. Could this be, in some way, representative of a shift away from the individualism of the late Enlightenment to a postmodern acknowledgement of the relatedness of all humans to each other?

I do not intend, by the way, to try to answer that question any time soon, but do feel free to contribute your own suggestions.


  1. Interesting post as always. I suppose I see wargaming - hobby wargaming, that is - as a way to bring a particular type of history to life. By acting out a role within that drama players are able to connect with the historical situation in a unique way. Some might say we can take it farther than that, but I'm still not entirely sure.

    As far as historiography goes, we in the western democracies are facing an interesting situation, to say the least. There are grave inequalities in education, health, wealth and so on opening up, and many of our children are likely to be worse off in various ways than we are. To make it worse, there seems to be no acceptable set of verities to dedicate or rededicate ourselves to to make things better. Perhaps it's easier to concern oneself to sexual and gender issues than it is to find solutions to the deeper problems we, as societies, are grappling with. Or there may be no connection whatsoever, of course!

    1. Ooops, 'concern oneself with' rather than 'to' there...

    2. I think I agree, in that a wargame is a dynamic model of a real event, at least in some of its particulars. But it could easily be accused of going beyond what is known, and thus being unhistorical. But lots of history does that, it has to, or history itself would be incoherent. History is built on inferences, after all, much like wargames are.

      i think it is certainly easier to bury oneself in minutiae and lose contact with the real world, and a lot safer, too. I suspect that is a problem with most of the humanities, though. Philosophy itself seems to be spending a lot of time doing the modern equivalent of counting angels dancing on pinheads than tacking the epistemological ad ontological problems of our age. That is modern academia; I suspect most useful philosophy is done outside philosophy departments, these days.

    3. "Perhaps it's easier to concern oneself to sexual and gender issues than it is to find solutions to the deeper problems we, as societies, are grappling with". Indeed. That's a great insight Prufrock.

      What I read the post to be saying, we should be honest with ourselves that OUR history and OUR wargaming will always be inexact, but that does not mean there are no useful points or insights. As long as we recognise the limitations, and are prepared to reflect on new information and ways of looking at the same old information, and adapt where necessary.

      For me, where wargaming can tie in with "Good History" is when it puts us in a position to see things how historical actors saw them and (re)act accordingly. Of course the framework which allows this to happen (the rules) is dependent on our view of history in the first place. And which aspects we want to focus on (I've got about 5 half finished drafts of different SYW games on my hard drive).* And that means it's always a work in progress.

      * Oh and I almost forgot, the framework is also partly dependent on what physical constraints we place on ourselves (if figure gaming which scale, or board gaming, computer gaming, committe games, counters, hair-roller armies...)

    4. I think that we have to accept that history as we understand it is predicated on the questions that we want to ask, and so, as each succeeding age has its own questions, history is always being re-written.

      Thus, as our wargames and their rules are based on this history, the nature of our games and the insights which they may provide are also products of the age in which they are written and played. This is not total - the physical constraints play a part too, as you note.

      So yes, I think that you have provided an admirablesummary of a 1000 word post :)