Saturday 3 May 2014

How to Annoy Historical Wargamers

Now, I may, possibly, in the past, have made some controversial statements, created arguments which have been easily demolished, worked from my own experience which has turned out to be not the mainstream experience of the readers of the blog, and so on. I have pondered the meaning and method of history, the processes by which we attempt to transfer historical events like battles to table top and rule book, and attempted a critique of the ethics, if ethics there need be, of wargaming.

All well and good, so far, but it has all been written more or less, within the normally accepted paradigms of historical wargaming. That is, we have a table, some representative tokens of the terrain and units, a set of rules to convert from wargamer space and time to wargame space and time, and a whole load of tacit assumptions that we make about holding a wargame.

I have recently finished another book, this time entitled ‘Philosophy and Practice in Writing a History of Ancient Israel’ (M. B. Moore, T & T Clark New York (2006)). Now, before all of you with a more atheist point of view switch off, I am not attempting to proselytise here, but I would like to draw on some of the ideas presented in the work (which is, I think, a PhD thesis prepared for publication) and apply them to wargaming.

Moore identifies three sorts of historical writing about ancient Israel. Broadly speaking these are the “early” school, from the earliest archaeology through to somewhere around the 1960’s, the minimalist school, which argues that the text used (the Hebrew Bible, usually known as the Old Testament, at least in the west) and the non-minimalists.

If I sweep away most of the arguments and nuances, I would describe the minimalist school as the one of the postmodern sceptics. They do not believe that the text can be used in any straightforward manner, to give a historical framework for a history of ‘ancient Israel’. In fact, the scare quotes are apposite, because some minimalists argue that there is little overlap between the scholarly construction that is ancient Israel, and the historical reality that was historical Israel. The texts, they argue, are too freighted with theology, ideology and myth (in its technical sense – origin stories which tell us about the world view, but not the history, of a people) to be of any use, except in incidental fragments, in reconstructing the history of the Near East.

The minimalists also argue that the text should be treated in its historical context, that is, the time in which it was written and first circulated, not the time about which it was written. Thus, given that most minimalist scholars, at least, date the Hebrew Bible from the Persian or Hellenistic periods, nothing much can be said about, say, pre-exile Israel and Judah. There may be a few hints and scraps in the archaeological record, but that too is rather problematical on the same basis as the Hebrew Bible; texts are texts, after all, and an inscription to the effect that ‘I defeated Omri of the House of David’ could also refer to mythical or ideological (or, indeed, theological, in the sense of “my god is better than yours”) world views rather than straightforward historical reporting.

Now, consider this. The Campaigns of Alexander the Great were reported by Arrian, mainly, in the second century AD. Alexander died in 323 BC, somewhere around four hundred hears before Arrian set quill to papyrus. Other accounts of Alexander are similarly late and some, while they main contain some genuine material, are the accumulation of fiction, myth and story over centuries.

In the spirit of the ancient Israel minimalists, therefore, I would like to ask the question, when we reconstruct, say, the army of Alexander the Great, what, exactly, are we reconstructing?

A minimalist Alexandrian would argue, presumably (if such a creature existed) that when we reconstruct Alexander’s army, we are, in fact, reconstructing an Early Roman Empire view of that army. For all the fact that Arrian appears to have drawn on earlier sources, he nevertheless was a senior Roman official and, presumably have the world view associated with Rome, which was certainly not that of a Macedonian king of 400 years earlier. Thus, when we reconstruct an Alexandrian army, we are not doing anything of the sort. We are constructing a Fiction, something that might look like a Alexandrian army, but is not. It is a ‘ancient Macedonian’ outfit, not a ‘historical Macedonian’ one. At best, it is our interpretation of a Roman interpretation of Alexander’s army.

Now, of course, it may be that you, as, say, a Napoleonic wargamer, are simply sitting there smugly and thinking that, while this is very interesting, it has nothing to do with you.  I am afraid, however, that when this sort of scepticism gets going, there is really little to stop it. As I have written before, history is, at least in part, about selecting the information and evidence you are going to use. It is quite possible, I am sure, to write a history of the Napoleonic wars such that the Imperial Guard are supermen who never lost a battle. This is then a myth of ‘Napoleonic France’ in the same way as ‘ancient Macedon’ and ‘ancient Israel’ are myths. There need be no relationship between this story and history and the past which happened.

I could multiply such ideas across every wargame period. Every period suffers from the same selectivity of evidence, and, of course, the biases and interests of the historian. As wargamers, we have our own biases and interests, which are then applied to the books of history (whether secondary or primary sources) that we read. Thus, what we recreate in our armies and our games are really only loosely connected with history as it happened.

So, if you really want to annoy a historical gamer who is more worried about the number of buttons on the gaiter of the 23rd line regiment, tell him that it really does not matter, as the unit bears only a superficial resemblance to anything historical anyway.


  1. Interesting. In fact the buttons on the gaiters - to the extent that fact followed regulation - may be one of the few immutable truths we can hang on to. The rest of the story is, as you say, uncertain.

    If everything lies somewhere in a probability distribution (I don't hear Heisenberg sneaking around here, do I?), then the written history, whatever its faults, has to be one of the alternatives that we take seriously. If the only version of the campaigns of Alexander that we have is known to be dodgy, it might still be the best approximation we have. Students of Montrose, for example, are advised to avoid Wishart's eulogy, but it still contains a lot of detail which should not be rejected out of hand.

    You are right, of course, but maybe this simply boils down to a standing instruction to take everything with a pinch of salt. As for historical gaming, we very quickly get into authenticity vs plausibility, and - for a game - sometimes near enough is near enough. I have little patience with the pedants of the hobby - apart from when i am being one myself. If I'm going to go to the trouble of building and fighting my own miniature version of the Peninsular War, it might as well be a version i like.

    On occasion, like everyone else, I am forced to take a stab - especially stuff like best guesses at an unknown regimental colour. If someone can confidently come back and tell me how that flag should have looked, and that I am wrong, then I shall accept their view with good grace and I shall have learned something.

    1. Heisenberg sneaking around? Good heavens, I hope not. I'd be getting really postmodern if I were to suggest that the closer we study history, the more uncertain it becomes. Although that is probably what I am suggesting....

      I think that the problem as wargamers is that we would like (I was going to say 'need' but that is pushing it a bit far) things which are not recorded, or not in a form we understand. And so we make plausible guesses, which then become wargame law, even though further research might show that it is wrong, or at least no longer the best guess.

      As for being pedantic, the assembled company here is one of the least pedantic set of wargamers I have encountered, for which I an truly grateful, because I couldn't write some of the stuff and get away with it if were more so!

  2. I'm afraid it doesn't just apply to history. How accurate would a history of the 21st C Iraq or Afghanistan wars be if based on news reports and official. Eye witness reports often add a different perspective but of course involve a restricted viewpoint, limited knowledge, human memory and usually some aspect of what might be called a personal propaganda agenda.

    The real problem is of course really believing that we can ever "really" "know" "the truth" about anything or that anything involving humans and other aninals etc is fixed and immutable.

    1. I agree, and it may also apply to my answer to the question 'what did you have for breakfast on Monday of last week?' I might tell you, but it is unlikely I can prove it or that you can test my answer for truth.

      I think that the wargamer's problem is that we would like to know answers to questions which cannot be answered; so we make up what we think are likely answers and then start to argue that they are true.

      On the other hand, outright scepticism doesn't get us anywhere near a playable game, so we just have to go with what we can do. But we do need to be aware of our limitations, the limitations of our sources, and try not to get too hung up on "history".

  3. I thought this was going to be a short post: 'Tell him that he is really playing a fantasy game'. :)

    As MSFoy notes, we have to take our best guesses at times, because the information is not there to provide a fully historically accurate model for our armies. The problem with those best guesses is that many wargamers are really not very good at interpreting history and historical documents, as Guy Halsall pointed out in a recent blog post. Generally speaking, most lack the critical toolkit to assess the source material. They do not consider the traditions within which authors were writing and thus interpret as fact things that are really literary devices or just traditional ways of referring to other tribes/nations. Context really is everything. Another issue is the use of translations instead of going to the primary source material, as has been discussed on this blog before. Then there is the lack of sufficient knowledge to critically assess the secondary texts, which can result in poor quality studies becoming popular within the wargaming fraternity. Finally, vocabulary is crucial to shaping the debate. It sets up particular expectations and directs our thought processes. Part of understanding the past is examining the expectations created by particular terminology and questioning it. I have mentioned before on this blog (I think) that our understanding of ancient warfare is coloured by expectations created by our knowledge of more recent horse and musket warfare, so we often discuss ancient armies in terms of units, or consider that cavalry and infantry are different, when some armies fielded troops mounted or dismounted according to need.

    As Ross writes, there is no objective Rankean truth out there for us to find, but we can certainly seek a limited probable historical reality and in doing so enrich our games a fraction. The key is understanding the source material and its context, which requires a greater level of commitment to research than most wargamers are willing to give. It is really about the game in the end for most of us.

    1. I agree; mostly, myself included, we want solid answers which, given our culture, should be 'scientific' proof. Unfortunately, such an animal cannot exist in most subjects.

      I think that you are right, we do measure most warfare by modern standards. One of the things which is starting to intrigue me is the possible back projection of our knowledge of standards of discipline and training onto older armies. In short, I am beginning to suspect that most armies were rabbles, except for a few elite units (like Alexander's Companions), at least until the close of the medieval period and the influence of neo-stoicism and the renaissance.

      It is really about the game, but given that we spout of about history as wargamers, I think we could do to become, if not more critical and engaged with source material (I am a monoglot myself) then at least to be aware that there may be issues.

      Still, we can always admit that we play fantasy wargames, just with the right number of buttons on gaiters for a particular period.

    2. Something in there reminds me that I have been guilty of making assumptions about historical warfare largely because they are convenient. Perish the thought. Heaven forfend.

      As an example, many years ago a friend and I spent many beery evenings sorting out our ideas about a particular period of Ancient wargaming. At one point, we considered the possibility that the armies of this period might actually have travelled around as a crowd - in the same kind of tactical vacuum which we might discern in (e.g.) a swarm of bees. At this point we had a glimpse of the abyss - war-games consisting of very large numbers of independent (and independently based) individual figures, each subject to their own morale etc. In fact not unlike the sort of war-games I played with toy spacemen and footballers (and possibly zoo animals) when I was a nipper. Eventually we decided that such a swarm would tend to subdivide into groups small enough to obey the commands of a single leader. Units, in fact.

      This was so convenient that we breathed a large sigh of relief and ordered more beer, and never considered the matter again.

    3. I think that we have to take convenient answers from time to time, probably far more often than we we would like to. We also tend to argue from analogy, which is always a weak one.

      But if we waited until we knew everything, we would never get anywhere.

      And beer does help settle these issues, although it can, of course, sometimes raise them to an intensity they do not deserve.

  4. MSFoy, when a game is to be played, convenience should not ignored as a factor in the enjoyment of that game. I too am guilty of opting for convenience purely for the sake of getting a game played, because I have learned over the years that I must do so. I have a campaign game for Operation Brevity in WW2 that I would love to play. It was originally published in Miniature Wargames many years ago and I dutifully collected the figures for the game and painted them all. Then I did a bit more research into the operation, because that is the sort of person I am, and I discovered that the orders of battle given in MW were not right, based on the latest evidence available at that time. I have continued to seek new material and confirmation of various conclusions I have drawn about the campaign over the years. These days I realise that I should have taken the convenient option and just enjoyed the game that was presented in MW. It is possible to overthink things, and I know that I am frequently guilty of this. I need to learn to opt for convenience more often and to get on with the beer-drinking and gaming.

    The units issue is an interesting one. Individuals react differently from the way that groups of people react, so dealing with them in groups is right, but the question then is how large that group is and whether it constitutes a unit in the modern sense or is more like a medieval battle or Viking shieldwall. Is this a cue for another Polemarch post on models?

    1. I think we do have to remember that it is only a game. Another example is in Featherstone's Solo wargames where he give the order of battle for the Roman army in Britain at the time of the Iceni revolt. This came, I think, from a historical novel (Imperial Governor, I think, rather good except for the affair with Cartimandua).

      But further reading suggests that it is wrong. And I, too have never played the campaign because of that.

      Oh dear. Another post on models? Really? But it is an interesting question 'when is a unit a unit?' I shall have to consider the matter further.

  5. I don't know that you're going to annoy any historical wargamers by pointing out that the history we spout at the drop of a hat is unreliable - just don't tell the people that we spout it to.

    1. Chris, evidently you move in different circles of historical wargamers than I do. I seem to encounter the ones who think the DBM army lists are history as it happened....

      it is funny, though. Historians often present their findings as fact in print, even when they hold them much more tentatively in real life. Mind you, scientists do the same. It must be something about how academia works.