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.