Saturday, 8 November 2014

Powerful Discourses

I have been reading, for no wargame related reason, a book about the problem of housing in rural areas in the UK. The problem is, as you can probably guess, that the prettier rural areas suffer from wealthy people moving into them, buying up the housing stock and forcing the prices up. The poorer paid local people and their children thus cannot afford to live in their local area anymore and have to either move to urban areas and commute back to their poorly paid jobs on the land or hope for some low cost housing to be made available to them.

The essay on housing, however, makes some interesting comments about the power of discourses over our views of rural housing. The dominant discourse is that the countryside is to be protected, and this is agreed by everyone, indigenous rural population, incomers buying up farm houses, planners and politicians.

The policy of protecting the countryside benefits some of the people above. Thus, for those who can afford to move to pretty country villages, it ensures that property prices stay high and their investment remains valid. They can claim that the communities they move into do not suffer from urbanisation because their pressure keeps development at bay. It also gives local planning officers, local politicians and national figures something to do, in that they seem to spend a fair bit of time considering planning applications for huge sprawling edge of village or town  estates that no-one in their right mind is going to accept.

The interesting thing about this discourse of protecting the rural landscape, communities and way of life is that everyone, whether in one of the benefitted groups or not, accepts it. The rural poor, who would in fact benefit from more housing (thus being cheaper) and bigger local towns (bringing more jobs and amenities to a nearby location) are just as clear about not wanting development as the richer, more powerful voices. In short, the discourse of protection has been swallowed, hook, line, and sinker.

Now, while this might be an interesting debate over the rural landscape, I think it does pertain to wargaming. Not, I hasten to add because there is any sort of politicking going on in wargaming; I think it is too disparate for that, but because I do think there are some dominant discourses within wargaming which the hobby might benefit from examining.

I dare say that I have banged on about a few of these discourses over time, but it might do no harm to have another bash. Writing the blog, in fact, trying to describe my own ideas and thoughts on the subject and also to see what others think.

I think my biggest beef with most wargaming, at least of a historical nature, is how out of date much of the history is. Wargaming generally seems to be stuck with its sources in the A. H. Burne and Sir Charles Oman. Now, don’t get me wrong, both did sterling work in their time to write history, and specifically, history of conflicts, in an appropriate manner for their time. But historiography does move on, and I cannot really believe that I am the only wargamer who gets frustrated (and possibly slightly depressed) when I see another article or demonstration game which is based on their interpretation of the sources.

For example, the battle of Neville’s Cross is, for a medieval action, quite well documented. But the most recent wargame interpretation of it was exactly that from Burne. Burne seems to have been unaware of some of the sources (not necessarily his fault). The upshot is, of course, that we present to ourselves, and to the public who might have a look, a wargame which has little relevance to the actual original conflict (insofar as we can know it) and also little relevance to modern research and consideration of more recent concerns. In short, our discourse of wargaming here is woefully out of date.

Now, we might argue that this does not matter, because the game is the thing. However, the devil is, I think, in the detail. If we claim that the wargame is historical, should it not be so to the best of our ability? We can comment on the niceness of the figures, the accuracy of the heraldry and so on, but when the action on the table is based on an account of the battle written nearly a century ago, some question over its actual historical accuracy might need to be raised.

Often, I think, well-meaning wargamers fall for these powerful discourses. We want our battles to be full of colour and activity. The line of least resistance is to take down Oman from the shelf, leaf through to the relevant chapter, and start recreating the battle. But we recreate Oman’s view of the battle, which is likely to have been superseded.  Oman, fine writer as he was, is not the last word on the subject; it is not that hard to find more modern accounts of battles and the circumstances leading up to them. In the case of Neville’s Cross, the differences can be significant.

So I think that one of the discourses which silences some wargamers, in the same way that powerful interest groups silence the rural poor and actually make them agree to things which are not to their benefit, is that the game is the thing and that historiography does not change that much. This argument implies that the interpretation of the sources can only be the same today as it was nearly a century ago. Thus, all we need to do is to make a table that looks like the present state of the battlefield, bang out a few nicely painted figures and, bingo! we have a historical recreation.

Present company excepted, I am sure, this does seem to be the dominant view among a significant set of wargamers. It might not even matter that it is historiographically impaired. But as a discourse that potentially silences other voices, other ways of wargaming and more recent historical research, I think recognising that it does happen might be a helpful thing.


  1. Really interesting comments. I think that you are right, but I also think that it shows a dearth in 'authoritative' period-wide works. During one of the interminable internet debates about the Napoleonic Wars, it became clear that there are lots of sources of great interest which were unknown to Anglophone and Francophone authors that refute, or at least counter, many of the prevailing views about that conflict. But until an author (or authors) produce those large, comprehensive guides, than I think that their influence is going to be limited, probably for economic reasons. Basically, until a modern author writes an equivalent "Art of War in the...", the older authors will still retain their dominance.

    1. I agree; for another example, the Thirty years War has documents in Latin, Czech, German, Dutch, Spanish, Swedish, Polish and Russian, at least. Plus archives spread across Europe. Who, after all, is going to be able to read all of that, let alone synthesise it? I can't imagine the Napoleonic Wars are better, probably much worse.

      So we seem to have hit a historiographic brick wall. It isn't just in the history of war, of course. Most of Aquinas' works remain untranslated and unpublished. Perhaps we get few 'art of war in ...' books because we are more aware of our own limitation.

    2. Isn't it a question of degree? i.e. if current historiography represents a paradigm shift, then basing our discourse on old books would be ahistorical. If it's just an adjustment in view then it's not such an issue.

    3. I doubt if most historiography is a paradigm shift, there there are interesting new angles around, like the relationship between the Roman Empire and the barbarians, which was a lot less hostile than used to be thought.

      Plus, of course, there are reinterpretations of what 'empire' means at all...

      I'm not sure it is a case of being ahistorical; more of understanding that a particular viewpoint might not be totally valid, and that authors have such a viewpoint, necessarily.

    4. I'm struggling to think of many examples where wargames would be played differently because of a shift in historical interpretation. That may say more about my limited knowledge than anything!

      I think most war gamers accept that they tend to have too many Panthers and Old Guard Grenadiers etc but beyond that I'm struggling.

    5. I think that Neville's Cross is a case in point. The latest interpretations indicates that most of the Scottish army was not in combat. So the assumed deployment of 3 bodies across the battlefield is wrong - it should be 2 small ones up front and the bulk in the rear (for real accuracy, running away).

      Similarly, our interpretation of Flodden is changed by the suggestion that the Scots pike fell into a ditch, making them vulnerable to English men at arms, rather than any intrinsic advantage the bow / polearm combination had.

      So I think these sorts of things can start to make a bit of a difference.

    6. To take two examples, Bosworth from the WotR and Baylen from the Peninsular War have been re-interpreted as a result of changes to where the battles are actually thought to have taken place.

    7. Ah, yes, Bosworrth, winner of the all comer's stick a pin in a map and point to the battlefield competition....

    8. Speaking of such things, some different/new perspectives on Verneuil 1424 on a TMP thread:

  2. One other thing that may be worth considering is the emotional investment that people have in a particular version of the past. I've noticed on some forums significant resistance to new interpretations of historical events. The new interpretations are put down with snide and sneering comments about revisionism and are refuted with old arguments that may no longer be valid in the light of new research. This suggests wilful ignorance at work instead of a willingness to engage with and critically analyse this new material. Most people probably don't have the time or energy for detailed research, especially when this is our hobby and not our work, so it is not too surprising that the discourse relates to older and more established texts that are readily available, and that people have heard of. This leads me to wonder about the time lag between publication of material and its adoption into the wargaming discourse. Perhaps it is not so much that the establishment seeks to silence other voices, as it is that the permeation from academe to wargaming is slow and tortured. The wargaming establishment is inherently conservative, so it takes time for new ideas to be adopted, because they must overcome that emotional investment I mentioned earlier.

    1. I think that emotional investment is a good point. We all like certainty, I think, and 'this is how the past was' gives us that, even if it is of questionable validity.

      After all, I suspect that most, say, Viking wargame armies still have horned helmets, as most ECW armies have musketeers with rests. It is what the wargaming community expects, after all.

      I also think that the academy is not really interested in presenting tis results in digestible formats, at least until the professors retire and produce populist tomes to eke out their substantial pensions.

      I'm not sure I mean that a wargame establishment seeks to silence other voices, just that the dominant discourse tends to do so, and tends not to listen to potentially destabilising historiography.

  3. I'd be surprised if 1 in 10 gamers over here had eer seen a copy of Oman let alone read it and I'm happy to see someone who has gone beyond an Osprey or the supplement that came with their rules of choice. But your point is valid.

    New intrepretations aren't always more correct but sometimes they are.

    1. Well, I think some Ospreys are excellent, and some are not so good, or rather dated, but it is nice to see some real engagement, even with secondary sources beyond the usual suspects.

      New interpretations are not always good ones, granted, and what is 'correct' in historical terms is moot, anyway. But Phil Sabin's point, that by wargaming we can try different interpretations out, is a valid one, and should be more widely exploited, I think.

      For example, he argues that the quantity of Persian cavalry at Marathon is rather unimportant, despite the ink spilt over the subject, compared to the quantity and fighting power of the Persian foot, at least according to his model of ancient warfare. that is where wargaming could add something to the historiographical debate.