I have just finished reading ‘Empire’ by Niall Ferguson (Penguin, 2003). This is, of course, slightly outside my comfort zone as I do not, generally, wargame or read history post 1800, or even post 1700, assorted rants about World Wars One and Two aside.
Anyway, ‘Empire’ is a good read, and even rather amusing in some places, but it does make a point which had not really considered before. That point being that Africa was largely colonised at the muzzle of the Maxim machine gun. A bunch of, say, Fuzzy-Wuzzies were not going to overcome the machine gun in any sort of fair fight. The Boers only did so relatively well because they had modern weapons (the Germans sent them to cause trouble, in which they succeeded).
This got me around to thinking about the colonial period of wargaming and problems associated with it. Firstly, of course, there are all the problems of asymmetric wargaming, which can be an inspiration but can also cause problems. By asymmetric here, I do not think I am meaning quite the same as modern asymmetric warfare, where one side is a bunch of insurgents and the other is a regular army with firepower but struggling to contain civilian deaths (something which does not bother the insurgents, as all such deaths can be blamed on the regular army).
By asymmetric, therefore, I mean one, small army with high firepower against one, probably much bigger army, largely without modern weapons. Of course, scenarios can be created of ambush, or small parties of well-armed regular against ever increasing numbers of native, and so on, which can make for a balanced wargame. Similarly, inventive supply rules can keep the modern army on tenterhooks as to whether they will survive or not. Somehow, there is always the possibility of balancing up the game.
On a larger scale, of course, as already hinted, the carve up of Africa was mainly an issue of European power politics. Outside bits of the British Empire, most colonies cost the coloniser money, as well as lives and resources, and did not really produce that much. But the point of, at least the scramble for Africa was prestige, of doing down your European rivals, blocking them strategically, and so on. After all, the British were heavily involved in Egypt because, strategically, it guarded the passage to India. German policy before and during the First World War was to create sympathetic Arabs who could cause the British problems here. It more or less did not work, but it was an issue for the British.
As Bismarck once remarked, his map of Africa ran through Europe. No African was present at the Berlin conference which carved up Africa into European zones of influence and basically meant that the Scramble for Africa was on. And so our colonial wargaming, in general, springs from this sort of viewpoint. Professional armies, with the latest weapons, can simply go into some native area and seize it, mowing down anyone who objects with a machine gun. Quite often, of course, this movement into native areas was provoked by the fear that another European power was about to do the same thing.
So, colonial wargaming is predicated on European power politics, and those power politics are, in fact, the same ones that led to the outbreak of the Great War. As most wargamers are probably aware, there were, in the twenty years or so preceding the Great War, a number of colonial incidents which could have led to the outbreak of war between the colonial powers. That they did not is probably simply a matter of luck.
The issue here, then, perhaps begins to press on our ethics of wargaming. Is a colonial wargame, of spears against Maxims, as fair fight? Is it really something that we wish to reproduce in loving detail on the wargame table? At Omdurman (1898), according to Ferguson, 52,000 Dervishes took on 20,000 British, Egyptian and Sudanese soldiers. In the following five hours, around 10,000 Dervishes died; possibly ninety five per cent of the Dervish army were casualties, while around four hundred on the Anglo-Egyptian side were killed or wounded. Fourth-eight British soldiers were killed. Can we ethically reproduce this carnage?
The problem here is, in part, the motivation of the original participants. The Dervishes were brought into action, and remained there, through religious devotion. The British were there for revenge, as the expedition was at least in part a response to the death of Gordon. I think it is rather hard for us, as wargamers, to reproduce such motives on the table. The result of this is that a wargame of Omdurman becomes a clinical exercise in mowing down natives with machine guns.
Of course, with clever scenarios and rules we can change this. We can, for example, make the Dervish objectives simply to do better than the originals. We could challenge them to kill more Europeans, or to reach the river, or whatever. By doing this, of course, we could argue that we are no longer recreating Omdurman. We could also argue that we are giving the Dervishes a chance. But is that chance not one imposed by the colonial power, inviting our noble but lesser opponent to try a bit harder, safe in the knowledge that the machine gun will always win?
I am not suggesting that all colonial wargaming should cease until these ethical problems are untangled, and nor am I claiming to have answers to these issues. But I do think it is worth acknowledging that such issues do exist, that wargaming does not exist in a ‘game bubble’ which bears no relation to the past or to its interpretation in the present. While wargaming is a leisure activity, it is not as such immune to such issues.
Those of us (and I may be alone, of course) who struggle to think that a wargame of the first day of the Somme could be in strict good taste should, perhaps, also reflect that Omdurman might also be tasteless. Just because the Victorians said they were savages does not mean that is how we should see the Dervishes. The casualty rate was appalling, just not in ‘our’ (western? colonial?) men.
And perhaps, finally, I can understand why none of my own armies are post-1713.