Saturday, 25 January 2014

The Two Blades

In the philosophy of science, there is a concept of having two blades to attack any given problem with. The first blade, normally considered to be the lower one, is empirical data. By this we mean the stuff experimenters generate. The upper blade is theory, the results of what Galileo described as the ‘mathematization of nature’ (I am sure it is more elegant in Latin).

So, for example, the concept of the Higgs boson was from the upper blade, that is, it was a theoretical construct, derived from a mathematical model of the universe, or some small (or very small, in this case) part of it. The lower blade required the construction of an extremely large, expensive and complex experiment at CERN, the efforts of hundreds of scientists and engineers and a good deal of media coverage.

Fortunately for all involved, the two blades met and a bit of the model of the universe was verified, to cheers and mutual backslapping all around and the dishing out of Nobel prizes to everyone.

Science, however, is a bit more complex than that. For example, the derivation of the theoretical model of the Higgs boson was based on the standard model of sub-atomic particles, which had been experimentally verified, in smaller but still hugely complex experiments, which were based on theories which in turn were based on experiments. And so on, back to Aristotle dropping stones and noting that they all fell downwards.

Of course, there are oddities and unexplained phenomena abounding in science. The fact is that these anomalies tend to be parked on a shelf until there is the interest and resource available to investigate them. I am, in fact, the proud possessor of such an anomaly, although I do not expect that anyone is going to be interested enough to try to resolve it in the next century or so. However, it is still there, in the literature, should anyone be interested enough to give it a go.

History, too, could be suggested to have this twin blade effect. We do have historical data, in the forms of documents and artefacts from past times. For example, we have Herodotus’ account of the Battle of Marathon. We also have some archaeology from the site of the battle, we have some bits of accounts of the paintings in Athens of the battle, possible a few Persian like objects from Delphi, and so on. Data is in existence, it just is not very complete.

We also have a set of expectations about humanity in general. We know, for example, that soldiers need to eat, and so some provision needs to be made for this. We also know that horses need feeding as well, and are rather less good at not eating for a cause than humans are. Thus, theoretically, we have our upper blade. The Persian army at Marathon needed feeding, as did the cavalry which was present. This leads to constraints on the numbers of horses that could be present, and also on where the cavalry camp was positioned in order to provide grazing. Furthermore, of course, humans can carry their own water; it is better if horses are led to it.

Thus, the two blades of history start to close a bit. The data gives us, working upwards, as set of possibilities for what happened. How we interpret this data is constrained by how reliable we think the writer is, how close to the action, how likely to be misinformed, and so on. Similarly, artefacts, while useful, can be misleading. However, these items form the lower blade. The upper one is constrained by our outlooks as historians. So, for example, I mentioned before Christopher Hill who would have us believe that the English Civil War was a result of class conflict. Well, maybe, but if that is our perspective as a historian, it will colour how the data lands up in our writing. Not that I am accusing anyone of dishonesty, it is just that a given perspective will inform how the data is interpreted.

Of course, as wargamers, we are not quite so interested in how history is done. We would like historians to give us orders of battle for different armies, detailed investigations about weapons and so on. Unfortunately, we are more likely to get another article about homosexuality in Greek antiquity than Alexander’s campaigns in India. The Academy simply is not interested in the nuts and bolts of warfare.

As rules writers and consumers, of course, this gives us a bit of a dilemma. We have some older works, the upper blade of which is assumptions common to the time about history, imperialism, civilisation and so on. The lower blade is pretty much what we have, barring a few manuscripts and archaeological finds.

Thus, while we can make our rules on this basis, some of the core interpretations might not square well with modern interpretations of what happened. Our rules might reflect some of the older assumptions, such as the Romans were the good guys and brought civilisation to much of Europe, or even that the pilum was a super weapon, a cross between a longbow and a machine gun.

So, as wargamers and wargame rule writers, we are forced back towards examining our own assumptions about history, and how they might form the upper blade of our historical analysis. To be sure, so single synthesis will cover all the historical contingencies of the real world. Some bits, as with some results of science, will simply have to be shelved until the next new concept comes along to provide an interpretation. But, in the world of wargamers in Western liberal democracies we need to examine some of the assumptions that underlie our own worldview.

Just as an example, it is common in history just now to talk more about the common people and their experience than the elite. In wargaming terms, does this mean that the rabble is given more power than the historical record allows, because we have picked up a prejudice in their favour? The original writers of chronicles and accounts would have been elite, after all, and biased against the rabble. Have we over compensated?

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Communities of Wargamers

It is actually quite interesting to ponder the various communities of wargaming. At least, I find it so, and as I am the one writing the blog, the rest of you will simply have to put up with it. But the Fact is that communities of practice come with histories and those histories are, by the nature of the world, contingent. Things could have been different.

Now, I am not about to launch on a history of wargaming. I do not have the time, skills or, to be perfectly honest, that much interest in it. Wargaming is a hobby; it might be of interest to sociologists or social historians, but I am, in fact, a wargamer. Such sociological studies or histories may be of some peripheral interest to me, but I am not the one to create them.

Nevertheless, a quick perusal of wargame blogs do show some pervasive influences. The influence of, say, Don Featherstone is widespread. Most blogs mention him at some point, or one of his books. And that was the case even before he died.

Another unsung hero of the hobby is whoever invented the six sided die. Without such a tool how on earth could we actually wargame. I know that several rule sets use more esoteric die shapes, often imported from the world of role playing games, but the six sided die is, as it were, the workhorse. Many rules use only those die.

What is, then, the influence over the game of the shape of the die? It does limit, in some way, the possible outcomes of the question which is put to it. I mean, a simple sort of question would be ‘hit or miss’? You have six options to map onto these two, on a single D6 roll. Of course, you can throw two dice and increase the options, or you can throw matched pairs of dice and subtract one from the other. By these options you massively increase you range of outcomes, but those outcomes are still dictated by the shape of the dice.

It is an interesting question as to how we actually arrived at this point. My guess is that early wargames (or rather wargamers) simply purloined six sided dice from, say, Monopoly games or similar. The six sided die is pervasive because it was available. It is, of course, so widely available because it is easy to make, I suppose.

Similarly, the early wargames were often made up of Airfix figures. I started with such, and recall my surprise when I encountered in, I think, Tony Bath’s Battles With Model Soldiers an Airfix Plains Indian chieftain figure on a horse masquerading as Carthaginian light cavalry. Charles Grant’s Battle was full of Airfix WWII figures, and so on. I confess to having been somewhat startled recently at my local gardening emporium to discover they have started to stock Airfix kits and figures again. I was sorely tempted, of course, but I have quite sufficient wargame projects going n at the moment, however.

Clearly, though, even the “big names” of early wargaming were not above pressing suitable (or even marginally suitable) figures into use. Without Airfix plastic figures could wargaming have got the boost it did? I am not going to attempt to answer that question, but it might be worth pondering. Furthermore, if, for example, Airfix had actually managed to produce, say, English Civil War figures, might the relative popularity of the period be greater than it is now?

All of these factors, and many more besides, all feed into the history of the wargaming community (or communities) as they are now. We do, as a hobby, have a history. As a result, we have some aspects of the hobby which are, to use a rather charged word, rituals. Again, a swift perusal around the blogs indicates that the ritual of attending a wargame show is quite common. I confess, I hardly go to shows these days, because living next door to nowhere rather precludes attending, but when I lived nearer to civilisation I did usually go to one or two a year.

But why?

I suggested above that wargame shows are something of a ritual, and I think they are. You get to meet people. You get to put faces to traders and, in modern times, faces to bloggers. You see the latest trends, the latest releases, try out some games for yourself, and, of course, see what is becoming trendy. The overlap of this and, say, scientific conferences that I used to attend is quite significant, I think. It is about creating and maintaining a wargaming community, probably inducting new members into it as well.

Some of the blog reports of shows I have seen bear a startling literary resemblance to Pilgrim’s Progress – a group set out, have adventures on the way, tell each other tall stories and arrive at the destination. At that point, of course, the tall stories carry on, and lots of purchases are made. Mind you, judging by the quantity of pilgrim badges you could buy in medieval Canterbury, some things clearly do not change that much.

The point, if point there be, of this ramble is that the community of wargamers, in its broad sense, is informed by this sort of history. I have only picked out a few bits and pieces, more or less at random, to indicate the sorts of contingencies which make up the hobby as we know it today. But the claim I would make is that it could have been a different hobby, if things had turned out differently.

Thus, I would claim that wargaming has a history, which is contingent, and which shapes the sort of thing that wargaming in the present is. This does not mean that wargaming in the future is not going to evolve, or even take some startling jumps in content and process, but that it will still, in all likelihood, be within the contingent history which will remain behind it.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

History, Wargames and Ethics

It has been a while since I have written anything about ethics, possibly because I have run out of thing to say about it. But I think it is worth having another go because I have noticed recently that even writing history is an ethical process, in so far as the historian has to make some decisions about what counts as history for them and what does not.

To try and show what I mean, consider that you are a historian, however amateur, and you are investigating a battle. It would also help if you had a large quantity of time available, which is not normally the case for most of us, but let us pretend that you do.

Firstly, you have to accumulate the data. By this I mean you have to dig through the archives, find documents, track down other sources, go and view that battlefield and so on. You might also want to read some secondary sources, which will guide you in what other people, at least, have thought about the battle and which bits are important, and, hopefully, some more general works about the period, the general political, cultural and social parameters in which the protagonists operate and the structures of society and their development.

That is quite a sizeable chunk of work already, but now it starts to get harder. Firstly, of course, you need to read your sources. And you need to do more than just read them; you need to try to understand each source as a source on its own. What is the viewpoint of this eyewitness? As we have discussed before, this makes a significant difference to the weight we place on a given source and how we interpret it. You get a very different report of the battle of Balaclava if the eyewitness was with the 21st Lancers or brewing tea on the heights.

You also have to try to treat each source on its merits, and not to discount one because of what you have read in another. It is likely that things in different accounts will contradict. At this stage, you cannot really worry about that. Simply, you have to park these concerns on the shelf until a bit later in the process. It is much like science, really; you often get results you do not understand, and have to leave them until you know more, have done more experiments, more theory, more reading, got more understanding.

Now you are hopefully in a position to check over the history of the interpretation of the battle. This might be very simple, because no one is really interested, or it might be very complex. Perhaps the battle is part of the foundational myths of a country; perhaps it is an obscure skirmish the in annals of distant history. Either way, you will, as a historian, have to come to a view of the history of the interpretation. At this stage you will, quite likely become aware of the different viewpoints of different historians. In part, this will be because of the sources they have access to. It is quite possible that new documents have been found, to add to the data pile, since they wrote. But it is certain that they will have particular social, cultural and, possibly, ideological points of view and axes to grind. For example, Dame Veronica Wedgewood is possibly a little biased towards the Royalists in her accounts of the English Civil War. On the other hand, Christopher Hill is the key historian for a Marxist interpretation of the same period. And so on. These issues cloud a historian’s judgement, necessarily.

There are other, more subtle, influences. In her book of essays History and Hope, Dame Veronica describes a trip to the battlefield of Rocroi. Her taxi driver is baffled as to the destination. There are plenty of more recent, more important battlefields nearby to visit. Why this one? But she was writing just after the upheavals of the Second World War. Did she edit the influences out immediately? Did the more recent struggles colour her view of, say, Oliver Cromwell’s regime? These are not questions we can directly answer, but we need to hold them in mind.

Having got so far, it is time for you, as a historian, to try to bring some order. You have a pile of interpreted accounts from the original data. You have also a pile of secondary sources, with some idea of what the historian is trying to say, and the influences and biases they might bring to their works. Now, it is your turn; it is here that ethics creeps in.

Even for a fairly small battle, you are probably going to have far more material than you could possibly fit into a book. There is the background to the war, the background to the campaign, the background to the specific battle. There are orders of battle, the combat histories of the units involved, the biographies of the commanders, assessments of the accuracy and utility of the arms and armour, and so on. You need to make choices as to what you are going to write about. You need to make judgements about what is important and what peripheral.

In these judgements, of course, you are making ethical decisions about what to leave in and what to leave out. To take a simple example, a history of the Second World War leaving out the atrocities would be rightly condemned. But, give the limits on the size of a book, how do you achieve a balanced view? Your ethical stance will be coloured by your social, cultural and political views. How do you make honest judgements and assessments? Finally, of course, your aim in writing comes to the fore. If you are writing a military history, how far do you go in describing the atrocities the units involved in the battle may have perpetrated?

I do not, of course, have any answers. But I can say that honesty is the best policy. You can read Hill on the ECW because he is well known to have a Marxist view and analysis. Allowances can be made; his sources can be checked. Arguments about how important the Levellers and Diggers were can be had, because we know why he has highlighted them.

Of course, as wargamers we then have to design our rules, create our scenarios paint our figures and organise our armies, which is another set of problems in itself.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

History and Horizons

I have, of course, got rather confused with the complexities of communities, horizons, individuals and, in the final analysis, how history itself fits into this. This sort of thing is, of course, dabbling my toes in the philosophy of history. As I have quite enough trouble with considering epistemology, metaphysics, ethics and the philosophy of wargaming (in so much as the latter exists outside this blog and the ravings of my poor overheated brain), I do not really want to start pondering history too much. But the logic of the things I have been writing about is pressing some sort of description upon me.

Firstly, we have an event at a given time. Say this is a battle. Now, it is possible that some people might dispute that such an event took place. This is increasingly the case the further back in history one goes. Was there really a battle at Meggido? Well, quite likely, but you would not find it too difficult to find someone who seriously doubted it. Was there a battle at Stalingrad? I find it hard to believe that anyone would seriously argue that it was a construct of the human shaping of reality.

So, this is our first point. Something happened at a point of time, in a certain place. The reasons why it happened depend on the context of the time and place. For example, the context of the Russian front in the Second World War, which itself arose from the peculiar theories of Hitler, and so on. This is, if you like, our first horizon or set of horizons. What did the people involved in the event know, not know and, perhaps as importantly, what were they not interested in? I am coming to the opinion that what people (specifically in this case, generals and similar) do not know or are not interested in, is as important as what they do know. Hence the focus upon horizons.

Secondly, there is the horizon of the person or people who wrote about the event. These can be many and various, and depend on the context of the writer. Some documents might be the diaries of those units involved. These might detail movements, casualties, orders and so on, but do not give a huge quantity of other information. Memoirs might add context, but, depending on who wrote them and when may have some difficulties concerning accuracy. These might consist of simply forgetting the precise sequence and timing of events, or more self-serving comments about who ran away and why.

Now, these things, diaries, memoirs, reports from headquarters, letters to Parliament, whatever, actually form the data for our historical enterprises. As already suggested, they are not unproblematic. Some may well be downright contradictory; we have discussed here briefly the question of Wellington’s lunch at Salamanca. The exact timing is disputed, but could be important. Similarly, with, say, Cromwell’s reports to Parliament, we have to try to distinguish what happened from his Puritan and theological interpretations of what happened. I dare say that no-one would really believe that God really made the Royalists stubble, but we do have to try to figure out what he meant.

Thus, we have to try to interpret these documents (and anything else, such as archaeology, which might turn up). We have to assess how accurate a report might be, how well it fits in with other reports. Is there an overall narrative that we can discern in these documents, a story which seems to fit most of the facts? And then we have to note the bits which do not fit this narrative. We may not be able to account for them, but we have to acknowledge their existence. In terms of science, we simply have to leave the facts on the shelf for the moment, acknowledging that we cannot fit them in to our narratives, our theories or models.

Then we hit the third set of horizons which, in many ways is the most difficult and complex. We, as historians (however amateur) have our own horizons. We know some stuff; we are not interested in other stuff. We might go through all our sources and simply note the bits about unit strengths and the development of battles, and ignore all the boring social history stuff that may come along with it. If that is the case, then we may be missing and excluding things which may be important to the development of the campaign, or, at least, to assessing the reliability of the source.

There is a more difficult aspect of our horizons yet. We are members of our culture and society, with sets of experiences which are mediated by that. Our education, for example, is heavily influenced by the society in which we live. As an example, Sir Charles Oman could pretty well assume that his readers would have a smattering of Greek, Latin, French and German, and to be sufficiently educated in the classics so as not to need the parallels labouring to them. This is probably not the case, these days, and most modern books supply translations, if, indeed, they bother with the original language.

Thus the historical investigator has his own horizon to grapple with. We are not interested in some of the things our sources are interested in, and we are interested in some things that they were not. Tacitus, for example, could quite happily make up speeches for barbarian generals. He had no chance of ever knowing what was actually said; in fact, his critique of Rome is often placed in their mouths. But we, as (post-) modern citizens, expect to be told what they did say. We have, therefore, to try to understand the context of the writer before we can interpret what they are writing.

We also have to try to understand our own context. For example, medieval Christian writers were, on the whole, horrified that St Augustine had a concubine and fathered a son. Modern writers are usually horrified that, while trying to make an advantageous marriage, he simply sent the woman (who is unnamed) away and never saw her again. The point is that the difference in response shows differences in assumptions between the writers, let alone between them and the culture in which Augustine lived.

I am sure there is much more to be written about this, but I shall leave it there for the moment. But the point is that we do have a tendency to build our history (and hence our wargames) on masses of assumptions about ourselves, our sources and their relationship to what happened in history. Sadly, it is much more complex than that.