Saturday, 22 February 2014

A Few Random Shots

My ponderings, if such they be, here over the last few weeks seem to have been rather all over the place, and so I think I will take the liberty of this post to try to sum them up a bit and forge such links as there may be between them.

Mostly, I have been considering history, in its application to wargaming. This has taken the form, more or less, of initially considering the historian and her work. More or less, we have to come to the conclusion that the historian approaches history through the lenses of his or her own time. Thus, in Peter Wilson’s tome on the Thirty Years War he observes that CV Wedgewood, in her volume on the war, was writing in the late 1930’s, and she may well have seen similarities between Hitler (an Austrian dictator) and Ferdinand. Certainly she is not very sympathetic to the latter. Of course, similar claims could also be for, say, Franco and Philip IV of Spain, but I do not think Wedgewood made such. Similarly, Wilson observes, post war Eastern European historians saw the war in terms of class conflict and economic issues. Being under a Marxist system they could scarcely see it any other way. In fact, it is quite possible that the histories written by such historians tells us more about the time of writing than the time written about.

So much, perhaps, for historiography, which as a subject I have never much liked. But the point is germane. Each historical age writes the history that it is interested in. Perhaps that is why it is quite difficult to move in the classics these days for studies in homosexuality in the Ancient World. It could be argued that the modern world is so interested in sex generally, and, perhaps, homosexuality in particular, that future historians are going to define our own societies as obsessed with the subject.  Nevertheless, this is the history that we, as wargamers, are presented with by professional historians and the academy.

Now, it could, I suppose, be argued that we can do the same for military history. For example, the current arguments about the First World War could be arguments about whether it is right to go to war at all. The Germans always accused the British that they went to war over a piece of paper – the paper in question being the guarantee of Belgian neutrality. The British response was that Germany was a threat to civilisation. The ins and outs of this argument are really neither here nor there. But, given the present difficulties about military expenditure and military expeditions and the rights and wrongs of them, it is not, surely, a major step to suggest that arguments about WW1 fit in there, somewhere.

Do these sorts of arguments affect or inform wargaming at all? Insofar as a number of manufacturers are putting WW1 ranges out there, of course, the general interest in the topic does affect us. More models of the subjects, more rules, and so on probably means that more people wargame it, possibly read more about it and even, in some way, inform the public debate about the war. Perhaps too, although this would be incredibly difficult to prove, wargaming the war could inform us about how difficult it was to control a battle, to even find a way to advance in trench warfare on the Western front.

That suggestion brings us to another thread running through recent posts, which is something about what historians do when they research and write and, by analogy, what wargamers do when they wargame. It can be suggested that the job of the historian is to recreate in their own minds what happened in the period that they are researching, and to write it down to do a similar job in the reader’s minds. This is tricky and somewhat controversial (as far as anything in the philosophy of history is such), but I think it is possible to see what the argument shape is. In Thomist terms, the historian, through reading and imagination, creates in his own mind the phantasm of past, which is then available to him to have an insight into the past. Having thus examined it and judged it to be a true image of the past, it is then the historian’s task to pass that insight on.

So what about wargaming? Wargaming actually gives a physical model of a past event (given that the battle happened). Through it, as I am sure I have probably said before, we can try to obtain insights into how the battle went, or could have gone, something about the manifold of possibility available to the original participants.

Now, of course, wargaming is a fairly indirect method of trying to obtain historical insight, although it is probably no worse than some other methods of doing so. For example, writing a set of wargame rules forces the author to try to gather a full set of data about the troops, and to make reasonable assumption when this is not available. Now, this process could easily be accused of going beyond the historically known, but, on the other hand, it also highlights the fact that some things cannot be known but are, nevertheless, important to our understanding of a historical event.  Knowing that we are ignorant is probably better than not knowing.

Finally, I think I am still trying to get a handle on the relationship between history and wargaming in, as it were, the round. Possibly I am looking in the wrong place. If all (or almost all) history is based around present assumptions and preoccupations, then perhaps we should look at those to understand our wargaming. As a brief example, consider the recent movement away from individually based model soldiers to grouped ones. Could this be, in some way, representative of a shift away from the individualism of the late Enlightenment to a postmodern acknowledgement of the relatedness of all humans to each other?

I do not intend, by the way, to try to answer that question any time soon, but do feel free to contribute your own suggestions.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Neostoicism and Military Revolution

The name Justus Lipsius is not one on most people’s lips. It is not even one on most philosopher’s lips, nor on military historian’s. I doubt if there are many wargamers who have heard the name, either. As I hope to demonstrate, this is a bit of a shame, and he could probably be usefully more widely known.

As a quick Google search will show you, Lipsius was born in the Low Country in 1547 and died in 1606, having spent his life as a humanist scholar in various institutions, both Catholic and Protestant. Aside from being caught up in the Reformation, Counter-Reformation and the Dutch Revolt, his main claim to fame is the revival of Stoicism as a viable intellectual approach to the problems of his own day. He also had some influence on the way in which we think about ourselves, which had a knock on effect on the state and how it works.

Of course, Lipsius did not work alone. There was a good deal of intellectual and theological ferment at the time. By the 1590’s, the Dutch (along with other states) had a real problem. The nature of the war against Spain was such that cities needed permanent garrisons and, as these cities were also the paymasters, they needed to get along, more or less, with the civic authorities. This, however, was not the way of life of the usual sorts of mercenaries and adventurers (and, for that matter, the young gentlemen for who a bit of military service was the completion of their education).

The intellectual movement of humanism, and the Renaissance generally, had brought the works of the classical world back into circulation. The Roman army held particular fascination for some humanists, and it was only a matter of time before they started to propose Roman methods for the armed forces. The first writer, apparently, to suggest something specific, at least to Dutch ears, was William Lodewijk, who proposed volley tactics based on Roman methods of javelin throwing.

The use of Roman tactics, however, required a bit of a change in military training. Before this, such training had consisted of individual weapon training, and perhaps the ability to march in assorted directions. What, perhaps, was somewhat lacking was exacting training of the soldiers as a unit. The counter-march method of discharging muskets in the general direction of the enemy required a higher discipline than was generally seen and, along with the issues around fixed garrisons started to demand some degree of standardisation.

This standardisation focussed around weaponry and ammunition, where the Dutch rapidly became suppliers to the world, and also in drills for the troops. Thus we get, for example, the drill books, most notably of Jacob de Gheyn. I am sure you know the one I mean, or at least its illustrations of musket and pike drill. It turns up in all sorts of seventeenth century texts.

Lipsius was a leading scholar in the middle of all this, translating Seneca. His own work draws heavily on Seneca and the Stoics, as well as Tacitus. Lipsius, for example, argued that the Stoics, and Seneca in particular, were practically Christians. This is not quite as silly as it sounds. It has been quite seriously suggested that Seneca and St Paul met when the latter was incarcerated in Rome, and letters between them have been circulated (although they were forgeries, of course). Nevertheless, the Stoics were part of the intellectual Hellenic background against which Seneca and St Paul moved, and some bits of Stoic style thinking have been detected in Acts and some of the letters.

The Stoic doctrine of self-discipline, however, is the most interesting from this point of view. Lipsius argued, via Seneca, that steadfastness is the vital personal quality or virtue required in an age where everything is chaos. This requires the disciplining of the self to treat whatever happens outside the soul as irrelevant, the energy of the self being directed to maintaining peace and tranquillity.  The parallels between this and some of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are reasonably striking.

These cross-currents, therefore, came together in the changes we do see in the Dutch military system in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Discipline was increased, along with more regular payment of troops. There were changes in tactics, although their efficacy could be disputed. However, the reforms were adopted quite widely over the next fifty years or so, as the influence of them spread via Germany to Sweden, although it should be noted that the Spanish troops in the southern Low Countries also had to adapt to similar conditions, and found similar solutions.

So what is the point of all this, and why write about it on a wargaming blog?

Firstly, I think it is important to note that, while Lipsius was not a soldier, his writings did have influence on how soldiers thought about their craft, and also on how rulers considered their state and what it should do. Thus soldiers started to become employees of the state, rather than employees of a mercenary captain who was hired by the state.

Secondly, it starts me wondering about how troops behaved before the sort of discipline described above had these classical underpinnings. While Roman soldiers may well have been bred as Stoics, the intervening thousand years or so was not a hotbed of intellectual activity (although not as intellectually arid as might be thought).

Now, I am sure that the reforms did not happen overnight, and did not spring from nowhere, but I have written before about our toy soldiers being the perfect Stoic warriors, putting themselves on the line time after time, no complaining, no widows and orphans making claims, and so on. I suspect that many of our sets of rules are written in the same vein. This is how we expect troops to behave and react, stoically.

Now this may very well be true, but what happens to our rules and wargames if it is not? We like to speak of units, even when the only unit might be a lance of mixed cavalry and infantry, who may have marched, camped and even trained together, but in battle was split up into single arms units. What if these people were trained, not in Stoic virtues, but in either chivalry or some sort of hierarchical obedience? And what happens if that hierarchy is disrupted?

I am not saying that our rules, our views of medieval battle and armies are necessarily wrong, but maybe we have been looking at them through Stoic glasses.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

History and Wargaming

I think it is probably an unassailable fact that history and, at least, historical wargaming are linked. But what is this link, exactly? Why, for example, should people get hot under the collar (even just mildly) over the representation of the First World War? After all, we do not need to take a position on whether the British Army consisted of Lions Lead by Donkeys, or upper class twits cheering the plebeians on to slaughter, or whatever in order to represent the tactics adopted on the Western Front.

Nevertheless, the fact that such arguments can happen suggests that history, or at least perceived historical memory and understanding, does make a difference. World War One is a political hot potato at present, in the UK at least, because it is the centenary, and because it has become a bone of contention about the teaching and interpretation of history. Whether the political and elite classes in Britain were as stupid as portrayed in, say, Blackadder Goes Forth or not seems to be important, not least to the current political elite.

Obviously, this does have an impact on wargaming, albeit an indirect one. But how this comes about is an interesting question. We can all be amateur historians, and, perhaps, some of us are professional ones. We can all read the original sources and make interpretations of them. We can also read secondary sources and agree with them, or not, as the case may be. It is not usually the “facts” which are disputed here, but it is the interpretations of those facts which are argued over.

As I have probably mentioned before, as wargamers we cannot just leave the disputes to one side and carry on. If I were writing a set of wargame rules for the First World War (and, let me hasten to add, I am not), then the issue of command and control would inevitably arise. How is this to be represented? Were the Germans at a tactical level better and more flexible? Were the British really lions lead by donkeys, in which case they fight bravely but are badly directed? Are these just stereotypes, driven by, say, the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon? How heavily influenced is the rule writer by Oh What a Lovely War! Goodbye to All That and All Quiet on the Western Front?

The problem seems to be that when a historical spat gets going, the two sides get entrenched (no pun intended) and that leaves us, poor wargamers and rule writers, with a problem. Do we self-consciously come down on one side (described in WW1 spat terms as ‘the left’, meaning the lions led by donkeys team) or the other (the right, meaning the jolly well done all round because we won). And, anyway, how much of the spat is related to present day politics. Education, after all, has become a political football, and teaching history even more so, largely, I suspect, because it is regarded as being a subject which does little for the economy.

But before I digress too far, or start to turn this into a political blog post, the problem for the wargamer is, I suspect, similar to the problem for a historian writing a book. What are we actually trying to do?

A wargamer, perhaps, would have a satisfactory game if they enjoyed it. A reader of a history book would have a similar experience. But what if you then read another book, or played another game (under different rules) which contradicted the first experience. Would you feel short changed?

This sort of dialectic is fairly normal in history. Someone says something, which is contradicted by someone else, to which a counter-argument is presented, to which a reply is given, and so on. There is, in the military history literature at present (and for the last few years) such an argument going on about whether the Schlieffen Plan was, in fact, a plan, or a series of ideas knocked together by the German supreme command, or something retrospectively invented to give the initial German moves in 1914 a degree of respectability.

This sort of thing is how the academy proceeds. A lot of work is actually done in putting together these arguments. For example, the status of Schlieffen Plan affects your view of the entry of the British Empire into the war. If the Schlieffen Plan was a plan, then the German High Command should have figured out that violating Belgian neutrality would have brought the British into the fight. If it was cobbled together at the last minute to try to create a knock-out blow before Christmas on the French, the detail of the 1830 treaty might have been missed.

So the interpretation of a “plan”, whatever its status, has a knock on effect on our understanding of the war. The documents, assuming nothing new is discovered, are the same; I doubt if any archive has ‘Schlieffen Plan’ written on a box-file, but the documents being argued about are known. What is at doubt is the interpretation of those documents as a coherent plan or not. And, in part, that interpretation depends on the interpreter’s location in time and space.

For example, at school I was told, quite clearly, that the Schlieffen Plan existed, that it had such and such characteristics. That it failed because the BEF fought so hard at Mons and the Parisian taxi drivers transferred the French army to the Marne before the Germans could get there, and so on. That is one interpretation, of course, but it is not the only one. It was probably given by the time of the teaching and the location: what interpretations were available in a former great power that had lost its empire and sense of direction?

But still, as wargamers, we need answers to the question of, as I suggested above, the utility of the British command and control personnel and structures. In the absence of us being able and willing to delve into the archives and make our own minds up, what do we do?

I suppose the answer, as a rule writer, is to write our rules to try to encompass both camps, but that may not always be possible. Otherwise, we may simply have to choose one alternative and stick to it. But at least we could make that decision consciously and explicitly.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Stubborn Questions in Wargaming

Firstly, we have to ask how historical is historical wargamng? Of course, the answer to this is “it depends”, but a bit of a deeper think throws up all sorts of questions. For example, what, exactly do we mean by the word ‘historical’. Does it actually have to have happened? Does it just have to be one of the might have been moments? Do the armies simply have to be based on historical prototypes?

If it is the latter, of course, a whole gamut of other questions are raised. For example, are Charles Grant’s Seven Years Wars states historical, because they are self-consciously based on historical prototypes? Are my Fuzigore campaigns historical because they use armies of Rome, Gauls, and so on?  So a question is then asked of what we mean by historical.

Of course, it is slightly worse than that, given that history itself is not a coherent object. Each generation, probably each historian, approaches history with different questions in mind and, as I think I mentioned recently, different presuppositions. This means that different data is selected, different historical narratives are written and presented and so we, as wargamers, land up, well, possibly confused when we start to ask for historical accuracy.

We could argue that all wargaming is a form of fantasy. The relations between the real battles, the real terrain, the real problems and outlooks of the commanders, cannot be reproduced on a wargame table. I have commented before about the distortions of space that our figures and terrain, and the rules make. This is probably also true of time. Would it not be better simply to give up on this complex history thing and just play the game?

Naturally, many people simply do this. And that raises other questions. For example, can someone switch from say, commanding a World War Two Panzer company to commanding the chariots of a Sumerian army without one affecting the other? If it is fantasy anyway, does it matter if they can, or if they cannot? If they attempt to use the chariots as Tiger tanks, what sorts of issues does this raise, and why?

To some extent, these sorts of questions come down to whether we are historical minimalists or maximalists. Do we assume that our historical accounts are full and exhaustive, or that they only give a bare bones account, and lots of other stuff might have happened. If the former, then our rules presumably should permit only those events, those outcomes. If the latter, then the limit is only the imagination of the players.

In turn, this then means that the more maximalist our reading of history, the more restrictive our rules have to be. I am not arguing that any given rule set is at either extreme of this spectrum, but there is a continuum between them and a rule set has to sit somewhere on it, even if the author has not consciously considered their view of the history.

Another stubborn question is one which I have discussed several times here already, so I shall try to be brief. This is the relationship between chance and necessity. It seems to me that this is not as straightforward as we might like to think. Our dice rolls limit the immediate options to, say, six, or thirty six, or ten, or one hundred, or whatever we might like to create from our different shaped dice. These then may (but do not have to) limit our ‘black swan’ events and, also, might make some historical outcomes either highly unlikely or too probable for comfort.

A related issue is that we cannot calculate the probability for a rare event on the battlefield. We can, though some sources and recreation, have a reasonable guess at how many hits of a unit sized target a musket volley might obtain, but we have a good deal more difficulty guessing the probability of a cavalry unit routing a formed square of steady troops. A maximalist would, conceivably, argue that this must be covered in our rules. A minimalist might argue that it was so rare as to be discounted. Most rules would probably try to accommodate small possibility, but then we are back to the granularity which our event resolution process (rolling dice) creates.

Following on from that, of course, is the whole issue of emergent probability. One thing leads, inexorably, to another, but only one other thing follows. There is a system of cause and effect, but a given cause can create a whole manifold of effects, but only one is selected by the process of resolution, whether that be firing a cannon or rolling some dice. This seems to me to imply that there is an irreducible narrative to a wargame. Cause and effect is writ big, but we like our effects to be proportionate to the causes, even if real life does not quite work like that.

A final, fairly stubborn question is the one that is often at the back of my mind as I write these posts: what are we doing when we are wargaming? I imagine that I have written enough over the last few years to prove the point that wargaming is a complex cultural phenomenon and, thus, there is no single or simple answer to that question. Nevertheless, I do think (of course!) that it is a question worth asking.

One answer is that we are simply taking part in a pleasurable hobby, a bit of light escapism which just happens to have some sort of historically conditioned basis. Another is that we are some sort of amateur historians, attempting to recreate in our imaginations an event from the past, so it becomes intelligible and we can thus have an attempt at obtaining a deeper understanding of it. In the latter case we are, possibly, approaching what a professional historian might be doing when they settle down to write about their research.

Again, the escapism – recreation axis is a continuous one, and we may not actually stay in any one place on it. But it does seem to be a question about wargaming that will not go away, from my mind at least.