Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Callousness of Generals

I do not, usually, post comments on books until I have finished them. However, I also believe that rules are there for the breaking if you have a sufficient cause, so I am going to pass comment on something I have recently read, but not yet finished.

The book in question is Nigel Biggar’s ‘In Defence of War’ (Oxford: OUP, 2013). This is a book which is aimed at all those pacifists out there who think that there can be no justification for using what is euphemistically called ‘violent coercion’ to achieve their ends. In an early part of the book Biggar gives some examples of the terrible things that happen in war – civilians being machine gunned in the Falaise Gap, for instance, or a description of a casualty from the US Marines who is still alive, despite having, apparently, only half a body. These, however, are balanced by some accounts of what happens when war is eschewed, such as Srebrenica and the massacre of Muslim men.

War, then, according to Biggar, is nasty and deeply unpleasant, but, as a committed realist, he has to defend the idea that sometimes it can be justified. In fact, as a Christian ethicist, he has to go further and argue that war is not only, on occasion, justified, but actually just, in terms of the just war theory developed by St Augustine and, in various forms, still with us today. Along the way Biggar has to deal with assorted pacifist positions, including those of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, as well as non-religious pacifists, and, so far as I can tell he is doing so with some style, although in my view he has missed the key modern nonviolence oriented theologian in Walter Wink.

But I am digressing, somewhat. One of the most interesting bits of the book so far are when Biggar shows real engagement with military history, something quite rare among moral philosophers in my experience. He has, for example, and extensive discussion of who was to blame for starting the First World War (Germany, in his view) and, in pursuit of discussion the proportionality clause in the jus in bello part of the just war theory, he has some interesting comments on generalship.

Biggar includes in this section a discussion of the planning for El Alamein. In this, the corps commander describes the duties during the battle of an armoured brigade. They are to break through the German lines and hold the gap, while the next armoured brigade rolls through to exploit it. The brigade commander comments ‘that could cost fifty per cent casualties’. The corps commander responds: ‘The general is prepared to accept one hundred per cent.’

Biggar notes that the general in question was Montgomery, who, despite any flaws which we might need to argue about (alongside whether he was actually any good) was immensely popular with his men. Part of this popularity was because the men believed that he would not waste their lives unnecessarily. Indeed, while not being a World War Two aficionado, when he came to command in Normandy, I believe that he could not be wasteful with lives as the British were pretty well at the end of their manpower reserves. Major losses could not be replaced at that point, and he had to substitute boots for guns.

How, then, do we deal with this apparent contradiction? It is not, incidentally, just Montgomery who behaved in this way. Douglas Haig is widely slated as disregarding the lives and welfare of his men. And yet Haig is documented as having visited units before the start of the Somme and having been prevented by his staff from visiting hospitals and aid stations after the start of the battle because the sights of his first visit practically incapacitated him.

So there appears to be a contradiction between the battle planning of the generals and their compassionate response to their men.

It seems to me that this might shed some light on why people respond somewhat negatively to wargaming as a hobby. Generals, it is widely believed in modern culture, are callous. They are ready and willing to put the lives of their men on the line without a care for their wellbeing, just to achieve something like an abstract breakthrough, or to gain a few yards of Flanders mud. It is not often mentioned that generals are often deeply concerned about their troops, and this not just because well fed and rested soldiers are better fighters.

In wargaming terms, of course, we can simply act as entirely callous generals. We can accept, for no particularly good reason, horrendous casualties among our troops because they are the perfect stoic warriors, with no dependents, and infinitely replaceable. While real world generals can be concerned about their men, at least before and after planning for the battle, wargamers do not have to do this.

Is there a sense here, then, that we are actually callous towards the real world battles (or, indeed, fictional ones) and the suffering that they inflict upon the participants? Our little lead troops are magnificently unswayed by either victory or defeat, in a way that real soldiers are not. As wargamers, when we concede defeat we can simply pack the little men away until next time, while a losing general has to deal with the shreds of his army, try to pull himself and them together, mount a rear guard action and so on. He also has to explain why he lost to political masters and, possibly, be vilified in the press and sacked.

I suspect that I have mentioned before that the context for these post battle activities is a campaign game, and I do wonder sometimes whether wargamers shy away from campaigns because it would engage them in these wider, and more ethical, considerations. On the other hand I confess that most of my campaign games handle these matters at an abstract level, and so I would be as guilty of ignoring them as the next wargamer.

But it is an interesting book.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Models and Disclosures

I have written on this blog, over the years, a fair bit about models. This has included their functions, purposes, limitations and uses, along with more obscure subjects such as the ethics of their use and the ability of a single model to represent reality, at least in a fairly limited manner. In all this, however, I have left the question of why we need models, or why we have models, rather to one side.

Now, of course, models pop up in all sorts of places in life. For example, science and engineering could hardly progress without models, at least of a certain kind. To some extent, a scientific model is a paradigm of what a model should be. It is specific, it give predictive answers for given input. Its range of applicability can even be defined, so that it is known when a specific model might not give reliable answers. And, of course, the model can be tested against the real world, to see if the assumptions and approximations made in constructing it are valid.

Other forms of model also appear in life, however. For example, in social sciences there is a secularization model, or approach, which makes certain assumptions about the impact of scientific and technological advances on society, and the disenchantment thereof. This is not, of course, a mathematical model, but it allows a certain broad based interpretation of evidence to be placed within a particular schema. Nor is the secularisation model predictive, except in the widest sense that what has happened in the past is likely to continue into the future.

The advantage of such models is that they can, at least, be argued over. The secularisation model is not, now, widely accepted to apply (as religion has made a comeback in culture, society and politics) but it still gives an interpretation of evidence, even though that interpretation is not now widely accepted.

In history, too, models are used, although they are not, perhaps, widely acknowledged as such. For example, some of the arguments about the origins of the English Civil War rely on models, such as the rise of the gentry, the decline of the gentry, the impossibility of governing three disparate kingdoms, the problems of having a king like Charles I, and so on. Each of these is, or implies, a certain model or set of models of the natures of the societies and cultures of the time, and the fact that they do not agree, or contradict each other, implies that here are interesting questions to tackle.

A model, then, in the social sciences or arts and humanities is not, strictly speaking, then, a scientific model, but an interpretative tool of… well, what?

The point about models is that they allow us to focus on certain bits of a system. By assumption, some bits are believed to be important to the topic in hand, and some bits are not. Thus, in writing say, a set of wargame rules for a given period, we might argue that the interaction of pikemen and musketeers is vital, and focus our modelling effort on that aspect.  We would then evolve a set of tactical rules which, if we had done our job well, would model the musketeers occasionally running away and hiding under the lowered pikes of the central unit block.

Now, of course, this model could well be challenged. Evidence for musketeers actually behaving in this manner might be deemed to be weak, and other models, such as disciplined musketeers discharging a salvo at fifty paces and seeing off the horse, could be put forward. But this is, more or less, the function of the model in the first place. The original model provokes, through questioning of its function and assumptions, a counter model to be developed.

This is all a bit Hegelian, of course. We have a thesis, followed by an antithesis, and we look forwards to some sort of synthesis, at which point the whole cycle starts again, with our new synthesis model provoking something different. But the point is that this progress only appears as a result of working with the particular models involved.

There is, then, something about the model and its use which provokes the human mind into action. We study the models, even if they are, in the case of history, implied ones. We examine their assumptions and try to question them, bearing in mind that the assumptions made may either be very close to our own if we come from the same culture and society, or very different. We can then try to scan the evidence put forward for the correct functioning of the model. How many gentry families were in decline in the decades before 1640? How many were prospering? And so on.

By thus working with the model, its outcomes and evidences, we can start to draw our own conclusions. The model provides us with mental stimulation, with questions to ask about understanding of the model and what it is trying to represent. If you have ever tried to explain something to someone, eventually you have to leave it up to the person in question. Eventually we run out of explanations, and the person has to work it out for themselves. Hopefully, our explanations will have been sufficiently good for them to exclaim ‘Ah, now I’ve got it’. This is the moment of insight, the point at which the model discloses something about the world which the mind can grasp.

The point, therefore, about models is that they give the mind a simplified universe to examine, in which disclosures about what is (or was) ‘really’ going on occur. If a wargame is true to some sort of reality, then it should be able to provoke some sort of disclosure to the participants. I think this would work even for a non-historical scenario. Medieval French knights could well be swamped by Incas in a wargame, which might disclose to the wargamers that medieval French knights needed proper support, and were not a super-weapon in and of themselves.

And, of course, if that happens, we might have learned something to feed back into our rules.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

History, Imagination and Wargames

I have been perusing R. G. Collingwood’s  ‘The Idea of History’, which was originally published, so far as I can tell, in 1946, although the author died, sadly, in 1943. Despite its age, it is still noted in my Boys Own Bumper Book of Philosophy as being very influential in the philosophy of history and, as it was on sale (for my very own battered 1961 paperback version) for the princely sum of 1 penny (plus postage; really, the postage rate these days is scandalous to us cheapskates), I decided to give it a whirl.

Collingwood’s judicious assessment of exactly what history is and how it is done is very interesting, and I commend the volume to the historical wargaming fraternity. One or two of his ideas may well have already crept into the blog as it is, so I thought I had better become honest and confess to that, and to give credit where it is due.

Throughout the book, Collingwood is at pains to distinguish different sorts of history. For example, he discusses extensively ‘scissors and paste’ history, where the historian simply cuts bits out of his sources, treats them as authoritative, and does not really question them or interpret them.  If two sources contradict, the historian has to make a decision about which is the most reliable and use that one.  He might note that opinions on the point differ, but that is as far as it goes.

Critical history, Collingwood argues, is history where the sources are not treated at face value. The authors of the sources (or makers of the artefacts) may have their own problems. For example, a chronicler may simply be misinformed, or report a certain set of events for theological or political (or even legal) reasons. Their informer may be misinformed, and so on. Thus, a critical historian will treat his sources with some caution rather than simply accepting what they say.

This is not to be a historical sceptic, however. The past did happen and people did report it accurately. We do have some chance of reconstructing the past and understanding not only what happened (which Collingwood calls the outside of the event) but also why it happened (the inside of the event). History, Collingwood claims, is the history of human thought.

By this, as I understand it, Collingwood is arguing that what a historian does is try to understand why historical actors made certain decisions, given the choices they were presented with.  These decisions were mediated by the cultural, social, political (and so on) milieu in which the historical actors were placed.  So, for example, the question posed to Henry V along the lines of ‘shall we invade France?’ is answered in the affirmative according to the lights and understanding of the age. The historian has to understand these in order to understand Henry’s response.

It might be that in this case a modern historian would argue that there were economic reasons for the invasion, or internal political reasons (a young dynasty needing victory in battle over foreigners to authenticate itself, perhaps). But, aside from these there must also have been considerations of honour, what kings do, the legal claims of the English crown to that of the French and so on. The historian would have to have a handle on all of these in order to try to understand the decision making process of the English crown.

History, then, is an imaginative process. The historian has to, in effect, imagine himself back in the English court, with the mental processes and cultural baggage of the time, the knowledge and understanding of the international situation in mind, and to imagine the process of making the decision to invade, where and how to achieve that, and so on.

Thus history has a significant element of imagination about it, but it is not writing a historical novel. The historian is driving at the truth of what happened; a historical novelist does not have to do this, so long as the world they create is coherent and plausible. The historian has to do this and try to ensure that their picture is of things as they actually were.

History, then, has three elements. Firstly, the space and time must be specific, localised if you like. Things happen, historically, at given times and places. Novels can vary widely and wildly, and can be set in a world which simply has the flavour of history. Secondly, history has to be self-consistent. Historically, things happen, and there is usually a traceable cause and effect. Even in historical novels, this need not be the case. The narrator can be, for example, unreliable, and so the novel can unravel in so far as the reader’s knowledge of rationality is challenged. Finally, history has evidence. Now, historical novels can have evidence, as well, but this is more freely interpreted than the historian would allow.

I am fairly sure that the application of this to historical wargaming is clear to most readers, but I will labour the point just in case. The question which arises from this view of history is ‘is historical wargaming more like a novel than history?’

I dare say that more than a few historians would argue exactly that. Wargaming is at best a second or third order interpretation of historical truth, to which is added the insult of random elements, rather than a proper narrative of events and their underlying causes. Thus, this line of arguing would proceed, wargaming can add nothing to the understanding of history.

Nevertheless, I think I disagree, even slightly with that statement. If history needs imagination then, as I have previously suggested, a model of a battle can surely act as a stimulus to the imagination. By an imaginative effort the historian wargamer can enter the mind of the general (or other) and see what decisions could be made, perhaps even understand why some decision were not made.

Thus, I claim, historical wargaming can (but, of course, need not be) something which aids the historical understanding. Of course, many games are not historical; perhaps they are more like novels.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Things in Wargamer’s Heads

Despite my earlier protestations, I have been reading a bit about historiography and (sort of) the philosophy of history). I am not claiming to have managed anything more than a toe in the water of this subject, and I earnestly hope that I will not have to. Nevertheless, it has thrown up some interesting questions about what is going on when we wargame.

To start off with, the question is asked as to what a historian might be doing when they settle down to write their history. I have already mentioned the sifting through documents, artefacts and so on which has to be done, and how the decisions which are made at this stage reflect the contemporary situation from which a historian writes.

However, the next question is something along the lines of what is going on in the historian’s mind when they are doing this? This, of course, links to some of the more obscure and abstruse bits of philosophy of mind, in that the historian, of course, is doing all those things that we usually do when we are reading or writing, such as forming perceptual images, interpreting these in some way, co-ordinating movements to read or write, and so on. And I am sure you will be pleased to know that I am not going to say anything more about these.

The real question is, of course, how does the historian understand the images created in his or her mind so they can then write history. One suggestion is that the historian actually creates a mental image of the event which they are studying and writing about, which they can enter and study in great detail. Then, they can write about it as if it were a real object, although it is actually a mental construct. Then the reader, reading the historians words about this mental construct, can themselves build a similar mental construct to that of the historian and hence generate the same understanding of the event as the historian (assuming that the latter has made a reasonable job of communicating their own mental model of the event).

This is a sort of idealism. The real event is created as simply an object of the human mind, and can, therefore, be written about and described as is it were real, but with the implied assumption that the historians mental model suffers from the limitations described above, as well as those imposed by the paucity of material which the historian might be working with. 

Nevertheless, this is a view of historical writing which is allied, at least, to Bishop Berkeley’s idealism, the argument that nothing is there unless you look at it. The historical event does not exist anymore, and so when one reads a historical text (or examines an artefact), we create the event in our minds. Berkeley would argue that we do the same with ordinary things like tables: to be is to be perceived.

The main problem with idealism of the Berkeley sort is that it contradicts our experience, even though we cannot actually prove that it does. We know, intuit that objects do not pop into existence and disappear depending on whether they are being looked at or not. What most people miss is that Berkeley, being a bishop, was actually using this as an argument for the existence of God, in that God, being omnipotent and omniscient, could perceive all things at the same time and so kept the universe in existence. But I digress.

An alternative point of view is that we create some sort of phantasm in our minds, using what we perceive and our imagination. We can then ask questions of this phantasm and understand bits of it, assuming that it is intelligible (as opposed to say, a dream, which might be vivid, but is not usually intelligible). The process is thus one of having an experience, be it imaginative or perceptual, asking what does this mean, having an insight into what it does mean, how it does work, and then evaluating this as to whether it works or not.

We can thus argue that the historians work is in creating these phantasms, obtaining insights into them as intelligible, deciding that this insight is valid, and then writing it down for the rest of us to evaluate, critique and argue over.

This, I can now finally claim, is not very far from what wargamers do when they set out to wargame a particular battle. We create, in our minds, the phantasm of the battle, and reify that phantasm, in some way, on the table top. This involves us in the same sorts of decisions that a historian makes as to what is important, what really happened when the evidence is thin, and so on. The difference is in the output, of course. The historian’s output is a book or journal article. The wargamer’s output is a scale model of the battle along with a dynamic narrative about it.

The advantage of the wargame is, of course, the concretisation of the mental phantasm. Models communicate to others in a way which books or articles do not. It is one thing to say that the ditch at Flodden broke up the Scottish foot, it is quite another to actually see the feature in a scale model and appreciate the disruption that it might have wrought.

That said, of course, the wargame suffers from all the limitations described above for this historian or lack of evidence, bias, skimping on the detail and so on, plus a whole load associated with the modelling itself. On the other hand, it could be argued that at least with the wargame the biases are out in the open. If you think the Old Guard at Waterloo were undefeatable supermen, then you do have the answer the question of why there were not on the ridge before the Prussians caused major problems.

As with historical writing, a wargame should be open to being corrected, or should even be self-correcting. How many of us have thought ‘no, that can’t be right’ when wargaming, and then gone back and adjusted the moves, the motives or even the rules themselves.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Scale Models

I have, several times, mentioned that our toy soldiers are models (obviously), in fact, scale models of the real thing. Thus we expect our scaled down fusiliers to be carrying fusils, our grenadiers to be wearing something that, at least, bears a passing resemblance to grenadier uniform, an so on.

Usually, I have left it at that and moved on to something else. For example, I have considered before the implications of the mismatch between the scale of the scale models and the terrain and ground scale of the wargame itself. However, I think it might just be worth considering, even briefly, the implications of our scale models.

Now, obviously, there is a one to one match between a given scale model and a historical precedent. For example, a English Civil War musketeers is a representative of the genre, of which there were thousands wandering around Britain in the 1640’s. But can we push this a little further? Can we, for example, use our musketeers as a musketeer of the Thirty Years War?

In general, the answer is yes, we can and many do.  European fashions of the seventeenth century were fairly standard. A jacket of some sort, breeches, a wide brimmed hat and so on were found pretty well everywhere from England to Bohemia, and so our musketeers finds himself being quite a versatile chap.

How far, though, can we push this? Could our musketeer represent a similarly armed man from 1550? Possibly, yes, although the fashions were a bit different. How about a musketeer from 1700? Probably not, as the tricorn hat was de rigeur by then.

However, I have also said that troops in a wargame are, in fact, tokens. They are tokens not as scale models of a specific troop type, but as troops in general. They do not, in fact, have the powers that the rules grant them by their own existence as, say, musketeers and pike men, but by the meanings which we, as wargamers, attribute to them as a consequence of those rules.

This seems to mean, then, that we could, for example, deploy a legion of Romans onto the table top and assign to them the properties of English Civil War musketeers. They are, after all, tokens. They would have the same properties as the ‘correct’ scale models, under the rules, and occupy the correct space for the functioning of the game. But we do not do this. In fact, there may even be out there some eyebrows twitching at the mere suggestion of it.

Therefore, while it is possible to wargame with simple tokens, mostly, as wargamers, we do not do so. And I suppose a question that arises from that is “why not?”

I confess, I do not have any terribly good or convincing answers to the question. As English Civil War musketeers and my legionaries as pikemen, I would probably get confused and have the pikemen firing volleys and the musketeers fending cavalry. But that seems to be something of a trivial reason for expending all this effort in sourcing figures, painting them and ensuring a degree of historical accuracy.

There is also another issue creeping in here, which is about exactly how transferrable our figures are. I imagine that everyone likes to have the right figure for the right job. Some troop types, like my musketeer, are more flexible than others, but how far can we push this? This has been raised on the Baccus forum. How many obscure troop types, or troops with very limited deployment does a manufacturer need to make before a range is deeded to be complete?

For the manufacturer, of course, there are cost implications. Why should they have to go to the expense and trouble a creating a new figure if, for example, only one company of the troops was ever deployed? They are unlikely ever to recoup the costs of creation by selling the troop code sufficiently widely.

This then loops back to questions of tokens and transferability. Some obscure troop types can be created by the wargamer by using a different paint job. The unforms are more or less the same, it is just that the specific troops wore shocking pink jackets, or something of that ilk. I doubt if most of us would quibble at that.

Then we can push a little further. How about those for whom the basic uniform is the same, but which need a little modification, such as a different hat? I seem to recall that Don Featherstone advocated making new hats out of plasticine and hardening them with nail varnish. Leaving aside any worries about acquiring nail varnish, would most of us accept such a model to be its historical prototype?

A lot here, it seems to me, depends on the confidence of the modeller. For example, I remember seeing, in wargames magazines, lances decorated with stripes rotating up the shaft. Is this historically accurate? I really have no idea, but it did look rather nice and, being on the front cover of the magazine, was being portrayed confidently as being historical.

But I do have my doubts. Such things may have been for the tournament, but as the lance was, pretty well, a one shot weapon on the battlefield, I do have doubts as to whether such fancy implements were used that often in real action. I might well be wrong, or simply too much of a modern utilitarian to understand, but I do have doubts here.

So, we can accept simple paint job conversions, and even minor adjustments to the gear of a scale model to model a different prototype. But how far can we go? How far before we say ‘this is wrong’? I am not sure that I know, of define it. To be sure, there is some effect of the confidence of the modeller, but what if we really cannot source a scale model, nor find something to convert into it? Do we simply give up on that unit, or use something else on the basis that they are all tokens anyway?