Saturday 28 February 2015

Wargaming as a Social Science

I have been reading (for no good wargaming reason, of course) Peter Winch’s ‘The Idea of a Social Science’ (London: Routledge, Keegan & Paul (1958)). Given that it is still in print, I assume that it is still regarded as a significant discussion of the philosophy of the social sciences, even if some of the detail or arguments might have been superseded.

My idea here, as a result of reading Winch, is that wargaming is based on something which is analysable by the social sciences, to wit, war itself. And war, by whatever measure you consider it, is a social thing; it is something that humans do in groups. Not only that, but warfare is often heavily influenced by tradition. This is why, of course, most armed forces, which consistently reinforce their traditions, struggle somewhat (at least initially) against ‘unconventional’ warfare, such as insurgency.

To examine this a bit more closely, Winch argues that epistemology is key. Our ideas about reality are permeated by our social relations. Indeed, I think I would go a bit further and argue that, given that most of our knowledge is held in common with our fellow humans, our ideas about reality are, more or less, coincident with our social relations, so long as by ‘social relations’ we include such things as reading a book. My idea of the social sciences and their relation to philosophy comes, mainly, from reading Winch’s book; that, in my definition, needs to be a social relationship.

Given that, of course, our epistemology and behaviour are closely linked. I expect certain things to happen. For example, in the UK we drive on a certain side of the road. In Europe, I expect that to be different. My reality is different in different parts of the world. That does not mean that reality per se is different, just that the world varies as we move geographically, as indeed it changes over time.

In terms of the military and warfare, there are some expectations. In the western military tradition, according to some accounts anyway, there is an expectation of a stand up, knock down battle. This, the argument goes, originates with the Greek city states, who could not afford to waste good agricultural time posturing at each other in the hills, so they found a bit of flat ground and sorted the business in a day.

However tendentious this account might be, it does seem to be the case that some military traditions have the expectation that the enemy will stand and fight. Through history, often this has been the case, of course.  Wellington fought Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo. Both sides had to, in some sense, agree to meet there. Neither general, I imagine, thought that not having a battle was the solution to the problem of winning the war. It probably was not even a question that could have been asked at the time. The situation was to be resolved by fighting, and there was an end to it.

Naturally, these decisions are not, within their context, blind. Campaigns are not conducted usually with the sole aim of the destruction of the enemy forces, but with the intention of achieving some strategic outcome, such as the capture of a city or the withdrawal of a nation from the war.  The fact that battles occur are, at least in part, a consequence of this activity, not a part and parcel of it.

Nevertheless, there is a tradition of battles. Even now, with more or less continuous front lines in the two world wars, we still focus on particular sets of events and call them battles. Conceptually, an attempt to change the position of the front lines seems to indicate a battle, a specific effort in a limited region of warfare.

In wargaming, we buy completely (or nearly so) into this concept. We fight wargames and a wargame is usually a battle. I have, for reasons of developing rules, fought Marathon several times. It is a distinguishable battle, reproduced on the wargame table. When we agree to have a wargame, we are bringing a set of conceptual and social expectations with us. We expect the enemy to stand and fight.

Conventional military systems, as I mentioned above, can have difficulties when their expectation of the enemy is not met. The seventeenth century Europeans in North America complained that the natives undertook a ‘skulking way of war’, which was not fair. By this they mean that the locals hid in ambush, aimed shots at specific individuals and did not hang around to be chopped to pieces by metal weapons. This did not reflect European norms of warfare at the time, and, for a bit, the Europeans struggled (we could argue that European diseases had more impact on the native population, of course.

The military imagination, therefore, expected certain behaviour from its enemy. Often, this was to be found. European armies operated within a given set of social expectations. Non-European armies might have done, to a greater or lesser extent and, of course, given that non-European generals were not stupid, they may well have decided to adopt certain tactics to avoid the strengths of their enemies. But sooner or later, they might be ‘bought to battle’, a potentially western (or Greek) idea of a decisive encounter.

As wargamers we enthusiastically buy into this idea. Wars are about battles, and wargaming reproduces these battles on the table. We expect, as I said, the ‘enemy’ to stand and fight and, if they will not, it is not a wargame. This is a convention, not something which is discussed or negotiated before a wargame is agreed. As generals ‘offer battle’ in a conventional scenario, so too do wargamers. We do not consider whether we want to fight a wargame, but only the nature of the wargame to be fought.

This is, of course, a social convention. Our reality is one of toy soldiers, dice and tables, but the agreement to wargame is a traditional, social and epistemological given and, to some extent, I imagine, derives from military social conventions.


  1. I agree with much of this but would present 2 points.

    The 1st and minor one is that while the battle is the quintessential form of wargame it is far from the only form. I have played many a skirmish in which the aim was to avoid battle and carry out a mission. Getting a convoy safely across the table is one of the most common along with blowing a bridge etc or raiding an enemy location and getting away with loot or after causing damage to a depor etc.

    Secondly while battles in life are part of our military culture it is not just cultural. If you are footloose nomads like the Scythians you don't need to stand and fight but if you live in towns and cities at some point you can find yourself having to either fight or losing food and family. You might build a wall around the town and offer battle from behind it but that is still a battle.

    One of the most striking examples is how Europeans dealt with native American's reluctance to fight pitched battles. Unable to force them to stand they eventually started sending expeditions to attack their towns after the harvest was in. Ambushes and raids were usually not enough to stop the expeditions and the expeditions were almost always strong enough to win the final battle if one was attempted. The houses and food stores were then destroyed leaving the tribes to freeze or starve during the following winter. When the Europeans reached the plains where many tribes were nomadic it was harder to force battles but a variation on the brutal strategy of forcing a choice between starvation, surrender or fighting battles was used with the same long term result.

    One side had no cultural belief in decisive battles but were faced with the choice to fight one, surrender or die anyway. Insurgents that can't be separated and isolated form a different and harder problem for the side that believes in battles.

    1. I wouldn't disagree with either point. I do wonder if wargamers arriving for a wargame might not be a little disappointed if they left without rolling a dice, however.

      I think, though, that many wargame rules lend themselves to 'big' battles, and don't work well for the little wars side of things.

      Also, it is interesting to note that the Europeans were forced to change tactics / strategy to wibn. mayber that is the 'western way of way', if there is one.

  2. Whilst I agree with most of what you say, I would caution against over-emphasising the European-Oriental divide. The 18th century war of manoevre was often an avoidance of battle, a jockeying for position for control of resources or lines of communication. This was closer to Sun Tzu than to Clausewitz. It was the NVA that ultimately captured Saigon and not the VC operating on its own.

    1. Agreed. But the point of a campaign is rarely simply to have a battle. As wargamers, however, the point is to have a wargame. Maybe that is why big Hyboria campaigns work, because the resources matter in the long run, which might not be the case in a one off campaign game.

    2. Aye, as Chris Grice imlies, we should call the hobby 'Battlegaming'.

  3. First thought that struck me on reading this was Du Guesclin in the Hundred Years' War teaching the French that they would only win the war by not fighting battles against the English. And no, we never wargame the bit where the French are studiously avoiding a battle; we cut to Agincourt.

    Perhaps it's the name of the hobby that's wrong? Looking at the bookshelf over my painting table, there is Terry Wise's 'Introduction to Battle Gaming'. Problem solved.

    1. There might also be a bit of Anglo-Saxon pride in there as well, of course.

      But yes, we could call it battle gaming (it'll never catch on).
      Wasn't it Terry Wise's book that had an Airfix N. american Indian mounted chief masquerading as a Carthaginian cavalryman in one of the pictures?

  4. You think? Can't imagine that ...

    Very possibly. It was the 70's, after all. Perhaps he didn't have enough Robin Hood figures.
    I had a Carthaginian army converted from Airfix back then. It was awful.

    1. As a very new wargamer, I remember looking at those pictures and realising I'd never be able to manage a game like that....