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discussion of the philosophy of the social sciences, even if some of the detail or arguments might have been superseded.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.