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discussion of the philosophy of the social sciences, even if some of the detail or arguments might have been superseded.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

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Why We Cannot Wargame

I am sitting here by the woodburner with a head full of cold feeling a bit nihilistic. There must be a reason for this, so I shall turn my firepower, such as it is, on my hobby and see if anything remains after my feeble efforts.

Firstly, of course, we cannot wargame because that is not what nice, modern liberals do. We like to think that all our problems can be sorted out by sitting around a table, perhaps with a few bottles of nice pino grigio (for some values of the term ‘nice’, of course) and we can all be friends and find a way forward. I am sure the Napoleon and Wellington would have done better to have sat down with a few beers at La Haye Saint (or whichever one the pub was) and sorted things out. The worst of the arguments might have been over who was going to pay the bar tab, although, of course, then as now, the Germans would probably have landed up with it.

So nice woolly liberals do not like talking about violence and warfare, and, hence, as members of nice woolly liberal societies, nor should we. It does go rather further than that, of course. As nice non-violent types, we are, in fact fascinated by what some sociologist types call the ‘pornography of violence’. A society which has become much less violent is, in fact, deeply fascinated by that violence. Our news channels are full of it. Much of our entertainment consists of it and we have a deeply ambivalent attitude to this, let alone the violence we see, even vicariously and fictionally.

Of course, wargaming, by abstracting away all the nasty bits, attempts to make itself socially acceptable, but it can never really do that until any talk of death or destruction is removed from its discourse. Then, of course, it would be totally acceptable, but would no longer be wargaming.

Secondly, there is the issue of power. I have commented before that (from a certain perspective, of course) colonial wargaming could be construed as a re-enactment of the domination of the western powers over their less technologically advanced brothers in Africa and Asia. The exploitation is pure imperialism, the exertion of domination over others in the name of peace but by using violence and subjugation. Hence, colonial wargaming is simply an extension of that imperialist mind set, and so we cannot wargame.

Of course, bleeding heart liberals might argue that, say, the Roman invasion of Britain was much the same. To which the response might well be, fair enough. Any sort of invasion of one country by another is unspeakably awful, and therefore should not be wargamed. So kindly stop all ancient warfare, all medieval warfare and certainly any conflict after the end of the middle ages, where nice Enlightenment values should have permeated the body politic and rational thought have caused the avoidance of war.

A further argument against the wargame is that, usually, one side wins and the other does not. We are not, I think, permitted to talk about ‘losers’ in modern society. The top 0.1% of filthy rich are not to be envied or despised simply because they have won and we have not. They are to be welcomed as brothers (although they can buy the drinks). We have not lost, they have not won. Winning and losing is not politically correct. Children should be taught to collaborate not to be in conflict. Therefore, on the basis of not doing the ‘w’ thing, we may not wargame, as we may perpetrate inappropriate activity and cause psychological damage by branding someone a loser.

Next up, wargaming cannot happen in a conceptual sense. We cannot, on a table, represent the experience of warfare (nor should we try, see above). The wargame, therefore, does not represent anything in real life or in history. Thus it cannot inform us about anything, and therefore it is not educational and should be discontinued immediately. After all, our children now have to be educated 24 hours a day, except probably when they are asleep.  Any activity should, therefore, be an educational one, and hence wargaming, as not being educational, cannot be undertaken.

Furthermore, as not being able to represent battles (however regrettable the battle might be) a wargame is thus not real life and should be relegated to some sort of minority fantasy interest. We need, in this day and age, gritty reality in our austerity obsessed age. The Greeks would never have voted for a left wing party that promised jobs and an end to a dismal litany of cuts if they had watched our soap operas for long enough. Gritty reality, like those Scandinavian murder mystery films that are so rife these days, should make us happy to live in such an age. Wargaming is for fantasists who prefer the world as it used to be.

Finally, of course, wargaming is incoherent. If it were not, then they would not be these assorted rules for each period which give different results. The arguments about what happened in a particular battle would not occur as everyone would agree. The different sizes of the toy soldiers would not exist. Wargamers would agree and everyone would be happy. The apparent lack of coherence and agreement amongst wargamers must indicate a significant problem with the hobby. After all, most of society is happy to exist with a single set of rules (we call then ‘laws’) and professional people to discuss and describe the finer points thereof. The incoherence of wargaming must point to a significant immaturity, at least, of the wargaming fraternity.

And with that, ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to have a lie down. 

Saturday, 14 February 2015

The Chains of History

I am still, bravely, struggling through Gadamer’s Truth and Method. It is one of those sorts of works that it very interesting, at least in the bits I understand (which are rare, to say the least). I think I might be sort of seeing what he is trying to say. At least, I am starting to work out how he links into other writers that I have read and who use some of his works. I my poor benighted mind, of course, these things have a tendency to be linked back to wargaming, largely because that is my hobby, but also, partly, because I think wargaming is a human activity that is actually sufficient complex but bounded to be a useful test case to the wild and wacky ideas of philosophers.

Anyway, one of the things I think Gadamer is trying to get at is that we do not start from neutral ground or a level playing field when we read something. Mostly, by ‘read’ Gadamer means texts, but I do not think that it has to be limited to texts. We can just as successfully read pictures, statues or artefacts from a past age. That is, we come to a text with a set of what Gadamer calls prejudices, or at least that is how the word is translated. However, the word is not used in a prejudicial way. It is simply the way the world is, or at least, simply the way our world is.

To try to explain: when I read a text I cannot simply merge my mind with that of the author (either the real one or the implied one). I am bringing to that text a whole sheaf of prejudices. That is, I am reading the text as someone situated in a historical context (we could call it ‘now’, but that eventually simply adds to our difficulties). I have interests, such as wargaming. I have a history of my own, the things that have happened to me either generally or specifically to bring me to the text at this time. I live in a culture which might be more or less formative of my views, interests, outlooks and worldview, depending on how much I accept, reject or try to ignore them.

In short, by reading a text I am not just reading a text. I am engaged in something far more complex, something in a situation, informed by other things, and so on.

I have a feeling that I might have banged on about this before, and seem to recall some difficulty in comparing accounts of the Battle of Waterloo as to what time it actually started. Thus, if I read a text about Waterloo, I am bringing to that text a memory of all the other things I might have read about the battle. Not only that, I am bringing the sorts of things I might have read about armies in the Napoleonic Wars. I might also bring some ideas about the politics and culture of the day. And so on.

But I also bring my current day to the text. For example, my view of Napoleon might well depend on whether I am French or English or German or Russian. It might also be mediated, say, by my view of the European Union. If I am a ‘little Englander’, than I may well believe that Napoleon was nothing but a Corsican ogre. If I am an EU fan, then I might regret that Boney did not go a little further along the union of European nations, and even suggest that if he had, World War One would have been unnecessary.

Of course, as wargamers, we ask slightly different questions from most politicians and historians. We would like to know from our accounts such things as how many cavalry the Prussians had, or what time the battle really did start. But even these questions arise from our own background as wargamers, mostly amateur historians and, naturally, the culture and society we spring from.

And here, to some extent anyway, lies the rub. It is really difficult to analyse the prejudices we might suffer from as a result of our existence in a certain time and place. Even in a more limited sense, we can bring our biases to a historical account of a battle. It is really easy to fill in the blanks in an account from what else we know. We do not even necessarily notice that we are doing it.

As an example, on my way to work I have to cross a certain set of traffic lights. Because I have seen what happens, I know that there is little point in jumping them when they turn, because, just around the corner there is another set phased to change slightly sooner that the first one. I know this; it is part of my mental equipment, so I do not even think about it. However, some other drivers either do not know or do not think very much (oddly, many of them drive BMWs). They steam along the road jumping the lights. I then catch up with them at the next set. I often consider giving them a friendly wave, but decide against it as they seem stressed up enough as it is.

But the point is that, in my experience, history, whatever, I have reached a certain conclusion about those sets of traffic lights, and I do not even think about applying it. It just is the way it is. If they come along and change the phasing, I would be confused, at least, but generally I would probably still not jump the lights as they turned. And if I read an account of, say, the Battle of Waterloo which ignored the arrivals of the Prussians, I might well simply mentally add them, rather than wondering about the text I read. The human mind is very good at doing that, and we really have to be paying attention to spot the errors.

So our history and experience can change or augment the texts that we read. We make assumptions which can be invalid. Our only defence is that we cannot help it.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Models, Articulations and Wargames

I have written rather a lot over the years of the blog about models and modelling. In short, we need models in our rules to wargame at all. We hope that, somehow, the outcomes of these models might be similar to the outcomes of the real life situations they purport to model, and hence that our wargame might, in some way, bear some resemblance to the original.

The danger of using models in wargaming is that our thinking about historical battles or other originals can become constrained by the models themselves. That is, we start to think about the battles of the original that we attempt to wargame using the model. The model becomes the battle and its interpretation is through the model.

Of course, this is a fairly inevitable way of thinking. We have something which, we hope, functions as a reasonable model for what we are trying to recreate. Even if the wargame has no specific historical precedent, we can still try to recreate the flavour of the period. The models in the rules must try to achieve this. We cannot separate the wargame, the rules and the models out. They are all one ‘thing’, even though they are conceptually separate.

We can turn this way of thinking around, however, and I suspect that many of us actually do so. A quick scan around the various wargaming blogs suggests that many bloggers like to report on their wargames, and many blog readers like to read such reports. I suppose that we like to wargame vicariously as well as in ‘real’ life. The thing is about a wargame battle report is that we use the models in reverse. Instead of attempting to model the ‘real’ world using a wargame, we report on the real world (at least, on the wargame as embedded in the real world) and use the models and rules as a mode for articulation of the wargame.

The upshot of this is, that if you read some of these ‘after action reports’ they tend to explain what happened in terms of the rules, that is, the models used to describe the real world. Thus, for example, the rules say ‘Russian infantry are shaken by French cavalry if within 300 yards if not in square’. This is an attempt to model a historical situation (I presume; I think the rules in question were WRG 1680 – 1850, or whatever they are). The after action report might read ‘the Russian infantry were shaken by the approach of French cavalry’, which is an articulation based on the model.

The articulation of the wargame is thus controlled by the models we use in the rules, and hence our understanding of the wargame is moderated by those same rules. The rules then are intended to work ‘forwards’ in that we hope that they reflect as historical period, a flavour or the action, and ‘backwards’ in that they allow us to speak about the waqrgame in terms of understanding what happened and why in the wargame.

Without the models, of course, there would be no wargame at all. But, additionally, there would be no means of describing the wargame either. Our descriptions of our wargames are constrained by the models we use to construct the wargames, the dynamics of the actual game, and so on. But we can only understand the game by establishing which particular model or set of models was in use at a given (perhaps critical) point in the game.

For example, we have some cavalry charging infantry in square. The model which underlies this interaction will probably indicate that the square, unless formed of really shaky troops, will probably stand and the cavalry flow around it. The model, of course, can be plugged back into the historical situations from which is arises. We can produce (or someone can, hopefully the rule writers, at least) historical evidence for the model and descriptions of the course of events when cavalry charge infantry in square. The rules can thus be justified ‘forwards’.

We can also describe the path through the rules to obtain the result. We can describe the morale checks, combat rolls and whatever else is required to obtain the outcome from the model or models of the situation. This is the interaction of the models in the rules and the concrete situation on the table. The pathway proceeds, more or less, automatically to obtain the given outcome. This is what we might call the rule mechanics, but it is simply the interaction of rule models.

Finally, we reach an interpretation. The square has broken. But the work of the models and pathway has not finished. We need to know (or want to know) why the square broke. After all, our models did plug back into reality and most squares, most of the time, did not break, at least, not when simply charged by cavalry.

This is where we need to models to enable us to be articulate about the events modelled. We can say something like ‘the square broke because he rolled a six and I rolled a one’. This might be a mechanical explanation of what happened. However, we can, and most of us would, go further. I might say ‘I rolled a one on the morale roll and my square ran away’. This is then interpreted as ‘the square had poor morale or was formed of poor quality troops’ or something of the kind. We are thus starting to make interpretations of the events in terms of the reality presented by the models but in the context of the rules, the period and the reports from which the models arise.

Of course, we cannot interpret the real world along these lines. Squares were not broken because Napoleon threw a one. We cannot easily get from our wargame outcomes back to the real world. A model, as a model, only captures some of the behaviour, the inputs and outputs of a given situation. We do make a mistake if we try to interpret a real world battle entirely in terms of our wargame models and rules.