A long, long time ago, there was a young, enthusiastic, fresh faced wargamer. He could reel off lists of battles; describe weapons systems, fortifications and the methods of siege warfare, some of the politics behind the battles and campaigns, and so on. He could describe armour, munitions, logistical assets, artillery, how many horses it took to drag the guns along and so on, and so on.
One day, one of his parents, in a mix of frustration and anxiety, said to him ‘You know a lot about the battles, but what about anything else? What did the people eat? How did they eat it?’
Our wargamer was not perturbed or brought up short by the question, and continued wargaming. But the question bothered him a bit over the years. How one dimensional was wargaming, and how did it use the conclusions of history?
The question waxed and waned in his mind over the years. Sometimes he nearly managed to answer it. For example, there was a trend at one point in military history to account for state forming by the fact that rulers went to war and thus needed to raise taxes. Our wargamer could happily read this sort of military history, fight his wargames and think, with some justification, that the foundations of the battles were secure, that he was not just glorifying violence, or indulging in a passion for the pageant of armed conflict.
On the other hand, reading wargame magazines tended to depress him slightly. The major sources used by wargamers were usually, those written in the late nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century. While reasonably accurate in some senses, he found that, inevitably, history, or at least historiography, had moved on. The earlier writers focussed on the great leader, the individual whose bravery and foresight saved the day, the king who unleashed destruction on another country. The question of what might have been going on in these events rather passed them by.
Further questions arose in his mind, when he had time to think about them. Military and political history was all very well, he considered, but other things happened as well to change the way people thought about warfare. The rise of geometry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was both driven by and a driver for the methods of fortification and attack that were used. Political ideas, such as the representation of taxpayers in legislatures caused a great deal of conflict, both civil and military, and so on. Even, he noticed, fashion made a difference to how troops dressed. The average solider became, on the parade ground at least, a victim of the latest trends in the clothing of the elite.
Thus, a proper consideration of a period should be underpinned by all other sorts of history – political, social, cultural and intellectual. As the scope of the requirements for actual understanding widened in his view, our wargamer started to wonder about some of his colleagues. He was impressed at the depth of their knowledge across all of history that enabled them to wargame quite happily in ancient Greece one week and Cold war Germany the next. The knowledge of history possessed by such wargamers, he considered, must be huge.
A little further reflection and observation disabused him of this impression, however. A wargamer is quite happy, in general, to pick up an army and a set of rules and play with them, without the slightest idea about the period, the politics, the campaigns or, indeed, what his tin soldiers would like to eat. A game is a game, and the background does not seem to matter that much.
And yet the implications of his parent’s question kept coming back to him. We know a lot about how people in the past attempted to slaughter each other, but what do we know or care as wargamers? Is the game the thing and the thing alone?
Of course, people, even wargamers, have limited amounts of time and of interest. We can only do so much background reading, so much web searching and so on. Sometimes we just want a wargame, and to pick up the soldiers and rule, plonk them onto a table and roll a few dice. Sometimes we might just want to see what happens in a Napoleonic wargame, or how the ancient Greeks looked on a battlefield. A trial, a taste, is what we require.
Some gamers never seem to get beyond this, however. A period is a period and that is the end of the matter. Ancient Greeks fought in phalanxes and that is just a brute fact. But, with regard to our wargamer’s parent’s question, actually it is not. The Greek phalanx grew out of a particular social and political context, the Greek city and the way it was governed. The attributes of the solider, the horsemen and the light troops were dictated by this structure. Greek warfare was governed by other things than just plonking the troops on the table and seeing what happens.
So the question arising is this: what sort of historians should historical wargamers be?
As I have noted, often they are just superficial historians, skimming the surface for a nice battle in a nice new period and then moving on. Often they are content with older (and probably, cheaper) works of history that chime in with how the wargamer thinks. Wargaming is, after all, dominated by white males who think that white males make history. This is more or less what turn of the twentieth century historians seem to have thought too.
Really, however, history is much more interesting than that. It can be argued that what really matters in history is ideas, and those ideas are the things that fuel conflict and the manners by which wars are conducted. The conduct of a wargame, by that measure, should be governed by the mind-set of the original people involved. Thus, the ideal that a wargamer should aim for is to understand, so far as is possible, the minds of the original politicians and general who went to war and conducted the operations. Anything else should not be termed historical wargaming.