Saturday, 1 October 2016

Constructing the Past

It would seem that I am back. I confess, my enforced silence over the last month has not been all due to eye problems, but a severe outbreak of Real Life has also contrived to drive me from the keyboard. Still, RL seems to be settling down into its more usual torpor, and I have nearly finished the treatment for the eye, so I think it is high time to get back into the saddle and ride off on further adventures in the weird world of wargames.

I have not, as you might imagine, actually done an awful lot of wargaming in the past month or so. I did finish off the wargame which was on table at the point of my eye giving up. The Persians won, in case you were interested, defeating the Thracian horde and occupying the port. They did not even need to burn it. I learnt a lot about my rule set from the game, mostly glaring bits that I had missed out.

Aside from that, I have attempted to regain my painting mojo, and did fifteen 6 mm Moorish cavalry figures. They are now awaiting basing, along with the other lot I did in, um, January. My only excuse is that I painted 151 ancient galleys between the two. But painting has not been going well this year.

The point of the title is, perhaps, a bit contentious. The argument behind it is that we cannot reconstruct the past. That is, we do not have sufficient evidence to reconstruct the past. The mind set of, say, a first century AD Stoic is inaccessible to us. To read, say, the Letters of St Paul, about how his flock once were pagans asleep in their sins but now they have turned to the true Way is not, really, to give us any insight into what pagan worship was, nor what the people thought they were doing when they did ‘turn away’ from their sinful lives and put on Christ. We simply do not have access to the world view that might have made sense of this.

To put the same point another way, we know that units of the Roman army built altars and sacrificed on them to the gods. Exactly what they thought they were doing or achieving by this is obscure. We know that it happened; it is just that the world view is alien to us. There is a gap, so to speak, between the evidence of something occurring and an understanding of why it occurred.

Of course, we can use intelligent guess work. There is a certain amount of evidence of, for example, thank offerings for safe return of individuals from perilous journeys. It does not take an awful lot of imagination to suggest that perhaps the units were making offerings for similar sorts of things, or perhaps just general thanksgiving for getting through  another year. Whatever the regime, the human soul will usually find a way of celebrating something, somehow.

However, we do need to be cautious. Ezra Pound once wrote a fragment of a poem in the style of Sappho:
Too long…
What tends to happen is that the blanks are filled in by enthusiastic editors and translators:
Spring [sends forth the flowers, but for me]
Too long [have I suffered with desire for the lovely]
Gongyla [who has departed]
The bits in square brackets are the editorial insertions. They tell us nothing about Sappho, even assuming that the fragment came from her. They tell us a lot more (often, an awful lot more than we want to know) about the editor, the translator, and their times.

In part this is inevitable, but we need to be careful. The first annals of Alexander the ‘Great’ we have were written four hundred years or so after his death. Granted, Arrian may have had access to ancient sources. He certainly claimed to have done. But what can we really be certain of? After all, Paul’s letters were a lot more contemporary with his subject than Arrian’s Anabasis was to Alexander.  As I mentioned, despite Paul’s letters, access to its world view is difficult, if not impossible.

The problem is, then, that we insert our own ideas and concepts into the ancient text. We can view Alexander as a great man, a glorious general leading an obscure, peripheral nation onto the world stage. In that sense we can project ideas of, say, Nelson and the British Empire back onto the ancient world. Here is a man who did everything, beat the odds and so on.

On the other hand, we can view alexander as a destructive force, exporting war to otherwise peaceful parts of the world, destroying nations and ways of life. He can be portrayed as a ruthless power-monger, and drunken, deluded despot. One modern view of Alexander has him as ‘a reckless alcoholic, a vicious psychopath, and a destructive barbarian.’

How true are these views? Did Alexander export destruction of Greek civilisation? Is the former view, that of a despotic destroyer, a child of our age of anti-imperialist suspicion? Is the view that he exported what later became known as Hellenism only important because the Romans made it part of the civilization of the western world? Of course, there is the possibility that the collapse of the view of classical civilisation as being the highest point of aim for society could also play a part in our turn against Alexander as a good thing.

This does affect us as wargamers. Firstly, there is an issue of epistemology in history. We do not know many of the things we would like to know about the military forces we put on the table. We have to approximate, make best use of the sources and, in short, guess. History was not written for us.

Secondly, our view of the past is inevitably shaped by both our zeitgeist and the historiography that we read. If we stick with early twentieth century history, we may well find a historiography that is approving of empire building. The second half of the century is probably the opposite view. Exporting civilisation becomes imperial colonialism. What Alexander did moves from a glorious campaign of bringing enlightenment to the masses to a despotic, nearly fascist, destruction of an alternate world.

Which should we wargame? Does it really matter?


  1. As always, a thought provoking editorial. The answer to your questions posed I follow with another. Why do we wargame? The answer to this question will lead to answering yours.

    1. Aye, fair enough. there is always another question lurking behind and question. Some philosophers reckon that the ultimate answer is 'because I'm I'.

      But I'll have to think about that.

  2. I suppose we war-game because we love the past. It may be a romanticized vision of the past (and from what your blog argues regularly, it practically MUST be a romanticized or at least imagined past), but we try to capture an idea of it. At the same time, we like to be guided by some ruling idea of what things were like. A friend and I are creating a Tolkien-inspired fantasy campaign, but talk frequently about canonicity, about wanting to be faithful to the spirit of Tolkien's books. One could ask if Aragorn or Isildur is scarcely less or more real than Alexander, I suppose.
    It's good to have you back, I hope health and RL are kind to you in future.

    1. A good question: what makes fiction 'work'. There is some stuff I've seen about why horror movies are scary. On the face of it they shouldn't be - you know a monster is not going to leap out of the screen and devour you. Yet they are scary (at least, if they are good ones).

      Similarly, I suppose there is the question of what makes a historical wargame historical, or a Tolkein wargame Tolkein-esque. I'm not sure of the answer; a lot of people talk about 'flavour' but that seems a fairly woolly concept too.

      All these posts and I'm no further towards finding an answer....

  3. Good to see you are back in the saddle again.

    To answer your final two questions first, it seems to me that we can wargame whatever we are comfortable with. As long as we are clear about the theory underpinning our games, and do not misconstrue them as a representation of what actually happened (beyond the basic physical movements of the troops, etc.), it should not matter. The problem comes when people colonise the past with their own modern ideas, develop games that reinforce those ideas, and then claim that they are somehow a real representation of the past.

    Regarding your point about colonialism/imperialism, there was a recent poll on TMP that asked "Was the British Empire a good thing?" Given the forum, I was not too surprised to see that the answers were predominantly that it was, with the usual range of reasons: railways, civilisation, and so on. There were very few dissenting voices.

    1. Naill Ferguson, in 'Empire' reckons that the best thing about the British Empire was the self-expenditure it undertook to fight evil between 1914 and 1945, finishing up victorious but bankrupt. The rest of its achievements and such like are arguable.

      As for what we can wargame, I agree. different people are comfortable with different things. I like my wargames in the fairly distant past, so they don't have modern resonance. but most things do, so get a bit stuck.

      As I've said before, all my generals are nice cuddly modern western democratic neo-liberals. They never crucify defeated foes (although they might crow on Twitter about it), and do not crush their enemies beneath their chariot wheels. But that might be just me, of course.

    2. Ferguson may be right, although I cannot help but think that the evil it fought was to some extent of its own making, especially following the Treaty of Versailles, and thus moral advantage may not be accorded to the empire in this.

      My generals, like yours, live in the golden age of warfare when people did not really die, and the general was always magnanimous in victory. They live by the maxim "be most excellent to each other" and only fight those who are not most excellent to other people.

    3. I guess that the British empire was a culpable for WW1 and WW2 as the rest of the world. But then a Bismark-ian Germany could argue that the Empire started WW1 because Germany was not allowed it place in the sun...

      Insofar as the BE at least decided to stand and fight evil once it was in the world, I guess it was moral. So far as it created the conditions for that evil to exist, it wasn't. A lot depends on your breadth of view of history, I suppose.

      Yes, my generals are like the ECW Hopton and Waller, who pass courteous notes to each other, and hogsheads of wine on the eve of battle, and reminisce about their time as youngsters learning their craft in other people's wars...

  4. The Empire question may well be summed up with the reply "It's complicated" but my leftie, liberal leanings still scream that imperialism is wrong in a somewhat too dogmatic fashion.

    This talk of generous generals reminds me of a story (possibly apocryphal) of a WW1 fighter pilot who downed his foe, landed, and captured him. The pair of them then holed up in a wine cellar getting drunk and fending off the advances of the local army unit who wanted to take the prisoner into custody. Such is the valour, honour and generosity of my generals.

    1. it is complicated, but our view of empire depends on where we sit as well. 'Imperialism' is a bad thing, but whether that means the British empire, or something similar (the Belgian regime in Congo?) or imperialism as seen through the lens of, say, Star Wars, is a bit tricky. After all, I doubt that Alexander was an imperialist. He just wanted to conquer the world....

      I like the pilot story. In the ECW Goring captured Thomas Fairfax's wife and daughter, whom Sir Tom thought had collapsed and died. Being an honourable sort, Goring returned them the next day, the daughter having recovered after a good night's sleep.

      I don't usually do modern politics and crises, but I can't help but think that if some modern leaders had the same sort of honour and generosity system, a lot of present day atrocities might be being avoided.

    2. Would anyone state that they are an imperialist when they set out to conquer the world? I think it's a label that must be applied based on actions, not on stated intent.

      Our view of empire certainly is relative. Those that benefit see it is a good thing. Those that are violently exploited and see their culture crushed under the chariot wheels of the ruling classes may tend towards a less rosy view. There are some good things that come of empires, but I think the bad far outweighs the good.

      That said, I cannot support the Rebels until they adopt a sound fiscal policy, and produce a proper manifesto stating how they will reduce unemployment, ensure the welfare of all citizens, and promote sentient rights. Until then, the Empire gets my vote for bringing stability to the galaxy.

      That's a good story about Goring and Fairfax's wife and daughter.

      And, yes, I completely agree that more compassion, honour and generosity in our modern leaders can only be a Good Thing. I sit here following the news and despair.

    3. I guess that no-one today would want to claim to be an Imperialist; nationalist, yes, but imperialist, no. and of course, our national interests lead straight to the capitals of our neighbours.....

      I am reading a good book about the 1659 Republican government in England. The author makes the case that internal and external policy cannot be separated. The interest of the Commonwealth was to reduce the financial burden left by the Protectorate, and that meant making peace all round, and keeping the Sound open. This meant cooperating with the Dutch, whom some people in the Council liked and wanted to unite with, and some didn't. National and international fuse in a confusing way.

      Similarly, I think US foreign policy in the late 20th C shows this sort of tendency. The US became policeman of the world due to its national (real or perceived) interests.

      I think that Mr Obama and Mr Putin exchanging a few casks of ale might do more for the international situation than any number of summits...

    4. All very good points. Especially about the global situation. As you state, internal policy has often been determined by external interests and concerns, and we do not exist in isolation from the rest of the world. A point I often make about the coming of Christianity to Scandinavia is that it was driven by trade as much as anything else. The rest of Europe was Christian, and being Christian meant you could trade with it. Ergo, Scandinavians became Christian. It is easy to forget that people in times past had a much wider perspective than we often accord them. It should not be surprising that a statue of a Buddha from India was found in the Viking settlement of Birka in Sweden, nor that silk from Byzantium was found in Viking Age contexts in Dublin, but some of our sense of progress derives from a constructed identity of the past as limited and primitive, so people exclaim in surprise when made aware of such things.

      What's the book you are reading? It sounds interesting, especially in the way it highlights the interaction between national and international interests.

      I think you have hit upon a good plan, although I feel sure Mr Putin will down the ale and immediately try to out-macho Mr Obama. Hopefully it will end with both declaring undying friendship as they stagger off up the road to the chippie though.

    5. The books is 'The Crisis of the Commonwealth' by Ruth Meyers. I think it is her PhD thesis, so there is a lot of criticism of the accepted narrative of the period from April to October 1659; it is also thematic rather than narrative, so I struggle a bit because I'm not that au fait with the details and chronology of those months. Still, it is an interesting read.

      The thing is with these discoveries is that we are constantly surprised that trade happened over large areas before, I suppose, around 1500. I agree that we like to construct primitive pasts and contrast ourselves with them, but you'd think we might learn that it isn't that simple!

    6. Thanks for the book title. I'll add it to the list of books to read for light relief when the current teratology fad wanes.

      Have to wonder if people will ever learn.

  5. How about the maintenance of peace? Isn't this one of the benefits of empire (not thinking specifically of the British Empire - if anything I'm thinking of the Habsburg empire).

    Once upon a time the Habsburg Empire was seen as the archetype of the old-style polity whose end was both inevitable and justified. Then we lived through the post Yugoslavia period, to say nothing of the late 30s, and in this post-nation state era, multi-national empires seem less insidious. Almost benign. Rather a bumbling centralised, Kafkesque even, mildly inefficient bureaucracy than a situation where people tear lumps out of other folk because they kneel down a bit differently or talk an odd dialect.

    To bring it back to the subject of historical perspective, would the average Bohemian or Silesian peasant have been concerned as to whether he was Czech, or German or Polish (or for that matter Sorbian) until say 1860 when he was taught he should be. Habsburg or Hohenzollern, Vasa or Jagiellon probably made little difference. We still have a tendency to see things through nationalist eyes, which might be fine if one man's national self-determination wasn't another man's imperial yoke (ethnic borders being pretty much imaginary things unless they are forced 'facts on the ground').

    This is one of the reasons I wargame the mid-18th century in Europe when nation states like the 'English' and Russians were outliers in the prevailing culture. It allows me that romanticism, to a slightly* higher degree than other periods. * don't want to overstate the case ;-)

    1. I suppose the answer to the Pax Romana (or any other brand) is the cost of setting it up. Opinions vary as to how much crushing under chariot wheels is reasonable for a century or two of peace. We could also wonder how much of the chaos in parts of the world post-empire was caused by the empire, or by the forces the empire suppressed.

      Most people, most of the time, do not much care about what the government is, as long as it lets them get on with daily life, raise their families and so on. I guess we could speculate that this only really changed with the advent of the railway, linking outlying regions to new markets and centres of government. Maybe then nationalism could spread and flourish.

      Mind you, I live in a part of the world where some inhabitants are deeply suspicious of those who live in the next valley, let along the regional or national capital.

      These are complex matters, it seems to me, and way beyond my competence and understanding. But all my generals are nice enlightenment generals as well, and fight because they have to, not because they want to.

    2. Pax Romana might not be the best example. I seem to recall a Latin master telling us that the Roman Empire was at war for all bar a few years of its existence. Obviously this does not mean that there was war everywhere in the Empire, but it is quite telling that the subjugation of other peoples was an ongoing project that never really ended.

      From discussion with my plumber et al. the only thing that matters is not paying high taxes and having the stability to enjoy the fruits of his labours. Even nationalism seems to take second place to that. I suspect that you are both right in stating that this is all most people really wanted in the past too.

    3. I guess that the British Empire was mostly at war during its existence. I suppose that it depends where the war is. If the Romans were fighting on the frontiers in, say, Scotland, Mesopotamia and in the depths of Germany, then large swathes of Europe were at peace - Spain, France, Italy, Egypt, North Africa and so on. While the war footing seems to have been bad news for, say, northern England, which remained under military rule, Gaul and Hispania were prosperous.

      I suspect that the difficulty with Empire is that there is always someone else being a bother. You subjugate within your frontiers, but then some clot attacks across the border, so you have to go after them to protect your subjects, and so you subdue the clots, and then someone attacks them, and before you know it you are halfway across the world fighting wars which you are not sure are in your interests. I think Terry Pratchett makes the point in one of his books (can't remember which one offhand, sorry). once you start this sort of thing it is hard to stop. Similarly, Paul Johnstone (? I think) in the Rise and Fall of the Great Powers observes that eventually imperial overstretch kicks in and the strategic position of the Empire collapses.

      And yes, most people prefer low taxes and peace. Someone observed that until 1914 most people in the UK were barely touched by central government and were quite happy with that.

    4. The problem is that the peace comes at the cost of violence elsewhere. That's great if you think of the inhabitants of elsewhere as Other, but not if you think that we're all human beings that should really just try to get along.

      Terry Pratchett made a lot of good points. The novel that most strikes a cord when you mention that is 'Jingo'.

      Cobbett wrote that the purpose of government was to negotiate and set foreign policy, and that they should leave the internal dealings to the people. This may have been a widespread view that he was reflecting. Experience of people suggests it was, but I don't have the evidence to back that up. However, Cobbett also railed against tea, so I'm not sure I can trust his writing.

    5. Great heavens above, what did Cobbett have against tea? Mind you, lots of people complained about coffee, as well.

      Often it seems that governments get to the point where the easy thing to do is foreign policy. domestic issues are too complex and difficult. So maybe Cobbett was right, by default.

      Yes, the Pratchett would be 'Jingo', I think. And quite, peace within the borders is usually much more highly prized than peace without. The 'other' don't have a say, don't pay taxes and don't vote. Therefore, while we would like not to have to kill them, sometimes it becomes a bit of a necessity :(.

    6. Cobbett's complaint was that tea required water to be boiled. This took time away from other work. Therefore tea was bad, and beer was good because it was brewed in batches ahead of time. It's been a long time since I read it, but he advocated something like two pints of beer for breakfast, one for the morning break, one or two at lunchtime, one for the afternoon break, and as much as you wanted in the evening. He also complained about potatoes because they required boiling, where bread could be prepared well ahead of time too. It's an interesting perspective on getting the most out of your tenant farmers.