Saturday, 31 December 2016

Practising Safer Texts

Someone, (I think the novelist L. P. Hartley, but I’m likely wrong) once said something along the lines of ‘The past is a different country. They do things differently there’.  And herein lies the crux of the problem that I have been vaguely gesturing at  in some recent (and probably much older) posts. How on earth do we interpret ancient texts? Indeed, who can interpret ancient texts?

Texts are used for many purposes, and the purposes that we read them for are, in fact, fairly unlikely to be the purposes they were originally written for, nor, indeed, the purposes the original readers would have been interested in. So, for example, we might be interested in finding out how many rifle armed militia men were present at an American revolutionary war battle. An account of that battle may say something like ‘The rifle bullets came so thick the sky was black with them and no man dared to raise his head for fear of them’. While this text might tell us that rifle armed troops were present, it really does not tell us much more than that, aside what it felt like to be on the receiving end. We could also raise further questions, such as how did the writer know that the incoming bullets were rifle rounds, anyway.

Already, from a simple and made-up example we can observe a few of the problems in texts. Firstly, we question the text in ways that the original writer, readers and the text itself could not, probably, have formed the questions. Secondly, the text might not be entirely accurate, in terms of modern ‘accuracy’. The problem of the unreliable narrator is one thing: the text might be enhancing the author’s own feelings of bravery and significance, for example. Secondly, the writer is not omnipotent. Things were almost certainly happening about which the author knew little or nothing. Their text is but a snapshot of the world as it seemed to be.

Next up we also have problems from the interpreter’s end. Our world is not the world of the author. Their world view is different, their language, meanings and values will all vary from our own. For example, even World War Two memoirs reflect a society very different from our own, one where, at least in the UK, society was more deferential, at least on the surface, than it is today. We have to attend to the social location of the writer and their readers to start to apprehend what their meaning might be.

There are further issues, of course. It is quite likely that the original text was written in a language which is not that of the modern reader. There are issues of translation, from, say, Latin into English. Languages are not one-to-one translatable. Interpretation is required. For example, where the Hebrew Bible in English refers to God being patient, the Hebrew (apparently) literally means something like ‘long of nostril’. The idea, as I understand it, is that it takes longer for the snort of exasperation to be emitted. And so a translation is ‘patient’.  As my Old Testament tutor put it: ‘I just thought you might like to know that’.  But it does indicate the sorts of problems we encounter here.

This is all very well, but it is not helping the wargamer’s cause, wanting to know how many men with rifles to deploy on the battlefield. And here we approach the rub, perhaps. Wargamers cannot really go with ‘we don’t know’. We need a concrete number of figures on the table, not just ‘around so many’. Granted, we can pick a number which makes it reasonable that the opposition will have bullets whistling around their ears most of the time, but that is an interpretation of the text resting on some, perhaps dubious, guesswork.

So we hit the main part of the problem. We have to interpret texts to extract the answer, but how do we do this and who can do it? If we admit that authenticity is in some sense part of historical wargaming, and that we derive any such sense from the texts which speak of the battles we are interested in, whom on earth can say that this is the right way to interpret the text?

The question of authority in interpreting texts is a major problem. For example, if the text is a religious one, such as the Bible, the issue becomes whether the text can be interpreted as historical, objectively, ‘scientifically’ and so on, or whether the text can only be interpreted by those within the faith community, perhaps who have some authorisation to do such interpretation. You only need to consider the history of interpretation within a particular denomination to start to realise the complexities that can arise here (and which are still argued over, extensively).

In wargaming we do not have quite the same issue over faith, although some of wargamers sacred cows, such as Alexander being Great because he conquered practically everywhere, start to bear a slightly uncomfortable feeling of blind faith. But still the question arises: in a diverse and diffuse community, who can interpret the texts. There is, of course, no one interpretation of texts, and one view would be to leave it to the experts. However, with a few exceptions, professional historians do not tend to wargamers. They interpret within their academic community. Only by interpretation of their interpretations can wargamers use this material. This gets complicated.

Short of advising all wargamers to obtain advanced degrees in history, perhaps the way forward is to ensure that we retain a level of critical engagement with the sources and the texts of wargaming. There will be multiple interpretations of ancient (or, as noted above, more recent) texts. We, as wargamers, do not in general have the resources to follow all the lines of inquiry, but as intelligent human beings we can engage critically with them. This, of course, applies to the texts of wargaming, such as rules and army lists, as well of the primary source material of history.

I think that there is a lot more to be thought about here, and a lot more to be written, but I do think that the task might be quite important for wargaming, otherwise we will just sit around, thinking that some classic of wargaming literature was the ultimate in wargame experience.


  1. Why not advise all wargamers to get advanced degrees in history? If I can do it, anybody can! :)

    More seriously, I'm not sure how readily one can engage critically with source texts without engaging with the secondary literature around them. A historical wargamer really needs to engage with more than just a translation of the source text if they wish to make their game as authentic as possible. Some recognition and acknowledgement that they are not refighting Ancient Battle, but rather that they are refighting Ancient Battle as depicted by Old Author would be good too. But maybe I am being too picky, although, when we did the big Towton refight, we made it clear that we were recreating a particular interpretation of the battle, rather than the battle itself.

    On a slightly different tack, it is quite possible that some classic of wargaming literature really is the ultimate in wargame experience for a given group of people. At heart, we are playing with toy soldiers and the game is the thing. We can do as much research as we wish, but, in the end, the test of the scenario is in our enjoyment of it. These classics may well provide that enjoyment.

    1. I suspect that many wargamers have an idea that they would do an MA in military history 'when they retire'. Nice idea, but probably not going to happen.

      Yes, source text plus secondary literature would be good. A stronger idea of what forms a literary trope would be a good thing as well. Wargamers read texts in certain ways, looking for certain information, and have a tendency to jump on some bits of information uncritically.

      I think one of the strengths of Phil Sabin's approach in Lost Battles is that you can set the battle up in accordance with different interpretations and see what happens. His aim is to do ancient history, but a wargame view would be to have a good game and see what was different.

      I think that there is a view of history in classic wargame literature, as well as a view of wargaming. None of this is a bad thing, of course, but awareness of what is going on is probably a good thing. certainly when my wargaming batteries run a bit flat a recharge of Featherstone is just the job. But Featherstone's view is informed by his times and the contemporary historiography, particularly, it seems, A. H. Burne. That might give a nice game (it clearly does) but may not fit with historical views today.

      Still, what I would like to see is a bit less reliance by wargamers on only a set of army lists and a relevant Osprey. These are good ways in to a period or army, but should not be for us the end of the matter. On the other hand, I am probably being far too exacting for most wargamers who flit from period to period on a whim, or an article in a magazine.

      But you will have to excuse me, my winter reading box has just arrived....

    2. I agree on all counts.

      Enjoy your winter reading box, and Happy New Year. I look forward to reading this year's posts as they arrive.

  2. I have really enjoyed these series of posts. They have opened my eyes/mind to what I have been thinking about history.

    Why is Alexander "the Great" while Attila is "the Hun"?
    Both engaged in vicious wars of conquest that caused untold suffering to their intended victims plus also to anyone who was in the way of their armies.

    I think wargamer are generally divorced from reality for reasons of fairness or in the interests of mimicking history.
    For example, for in WW2 we make the French much less effective than the Germans, simply to reflect that while the French GHQ saw the Ardennes as "impassable terrain" for tanks the German GHQ saw it as "bad going". It is impossible to recreate some battles without the mindset of the time and to compensate we change the values of the soldiers involved.

    Alexander/Attila's troops are always high quality. But is this is simply a result of all the battles they won. If Alexander had lost his first battle, what would have happened then?

    Anyway, thank you for the posts and all your readers for their comments. It has been very interesting.

    PS. I don't like mince pies either :)

    1. I think we have to be divorced from 'reality' or 'history' to wargame at all. How we achieve historical results is a very tricky issue. The early WW2 Germans had a number of advantages over the French / BEF; the latter had some advantages but did not or could not exploit them. The difficulty is working out which are to be modelled and how.

      As for Alexander and Attila, I agree. I suppose that Alexander stands of the side of 'civilisation' (Greek, which he wasn't) while Attila is on the side of the barbarians (non-Roman, non-Greek speaking, so literally true). As history is always contingent, what would have happened if they had been assassinated at age 16 is a bit moot, or if they had lost against other factions, or whatever. Were their troops that good? Were the WW2 Germans? It is very hard to say. Perhaps we can only as wargamers vary the elements to see how the outcomes might change. It might give insight, but won't answer any questions.

      As for mince pies, the spawn of the devil are consigned to the nether reaches, at least until November!