We forget, often, as wargamers, I suspect, that there is such a thing as history. I do not really think this is unique to wargamers, but it does happen quite frequently in wargaming. We can, and do, argue over whether, for example, the French Medieval Ordonnance army would triumph over the legions of first century Rome. Whether this is a sensible question or not is rather moot, but given that we can find the argument, it must be at least an intelligible question.
We are not alone. History is one of those strange things that pops up rather more often than we suppose, and can quietly modify our positions, or be modified by them. The spate of ‘false news’ planted during recent elections is a case in point. As George Orwell put it in 1984, he who controls the present controls the past, and he who controls the past controls the future. False news is an attempt to control the present. It is, in postmodernist terms, an attempt to make the present conform to how you would like it to be. Whether the item is true or false is irrelevant here; if we remake to world to our taste, the tool we use to manufacture it is not important.
Of course, over history, people have always attempted to make real their own beliefs and desires. Even in medieval times (referring back to Sumption’s Hundred Years War books) the various sides, at various times, issued manifestoes which they believed would bring all right thinking people onto their side. We, they say, are the true rulers of this or that territory, and our claim is just and based on these facts. That the other side could and did do the same was neither here nor there.
The historian, as I have said before, is thus faced with a ‘two frame’ problem. They have to understand the world viewa of the original protagonists, and then match that into language from their own world view. These things vary in space and time. History is always going to be written and rewritten. There is no such thing as a total, accurate and complete history.
Wargaming, of course, adds another frame to the pile. We view history in a certain way, through high politics, strategy, war, campaigns, battles, armies and generals. We add also other constraints, such as wargame figures, tables, dice and so on. Our view of a battle can be constrained by what we can place on a table, or represent in rules. If we are not careful with our history, the rules can become that history, the toys can be the actors, and we really do launch out into some sort of fantasy and alternate history.
There is nothing wrong with that per se, of course. But it is a good thing if we do at least recognise what we are doing. When we start to design our army according to a given army list, we are starting to flatten history out. Each army comes from a given context: a time, place, set of circumstances. When we reduce that to something like zero to six mounted knights, we are reducing that context to something else – a set of marks on a page, which only mean something in the context of a set of rules.
We have to do this sort of thing, to an extent at least, in order to cope with the sheer complexity of the past. I would defy anyone, at least in the English speaking world, to really get a grip on the history and politics of the German states in the medieval period. Some sort of simplification, if not case based study, has to be undertaken here. Otherwise we would be bewildered and unable to achieve anything, let alone a wargame.
Yet this very flattening of the historical complexity leads us, perhaps unwittingly, down the road of comparing legions with Medieval French. Once we do start to flatten out the contexts, the comparisons become easier. I start to compare, not one army with another, but one set of sorts of bases with another. Within the context of the rules the comparison is sensible, or at least intelligible. Within the context of history, of course, it is liable to be laughed at.
Wargamers, then, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes deliberately, flatten out the context of history. I do not really have a problem with that, so long as we realise what we are doing. If we want to have a game of Aztecs against Ming Chinese then there is no real issue: in this case, the game is the thing as we know that it is a game, at least as long as we have some idea about history and geography. When we start to lose that knowledge, we are probably heading into dubious waters.
The problem is, of course, that we cannot simply compare the battlefield performance of different armies from different periods or times. The Aztecs had a different view of what a battle or a war meant from the Ming (I imagine they did, anyway). The cultures from which the armies arose were different. They had differing world views. A battle, in short, meant different things. Who won could be less relevant than the meaning of the affair. Losing well could be, for example, more noble and therefore acceptable than winning by subterfuge.
As wargamers we are apt to forget these sorts of nuances. We could, in fact, be accused of clinging onto a classical world view, whereby there is one culture and everyone else is a barbarian. If they do not follow our rules, our precepts, our world view, then they should jolly well have it imposed upon them. We flatten out the cultures to our convenience. In wargaming terms, everyone gets treated like, say, Napoleonic British infantry, only more or less bad. The fact that the Aztecs would not have even recognised such a style of warfare is neither here nor there.
By our flattening out of history, therefore, we are imposing a kind of cultural imperialism on the past. It is made to conform to our rules, our expectations, our world view. We could argue that this is inevitable, and to an extent I would agree. But it is only really acceptable when we recognise it for what it is.