Saturday, 22 April 2017

A Wargamer of Wealth and Taste

Looking back through the records of this blog it has been going an amazingly long time – who knew I could type so much?) there is a theme which keeps coming around. It is not about history, accuracy, authenticity or anything else which is, or could be, particularly objective. It is about taste.

Taste is, of course, hard to define, hard to pin down and highly personal. What is to my taste is reasonably unlikely to be yours. As, I think, W. C. Fields once said ‘Don’t do to others as you would have them do to you. Their tastes may be different.’

And so to wargaming, achieved much sooner than in the posts of late. I have, no doubt, drivelled on before rather a lot about wargames and taste. I might find a particular sort of wargaming highly acceptable. For example, a game set during the Lebanese civil war, where victory might consist of using a car bomb to assassinate my political and military rivals. That may not be to your taste. Fair enough: you do not have to play.

However, in the tradition of the blog, I have to push things a little further. Is simply refusing to play a sufficient sort of response? Your offense at my game is palpable. My reaction could be deemed to be inappropriate. Is there simply a matter of taste at stake?

I have, I think, mentioned before vaguely, that non-historical and fantasy or science fiction games might be used to explore recent or contemporary issues. In science fiction, for example, some well-known novels, such as Joe Haldane’s ‘The Forever War’ is exploring the effects of Vietnam on the United States and its soldiers. Ultimately, the latter are fighting, more or less, for themselves and each other, not to defend a home society that they can barely recognise at the end.

Similarly, fantasy role playing games could be regarded as being related to their societies and as reactions to those societies. In a world where moral certainties were unravelling, is it so surprising that role-playing games emerged which had distinct categories of good and evil, order and chaos?

Do non-historical historical wargames explore the same themes? The obvious answer is, of course, no. A matchup between medieval French and Aztecs reveals little except an overwhelming desire to have a game.  There is, at least on the surface, no commentary here. If we look a little deeper, we might find themes of colonialism and imperialism, of course, both in terms of the highly trained and armed few against the many, and also in imagining that such a wargame is at all viable anyway.

However, non-historical games, as role playing and science fiction, can be ‘based on’ a historical original. Then the resonances become, perhaps, a little more interesting. Plays, for example, can be ‘updated’. Sometimes it misfires horribly. But sometimes the resonances can work. How would Richard III work updated to the Brexit campaign? What resonances could we find between the election of Mr Trump and Macbeth?

We can, naturally, if we look hard enough, find a resonance between today’s politics and any particular part of the past. The past is a bit like that; we can read bits of the contemporary scene into it, and gain some sort of insight, understanding or, at least, parallel with it. Similarly, the reason that Shakespeare can be updated is that classics are like that. We can read and re-read them and find further resonance with our own situation.

Part of the issue is, of course, that anyone can do it. So long as the past is not a total fabrication, resonances between, say, Agincourt and Brexit can be found on both sides. One could emphasise the plucky English against the might of the European hordes of faceless bureaucrats, one the fact that Henry V and Katherine Valois got it together in the end. Of course, you could go further and note that their son was a lunatic, but that might be pushing the resonances a little far.

As with the classics, and with history, so too with wargaming. I could wargame Agincourt. Which side would you choose? The plucky Brits (I mean English, of course, and Welsh, but not the Scots, nor the Irish – resonances continue). Why would you choose that side? Are you on the side of Brussels – the European integration project? The English independence movement? Does that even inform your choice consciously?

So too with other games of course. What leads people to want to wargame the army of Nazi Germany? What sorts of motives lurk beneath those who push the SS, in their smart black uniforms around the table? I, for one, really do not know. I cannot say that it is strictly, in my view, tasteless, although it is certainly not something that floats my wargame boat. After all, the SS existed and fought. History, as with nature, cannot be gainsaid.

But there seems to be a stop sign lurking somewhere near here. A few bases of SS on the table is one thing. Having nothing but SS units is another. A group of SS re-enactors seems beyond the pale entirely. We all have, I suppose, our own lines in the sand, but there is some broad agreement as to what is acceptable and what is not. A leaflet describing the battle of Agincourt is fine. One including comment on the current turmoil in the European project might raise a few eyebrows.

Those of you who are still awake might notice the title of this piece. If you have really imbibed your coffee you might note the allusion. And so, I think, the bottom line possibly emerges. Wargaming is a hobby of personal involvement. I do things – open fire with the grand battery, order the troops over the top, turn towards the enemy and damn the torpedoes. As a commander of World War Two German armies invading, say, Russia, am I demonstrating ‘sympathy with the devil’?


Saturday, 15 April 2017

Imperialist Wargaming

Some of you, possibly, knowing my interest in the Thirty Years War may well be expecting something about that subject, but, no, that will have to wait for another occasion. I mentioned before that I had read Wolfgang Reinhard’s ‘A Short History of Colonialism’ (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011), and that it was a fairly interesting book. I also noted that I had accused some wargaming of being neo-colonial, and so I suppose I had better at least assess what I might mean and what Reinhard, if he were interested in wargaming, might think about it.

Well, firstly, the idea of the book is to present the term ‘colonialism’ in a fairly neutral light. Some colonialism is better than other colonialism, obviously, but Reinhard’s view, I think, is that colonialism in some form is an almost inevitable fact of human existence. Far before the term was thought of, and long before it was used in a pejorative sense, the Greeks and Romans were setting up colonies. London, York and Colchester are among the colonies of Rome in the UK. Marseilles and Cadiz can trace their roots back to the Romans, Greeks and Carthaginians. Wherever international trade existed, there was the opportunity for colonialism, in the sense of what would be later termed ‘factories’, which amounted to trading stations and merchants from overseas.

As is fairly inevitable, a trading station can develop. The merchants get involved in local politics, and get involved with the population. Friction can ensure and military action follows. Further, of course, as the international scene becomes more active, rival merchants are driven out and British Empire, often said to have been acquired in a fir of absence of mind, in fact came about through a set of local initiatives seizing power in various places, and international conflict, mostly with France. It was not, in most senses, planned to become an empire on which the sun never set, it sort of happened.

Reinhard notes that the balance sheet for colonialism is mixed. Some people certainly suffered greatly from it, although some of the suffering was inadvertently inflicted, as with the epidemics that decimated the populations of the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Other suffering was, in essence, racist, although that is rather a smaller element than might be expected. Mostly the driver was money. Europeans went to their colonies to make it, and usually had to harass the locals to provide it in some form. Of course, some of the locals were pleased to do this. Much colonialism was enabled by local elites seizing more power (or, in some cases, any power) in alliance with the colonials.

Colonialism did do some good things. Ultimately, many colonies were democratised and developed. Whether this was done deliberately is a bit of a moot point, but it did happen. On the other hand, there are in the world a sufficient number of basket case former colonies to make us wonder if a different development course might not have left better legacies. The colonial powers pulled out, in some cases, far too quickly for local democracy to have had much of a chance against the local, armed, strong men. Even now, in some places, the former colonial power has some sway and has intervened in some of the internal disputes.

Imperialism, however, is a bit of a different kettle of fish. The Scramble for Africa of the late nineteenth century was caused by great power rivalry. Bismarck is quoted as saying that the map of Africa ran through Europe. There was a lot of horse trading between the powers over trade routes and colonial stations. For example, all powers wanted coaling stations to their ships could reach their colonies without having to stop at other power’s ports. Thus, otherwise commercially rather unattractive places became subject to colonial powers.

There was also the requirement to be seen to be strong. Rebellion could not be countenanced. The Germans executed what, today, would be called genocide in Southern Africa. The British invented the concentration camp in the Boer War, although the deaths were caused mainly by disease rather than deliberate extermination. Few of the other colonial powers come out of this part of the story well. Imperialism was conducted, as Bismarck implied, with one eye on the other powers. He needs of the locals were ignored.

As for wargaming, of course, there are two issues. Firstly, do we really want to wargame, say, the fighting in New Zealand against the Maori? From earlier posts on this theme, the answer of some correspondents was broadly speaking ‘no’ because the game would be one sided and hence boring. Fair enough – there are certainly more interesting wargames to be had than one side setting up some machine guns and mowing down all comers.

The second issue, I submit, is the tendency of the opposition in colonial wargames  to be presented as some sort of sub-Europeans. By this I mean that the local population is represented by categories of troops, with outlooks, that are imposed upon them through European colonial-imperialist eyes. In a sense, it is just an extension of the dreaded ‘national characteristics’ that used to be so rife in rules. But in this context it does start to look rather like the imposition of a different standard of warfare and organisation onto a culture, rather like the imperial powers imposed on the slices of the world they acquired.

As an example, which hopefully is fairly neutral, the European settlers in North America complained about the locals, that they would not stand up and fight. They ambushed. They raided. They used cover, and essentially undertook what the Europeans called a ‘skulking way of war’. Now, I am aware that this is best covered by skirmish level wargames, but there are some “big battle” games which also cover the period. These latter make what we could call an imperialist assumption: that the locals stood up and fought in accordance with the European expectation. Actually, so far as I have read, they rarely did, at least in the seventeenth century.


I could, and I may well, go on, but I think sufficient has been said to justify a gentle accusation at wargaming: some of it is imperialist.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Annoying Books

Often I find that reading books that I disagree with is more productive than reading ones with which I agree. I suppose that I have to take a step back and try to work out what it is that I disagree with, rather than just forge forward safe in the knowledge that I and the author are of one mind.

As a case in point, the philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga is my favourite ‘irritating’ philosopher. The reason for this is, to me at least, a little mysterious. To some extent I do agree with some of what he says. I could, if I applied myself sufficiently, agree with quite a lot of what he says. And yet I find that something in his works annoys me. If ever I want a good intellectual work out, I read a chunk of what he has written and try to establish why I disagree. I have not really managed that yet. I suppose that if I ever do, I will have become some sort of philosopher.

This post, in initial conception, was going to be about Wolgang Reinhard’s ‘A Short History of Colonialism’. This is a tome from my winter book box which I finished a week or so ago, and rather good it is too. By ‘good’ I mean, of course, that on the whole and insofar as I know anything about colonialism, I agree with the book. Colonialism is intrinsically neither particularly good nor bad overall. It can be very good or very bad of individuals, leading to massive enrichment, slavery and death. But the overall accounting of colonialism is harder to judge.

I have, from time to time on the blog, attempted to provoke slightly by suggesting that wargaming, in some of its aspects, are neo-colonial. By this I have meant that we force non-European armies and political entities into European forms. In fact, it can be argued that this is exactly what Europeans did, for example, in some parts of Africa, where they ruled through appointing tribal chiefs, on the assumption that there must be a tribe somewhere.

However, Reinhard makes a careful distinction between colonialism in its various forms, which he wants to treat as a value neutral label, and imperialism, by which he means the projection of great power rivalry onto the world stage in such activities as the ‘Scramble for Africa’. These activities, which included the newly arrived great powers of the United States and Japan, were far more damaging to the colonised regions than the previous British trading hegemony, although that too was not without its faults.  

The accusation I can thus make to provoke has to be modified in this light to accuse some wargaming of neo-imperialism, then. I suspect that, if unpacked thoroughly, there would be some substance to the accusation, if only that wargaming, as wargaming, usually requires two enemies to be willing to stand up and fight. To that extent, given that European warfare might be described as being more about that than some other forms of warfare around the world, the accusation might stick. However, it may also be noted to be full of holes as other, non-European, armies did, from time to time, stand and fight.

Having now spent a considerable time (or number of words, at least) describing what the post was going to be about, I can now move on to what it is about. In a sense I have not gone mad (or madder than usual) because it does link up.

The other book I have just finished from my book box is Stephen R. L. Clark’s ‘Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy’. I did find this book rather annoying and, in places, rather obscure. That could be because he covers an awful lot of time and space, and large chunks are devoted to ancient authors of whom I have heard little. It is hardly an introductory work, I think, and pays little heed to the standard ‘Greek and Roman Philosophy’ of normal academic process.

Clark’s main point, as I understand it, is that ancient philosophers were not doing what we think of as philosophy. He understands the ancient authors as doing something along the lines of constructing plausible world views and ways of life, not some sort of abstract, cool, detached and analytic thought. This is not, so far as I am aware, a particularly original insight – Pierre Hadot’s ‘Philosophy as a Way of Life’ (1995) has trodden that path before. But Clark throws his net wider. He encompasses Jewish and early Christian thought as philosophy, as well as Egyptian and Babylonian thinkers and (although I suspect he would dispute the term) proto-scientists.

The point that struck me about all this is not the detail, on which I am not an expert and cannot really comment, but how alien to modern thinking ancient ways were. The world view is, in point of fact, completely different. The ideas about gods and their interaction with the world are so alien as to be almost completely incomprehensible. Even though some of the early philosophers are characterised as proto-scientists, that was not what they thought they were doing. The idea of experiment, for example, was far from their thinking.

In terms of wargaming, of course, the point is hopefully obvious to any reader who has struggled through thus far. A Roman army, for example, was doing many things, and some of them are not the sorts of things we would expect of an army. We force it into modern categories, as we force Plato, for example, into the modern conception of philosophy. We might talk about Roman tactics, or logistics, but given the foregoing, perhaps we need to reconsider these terms. Were the Romans thinking tactics, or were they doing the obvious (to them) given the circumstances, or even recreating the great Roman armies of centuries before?

I am not sure of the answers here, or whether there can, in fact, be any answers. I am fairly sure that we could not wargame without forcing the Romans into a modern framework and categorization. But whether that necessity amounts to some sort of imperialism over the past I really cannot say.


Saturday, 1 April 2017

Fake Wargaming


The world is full of fake at the moment. In particular, we have the phenomenon of ‘fake news’. We can, of course, argue that fake news is nothing new.  Disinformation has been planted as news at all times and everywhere since Adam was a lad. After all, the serpent told Eve that she would not die as God had said if she at the apple. Either God or the serpent had planted fake news; it is a bit moot as to which it was.

Nevertheless, what is, I suppose, new about the modern obsession with fake news is the speed at which it propagates. A lie, after all, can be halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on. It is very, very hard to persuade people, who may not wish to be persuaded, that their current favourite bit of prejudice masquerading as news is false. I am sure that you can think of lots of examples of this, and I am not particularly keen on sullying the reputation of this blog (such as it is) by repeating any of them here.

The point is that most human activity proceeds by belief. We believe, to a certain extent, what we are told about something. We believe, for example, that the Battle of Britain was won by the ‘few’ who fought off the might of the Luftwaffe.  We might believe this on the basis that Churchill told us so, and that he was in a position to know. In some terms, of course, Churchill was right. But he did not have full information about the state of the Luftwaffe, and could not know that actually the RAF outnumbered it. But the point is that the picture painted is one of the few nobly defending civilisation against the foe. We all like to be on the side of the heroes, after all.

Belief is not just to be found in politics and its rhetoric. Belief is found in spades in science. I do not repeat all the experiments that have been performed over history, even those that pertain to my particular specialism. If I did, and everyone else did, scientific progress would stop. We rely on testimony. Specifically, we rely on a specific sort of rhetoric, the journal article, which reports methods and results. Occasionally, such reports are found to be inaccurate, wanting, and not backed up by further work. In such cases the results are checked, the experiments repeated, retractions and corrections issued. But mostly, scientists believe other scientists.

How does this play out in wargaming? Indeed, is there such a thing as fake wargaming, or, for the matter of that, is there such a thing as authentic wargaming? I think a few distinctions are necessary, however. Firstly, by ‘authentic’ I do not mean something like ‘accurate historical wargame’. We all know that really there is no such thing, A wargame can perfectly well be authentic, in the sense I am meaning, while having little or no bearing on real life as we know it, or history as we accept it. What I mean here is that a wargame is authentic as a wargame, not that it is authentic as a historical display, for example.

Now, it may well be that I am barking up the wrong tree here. A wargame is just a wargame, a bit of an expression of a hobby. It really does not need an assessment of authenticity. It is just a thing that we can treat as we like.

That may well be true, of course, but I think we do worry about authenticity in many walks of life. Politicians, for example, who are found to have paid relatives for work that was not done have doubt cast over their fitness for public office.  Aristotle argued, reasonably convincingly that our choices become habits and our habits carry over from one thing to another. A habit of being inauthentic in wargaming may carry over into inauthenticity in other areas.

On the other hand, I doubt if inauthentic wargamers would get very far in the hobby. As a teenager I did have some doubts about some of my wargaming colleagues, who seemed always to have the right roll at the right time. The answer was, of course, to take away their calculators with random number generators and to get them to roll the dice across the table. The further answer was to go and play with someone else.

But I think there are deeper or more subtle forces at play here. We all know, I dare say, reputable sets of wargame rules that include such things as ‘+3 if an English crew’. Now, at one level, we can argue that this represents the better seamanship and level of training of English (or, in the Napoleonic Wars, Royal Navy) ships. We can argue that it is entirely fair, mostly by pointing to the fact that the wargames come out with the right answer – i.e. that the English win. That is, in some senses, an empirical result that is acceptable, but it does not really wash that well, I think. The ‘national characteristic’ is a fix, a fudge, and thus can stand accused of being fake.

The answer, in this case, is to dig a bit deeper and assign value to training and experience. This, of course, has the effect of making our rule, potentially, more complex, or at least making the pre-game set up more difficult. Nevertheless, in terms of something authentic it is probably worth it. We arrive at a result where, say, RN crews are trained at the same level as French, but have more experience because of the months spent on blockade duties. We thus have embedded in our rule set the rational explanation for a given result, rather than a claim that this nation is inherently better than that nation.

While fake wargaming, then, might be something of a misnomer, I think that authentic wargaming, in the sense of a game and set of rules that give a reasonable and rational account of a game, is an important concept that, perhaps, we do not acknowledge readily enough.