History is in a constant state of revision. One of the things I try to explain to people is that if they read a text, firstly, that text remains and can be re-read, and secondly, that when they do re-read the text, they will approach it with different questions and, thus, find different things in that text.
History is similar, I think. A historian, whether amateur or professional, approaches the subject of interest with a set of questions. These questions are framed by the current context of the historian. Thus, for example, there is far more interest in Greek homosexuality now than there was in, say, the Victorian era. This is not because the nature of ancient Greek sex and sexuality has changed over the past century or so. How could it? But our perceptions, our questions have altered. Homosexuality is now much more visible in society and thus a historian is more likely to approach an ancient society with a modern concern in mind.
I have noted before that wargamers approach history with a set of questions in mind. They want to know about units, tactics, generals, strength and make up of forces and so on. I have also noted that often a wargamer has to turn away from the historical sources disappointed. The required information simply does not exist. The wargamer is reduced to plausible guess work and, possibly, imagination. Where historians can stop and admit ignorance, the placing of wargame figures on a table requires something definite.
I suppose the key word is ‘plausible’. What actually counts is what was likely. How many hoplites was such and such a city likely to be able to deploy? What was the likely role of twenty-thousand lightly armed Arucarians? And so on. Even modern warfare is not immune from that sort of question. Often the much lauded tables of organisation are ideal, the hopes and dreams of administrators, rather than relating in any but a general way to boots on the ground.
History, of course, takes its twists and turns. We know, for example, in general turns of the relationship between England and Scotland from, say, medieval times. We can find in the reigns of Edward I, Edward II and Edward III various relations of power between the two nations, including military power. We can trace this further through history, via the Auld Alliance of France and Scotland and the vary relations between the three nations, to the Scottish Reformation and, perhaps, the only really welcome intervention of the English north of the border (at least by part of the nation).
History, however, has a habit of not stopping. We can describe the state of the border in Elizabethan times, and how it was fairly brutally pacified under James VI and I, although that bit is usually relegated to a foot note in history. We can also regard the intertwined political, national and religious webs of the British Civil Wars of mid-century, which led to the military defeat of the Scots. Interestingly, the concept of the Scottish nation was not defeated in anyone’s head. Various local, national and international states of affairs had combined to bring about, say Dunbar.
Again, history was it is known about today can focus in. there has been a fair fuss recently over the discovery of a load of bodies in Durham which have been identified as Scots, prisoners of war after the defeat at Dunbar. They were being moved south; the war, after all, was still going. Things being as it were they were interred in Durham where cold, poor food and disease killed many. They were buried.
Recently, the location of the burials was discovered, although my colleague, who was brought up around Durham observed that most of the locals knew they were there. But, to me somewhat bizarrely, an argument started as to where they should be re-interred. Some argued for Durham, where they had died. Some, however, wanted the bones returned to Scotland. I think this really was rejected on practical grounds. Where in Scotland would the bones be returned to? After all, Leslie’s army at Dunbar was national.
The interest is, of course, in the mere fact of the argument at all. Somehow this discovery matters, and it must matter on the grounds of what is happening now. That is recent political developments makes an argument over 350 (or so) year old skeletons viable, and it can be undertaken by serious people. Somehow, we find in this, that history does matter, even though most people (including my colleague) express bafflement as to why this particular argument is being had.
And so it loops around to wargaming, historical wargaming in particular, but not exclusively. We represent something, say from the past. And yet that representation of the past is framed by our understanding of the present, by the questions we ask. Those questions are, perhaps, answered by history as it is written now, and also maybe by history as it was written then. There is not, cannot be, a complete answer, however. The written history of now and the history of then cannot completely overlap. Our knowledge is always incomplete; our worldview is always rather different.
I do not exempt science fiction or fantasy games from the above, because they are still representations of something framed by the present. Often, if you dig deeply enough, you will find issues of the present embedded in science fiction and fantasy. Lord of the Rings and A Canticle for Leibowitz , for example, probably would not have been written but for the experience of World War Two. Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy is an interesting pivot between the fall of the Roman Empire and the concerns of post-war America. And so on.
Our wargames, with their emphasis on facts and knowledge of the numbers, arms and organisations of the armies of the past, present or future (or some completely different place and time) do show, therefore, some of the issues which our culture – technological, bureaucratic, controlling, deterministic with acknowledged limits – has.
Maybe an interesting question is whether we could imagine a different sort of wargaming, freed from some of these concerns.