Saturday, 6 May 2017

Ideas and Wars

I suspect it may be true that underlying a lot of what I write here is that warfare, and hence wargaming in different eras, is at least in part a function of the ideas which are prevalent in the era we are attempting to represent. Thus, for example, what we might call geometric war, a warfare dominated by fortifications of a given type, is a function, in part, of the rise of geometry and mathematics generally associated with the renaissance. The sort of thing that could be undertaken by someone with an understanding of abstract geometry was not the same as that of someone who worked with pieces of charcoal and string. The idea gave a different form of warfare.

This is not to say, of course, that the ideas dominated warfare. There were plenty of hold-outs, as it were. Henry VIII’s fortifications on the south coast of England were not geometric. The towers were round and, as packed with earth, probably would have been fairly effective. Again, a lot depends on function. As costal forts they were conceived to be artillery platforms, not to stand sieges necessarily. Nevertheless, Henry’s daughter Elizabeth had Berwick upon Tweed fortified in the continental manner, and, of course, moaned about the cost.

Beyond this form of reasonably practical response, warfare is a bit about ideas, at least. I have mentioned the effect of religion on the ways in which people and nations go to war. It is often said that religions cause wars, and this is rather unfair. Religion is often viewed by its protagonists and propagandists as being the reason for war. Thus, to quote Jeremy Black ‘The Seven Years’ War was widely portrayed in propaganda as a religious conflict, a development that was in keeping with the stress on religious animosity in the domestic publications of several states.’ (Black, J., ‘Introduction’, in Black, J., (ed) The Origins of War in Early Modern Europe, (1987, Edinburgh, John Donald) p 6). Immediately, however, he notes that alliances did not conform to confessional lines. Religious animosity should not be exaggerated to be the causus belli.

Religious belief, however, can determine to some extent, how states interfere with other states internal issues (think the Protestant minority in early modern France, for example; cases can be multiplied) and also how the wars were fought. While, often, Thucydides’ dictum that things in war go from bad to worse (I paraphrase wildly) it is also true that religion can mitigate the worst effects of warfare and, of course, provide some comfort for those whose lives are on the line. Religious propaganda and activities can also be used. In the years of the American Revolutionary Wars Britain held days of national fast and humiliation because of the ‘just and necessary Measure of Force which we are obliged to use against our rebellious subjects’. There is not much ‘holy Jesus meek and mild’ going on here, admittedly.

The point with the days of fast, of course, is that we see an alignment of the religious and the political. I am not too well up in the history of the later eighteenth century, but the language is that of the divine right of kings, and also of the ideas of just war that were floating around. As any rebellion against duly appointed authority was also a sin, then the war, provided the force used was proportionate, was just. I dare say propaganda on the other side was just as infused with religion, no matter exactly what the religious beliefs of the founding fathers was.

It is, then, I think, as mistake to suppose that the ideas around in society did not have an impact on warfare. It would be a similar sort of error to imagine that the converse was not true. For example, the horrors of trench warfare in 1914-18 led to a major rethink of, at least, Protestant theology, through the work of Karl Barth. These ideas, this rethinking, is still being argued over in theological circles today, and have some resonances with debates over warfare and society even now. Similarly, I think we could argue, the philosophy of Heidegger was, in part, a response to the First World War and the turmoil in Germany which followed it. I am not meaning to get involved in the ‘was Heidegger a Nazi’ debate, just suggesting that the context of the thinking going on was important.

There is, of course, as Terry Pratchett put it, a rake lurking in the grass here. That rake is our own context, that of us as amateur historians and wargamers. We interpret the past in a particular way. It, of us, is not imbued with the Spirit of God, of divine providence or similar things, as it would have been for most of the participants and early interpreters.  We live in an age of ‘scientific’, or at least, critical history. Things happen for, we argue, human reasons and, as such, they should be understandable and interpretable by human reason. Stuff was going on which the participants may have had little or no idea about; they may have associated that with divine providence or whatever, but we, we suppose, can know better. The point is that doing that is disrespectful to that past and those people. We rip their ideas and views out of context and disregard some of them.

Thus, I think, that while we can and do wargame while disregarding the views and opinions of the past, we really should not. Motives are, and were always, mixed, of course. We can say that the Romans were a very religious people, so long as the gods did what they wanted. That may be true, at least in part, put it does suggest a rather later, Enlightenment level categorization. The Romans, so far as I know, did not really draw a distinction between the gods and what they want and the people of Rome and what was best for them. It is simply a different view of religion from that of today. To force the Romans into post-Enlightenment categories is, at least, to distort and misrepresent the past in some way. We can and should not rule out self-interest, of course, but that is not separated from the religious world view and context of the time.


  1. I don't have time to prepare and research a proper reply but based largely on readings of translations of various Greek and Roman authors, mostly also soldiers, I agree that the context and beliefs should be considered but I don't think we should underrate human nature or overrate the naivety of the ancients either.

    The sort of society that spawned philosophy would include, I think, a variety of ways of viewing the world and nature, from religious to philosophical to practical, not exactly the same as ours and not all shared will everyone in their time. We are perhaps more subtle in how we silence people we don't want to hear. Similarly not all of modern society are right wing religious anti-science zealots who think that nuking the bad guys would be a holy Christian act or devout believers in the invisible hand of the market or devout believers in climate change and our ability to fix our part or those who believe that buying something new car will fix anything.

    In the end, actions often speak louder than public words.

    1. I'm sure that Greek society had a range of views, but I'm not sure that they necessarily differentiated, say, philosophy and religion, or religion and possibly warfare. Categories are imposed on the past to help us understand, it doesn't necessarily mean that the originals would have understood.

      Actions do speak louder than words, agreed. It does not cast a good light on many politicians, for example. But language also has a role in determining what we can think - the sort of Wittgenstein or Orwell thing - we can only think what we can express. This is roughly true, I think - our ordinary discourse is limited to public language.

      So, if I need an augury to decide if we fight, we don't necessarily question that. It is part of the way things are. I might need to get the augurys cast several times to find when to fight, but that is the gods for you. It may seem bizarre to us, but I suppose stock markets would seem equally odd the the average ancient Greeks.