Saturday, 18 March 2017

Wargame Identity

As someone noted recently in a comment, identity is an interesting thing. It crops up almost everywhere. There is, for example an ‘identity politics’, and also a ‘politics of identity’. What the difference is I leave as an exercise for the reader.

Identity seems to be predicated on the assumption that there is, in fact, something irreducible to me, as a person, as an entity. I am more that my spatial-temporal activities. One of the authors I have read on this matter, Ian Ramsey, has an argument along these sorts of line. His example is, so far as I recall, this:

You meet a work colleague. ‘I’m tired’ they say.
‘Why are you so tired?’
‘Because I got up at four am’
‘Why did you do that?’
‘Because I was meeting Tom at the river bank.’
‘Why….?’
And so on, until it transpires that your colleague went to go fishing. When you ask ‘Why fishing?’ you get a different sort of answer. ‘You know what I’m like about fishing’.  There is no further question to be asked. The next question would by, again, ‘Why fishing’ and the answer would be similar. Fishing, for your colleague is irreducible. The answer to ‘Why fishing?’ is something like ‘Because I’m I’.

Ramsey, being a theologian, wants to use the argument above to show that the soul exists and that it is immortal. I’m not sure that the argument works to that end, but that is not the point here. The point is that there is something irreducible about the person. There is something that cannot be explained in terms of anything else. The man likes fishing, and there is an end to it. He orientates his life around fishing; he is prepared to sacrifice sleep for it, and so on.

I suggest, metaphysical arguments about the soul aside, that this irreducibility of activities, particularly hobby activities, is a part of what it means to have an identity. There is an irreducible ‘I’m I’ about our spatio-temporal actions, something about them that we do because we are us.

Before the language gives up in this area, I think this applies, without much adjustment, to our self-identity as wargamers. I could, with a little thought, come up with a similar dialogue to that above which concludes ‘Because I’m a wargamer’ as a similar sort of statement that admits few additional questions.

Of course, we could start to analyse ‘Why are you a wargamer?’ That would start to ask other sorts of questions, however. I might be a wargamer because I was traumatised by being scared by a soldier as a baby, for example, and wargaming is my way of getting revenge in the solider profession. A little far-fetched, perhaps, but it does not address the fact that, in the here and now, being a wargamer is part of my identity, part of who I am.

Further, we could ask as to what sort of wargamer you are. From the comments section even of this blog a variety can be deduced. There are ‘social’ gamers, people for whom the main reason for wargaming is the social interaction. If that is not available, no wargaming happens. There are solo wargamers, who for reasons of time, space or temperament, wargame on their own. There are role playing gamers, skirmish wargamers, ancient wargamers, World War Two wargamers, wargamers of different genres and scales, and many (if not most) who cross over between these different categories in a way that, quite likely, bewilders non-wargamers.

Any attempt at self-identification within these groups is bound to be a little difficult. After all, we can, ourselves, vary quite widely across these categories anyway, and so few wargamers are going to announce to the world ‘I am a social ancient wargamer’, or ‘I am a solo World War Two wargamer’ or whatever is floating your wargame boat at that point. Nevertheless most readers of the blog may well be fairly happy with the statement ‘I am a wargamer’, whatever the nuance on that might be.

Being a wargamer, of course, indicates that you will partake in a number of spatio-temporal activities, such as playing wargames, reading sets of rules, books, painting toy soldiers and so on. None of these are irreducible to wargaming, in the same that buying floats and untangling lines are not irreducible aspects of fishing. With the possible exception of actually playing wargames, being a wargamer does not entail painting and reading, it just tends to happen that way.

The irreducibility, therefore, is not grounded in the spatio-temporal activity. Where then can it be found? The only suggestion I can make is that it exists in the mind of the wargamer themselves. I am, indeed, I, and this is part of what it means to be ‘I’. I might be able to conceive of myself as a non-wargamer, but part of who I am is that I wargame. If I were sent to prison for twenty years and then emerged, would I still be a wargamer, as someone who had not pushed a figure or rolled a dice for that time? The answer would depend on what was going on in my mind, whether I was still interested.

We do, of course, have many other irreducible parts of ourselves. We have jobs, names, families, places where we live, even, possibly, things we do other than wargame. Our identities are complex and multi-faceted. They are also mutable. I am not exactly the same as I was twenty years ago, whether I have spent that time in prison or in a variety of more or less dead-end jobs. My wargaming self too has changed – in my case from Renaissance to Ancient wargaming. Other wargamers change as well; our interests within the hobby vary over time.


So, I think that being a wargamer is more than just the activities we associate with wargaming. You could, in principle, be a wargamer without actually wargaming, although how long the interest would last is a bit of a tricky question. As irreducible, however, wargaming is part of the identity of a wargamer. It might be a greater or lesser part thereof, but part of it it is.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Charles the What?

Sort of following up from the discussion a few weeks ago about Alexander ‘the Great’, III of Macedon, I’ve just finished Richard Vaughn’s Charles the Bold. As most of you probably know, this is the fourth and last in the series of the Dukes of Burgundy, and was published in the 1970’s. So far as I can tell there is not an awful lot more on Duke Charles published since then in English, although it would seem that the Burgundian state is an object of interest to French and German historians, and also to the more sort of ‘theoretical’ historian, the sort who is interested in why we have modern nation states at all, rather than ‘composite’ states, as Burgundy was.

Charles seems to have been, while Duke of Burgundy, neither particularly rash nor bold. He usually only went to war when he either had to or when he had diplomatically isolated his target. He was not, as most medieval rulers seem to have been, systemically broke. As most rulers, until the formation of national banks in the 1600’s, had to, he borrowed from the (mostly) Italian banks because he needed ready money. While the Burgundian court was glittering and extravagant, the lands of the Burgundian Duke could actually afford it.

If anything Charles failed the Napoleon test as a general. He was not lucky. At Grandson, his troops panicked where they saw a backward movement of part of the army, and fled. At Murat and at Nancy Charles seems to have been a bit thick and was not expecting to fight. At Nancy he did suffer some desertions, but this seems to have been experienced captains saving their own lives and those of their men from a hopeless situation.

Being not very clever as a commander in chief is not, however, the same as being bold or rash. These epithets seem to derive from translations from the French. According to Wikipaedia (OK, not a great source of knowledge, but probably OK in this case)  Charles was known as le Hardi (the Bold), le Guerrier (the Warrior), le Terrible (translation left as an exercise for the reader) and le Temeraire ( the Reckless). The latter was used by the chronicler Thomas Basin, writing in 1484. What seems to be important, therefore, is the impression, rather than the facts of the matter, at least in the case of bynames. Mostly, however, he was known as Charles of Burgundy.

As Phil Barker observes in the DBM army lists, Charles’ army, the Burgundian Ordonnance, is a favourite of wargamers, despite its 100% record of losing battles. Barker does not speculate as to why this should be, except to note that the army has a bit of everything – men at arms, archers, pikemen, artillery by the spade load and so on. That may well be part of the charm, of course. If, for example, the English longbow men were still feared (and they were), and the European man at arms was the cream of medieval fighting prowess and technology (and they were, or at least, liked to think they were) then, surely, bringing them all together would make a great army.

To an extent this is, while an unproved and unprovable hypothesis, it cannot be disproved either. Charles was outnumbered at the three battles against the Swiss, even though only part of the Swiss army was in action at Grandson. At Nancy and Murat the army didn’t stand a chance, being surprised and divided by trying to keep a siege going at the same time as fighting off the Swiss. Part of the draw of the Burgundian Ordonnance is that we might feel it should have done so much better.

I suspect too that there is a bit of the romantic draw, and also a bit of the ‘can’t do worse’ syndrome. For the former, we all love a loser. The Cavaliers (wrong but romantic) are more popular than the Roundheads (right but repulsive). So may it be too with Charles of Burgundy. Not that he was necessarily right or wrong, of course – his causes would probably make little sense in the politics and diplomacy of today. But he was Europe’s leading knight. His court was the epitome of cultured sophistication of the day. Everyone else modelled themselves on Burgundy.

In fact, the court was designed to specifically draw attention to its culture, its sophistication, and the requirement that everyone who aspired to knightly living needed to emulate it. Charles had a massive amount of pride and was determined that his honour would, at all times, be upheld and satisfied. In a sense this is what killed him. Having started a siege, he would not stop it until his honour was satisfied; that is, until he either captured the place or was given a way out through negotiation. He managed at Neuss, but failed at Nancy.

The other part of the draw I mentioned is that a wargamer, faced with a 100% failure rate of the original army, may well feel that, if  they lose then that is historical, while if they win, that is something down to the skill of the wargamer themselves. I am not really qualified to enter into the psychology of this point of view, and, of course, as a solo wargamer, I do not have to, but it does seem like a live attitude out there.

I suspect, finally, that the other draw is the large artillery park the Duke could deploy. Wargamers, it seems, like technology. Indeed, at Nancy the Swiss decided on a flank attack because the road was commanded by the Duke’s artillery. Artillery could and did have a tactical effect, even though its rate of fire in a battle situation was lamentable. But wargamers, it seems, like artillery anyway, and so did the Duke. It was, in fact, another aspect of making the claims to greatness and power in the pre-early modern state. The earlier unassailable fiefdoms based around powerful castles were being, in some cases literally, blown away by the super-powerful Kings and Dukes with modern artillery parks. ‘Don’t mess with me or your masonry will tumble’ was a decent opening gambit in centralisation of the nation state.

So there you are: an army which should have done better; a Duke who might have been a bit brighter. The Burgundian Ordonnance army is often seen as transitional, although I’m sure that Charles, his captains and his men did not see it like that at all. Worth a wargame?