Saturday 17 November 2018

Saving The World

The more astute among you may have noted that there has been an eerie silence hanging around the fortifications of Chateau Polemarch in the last few weeks. There have been no snide remarks about scales other than God’s own. No bafflement expressed as to how rules actually work. No pointless and poor photographs of made up battles or pseudo-narratives of what is purported to be going on.

Now I cannot, of course, go into details about the reasons for this silence. It is not that I have no ideas for posts (all right, who shouted ‘Shame’?), but I have, of course, been off saving the world. Your mild-mannered correspondent is, in real life, a superhero who has been off saving the world for the last fortnight or so. The desperate deeds of daring do which it entailed have not, alas, been widely reported in the press, but would make a very fine scenario for my favourite role-playing games of all time, Flashing Blades.

You might think that the world doesn’t seem any better, or more saved than it did two weeks ago, but let me assure you that, if it were not for my intervention things would be a lot worse. That’s the problem with being a superhero, of course. No-one notices unless you don’t do it. And no-one thanks you if you do. I might get on and establish universal peace, harmony and prosperity, along with the rule of law, but I confess to being a little tired now, and so really it is for someone else to add the finishing touches. You will have my full support.


Actually, in all honesty, I have just not been very well. Nothing exciting, no blue light rushes to Accident and Emergency, no cruel nurses ordering me out of bed or anything. Just a series of enervating colds which have made ordinary life hard enough to sustain and knocked writing, hobbies and more or less everything else out of the frame. Still, I am now recovering and, superhero activities aside, normal life is slowly beginning to reassert itself. This includes writing annoying blog posts, so here goes.


In September’s History Today (68, 9, 36-41) is an interesting article by Robert Crowcroft ‘A Tiger in the Grass: The Case for Applied History.’ This is an article, I suspect, designed to provoke, but I did find it interesting and wondered about its application to wargaming. I probably do not have room here to discuss those implications, but they might be worth a think about.

Crowcroft’s point is that history is not useless, although it cannot be applied blindly to today’s situations. It is, however, the only repository of what works and what does not that we have. While the problems we face now are not the problems people faced in the past, there is continuity as well as change. He could have quoted (I think) Mark Twain who said something along the lines of ‘History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.’

History can inform decisions, but it is not a predictive science. The only predictive sciences around are the physical ones, and even then the predictions are of a limited kind and not really much to use anyone outside the limited scope of the science. Crowcroft notes that of all modern statesmen the one to use history the most to inform decision making was Henry Kissinger, who held a doctorate in the subject. Crowcroft notes that ‘a Kissinger is almost unthinkable today.’ I think he means that someone in a position of great power who is informed by the past is unthinkable. After all, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Kissinger made Tom Lehrer give up comedy, stating that satire could not compete with what was going on in the world.

History, according to Crowcroft’s argument, is ‘policy-relevant’. He also notes that of all institutions that operate in modern liberal democracies, it is the armed forces that consistently apply history. They study past battles and campaigns to prepare for the future. So long as they remember that each war is different, and the next one is not going to be like the last, all is relatively well. History is not a set of recipes to obtain a given outcome. It can only be reasoned from.

And so, of course, to wargaming. As an amateur who would be rejected as an applicant to the military for many different reasons, I doubt if my interest in history and wargaming will bear any weight. But history does give us a few hints as to what might be going on militarily. For example, Montgomery is famous for the quote: ‘There are three laws of warfare. I forget the first two, but the third is “Don’t start a land war in Asia”’. History from Herodotus on validates that law, I think. Sabre rattling in the Pacific today may not be the most helpful attitude.

Secondly, geography does not change all that much, and human nature changes rather less than that. While what is considered strategically important might change depending on the context and circumstances (would anyone defend Thermopylae today?), pinch points still exist and their defence is to be considered. All this, of course, depends on decisions on both sides not simply to drop a tactical nuclear weapon on the pinch point in question, although considerations of holding the moral high ground may well still have an influence.

So, history can, and should, alert us to both the change and the continuity of warfare. In my fevered state, the only pondering about wargaming I have managed has been to read through the old DBM and DBR army lists. I could go on and on about army lists and their use and abuse, but I’ll not here. The purpose behind it was to consider a comment I read recently (before I was struck down by the lurgy) to the end that an army is a reflection of the society from which it comes. I think this is broadly true, although there are exceptions and, often, when those exceptions are found the army and its society can become unstable. Perhaps an example would be the later Roman Empire.

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