Saturday, 14 March 2020

Post Truth Historical Wargaming

In February’s History Today, Suzannah Lipscomb wonders how we can study history in a world where post-truth politics poses an ‘existential threat’ to the study of the past. The public sphere, politics, the media, social media and so on seems to be perfectly comfortable with being lied to, knowing about it and not caring. ‘Alternative facts’, misinformation, barefaced denial of the evidence and avoidance of scrutiny all contribute to a world where it seems often that the politician with the biggest lie wins.

If this becomes the norm (and some people would say it already has) then history is in trouble. If everything becomes subjective, then only my own experience can count for anything and the search for objective truth in history is made impossible. Hence, because I have not experienced, say, Auschwitz, I can deny it happened, its importance and its relevance. Where facts are not counted and there is no standard of truth, then anything will go.

If there is no truth, Lipscomb argues, then there is no such thing as a lie. Postmodernism may well have taught us that objective truth is hard, even impossible, to reach because we are only human, but the extension of that to the claim that there is no truth at all is fallacious and harmful. We can know something about what is true, and, I think, plenty about what is not true. Nevertheless, the indifference, or worse, to the truth is harmful, nihilistic and leaves us with a whole bunch of narcissists as politicians and public intellectuals.

As it happens, I am not quite as apocalyptic on this as Lipscomb is. Truth still matters in many spheres of life. Politics might have moved on from being truthful, but medicine, for example, has not. Few people would want the answer to the question “Doctor, what is wrong with me?” to be “What would you like it to be?” Few businesses would thrive if the customer decided what they were willing to pay. There would be many more road traffic accidents if each individual decided which side of the road they were going to drive on.

Nevertheless, truth is in trouble, and historical truth perhaps particularly so. In the editorial in the same issue of History Today, the decline of interest in history is lamented. The problem is, of course, that if we as a society do not know how we got to where we are today, then we are at the mercy of people who are willing to make it up. George Orwell was alarmingly close to the modern condition when he wrote ‘He who controls the past controls the present; he who controls the present controls the future.’ You will recall, I am sure, that in 1984, the past is entirely re-written.

If historical truth is in trouble, is historical wargaming? Sometimes the decline of the hobby is lamented, with fewer youngsters joining in. The overall decline of interest in military history is probably not helping this, although I believe that books on the World Wars sell particularly well, especially anything on Hitler’s Germany (which in itself is a bit worrying).

I think historical wargaming can, possibly, help. After all, wargamers are used to drawing the distinction between what is true, historically, and what is not. I can (and did) set up a representation of the Battle of Seminaria, but I know that my representation of it is not like the battle itself, except in a few particulars. Given that I know that, that I am aware that some stuff has to be invented to get the battle onto the table at all, then I can work with both the historical objective facts, so far as they are known, and with the representations, in rules and models and game, of a non-objective set of events.

This possibly sounds a bit like Phil Sabin’s ideas of wargaming historical battles to see what range of outcomes might be reasonable. This idea struggles, it seems, to gain traction in academic history, possibly because not many professional historians like military history and because a lot of modelling and a lot of assumptions have to be made in order for a simulation to be produced. The more assumptions you have to make, the further from objective fact you probably are.

Despite this, historical wargaming can attract people towards history. As someone once said to me, on finding out that I am a wargamer, there is a pageant of history to engage with, the colour, the valour and so on. All right, some parts of history, particularly military history, are squalid, gruesome and downright nasty, but at the same time, there is the acknowledgement that these events did happen. It is an objective fact, for example, that a pike was a long, pointy stick used for warding off cavalry and stabbing people (or at least, threatening to stab people) with.

The historian C. V. Wedgewood once published a book of essays entitled ‘History and Hope’. It has been years since I read it, but as I recall, the basic idea was that reading history can enable us to see that progress, real progress in the lives of ordinary people, is possible. Examining history, with all its difficulties and flaws, can encourage us to persevere in otherwise unpromising circumstances. Human life expectancy has risen over the last hundred years or so because of basic improvements in people’s lives: sanitation, clean water supply, decent housing, and education. Medical advances, such as antibiotics do, of course, help, but they are not, so far as I know, the determining factor. The rise of tuberculosis in the Western World should be a source of embarrassment to us all.

So if history can be hopeful, so can historical wargaming. The key idea is, I suppose, that battles are dramatic, and drama is interesting. Presenting the drama of history to the public, even via blogs and games, enables that drama to exist in the public sphere. And within the wargame, of course, there is often a kernel of objective, historical truth.


  1. A lack of forward vision, rearward-looking perspective, ignorance, and even blatant stupidity certainly seem to be winning at the moment in a lot of places. That, more than the Covid-19 virus, is truly chilling.

    Best Regards,


    1. The most chilling words I've heard about Covid-19 were essentially 'public health is not ultimately about science, but about Boris Johnson's personal judgement....'

      Do you know the way to the nearest bunker?

  2. Fascinating . I have just ordered that particular magazine. Currently researching the C17th in this regard, especially so with regard to Ireland - so this all ties in neatly, as Irish politics, for one, has scarcely moved from 1688...

    1. People have always liked the truth, particularly when it accords with their own prejudices. As someone said, we rarely distort the facts, just our relationship to them. From the same starting point we can be supporting tradition or crying tyranny.

  3. I understand that Mr Gove’s reforms to the school curriculum has pushed the learning of history in schools back to the cabbages and kings approach. If so that’s not helping the situation. Nuance and complexity are out. Challenging sources and assumptions could also be on the way out. A grim prospect.

    On a more positive note, my interest in military history has given me a level of knowledge that has helped me at times challenge people whose views are formed around some of the popular historical “myths”. Not sure whether I should have put the scare quotes around ‘historical’ or ‘myths’ 😁

    1. My son does history GCSE this year and they have done quite a lot on analysing sources - reliability, bias, independent verification etc. Certainly more than I did in history in the 80s. From what I can see it’s not rote learning of facts (if that’s what you are alluding to). I’d be interested to hear from a history teacher what they think of changes over the last couple of decades.

    2. Not sure about how history is taught these days (Oh dear, now I sound old), but Mr Gove was more going on about teaching British / English history, rather than some other countries that we used to own but graciously returned to their inhabitants history, wasn't he? I doubt he is a fan of post-colonial history, somehow.

      Still, source analysis is good, although my experience of university level students is that they seem to lack critical skills, on the whole, even leading some places to teach the subject. That is possibly a little worrying.