Saturday, 19 November 2022

Post-Colonial Wargaming

Over the years, people who have kindly commented on this blog have raised a number of ways of describing its content. Perhaps the most accurate, at least in the early days, was a kind of postmodern wargaming. I have tended to move away from that at least in terms of blog posts; there are other things to write about, not least playing actual wargames.

Anyway, the title of this post is possibly a red rag to some wargamers but bear with me. It might even turn out to be interesting and relevant. I am reading a book (actually, I have been asked to review it) which has as one of its themes post-colonialism, along with domination, empire and the mindsets that these elements of the world and its history have generated. As with a lot of non-wargaming books I have read, in order to see if the arguments are sound, I thought to apply them to wargaming. This might be a bit unfair, as I have only reached the third chapter, but I will give it a go.

The basic idea is this: modern western society is dominated by global capital, and global capital makes us think in certain ways. We consider economic activity and efficiency, employment and activity, consumption and productivity, and so on. Sitting behind this is the modern subject of economics, and its claims to be scientific. That is, the market is presumed to be rational, and the free individuals who operate within the market are also presumed to be rational actors, and to be able to look out for themselves. This is, of course, a view of the marketplace which is that of the privileged few, those who play the market and win.

Now, before the blog gets accused of being some sort of woke wargaming, ‘woke’ being a term of abuse for thinking about things like racism, colonialism and other prejudices, let me think a little about how wargaming works, at least within its historical context. The idea of postcolonialism, after all, is that there are plenty of alternatives, not just the one tied down by those in power. And it is that idea of alternatives that I think is worth exploring.

Let me take an example, as it might aid clarity. Suppose you decide that the next project in your wargaming is the Battle of Agincourt. You have a rough idea of this, from the bowmen of England fighting with their trousers down and their fingers up against the cream of French nobility. But you do need a little more information, such as how many men there were per side and how they were deployed. It is here the wargamer runs into some difficulty.

According to most chroniclers, the English army numbered around 6000 me. I think we can cope with that, but the French are a lot more difficult. The English chroniclers give between 60000 and 150000, while the French give 8000 and 50000 (some also giving the English 20000). Juliet Barker goes for 8000 men at arms, 4000 archers and 1500 crossbowmen in the vanguard, a similar number in the main battle, two wings of 600 and 800 mounted men at arms, and the rest in the rearguard.

Already the wargamer is faced with choices and alternatives. We have a sort of scientific mindset that needs the numbers and the actions to be nailed down far more accurately than the chronicles can achieve, and a great deal more accurately than the authors and actors probably would have been interested in. We also suffer a little because most historians are more interested in the Treaty of Troyes and its terms rather than the battle which led to it, but I will avoid a rant about the bias of modern historians against military history here.

There are, of course, other confusions, such as the exact compositions and locations of the cavalry, and how the French host was really organised (if indeed it was organised). All sorts of rivalries emerged and were a nightmare for the commanders in assigning positions in the lines and battles. After all, who wanted to be in the rearguard? It seems that this body was the dumping ground for soldiers deemed surplus to requirements, which contributed in all probability to the poor performance on the day.

At this point the scientific wargamer might well hold their head in despair and decide on another battle, one which is better documented and not so fraught with command difficulties. A postcolonial wargamer, however, might embrace the ambiguities and vagueness as an opportunity. After all, what would have happened if 6000 English faced off against 8000 French? Or 20000 French? Would the outcome have been different? Again, there were archers and crossbowmen with the vanguard, but they seem to have disappeared by the morning of the battle. To recreate history, therefore, they should not be included. What would have happened if they had been used?

The point is that there are a number of narratives that can be constructed out of what we do know about Agincourt or, indeed, any other given battle. The point of postcolonialism is that our narratives should not be reduced to a single thread of accepted wisdom. There are, as most proper historians I have read or spoken to know, many options for what did happen and what might have happened. The idea that there is a single narrative, a single way of understanding the events of the past would not, I think, really pass muster in today’s historiography.

The problem is that as wargamers we need, for example, a definite number of troops to put onto the table. Were there 8000 or 20000 French? But the point is that as wargamers we can experiment. What would have happened if there had been 8000? We can guess that a fairly easy English victory would have ensued. Would it be the same with 20000? We can try to find out. And then we can add back in the archers and crossbowmen and ponder the might have beens.

Without resorting to woke-ness, postcolonial readings of history can point us in new directions in wargaming, if we are alert to the alternatives which are available and the vagueness and ambiguity of most of the sources. We need to nail down some things for a wargame, of course, but we can vary the parameters and see what happens another time if we wish.

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