Saturday 26 February 2011

Territory and Battles

I made a rash statement a few weeks ago, that sieges and holding territory were more important than battles in military history. This was quite rightly challenged, and it was agreed, more or less, that occasional colonial reprisal raids were not aimed at capturing territory.

This of course could lead to arguments about what we might mean by ‘capturing territory’. Punitive raids in the North-West province of India could be regarded as a means of keeping territory by making sure the locals were overawed by the Imperial might that could be deployed against them. If the raids were not carried out, the regions would become independent, the Imperial bases would then be threatened and that is before Russian agents drifted over the Himalayas to stir up trouble. So even the colonial argument touches territory at some point, perhaps not quite as directly as some.

Turning from the 19th century to the 14th, we have another candidate for not trying to capture territory. In this case, it is one I know a little more about: the early years of the Hundred Year’s war. Now, as wargamers we know that this revolved about the battles of Poitiers and Crecy. If we are dead sophisticated we might also admit that the siege of Calais was also part of the Crecy campaign. But the battles were decisive, were they not?

To answer this question we have to look a bit harder at Edward III’s strategy. I’m stealing most of this from Clifford Rogers’ book ‘War Cruel and Sharp’. He argues that after the Weardale campaign of 1327, Edward adopted Robert the Bruce’s strategy of chevauchee, siege and battle. The idea of this strategy was to use the chevauchee to devastate the enemy’s economic base. Dead or starving peasants pay no taxes, after all. The use of siege was aimed at drawing the enemy into battle, and the use of battle was to defeat the enemy field army, make prisoners and ensure a advantageous peace.

So, Edward III set off on a number of such adventures. Firstly, he besieged Berwick which led to the disastrous (for the Scots) battle of Halidon Hill. But the Scots were forced to fight, because Berwick, which was an important place economically and strategically, had to be saved. The devastation caused by the English archers up the hill was not the Scots fault. The fact that they had to try was Edward’s strategic success, brought about by the siege.

So, one up to the siege argument, I'd claim.

How about Crecy? Well, the battle came about largely because of the chevauchee, which devastated the lands where it passed. One of the issues in medieval policy was ‘good lordship’ which meant that the feudal lords, and ultimately the king, had to protect their vassals. So, if your vassal’s fields and houses were being burnt, you had to try to do something about it. Thus, the French army shadowed the English until they clashed at Crecy. Shadowing the enemy was a good way of ensuring that less damage was done, as small groups of enemy soldiers could not be sent out to devastate the countryside for fear of being picked off. The French did not need to engage the English directly. The fact that they did would seem to speak more of French overconfidence than strategic requirement. Edward, it seems did want to fight and went out of his way to persuade the French to accept battle. Removing the enemy field army would permit him strategic freedom to carry on his campaign and secure a port. After the battle, the English restarted their devastating raids and, of course captured Calais.

How do we classify this? Possibly one up to the ‘battle’ brigade, although the upshot was, in fact, a strategic, territorial, accession to the English crown, via a siege. Maybe we ought to halve the points.

How about Poitiers? Again, a large scale chevauchee by the English and lots of problems for the French. Again, it seems that the Black Prince sought battle and the French accepted it. Again the English won and captured various important people from whom an advantageous treaty was extracted, including lots of territory for the English crown.

How do we assess Poitiers? Well, probably one to the ‘battle’ brigade. The decisive battle gave the English a distinct diplomatic advantage.

Overall, therefore, we have to say that my comment, which was designed to provoke, is only partially confirmed by the first part of the Hundred Years War. However, it is worth noting that Edward’s strategy was composed of three linked parts – raid, siege and battle. Just going out and defeating the enemy on the battlefield was insufficient to ensure success in the war as a whole. This had to be linked with the chevauchees, which undermined the enemy in terms of both lordship and income and forced them to fight or lose by default. Sieges performed the same role, as the Berwick, but also were the upshot of defeating the enemy field army. Capturing strategically important locations, like Calais, was important, and that brings us around again to territory.

As wargamers, of course, we focus on battles. How many times have you seen a wargame of Crecy or Poitiers? How many times have you seen a campaign based around a chevauchee? Do we have the balance right? Should we be doing something different? Indeed, is it possible to have a good game based around the premise of devastating enemy territory?

Saturday 19 February 2011

Rumours of Wargames

I think I’m finally making a little progress with my thinking, thanks to some of your comments. A few weeks ago I wrote ‘Perhaps we need to separate the ideas of war and wargames’. JWH responded that we probably did, but that we cannot separate them entirely or wargames become entirely abstract, like chess.

So here we seem to have a slight paradox. We don’t like war, because it is dangerous, nasty, violent, murderous, pointless and so on. But, as wargamers, we cannot ignore it totally, because otherwise we land up with something which is just an abstract game. We seek historical accuracy on the table top, but not to the extent of people dying, having limbs blown off, attempting to kill each other, setting fire to things and generally creating carnage.

We do need real war, or some account of it, to provide some normalisation for our rules, though. In our quest for historical accuracy we cannot ignore the original battle, however much carnage, death and destruction it caused. So as wargamers we are pulled in two different directions by this.

There would seem to be two responses to this situation. The first suggests that wargames reproduce actual battles, and actual battles are to be deprecated. Therefore wargames should be deprecated, and civilised, mature humans should not engage in them as a form of recreation.

The second is that wargames reproduce actual battles, and actual battles are to be deprecated. But wargames only reproduce certain abstract activities and outcomes of actual battles, therefore wargames should not be deprecated as a form of recreation.

Now, most wargames are pretty abstract. We push bases of toy soldiers around and call it a battle, and we use rules which are supposed to reproduce, at this abstract level, the historical outcome. The second response is a viable defence of this activity, I think. The wargame is sufficiently distinct from the awful reality as to not really worry anyone who has the slightest clues about the hobby.

There is, still, however, a line of attack open to the proponent of the first response. They might concede that the abstract wargame is at such an abstract level as not to really represent a real battle, but might argue that the necessary engagement with military history exposes the wargamer to all sorts of negative, violent images that the threshold for violence in the wargamer’s life, and in society generally, is lowered.

I think that, as wargamers, we have a defence to the first accusation, in that we may engage with military history, but that, at least, exposes us to the horror and general pointlessness of war, rather than inspires us to recreate it in our, or anyone else’s life. In terms of society generally, wargaming is a pretty minority activity and probably doesn’t change society’s outlook with regards to violence and warfare. It is perhaps to violent video games and films that the anti-war brigade should look, rather than people pushing toy soldiers around and rolling dice.

Yet another response by the proponents of the first response might be, again, to concede that fairly abstract wargames might be all right, but that skirmish games and role-playing games bring the violence close up and personal. Someone crying ‘I slash you with my bastard sword’ is, in fact, perpetrating violence, even at an abstract level, on someone else. Skirmish wargames, while less personal, record individual wounds and show that violence is, at some level, acceptable. In both cases the link to military history is more tenuous than the abstract wargame.

I’m not sure that I have a particularly good response to this accusation at present. One line of defence could be that the violence is still at the abstract level, even though it is more personal because the figure attacked and the person who “is” that figure are readily identifiable. Another might be that the violence of role-playing games is incidental, or at least an unintended consequence of the game. But the counter to that is that if that were the case, role-playing game rules would have far less space devoted to combat. The only set I can think of, off hand, where this was the case, was Call of Cthulhu, where it was probably true that if you got into a fight with anything more than fists, you were probably doing it wrong.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, the proper defence of wargaming is that of George Santayana: He who forgets history is condemned to repeat it. Even though professional historians seem to try to do a good job of ignoring and forgetting wars and battles, we need to keep some memory of them alive, or we will amble into another conflict without due consideration.

Saturday 12 February 2011


I’m currently, extremely slowly, reading a very interesting book, Insight, by Bernard Lonergan. Lonergan argues that we can understand how we understand, and, once we have done that, we have a general method for understanding anything.

According to Lonergan, understanding is a process which includes a moment, or several moments, of insight. An insight is what happens when Archimedes jumps out of the bath shouting ‘eureka!’, or you or I say, ‘ah yes, I’ve got it’. That moment of insight is a critical point in our development of understanding. The movement to the moment of insight may be lengthy or short. Teachers, colleagues and others may, along the way, provide pointers, information, experiences and similar sorts of things that build up the context in which we can have an insight. But the insight can only be had by and within us, individually.

Lonergan further distinguishes between empirical sciences, like physics, and common sense. Empirical science, he argues, abstracts from the events of experience and creates a system of relating objects to each other. An example of this would be the model we have of the planets, revolving in elliptical orbits around the sun. This started with a set of observations, some mathematical tools and a good deal of insight from the likes of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton. The point is that the observations were abstracted to provide the basis for the model. The model has predictive power in the concrete world, but, in itself, it is abstract and could be applied to any planetary system we care to think of.

Common sense, on the other hand, is a system of experiences, reflections on those experiences, traditions, ways of doing things, and so on, which are completed by the concrete. For example, I know how to ride a bike, but I cannot demonstrate this without a bike to ride. My knowledge is completed by the concrete item, the bike to ride. Lonergan argues that common sense knowledge is as valid as scientific, but that they inhabit different worlds. They are not in conflict because they start from different viewpoints.

To return to the planets, a common sense view of the solar system would be that the Earth is stationary and everything else revolves around it. The scientific point of view is that the Earth and everything else revolves around the Sun. Both of these claims are correct, it just depends on your point of view, and what you are trying to do. No-one would use the common sense view to calculate the trajectory of a comet, but nor would you use celestial mechanics to catch a ball.

So how do these considerations apply to wargaming?

I think I’ve mentioned before the problem with the evidence for wargaming. What happened in a battle was a one-off, never to be repeated set of circumstances and outcomes. Even assuming that our sources are accurate, there were only a few battles and the whole manifold of possible combinations could not have been tested. Therefore, we have an incomplete data set to start with. Wargames can, and probably do, cover a much larger range of combinations of troop types, morale, location and so on than were covered in real life.

So, what does Lonergan add to this? I think that we need to put the data side of wargaming, the accounts of battles that we have, the archaeology and so on, down on the common sense account. The insights that they contain are concrete, completed by the circumstances of the particular incidents.

Wargame rules, on the other hand, attempt to abstract the data of wargaming to a system. We wargame rule writers, poor benighted beings that we are, attempt to take the information that we have, extrapolate it to fill the gaps, abstract it to a few common principles, and present it as a system to provide the required concrete results once it is applied to the particular circumstances on the table.

In the process, of course, the original data will have been interpreted, misinterpreted, ignored, bent out of shape to fit our preconceptions and over-used. Thus, it is unlikely that the abstract system of rules that we develop will reproduce the outcome in real life. There will be some residue, what Lonergan calls the ‘empirical residue’ of those things which don’t fit within the abstraction process required to obtain the general rules. Thus, even if we believe we have sufficient evidence on which to base our rules, the process of abstraction is highly likely to mean that the particular incident cannot be reproduced in all its detail.

Is there then no hope for wargame rule historical accuracy?

I think there is. Another of Lonergan’s points is about the self-correction of these processes. Scientists make loads of mistakes and misinterpretations along the way to scientific truth. As testing takes place, the errors are discovered and discarded. Common sense is self-correcting in that both we as individuals and as collectives of people do learn and change our common sense understandings. Thus, over time, we do correct our misunderstandings, notice our prejudices and overcome them, and improve the way we look at and do things.

Thus, as our knowledge and insight into a period deepens, as new ideas for rules are bandied about, we can develop rule sets which are more accurate, more fun to play and so on. Each set can be regarded as an abstraction from the knowledge and insight of the time, and as a building block for the future.

Saturday 5 February 2011

Positive Philosophy

You are a philosopher, Dr. Johnson. I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher, but, I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in. James Boswell.

It might be thought, by looking back at the six months or so of posts on this blog, that I don’t have much regard for wargaming. It might be considered that I think most wargaming to be inaccurate, incoherent, ethically dubious and, quite possibly, imperialist. I dare say that evidence for all of these, and some others, would be available from the posts here.

In other words, I seem to have a real downer on my hobby.

Actually, I have no such thing, although all the above accusations could still be true. I think wargaming is in something of a golden age. When I remember the difficulty of acquiring toy soldiers, the dearth of rules and other paraphernalia of wargaming when I started, the range of services available today is truly remarkable. It is unclear if this will continue, although perhaps the internet will facilitate the exchange of ideas and goods. The real problem, I suspect, will be weaning people off computer games to “the real thing”. But that isn’t my problem, at least at present.

What I am trying to do is to think as clearly as possible about the phenomenon of wargaming, how it works, and what it means, in so far as any hobby means anything. As a case study, there is the development of some rules for ancient Greeks, but what I am trying to do is to get below the ‘just do it for a laugh’ layer and try to see what is really going on.

To suggest that wargaming presents a philosophical or ethical problem is already starting to reflect at a deeper level than simply deciding what soldiers to buy next. But can we define what the philosophical question (or questions) raised by wargaming are?

Pondering this over the last few months, it seems to me that there are both philosophical and ethical issues within and about wargaming, and both revolve around exactly what it is we are doing, or rather, what it is we are representing on the wargame table.

Now, most people who react badly to the information that I’m a wargamer do so, I think, because they imagine that there is actual representation of the violence of a battle on the table. In this sense, I think, that the same people should react in the same way to, say, a violent movie. Not too many people reacted badly to the violence of, say, Saving Private Ryan, but would a wargame of Omaha Beach engender the same muted reaction?
If not, then the difference must revolve about the engagement of the individual with the representation. The representation of the violent act in the movie is “out there”, on the screen, perhaps even a matter of historical record. But the representation of the violent acts in wargaming is also out there, on the table, but the player has some degree of control over what happens.

Perhaps, then, the genesis of the ‘yuck’ response that some people have to wargaming is due to this control. I can choose whether this company, platoon or whatever is placed in harm’s way or not. A wargamer has control over who “lives” and who “dies” in a way that a movie-goer does not. It is perhaps that control which raises, in a few people’s minds, anyway, that question of whether it is ethical to wargame this or that event.
Anyway, I do think, in accord with the quote at the top of this post, that the positives of wargaming outweigh the negatives. Wargaming, mostly, promotes social interaction, historical perspective, literacy and numeracy skills and an inclination to research. It may also provoke philosophic reflection, as well as resource management experience and, finally, it is actually fun.

So I’m not really negative about wargaming, honest. But I am going to try to continue thinking about what it might mean, both to itself and within a broader social context.