Saturday 30 July 2011

World Views and Wargames

No-one who has read some of my output to this blog can have missed the idea that is running behind it. That is, in order to write decent wargame rules, you have to have some idea of the world views of the participants. I suppose I had better offer some defence of why I think that to be the case.

Consider the formation of the New Model Army in 1644, during the English Civil War. Now, as a rule writer, I could simply rush off and start assigning values to certain variables, such as training, weaponry, morale and so on. And then that would be the rules and army lists written. Simple and straightforward.

The problem I have with that is that the writer who does that has little idea how such an army would in fact fight. Now obviously, a bunch of men with pointy sticks and bang-tubes can only fight in a certain number of ways, but we need to look to the next levels up, the unit and army commanders, to see what is really going on.

This is, of course, where the New Model stands out from other ECW forces. The generals wanted to win, to force a decisive combat and to be victorious in it. This might sound ridiculous to us as wargamers, as clearly we want to win every battle we fight, but as is so often in this case things are not that simple.

The reason underlying the formation of the New Model Army was that the Parliamentarian and Scots forces had got themselves into a winning position after Marston Moor, but seemed incapable of finishing the King’s armies off. Now, politically there was a lot going within Parliamentary ranks, with arguments over religious organisation also playing a part. However, after Second Newbury, when the army under Manchester and Waller had failed to capitalise on a winning situation, things came to something of a head.

It turned out that there were two sorts of generals. Those who reckoned that only by decisively defeating all of the King’s forces could he be brought to negotiate, and those who feared that if they did that, or if they lost just one battle themselves, then when the King had negotiated back to power, he would destroy them. This led some generals to hold back a bit, so that it wouldn’t be them who utterly defeated the King and opened themselves to charges of treason in the future.

As it happened, the decisive war party won, and the less enthusiastic generals were dismissed. Fairfax, Cromwell, Ireton and Skippon were all committed to defeating the King first, and negotiating second. The action of the army in the 1645 campaign showed that the generals were, at least, trying to force a decisive battle, and eventually they got one at Naseby.

After Naseby, the generals showed a good deal of activity in defeating the last shreds of the Royalist cause in the West Country campaign, determined not to allow the King any space to rebuild. In battle, they proved themselves to be aggressive and fairly ruthless, and their troops proved to be capable and enthusiastic. The mind-set of the generals had proved to be the difference between some sort of slow, grinding war of attrition and a decisive and swift victory.

Now clearly, this attitude of the generals to get stuck in should be reflected in a set of wargame rules for the period. If we had not considered the world-view of the generals, we could have problems in determining why the New Model Army (an expression which only came later, incidentally) suddenly changed from being a war weary, semi-defeatist force not capable of decisive action to an army that practically won the war in a summer campaigning season. Without looking at the generals and their attitude, we would probably be left with the old solution: +1 if New Model Army.

What is becoming clear, I think, is that in order to understand what is going on, we have to consider the world view of the generals. This includes not just their ability as generals, but things like education and outlook.

To take another example, Roman generals were generally taught to respond to local incidents with whatever force was available. This could be embarrassing, as Gallus found when he responded to the Jewish revolt in 66 AD, and Legio IX during Boudicca’s revolt in Britannia. Nevertheless, it usually did succeed in putting down a rebellion with minimum inconvenience to everyone (except the rebels, of course). This was not a clearly held politico-military strategy, but a well-worn traditional response to defiance of the might of Rome. I suspect that Roman generals could not imagine not responding thus to a challenge.

Similarly, we encounter world-views with the Greeks. Several times we read something like ‘the omens were not good so the Spartan army did not cross the river’, or there was a delay until the omens were good. This is terribly difficult to reproduce in wargame rules. We want to get on with it, and the mind-set that produces such behaviour is entirely alien to us. Even to those who hold deep religious faith today, this is alien behaviour, and yet it happened.

The upshot of this is, I think, that we need to get an idea of what elite education and outlook was for the period we are trying to model, or we will never understand their decisions. And those decisions affect both strategy and tactics, and that is what we are, as wargamers, interested in, after all.

Saturday 23 July 2011

Appropriating History

History, it seems, is never absolutely neutral. By this I mean that history itself, the historiography of the writing of history, is never neutral. Each historical event of note gets transformed by the recorders and writers of history to have a significance beyond itself.

What do I mean by this?

Consider Thucydides, considered by many as the true founder of history as a subject in its own right (Herodotus, they claim, mixed too much hearsay and myth into his work to be considered a ‘proper’ historian). Thucydides considered his aim as reporting the wars, yes, but also trying to explain them and, as it happens, show that behaviour got worse and worse as the Peloponnesian war progressed. This framework gives an overall viewpoint of his account of the war and other activities.

Reading Thucydides with a slightly sceptical eye has done nothing for my view of Greek warfare, I’m afraid. Most of the incidents Thucydides described could best be described as nasty little raids on the country, inflicting damage and suffering on the peasants but doing little to actually win the war. Most of the battle were of little note or consequence, except perhaps Delium and Mantinea, and even then the follow up to turn the combat into decisive victory was lacking.

What is interesting is the way that Thucydides has been appropriated for our present age. A quick search on Google Scholar suggests that his work is still alive in the business and international relationships field, with titles such as ‘Political Theories of International Relations: From Thucydides to the Present’, and ‘Thucydides and neorealism’ (and no, I’ve not read them, so I’ve no idea what neo-realism is. I’m almost sure that Thucydides wouldn’t have done either). The point is that Thucydides has been appropriated by scholars and politicians for their own ends, just as we wargamers do.

Now, the Peloponnesian war was quite a long time ago, and it is fairly unlikely that any particular reading of Thucydides either within the academy or outside is really going to upset anyone. Some arguments based on Thucydides may be more controversial than others but, overall, little harm could be considered to be done by them, unless they convince people to take a certain unethical stance or action now.

Things get a little trickier the nearer we get to our own time. The stories we tell of how our nation came to be are important to our sense of being, and can still be, mildly at least, controversial. For example, the Norman Conquest is usually portrayed, in popular history at least, as the victory of ‘us’ over ‘them’ where the ‘us’ are the Normans. More sophisticated readings of the history replace this with a defeat of the ‘us’ by the ‘them’ where the ‘us’ are the Saxons. This complexity in reading allows some elbow room for interpretation.

In the seventeenth century, for example, the ‘Norman yoke’ was a live political issue. The argument was that the Normans had come, disrupted the Saxon freeholding patterns, reduced the farmers to peasants and taken all the land. Small but extremist groups took this to the extremes and tried to reclaim the land. This was associated with a prelapsarian view of the equality of humanity: “When Adam hoed and Eve span, who was then the nobleman?” Naturally, the central government couldn’t and didn’t agree with this and the Diggers and Levellers were brutally put down.

Even then, it is interesting to note that the Leveller mutineers shot at Burford are commemorated in an annual act of remembrance by the English political left. Furthermore, it is the English political left elite who do so, and they are probably not people that the Diggers would have had much sympathy with.

The point is that history is appropriated by the political nation for its own means. We also do this as part of our own story. Thus, in England, we hear much about things like Trafalgar, Waterloo and the Battle of Britain. We don’t talk so much about, say Bannockburn, while this battle is quite a subject in Scotland.

On the other hand, Culloden is commemorated in Scotland (and has a good visitor centre to boot). Perhaps this is because of the national myth of being subjugated by the English. Further, it might not be being played out particularly loudly in Scottish politics at present because it is a lot more complex than that and a lot of the English troops were in fact Lowlanders. An ambivalent myth may be worse than no myth at all.

To swing this piece back towards wargaming, the upshot seems to be that we are often happy to wargame anything, as long as it does not particularly affect our happy national and personal understandings of history. An ACW wargame could probably be quite happily played in Surrey, whatever the outcome. In the Deep South of the USA, that may not be the case, perhaps even depending on who won.

As an aside, when I started as a child to play with toy soldiers, one of the conversations I had with my friends was always ‘who were the goodies?’ The ‘goodies’, of course, always won. Sometimes it was obvious who were the goodies – the British, for example. Sometimes it was not. I recall the confusion we had over the Airfix Romans and Ancient Britons. We knew that the Romans were goodies, but surely the Britons could not be the bad guys, could they?

So, perhaps, some of the ethical difficulties I’ve raised about wargaming boil down to the ability of a well-researched historical wargame to tread on the toes of some national or personal historical appropriation. In which case, of course, provided we have done our research work correctly, the ethical issue becomes one of honesty, integrity and, in some sense, truth.

Saturday 16 July 2011

Cyrus, Cylinders and Confusion.

A while ago I mentioned that the Hebrew Bible was quite positive about the Persians, as opposed to Greek texts on the subject. Cyrus is seen as something of a liberator. For example, Isaiah 45:1 reads:

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped,
To subdue the nations before him and ungird the loins of kings,
To open doors before him that gates may not be closed.

That is fairly unequivocally positive about him, particularly when you consider that he was not a Hebrew in any way, shape of form.

The next bit of positive (chronologically, anyway, the book is actually earlier in the Western Bible) is in Ezra 1:2-4:

Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel – he is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, beside freewill offerings for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.

This is more or less repeated in Ezra 6:2-5, under Darius, when the archives were searched and the decree of Cyrus re-discovered.

Now this is all well and good. The story we have is that the people of Judah were defeated by the Babylonians (II Kings 25) and taken off into exile beyond the Euphrates. The Babylonian empire then fell to Cyrus, who released the captives and sent them home to rebuild their temple. While there are arguments over the authenticity of these reports of the decree, nevertheless the overall impression created by the Biblical writers is positive. Cyrus is a good guy, the Lord anointed who let the people go free.

There is other evidence about Cyrus himself. Herodotus presents him as plucky, honourable and entirely lacking in the vicious traits which other rulers have. Furthermore, in 1879 a cylinder was found which referred to Cyrus (now in the British museum – its loan to Iran has been in the news recently). This cylinder refers, in Old Persian, to Cyrus restoring cults after his conquest of Babylon by the help of the god Marduk.

Now, given that it is known (sort of) that the Persian rulers practiced some sort of ethical monotheism (maybe), that Cyrus restored cults around Babylon after he took the city, and that Cyrus is favourably mentioned in the Bible, together with a decree ordering the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, it doesn’t take a genius to put all these things together and come up with a Cyrus who is an early proponent of human rights and freedom of religion.

There are other reasons for supposing that Cyrus was a great liberator. How else could an empire such as Persia hang together unless the people were inspired by the liberal and benevolent ruler? Communications were so poor, after all, that news of rebellion would take months to arrive at court, and then more months would elapse before anything could be done about it.

It also makes sense for Cyrus to pacify Judah, and restoring the cult at Jerusalem would be one method of doing this. Jerusalem, remember, is actually quite a difficult place to capture, being on a rocky outcrop, and it is in the lands between Mesopotamia and Egypt, much disputed in the ancient world until the Romans came along. If, as seems to be the case, there was an understanding that each people had their own god, then restoring the cult and house of the Lord at Jerusalem would be tantamount to strengthening the defences and currying favour with the local deity.

The fact is, actually, that Hebrew theology was moving beyond this at the time to claims that their God was more than just a local deity. He was, in fact, the high God, God of gods. Quite a lot of second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) has to do with this. However, it is unlikely that Cyrus would be particularly interested or bothered by that.

So, here we have a nice, politically correct story which reflects well on the Persian Empire, and nicely on the accuracy of the Biblical text, it all makes sense and everything comes up roses, as it were.

Given all that, it is a shame I’ve just read something that puts something of a coach and horses through the whole lot. A paper by Amelie Kuhrt (JSOT 25 (1983) 83-97) observes that most of what is going on in the Cyrus cylinder is what good rulers do the garner favour whatever their flavour. Restoring cults, in other words, is what conquerors do. The Assyrians did it, the Babylonians did it and, by gosh, Cyrus was not going to be left out. The fact that, possibly, none of these people actually restored anything is neither here nor there. The closest stylistic parallel to the Cyrus cylinder is, in fact, texts of Assurbanipal relating to his rebuilding of Babylon and restoration of the cult of Marduk. Cyrus acknowledges Assurbanipal as a worthy and respected predecessor on the cylinder itself.

So, Cyrus, it would seem, despite appearances to the contrary, was merely carrying on Assyrian policy. Although both the cylinder and the Biblical texts present him as a saviour and model of benign tolerance, he had no compunction about destroying temples (Herodotus 6.20), nor, in fact did the Achaemenids quail from moving populations into exile, such as the Miletians (Herodotus 6.20 again).

So the assumption that the Persian yoke was better than the Babylonian seems to be based on the experience of the Hebrews in Jerusalem, as documents by Ezra, and a slightly dodgy interpretation of a text which was actually based on an Assyrian model.

Does this make the Persians a particularly evil empire? Not really; they were just doing what came naturally to empires at the time. But perhaps our need to be more even-handed in our view of Persia as filtered by the Greek writers does need to be tempered by the idea that no empire was ever really established by being nice to people across the board.

Saturday 9 July 2011

Technological Teleology

Now, you have to admit that, whatever the content of the post, that is a fairly good title. It alliterates; it draws you in, it makes you wonder. But what does it mean?

What I’d like to ponder is, actually, a question that arose in the context of ‘military culture’. Some rule sets, it was observed, treat a man armed with a shield and a spear pretty much the same no matter which era he fought in. The bloke with the pointy stick and dustbin lid performed pretty much the same no matter if he were a Greek, a Pict or a Saxon.

Now, at a technological level, of course, we can see that this must be so. There are only certain things that a man can do with a pointy stick (no sniggering at the back there). Mostly, he can stand in a line with a lot of other men with pointy sticks and defy all comers. This might be called a phalanx, or a shield wall or whatever, but essentially the formation, its possibilities and results are defined by the weapons. The weapons define the ends to which they can be used. Technological teleology, you see.

The next move is, of course to question whether that is a correct picture of warfare across the ages. Could you swap a Saxon shield wall formation of a hoplite phalanx and expect to get the same results? Is a whole bunch of men with pointy sticks and dustbin lids at, say, Hastings the same as a whole bunch of men with dustbin lids and pointy sticks at Delium?

I cannot really see why we should assume that they would be the same. The societies from which they were raised were different, after all, so why should they behave in the same way?

Now here I have to confess that my knowledge of Anglo-Saxon society is sorely lacking, so I’ll have to change the example to something else. Now, some rule sets equate the Roman legionary to a dismounted medieval knight. This is perhaps, something of a more extreme example than the last one, but hopefully it will allow me to explore the issue.

The Roman legionary was a long service professional deployed to the frontiers of the empire to keep order, fight battles, do patrols, build roads and fortifications and so on. The French knight was a fairly professional solider from the upper classes whose main interest was honour and his estates, and who fought for the King when called out and made to.

Both of these troop types wore heavy armour for their day, both used swords, shields, possibly spears and other polearms. Technologically, they can be categorised as the same thing.

Can this be true, however? The differences are as spectacular as the similarities. The legionaries were trained and disciplines as units. The knights were not, however much individual training they had received. The legionaries obeyed orders on pain of pain. The knights did not, notoriously, obey commands and could (and did) argue back, or even change sides if they though that way lay their best interests.

In short, the societies from which these two types of warriors came from differed so much that it is really a bit rich to describe them in any way except technologically similar. The world views of these people were significantly different. People do not usually fight because they have a weapon to hand; they fight because of a complex of social, cultural and ideological factors.

Legionaries fought because that is what they trained to do as individuals and units, and not doing so would lead them to a sticky end. Medieval knights fought because that is what they trained to do at an individual level, and not to fight when required would land them up in a sticky mess, possibly with dishonourable charges laid against them.

The point is that these differing world views have consequences on the battle field, I think. A base of knights is not going to be as coherent as one of legionaries, if only because the latter had been together for a number of years. And that, surely, is going to have an impact on their battlefield behaviour.

Now, it could be argued that these differences can be accounted for under some sort of factor system. Legionaries would get extra for cohesion, for example, while knights might get extra for élan but lose it for inability to obey orders or the general dim-wittedness of the upper classes. In some rule sets that may well be the case, but when you start to look in any great detail at either army, the only conclusion you can honestly come to is that they were sufficiently different to warrant different rules.

So, what do we gain from these considerations. Firstly, most wargame rule writers being male and western, I suspect that we do rely quite heavily on technology to determine category. ‘All men with pointy sticks are the same’, we declare, and write our rules appropriately. Secondly, as humans, we like to categorize our lives and experiences, so putting as many historical types into one category is neat, tidy and makes us feel like we have some control over the knowledge. Unfortunately, as I hope the example makes clear, it is also wrong.

So, what can we do? As I’ve mentioned before, broad sweep rules tend to make these assumptions. I suspect that, as they tend to key in to our own ideas and categories, many of us go along with them. But actually, it is in fact probably better to zoom in on smaller eras and try to model what was actually there on the ground, not to fit what we see to a bunch of pre-designated categories.

Saturday 2 July 2011

Disrespectful Wargaming

The intermittent discussion here on wargaming ethics has moved on a chunk or two with some of the more recent comments (thanks, JWH, in particular). The question we are now faced with is ‘are wargames in some sense disrespectful to those who fought and died?’

I think the first thing to note about this question is that it is different from some of the others we have tried to engage with. Previous questions have been based around wargaming as encouraging violence and similar areas. My own view of these at the moment is that the three level model of a wargame and the concept of speech acts at these different levels have more or less answered those concerns.

The first thing we need to establish with the question of wargaming being disrespectful is to whom could wargaming be disrespectful? There are some obvious actors to whom wargaming cannot be disrespectful – the players, rule writers and so on in the present. Therefore those to whom it may express disrespect are those who were actors in the original battles.

Now, the original actors will be the soldiers, generals and civilians caught up in the original battle, campaign, war, or whatever. Thus, the potential for disrespect to these people is in belittling their experiences of war – the horror, carnage, death and so on which is associated with every battle from the earliest times to today.

What form can the disrespect take? Here, I suspect that we are embarking on more difficult areas. For example, many nations refuse to countenance ‘disrespect’ of their flags – things like burning it or trampling it underfoot are held to be disrespectful to the nation, as symbolised in the flag. Other symbols of national pride and identity can be similarly upheld. For example, in the UK a few people have been in court over climbing on or otherwise misusing war memorials. This sort of activity is held to be disrespectful to the memory of those who died and are commemorated on these items.

So can wargaming be held to be disrespectful to the memory of those who died in war? I suppose in some sense it could be. For example, if we have a unit on the table that was known to be courageous in real life, but in the historical refight runs away at the first shot, that could, possibly be described as disrespectful. History being what it is, however, it is unlikely that anyone would land up in court over this. The contingencies of history are recognised widely, and I guess that an incident like that is unlikely to be regarded as disrespectful except in some totalitarian state where the activity of that unit is important to the self-image of the regime or nation.

I suspect that it is in this area that the disrespectful rubber hits the road. Suppose you were playing a wargame based on the Battle of Britain, as the British, and lost. Is that disrespectful to the RAF pilots who fought in the battle, and, perhaps more particularly, those who died? Or does it fall within the contingency of history, or that the rules are, in some way, flawed? Perhaps the onus is then one the rule writer to get things right, in order to respect the historical outcomes.

I think, however, that the overall issue is a broader one than respecting national self-image or historical outcome. The underlying issue seems to be the whole idea of turning a battle into a game, a war into an entertaining pastime. Is a wargame set on the Eastern Front in World War Two in any way disrespectful to the millions who died in the Great Patriotic War?

I suppose that on the positive side, the wargamer can argue that, by playing the game, he is keeping the memory of those awful events alive. It is all too easy to forget, even in a few decades, the disasters that can happen when a total war is declared. This may well, of course be true, but the objector could respond that while they are happy to see the memory of those events recalled, the wargamer would not be recalling them unless the activity was enjoyable in some sense. Thus, the wargamer is enjoying the suffering of others, and that is disrespectful to those who suffered.

This seems to me to be a bit tricky to answer, but my first line of defence would be to argue that the events represented happened anyway as a matter of historical fact. Yes, they were horrible, not to be repeated and caused terribly suffering, but the existence of a wargame about them does not mean that the suffering of the participants is in any way increased. Nor does it mean that the fact of their suffering is diminished. By recalling the events of the suffering and what caused it, the wargamer might cause more compassion in themselves and in others and a greater determination to avoid war so far as is possible.

This defence is, therefore, one which falls into the area of virtue ethics. What is important is the motivation and intentions of the individual. I do not set out to play a game based around the awful suffering that war can inflict. I do set out to play a game which is in some senses enjoyable, and which in some senses is historically accurate, but I do not set out to either ignore or emphasise the suffering which is caused. An accurate wargame can invoke feelings of pity and compassion for those who found themselves confronted by the evils of war, and can provide insight into why things happened as they did.

I think we would all recoil from someone who was gleeful over, say, the number of Russian ‘dead’ at the end of an Eastern Front game, rather than agreeing that the outcome was in some sense accurate. The former seems to be somewhat close to the SS re-enactors discussed earlier. They are somewhere outside our limits of the acceptable. Wargames, played in the spirit described above, do not have to be disrespectful, I think.