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.


  1. I suppose the 'way around' this apparent dilemma is to simply portray the even, war, etc. as the 'news' of the day portrayed it. That is not necessarily the 'true' version of what transpired, but it is nationally-respectful in so much that as it was portrayed to its own people in that fashion through the nightly news reports and e-mail updates.


  2. I think that that is quite interesting as a set up for a wargame - not what is known now, but what was known then as the set up information.

    Of course, it might need disguising, wargamers being what they are...

  3. I'm glad you find some merit in the idea. :)

  4. "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. "

    I'm not sure that I agree entirely. I'd have thought it more true to say that it is well-researched history itelf which does the toe-treading - I'm not sure that I can see any ethical position which would say that C18 wargames set in Europe were okay, but set in C18 India were ethically off-limits.



  5. I see what you mean.

    Perhaps we ought to say that, maybe, putting on a well researched historical wargame can tread on some toes?

    Academic toe treading rarely gets into the public domain, historians being what they are. But wargaming something might precipitate some 'ouch'-ing.


  6. "Academic toe treading rarely gets into the public domain, historians being what they are. But wargaming something might precipitate some 'ouch'-ing."

    A very thought-provoking comment! I'd always assumed the opposite - that academic squabbles will always eventually permeate the wider consciousness (although not being an academic or in 'the academy' myself, logically I have no way of knowing this!) but wargames were utterly peripheral to most wargamers' understanding of history let alone people not involved in the hobby. However, maybe I'm doing down the impact of wargaming?


  7. Well, working sort of in the academy, most of what it produces is fairly useless to wargamers, and of not much interest to the general public, in my view. Military history, in particular, is not well served by the academy (although it sells lots of books).

    I think that what I mean is that wargamers form a fairly historically aware group (as compared to the general public), and so something out of left field could ruffle a few feathers.

  8. I seem to vaguely recall (I was very young at the time) 'black' wargames causing a bit of a stir. In my innocence, the requirement in 'Pony Wars' for the US troops to massacre the Indian/Native American villagers in the 'Soldier Blue' scenario caused a bit of a shock too. But I must say that I rarely feel that wargames change my opinion on anything - as opposed to, say, a well-written blog...


  9. I don't think wargames particularly will change opinions, but they can present a counter view starkly and effectively, particularly when the 'goodies' are shown to have lost or behaved badly. Putting on the table may actualise a particular view of history.

    I do think that there are some no-go areas for wargames even today.

    While Elizabeth's Irish wars might be OK in today's political scene, how about Derry 1971? Is it just not a good idea for a wargame, or do we consciously avoid it because of the pain, suffering and political implications?

    Bad wargame, bad subject or bad taste (or all three)?

  10. Well it might be tricky. But on the other hand, players might be offended because one was being deliberately offensive, depending on how you set it up. For instance, if one played it as a relatively straightforward 'Force-on-Force' scenario, only a few wargamers would have too any problems, perhaps? If one set up an 'AK47 Republic' type scenario, played it out, then triumphantly told the players at the end they had actually been playing Bloody Sunday, they might admire you for presenting 'another point of view' - or they might criticise you for a very partial and/or tendentious view of the history i.e. their criticism would be that you weren't being historical.


  11. yes, quite.

    And then we come down to the question of 'what is history?' for something that is in the relatively recent past.

    Mind you, I'm not advocating reading the Bloody Sunday report just to set up an accurate wargame. It is probably just one of those scenarios it just isn't worth putting on, although it is interesting to ponder why that should be the case.