Saturday 14 July 2012

Rituals, War and Wargaming

I’ve been pondering a few interesting snippets I have gathered over the past few months, mostly around the rituals associated with wars. There is a school of thought that seems to suggest that most ‘primitive’ warfare is mainly ritualistic, by which they seem to mean that it is mostly displays of aggression rather than sticking spears in people. I suppose this is something along the lines of the display the New Zealand All Black rugby football team give before a match.

The last comment, of course, about the All Blacks indicates an immediate issue which arises from the use of words like ‘ritual’. We all have rituals, after all, even if we do not describe them as such. Take a soccer match, for example. The teams process out to the applause, cheers and so on of the crowd. Why? They have not actually done anything yet.

Ritual goes on. The teams greet each other, exchange tokens of some description (flags or banners, usually), handshakes ensue, the referee calls the leaders over to decide how the combat (I beg your pardon, I mean ‘match’) is going to take place. The whistle sounds, the crowd roars and so on. Those who were warmly greeting each other a few minutes ago are now scything each other down in ‘committed’ tackles.

Now, while death is not one of the outcomes for a football match, it does have to be said that there is a lot of ritual going on, so we need to take a closer look at the rituals of, say, the Classical Greeks or the Aztecs and their enemies before we just dismiss it as posturing and pointless ritual.

Now that Mesoamerican ‘Flower Wars’ are an interesting case in point. From one perspective they are a pointless waste of time. The warrior elites of two sides engage in a heavily formalised form of combat which may result in a few deaths but nothing too important as an outcome for either side.

Is this view in fact correct? Actually, it almost certainly is not. The issue is that from a certain, western, economically driven point of view, with a ‘decisive battle’ viewpoint, a Flower War is not that important. However, the Aztecs and their enemies did not have such a point of view. For them the outcomes of Flower Wars were of huge significance, in terms of prestige, discerning the favour of the gods, acquiring victims for sacrifice and so on.

The fact that the warrior elite of the other side could be depleted via a Flower War, and hence some sort of strategic advantage could be derived, was a bonus, but not really the point of the exercise. From the outside, from our dominant cultural viewpoint, it might seem a pointless waste of time and blood, but from the inside it must have looked very different. Just consider what another culture might think of our obsession with ball games, for examples. Rituals? Yes. Popular? Yes. Producing heroes? Definitely. The difference between this and a Flower War is what, precisely?

I would not wish to push the analogy between a soccer or rugby match and a Flower War too fact, of course, but the point is that lots of the things we do are ritualised, at least to some extent.

Now, consider another issue, in this case the dis-analogy between modern and ancient warfare. In modern warfare, the emphasis is on concealment, firepower at a distance, speed of movement and, to a significant extent, individual initiative from lower ranks. Our soldiers have battledress and parade dress, the latter of which is a colourful throwback to nineteenth century uniforms, but which a modern combatant would only be seen dead in.

This is very different from the viewpoint of the Greeks and Romans, at least. In Greek and Roman warfare, you wore your best for a battle. Your armour was highly polished, you wore your best crest on your helmet and so on. Even on the ‘barbarian’ side you put on your best show, however that might be construed.

The differences, of course, go much further than that. As an ancient warrior you lined up in formation, perhaps in ranks, and, as I have mentioned before, had very little room to manoeuver, let alone see what else was going on around you. You charged your enemy, perhaps after a few exchanges of javelins, and did your best not to be killed or thought a coward.

As a Greek, at least, after the battle there were further rituals, of obtaining or giving a truce, recovering the bodies of the fallen and so on. Around this were whole religious rituals of sacrifices and omens before battles, paens during the opening phases and so on. The battle, qua battle, was about being killed, wounded, running away and so on, but it was constructed around a whole bunch of rituals.

Now, as wargamers, this gives us a few choices in terms of the game. We can try to recreate the ritual significance of a combat, or we can take a western view that the only really important bit is the combat itself. Some rule sets, such as Hoplomachia and Simon McDowall’s rule sets try to take the rituals seriously while other, perhaps an example of which would be DBA, simply ignore the cultural and ritual context.

In terms of what I have written before, though, we could simply regard the DBA style game as another expression of cultural imperialism. By this, I mean, we are simply imposing our own lens, our own expectations and understanding of battles and their meaning, on a representation of another culture. Now, you might argue that this is entirely justified, as these cultures do not exist any longer and, anyway, it is our game, our hobby and leisure time.

On the other hand, we could be construed as simply being utterly insensitive to the events of the past and, thus, refusing to acknowledge that our way is not the only way of living. It could also be pointed out that most of the wargamers I know have what can only be described as ‘pre-battle’ rituals anyway, even down to picking specific dice. Perhaps we should incorporate that into our rule sets.

No comments:

Post a Comment