Saturday 29 June 2013

Military Romanticism

Some of you may have worked out that I rather like John Lynn’s book ‘Battle: A History of Combat and Culture’ (Westview, Cambridge, 2004). If you have not, then you should perhaps reflect on the fact that this is, by my count, the third post on the subject, one in which the topic turns perhaps a little more closely to wargaming.

Lynn, as I have already mentioned, does not believe that warfare is technologically determined. This is not to say that he ignores the fact that technology changes, and that that does imply changes in how armies are organised and campaigns conducted, let alone how battles are fought, but, he argues, that of more importance is what the people involved in such activities though about them, or, perhaps more specifically, how they thought of them.

The concept of a battle, Lynn suggests, varies over time. A Greek hoplite thought of a battle as a specific thing, in which certain things happen, such as sacrifices, and rousing oration, a chanting of war cries and a horrid clash of two lines. To a Scottish spearman of the fourteenth century a battle might be a plod uphill to be shot down by English arrows after being ordered to by King and landowner. And so on. The Battle of Britain was a different object in many ways from the Battle of Marathon.

I have previously suggested that the threads of the Enlightenment were present in military thinking. Enlightenment thinking was strongly influenced by rationalism and the rise of science in the early modern period, and hence military thinkers and, more pertinently, commanders, thought in terms of mechanics, lines and timetables. Battles, being unpredictable, were somewhat frowned upon as irrational and risky ways to decide anything. Winning a campaign or war without a battle was deemed perfectly acceptable and, in fact, to be encouraged.

This viewpoint changed, of course, as a result of the French Revolution.

Obligatory joke: Chairman Mao (or someone similar, accounts vary) was once asked what he thought the effects of the French Revolution were. He replied ‘It is too soon to tell.’

Follow up joke: Someone asked Gandhi what he thought of western civilization. He replied that he thought it would be a good idea.

The French Revolution, whatever else it did, created much larger armies than the eighteenth century armies, of conscripts, often motivated by ideological ideas and flung across the continent of Europe in badly supported but almost unstoppable campaigns. Napoleon, even after the establishment of the Empire, still fought battle which did bring the campaigns to an end and, more often than not, forced to opponent to surrender.

The age of the decisive battle had arrived.

Intellectually, the French Revolution also went along with Romanticism. This was a movement of individualisation and the acceptance of, for example, the mysteries of nature (rather than believing that the universe was a mechanical device). It accepted (or tried to) that life was messy and that things were often chancy, dicey and with unclear outcomes.

These two events, the French Revolution and the rise of Romanticism, led to a different view of warfare. This view is, of course that it is perfectly possible to knock an enemy out of the campaign, and hopefully the war in a single action which destroys their field army and, hence, their will to resist.

The principle agent of this view was Clausewitz, who, himself, was heavily embedded both in some of the warfare, as a commander and staff officer in the Prussian army, and, subsequently, in intellectual life in Berlin. There are lots of intellectual influences on Clausewitz’s views which I will not delve into here, but it is worth, I think, considering the implications of the decisive battle, romantic view of war.

Historically, Lynn argues that Clausewitz’s most unfortunate legacy to the world was World War 1. The Schlieffen Plan, for example, envisaged a decisive campaign and, possibly, a decisive battle, to knock the enemy out of the war. France was to be bought to terms before Russia managed to mobilize.

Similarly, during the war, this decisive push mentality led to many more battles which petered out into bloody futility, such as The Somme and Verdun. Military Romanticism was not, of course, the only reason for the various powers launching these offensives; political considerations were always writ large, but the discourse of ‘one last push’ was still involved.

Indeed, Lynn suggests that Clausewitz still pervades our thinking about war today, although in a slightly different form. Limited war, and how to win one, is much more in the forefront, but I think that we can still see the influence of the decisive battle on modern military campaigns.

This romantic discourse of war is, I think, highly influential on us as wargamers. Given that our culture and society is still heavily influenced by Romanticism, it can hardly fail to be. If you do not believe that we are heavily influenced by Romanticism, then just walk down my road on a nice summer’s day and view the number of people enjoying the countryside. Pure Romanticism.

And surely we, as wargamers, are interested in battles, and really not much else. The influence of Clausewitz and Napoleon pervade our thinking about warfare, and lead us along the lines of focussing on the, well, romance of battle. The courage, heroism, tragedy and cowardice of all forms of battle, the more decisive the better.

Furthermore, we then project this back on to other periods of warfare. Our pre-Revolution armies attempt to fight decisive battles, which their originals would have baulked at. Few commanders would have started a battle on equal terms, although many, if not most, wargames have some sort of equality built in, if not equal numbers then equal ‘points’, whatever they might mean.

So, to try to summarise, we are all military romantics, and, just in case you were still wondering, I do not mean schmoozing by the base line. I mean that we buy in to this discourse of the decisive battle, and play our games accordingly. But the concept of varying military discourses may suggest that wargames do not have to be this way.

Saturday 22 June 2013

Military Enlightenment

One of the best bits of graffiti I ever heard about appeared, briefly, on the wall of the Ministry of Defence in London: “Military Intelligence is a Contradiction in Terms”. It was whitewashed over very quickly, apparently.

It has to be said, however, that the intellectual climate of the world often does impact on the military view of things. For example, take a look at this painting of the Battle of Fontenoy:

There are a lot of things that could be said about this, but mostly I want to concentrate on two things, which John Lynn observes in ‘Battle’ (Westview, 2004).

Firstly, have a very close look at the action in the background. Does anything strike you as odd?

Despite the smoke, shooting, cavalry charging in and so on, no casualties are depicted. None at all. This is a battle without blood.

Secondly, have a look at the formations in the background. They are all perfect linear shapes. So much so that this is called the age of linear warfare.

It is all so scientific, so rational. So reasonable. So…enlightened. And this is Lynn’s point. The military discourse during this period was heavily influenced by the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment itself was heavily influenced by the invention of modern science in the late seventeenth century. Culture itself began to believe that everything, from God to the trajectory of cannon balls, was predictable rationally.

For example, this was the heyday of Deism, the idea that the universe was clockwork, and the deity had simply wound the clock up and left it to run. This is not exactly orthodox Christian belief, but it did allow many thinkers, who would otherwise have been thought to be atheists, to get away with carrying on thinking their thoughts.

Lynn’s argument is that the Enlightenment also had influence on military thinking. This arose, partially, from the engineer Vauban, who could, it is claimed, predict the whole timetable of a siege from the opening of the trenches to the fall of the citadel. The whole siege worked like clockwork, and maybe you are now starting to see the influence of rationalism and Newtonian mechanics on warfare.

If this approach works for sieges, why could it not work for battles? After all, a battle is only really a messy siege, a siege without convenient lines and trenches and artillery batteries. Even, from one point of view, a battle is simply a siege without a necessarily clear end. And so we come back to the painting of Fontenoy above. Nice clear lines, and scientific approach to battle and none of that horrid blood and gore and randomness which gives battles such a bad name.

Another point that Lynn makes is that battles were rather frowned upon. We may make much of them, but that is possibly because we are military romantics, by which I mean we think about military activity under the influence of romanticism. One of the hall marks of romanticism in a military sense is the quest for a decisive battle that puts an end to the war, a sort of Napoleonic and Clauswitz-ian view of the military world.

I have argued before, I know (and been argued against) that battles are not that decisive through most of our history. Certainly, the leading generals of the Enlightenment period (by which I mean the late seventeenth century up to the French Revolution) did not really actively seek battles. In ‘Marlborough as Military Commander’ (Military Book Society, London, 1973) David Chandler lists ten battles at which the Duke was present (not all of them at which he was in command, e.g. Sedgefield) and twenty-nine sieges. While Marlborough could be described as a master of battle, he did not actually engage in many.

Lynn observes that neither Saxe nor Frederick of Prussia really sought battle, either. Saxe was a bit like Marlborough; he fought a battle if he judged it to be advantageous. Frederick fought a lot of battles, but they were not really decisive, in that they did not knock his opponents out of the war, they simply delayed the assault on Prussia proper, while other aspects of alliance politics and campaigning took their course.

Finally, Lynn also observes that fashion must have been a bind to the ordinary soldier. He questions how much easier the deep folded cuffs of the eighteenth century soldier made loading a smoothbore musket, and concludes that it must have been an encumbrance. He also notes that the seventeenth century wide brimmed hat at least gave some cover from rain and sun, and questions the tricorne’s utility for doing the same. The folded up from brim cannot have helped protecting the wearer from the elements. The ordinary soldier of the eighteenth century was, on this view, a fashion victim.

How does this affect us as wargamers?

Well, firstly, I do think that we have to take account of Lynn’s ideas. We talk about linear warfare, but in terms of the Enlightenment, it actually means something, a distinct world-view that does affect how battles were fought.  War and culture interact with and reflect each other. In terms of writing wargame rules and painting soldiers, we need to be aware of the cultural and intellectual background of the period.

And that, perhaps, is the final point, one which I have made a number of times before. There is no such thing as an all-encompassing wagame period. The temptation is to lump all warfare from the demise of the pike on the battlefield to the advent of the machine gun into one period, call it ‘horse and musket’. This is, of course, technological determinism. We seem to believe that two weapon systems, the flintlock musket and the cavalryman, determine the way warfare happens for a couple of hundred years.

However, I hope I have managed to suggest that this is not so. What counts in addition, possibly in fact more importantly than the technology, is the discourse of war. By this I mean ideas of what a war was about at the time. If your thought runs in lines and Newtonian mechanics, then you land up with linear warfare. If it does not, then you get something else, albeit with the same technology.

Saturday 15 June 2013

Wargame Entrenchment

No, do not panic. I have not suddenly become an aficionado of the Western Front. What I do want to do, really, is consider how our wargame rules are structured.

I have been reading a book about the philosophy of science (Simon Altmann, Is Nature Supernatural? 2002, Prometheus Books: New York), and very interesting it is too. One of the concepts introduced is that of entrenchment. For example, the idea of atoms was well entrenched before the actual empirical discovery of such objects in the physical world. This was not least because thermodynamical understanding required such objects to exist, as well as various other bits of information, for example from chemistry. The actual observation of atoms therefore came as rather less of a surprise than might otherwise have been expected.

There was, of course, a sceptical wing, led by Ernst Mach, who argued coherently and well that no such objects, too small to be ever observed directly, could possibly exist, and that it was all a fake, or at least atoms were a concept with no ontological reality. Mach and his party were, of course, wrong, but the argument needed to happen, to entrench the concept of the atom in our scientific web.

The idea of the scientific web is that no single idea actually dominates science. The concepts link to each other. So we have a concept, say, of a magnetic field, and the concept of an electric field, and they seem to be linked somehow, and then a genius like James Clark Maxwell comes along and, bingo! we see that electric and magnetic fields are simply two aspects of a single thing, a wave, which we can identify with light. And so this particular concept, uniting some others, clarifies a particular bit of the scientific web, and, therefore, entrenches and is entrenched by it.

This, incidentally, is why cranks and crackpots believe that the scientific establishment conspires against their own pet ideas. Suppose someone came up with the idea that the speed of light, as an information carrier, can be breached. This would, quite likely, be dismissed by the vast majority of scientists, simply because the idea of the speed of light as an information speed limit is heavily entrenched in modern physics. The crank’s idea would have to be able to clarify a whole section of the scientific web and to work within what is already known to be even marginally acceptable to the establishment. Even then, a considerable amount of careful work, both experimental and theoretical would have to take place before the concept would be embedded.

Now, you may recall a few posts ago I claimed that most of the items we calculate using a set of wargame rules were fictitious, or at least not separable in reality in the way  we separate things in the rules themselves. This is, of course, a case of reductionism, where we have a set of different concepts, try to analyse what happens into these concepts, put them back together and hope to get some sort of outcome which matches the original.

As you may have noticed, this is sort of similar to the way science progresses. We have a set of concepts which are well entrenched, such as the morale of an army or a unit.  We cannot, in reality, measure the morale of a unit easily, and certainly not during the course of a battle.  Can you imagine a social studies researcher dodging bullets to distribute a questionnaire to the ranks with the question ‘How do you feel about things now?’ and ‘If you were outflanked by enemy cavalry, would you feel a, better, b, worse, or c, the same?’

Despite such difficulties, I think that the concept of morale is a well entrenched one, and no-one, really, is going to shake that.  We can argue about whether a unit which is outflanked does take a hit in morale, and if so by how much, but the concept itself is, pretty well, established and is not going to go away any time soon.

To some extent, then, we are back with Mach and his supporters. We are relying on a concept which we cannot, in the final analysis, see, but which we are convinced is important for us. Mach would have us acknowledge that such a concept has no ontological importance for us, but I am not sure that many wargamers would agree, nor, in fact, many generals or unit commanders. Just because we cannot see it, it does not mean it does not exist.

The way in which, of course, scientists got around Mach’s objections was to make indirect observations, and lots of them. We might not be able to see atoms directly (and indeed we still cannot; the films of atoms which are around are, in fact, still indirect observations, just very sophisticated ones), but we can obtain good evidence that they exist. The more indirect evidence we accumulate that fits with our model of an atom, the better, and the more entrenched the concept becomes within science.

As with science, so with wargaming. We cannot necessarily see the rules which we create; all we can observe are the outcomes of particular sets of circumstances. But we can analyse them and put them back together and hope that the sum of the parts which we have invented add up to the total of the original outcome, or at least to an outcome which is a believable one from the original situation.

Thus, while, in my example, morale cannot be separated or, indeed, measured in the original we can see the outcomes which having morale (or, mostly, lack of morale) creates in the original, and attempt to model the situations which lead to that outcome.

Of course, all of this is somewhat subjective. War, after all, is an art, not a science, and there may well be multiple ways of obtaining a given outcome, even in a concept that is so well entrenched as morale.  But that is part of life; we find a rule set that we like and, usually, stick toit.

Saturday 8 June 2013

The Universal Soldier

Some of you are probably painfully aware that I have been banging on about period specific rule sets and the inaccuracies of assuming that a bloke with a pointy stick and shield in 4th Century BC Greece is the same as a bloke with a pointy stick and shield in 14th Century AD Scotland. Some people, at least so far as the comments go, agree with me more or less, and some do not.  That is fair enough, there is debate in academic circles about the issue as well, and perhaps we should not be prescriptive about which model (for models they both are) we should be using.

 I have, however, recently run across a book that supports my point of view. This is ‘Battle: A History of Combat and Culture’, by John A Lynn (2004, Westview: Cambridge MA). The author’s name I was already aware of, as he is an expert in the army of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and I had heard of this tome as well, although I had shied away from it as often a period specialist writing outside of their specialism is not worth the effort of reading.

Lynn’s argument is that there are two aspects to warfare. The first is the reality of combat, and the second is the way of thinking about it, in sociological terms the ‘discourse’ of war. He suggests that sometimes the discourse and the reality do not match. For example, the discourse of the combatant nations in 1914 was not matched by the realities of battle, and so the discourse had to modify itself very rapidly. So the reality can modify the discourse of battle, but the discourse of battle can also modify the reality.

The first case study that Lynn examines is that of the ancient Greeks. He notes that V. A. Hanson, in his books ‘The Western Way of War’ and ‘Carnage and Culture’ argues that the western (European and North American) way of warfare is distinct from other (Oriental, South American) warfare, in that the westerners seek decisive battle, while the others use subterfuge, ambush and battle avoidance to win. Hanson argues that this predilection for decisive battle dates back to the Greeks, and that there is a continuity in attitude to warfare from the Greeks to the present day.

Lynn attacks Hanson’s thesis in a fairly direct manner. He examines Greek warfare and concludes that it is the product of a distinctive mind set or world view, one in which the citizen soldier (the Hoplite) of a given Greek polity both is involved (in principle, at least) in making a decision for war and in fighting as a consequence of that decision. Thus the typical soldier has a vested interest in the fighting as a consequence of his involvement in the decision making process. Lynn points out that due to the increasing pressure of warfare during the later Greek and Hellenistic periods, this model broke down and later forces were, essentially, mercenary. A similar pattern was followed in Rome where the Republican citizen militia was replaced by professional soldier (a circumstance which led to the downfall of the Republic) and ultimately to a situation where either the Emperor controlled the army or vice versa.

Thus, Lynn argues, the concept of a citizen soldier was not revived until the late 18th Century and early 19th, when French revolutionary armies stormed across Europe.  These were explicitly citizen armies, and did, in fact, seek decisive battles, a circumstance which, Lynn suggests, led to Clausewitz’s various theses about warfare and politics.  These have been extremely influential in Western thought about warfare, but that does not necessarily make them applicable outside Clausewitz’s particular historical context.

The gap between the Greek citizen soldier and the French Revolutionary one is, to be generous, around 2000 years. On a timescale from the Greeks to us of 2500 years, a continuity with a gap of over eighty per cent of the time in it has some explaining to do. Lynn’s argument is thus that there is no such continuity and no such thing as a distinctively ‘western’ way of war.

The issue for us as wargamers, of course, is that we do often regard our soldiers as being part of a continuous tradition dating back thousands of years, or at least, we consider one man with a pointy stick to be the same as another, 1500 years later. This is technological determinism, the idea that the methods of warfare are determined by the weapons and not by the culture from which the soldiers come.

The problem with technological determinism is that it simply does not work. The Greeks, for example, fought battles on the relatively few flat bits of Greece that were available, with weapons and soldiers that were not typical of the landscape or inhabitants. One would imagine that they would have gone for a more fluid, ambushing from hills and cover sort of warfare, but they did not. The reason for this was described above: they were citizens of a polis and this (full frontal phalanx battles) was how the polis went to war. The nature of the battle was determined by the discourse, not by the technology or landscape.

As I said above, I think this argument adds to mine that we should not develop rules to which are then bolted on bits of chrome to give other periods. They cannot work as a historical rule set, because they are, ultimately, buying into technological determinism. This is a form of absurd reductionism, which suggests that, say, a musketeer is ‘nothing but’ a souped up crossbow man, and a crossbow man is ‘nothing but’ a souped up archer, and so on. All these nothing buts land us up in a situation where all we take account of are the weapons (which themselves get collapsed into a single group of, say, ranged weapons), not the mind sets and world view of the people who fought and commanded the real armies we are trying to model.

Lynn’s argument is that there is no such thing as a universal soldier; each soldier, unit and army is the product of a culture, society and discourse (and impacts on the culture, society and discourse). My suggestion is that we try to avoid imposing universalism on our models of historical armies, and that we dispose of the convenient, but incorrect, notion of technological determinism.

Saturday 1 June 2013


Someone, or possibly, some ‘bot network out there, is interested in my very, very, slow campaign, Fuzigore. At least, the term ‘Imagi-nation’ keeps coming up a fair bit in the statistics for the site, so I thought I would ponder the subject.

An imagi-nation is, of course, a fictitious country upon which wargames can be thrust without any need to worry about historical accuracy or whether Zulus fighting Medieval France makes any sort of logical sense. I suspect that the idea is as old as wargaming. Both Tony Bath and Don Featherstone comment on the idea in their books.

Bath, of course, was by far the most enthusiastic, suggesting very strongly in ‘Setting up a Wargames Campaign’ that, at least for ancient wargaming, an imaginary continent was by far the best way of wargaming. His own continent was big, took a lot of effort to run and famous, as he wrote bits of it up for Battle Magazine, and when that closed, in Military Modelling.

Featherstone seems slightly more ambiguous over the subject. Both comment on one campaign where ACW armies fought ancient ones, and lost comprehensively. As Featherstone was the horse and musket collector of the duo, perhaps his lack of enthusiasm stems from this experience.

Nevertheless, it does seem that ancient wargaming is a more popular era for imaginary warfare, perhaps followed by the Eighteenth Century, perhaps under the influence of Charles Grant’s ‘The Wargame’ where he included a mini-campaign from the Dover group’s imaginary principalities.

I do tend to find fewer imaginary campaigns in other periods, and it is slightly interesting to speculate why. Why not, in fact, have an imaginary Napoleonic war, or an imaginary World War Two. In terms of the issues with ethics of at least the latter which I have previously commented upon, it would seem to be the perfect solution. No concentration camps, the SS could be represented as a courageous elite with no shooting of prisoners or civilians to be taken account of.

And yet there seem to be very few imaginary WWII wargames. Even something like ‘A Very British Civil War’, which I have seen at shows, does not really fit the bill as it takes as its background the real world. Even fictitious scenarios within the war are more likely to be based on a particular action, within a given campaign, than, say, your average ancients game.

I suppose that there is a lot more information around for World War Two, and an awful lot more battles of all descriptions. If you look hard enough you can certainly find, for example, British against French forces, or Russian against Japanese, alongside the obvious and main protagonists. Perhaps there is less in the way of imaginary combinations because most of the combinations which can be imagined actually happened.

The situation with ancients is, of course, very different. There are a lot more nations, to start with, giving a much, much larger pool of armies. The time scale over which ‘ancients’ wargaming spreads is also much wider, and the protagonists are, it is at least plausibly claimed, much more equally matched in terms of equipment and organisation, while armies from, say, the Napoleonic Wars and World War One (only a hundred years different) would not be a fair match up.

I suppose (and I have never indulged in this, so cannot comment directly, but someone (Chris?) observed in a comment) that colonial wargaming is a sort of imaginary world gaming. Now, obviously there were real world colonial battles, some of them quite interesting, but a lot of colonial wargaming is, I suspect, based on a sort of imagi-nation style. If you do not believe me, then check out the chapter ‘Domestic Wargaming’ in Featherstone’s ‘Solo Wargaming’. It is a brilliant idea, and one I have never quite got around to executing (along with many others, of course).

The point, surely, about imagi-nation wargaming, is that it allows us firstly to divorce our battles from real world constraints, so we do not have to find the historical precedents for what we put on the table, just some sort of justification, and secondly that, as mentioned, we can also divorce the ethics (or lack of them) of the real world armies from those of our table top.

Perhaps, however, we already do this; the person who places an SS Panzer division on the table may well have already entered an imaginary nation where the nasty brutality of the units is washed away, and all that is left is a brave and efficient unit with cool weapons and uniforms.

I suppose that all that has been leading up to a report from the imaginary front line of Fuzigore. I have no intention of posting battle reports (unless anyone really insists) but a brief resume will suffice. The battle following on from the campaign I reported a few weeks ago was nothing if not chaotic, with Ht-uos emerging a narrow winner and Ocram and his new Cillag lady friend nearly getting caught up in the rout of the Ht-uos infantry, only to be saved by the father of the said lady friend’s cavalry base.

After the battle, the T-sae army unexpectedly surrendered (I rolled a 1; what can you do?) and the campaign closed. However, some elements of T-sae were not happy with the outcome (or the loot) and promptly crossed the border in Emor and besieged a city, Trazibon. The Emoran relieving force was very neatly ambushed and defeated, and the city surrendered.

So now the full Emoram army has deployed to recapture the city and administer a beating to the T-sae. The T-sae, looking to restore their honour in battle are deployed just outside the city to defend the Cillag civilisation and their way of life, and to bring it to the barbarians of Trazibon (of course, you could look at that the other way around).

This was done with a few dice rolls and a bit of prose narrative. It probably also helps that I have recently finished painting every Early Empire Roman figure I possess, so they need a bit of an outing, although I didn’t expect them to get such a beating in the ambush.

But that is the joy of wargaming, and wargame campaigns, even in Imagi-nations.