Saturday 26 October 2013

Nasty, Brutish and Short

I have just been reading a book about the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (Martinich, A.P., Hobbes: A Biography, Cambridge: CUP 1999). This was for no good wargaming reason, of course, except that I have a passing interest in the seventeenth century, as some of you may have spotted by now, and that it was going cheap.

Hobbes, in his own lifetime as well as in ours is a controversial figure. Accused at various times of being an atheist, a Roman Catholic and a High Anglican, it is fairly clear that he managed to tweak the tails of much of the establishment at the time, just not quite enough to get seriously arrested and damaged.

Now, I imagine that most of you recognised the title as being from Hobbes’ masterpiece, Leviathan. In this work he develops his political theory, that if humanity existed in a state of nature, the individual’s life would be as quoted, viz Nasty, Brutish and Short.  Therefore, Hobbes argues, humans club together, give up their rights to everything and appoint a sovereign to rule them, proclaim and enforce laws and so on. Thus, no human except the monarch has any rights, and the monarch can do no wrong because, by definition, the monarch is the law.

Hobbes, of course, was also the first person to translate Thucydides into English, and I cannot but suspect that some of Thucydides’ cynicism and worldly-weariness rubbed off on him. According to Hobbes, after all, the only thing lying between a population and anarchy was the power of the sovereign.

Hobbes, for all his faults, we not daft, and knew that not every state had an actual, real, monarch. However, this disturbed his theory not at all, as all that really matters is that there is a sovereign authority, be that a King or a republic. This, after all, allowed Hobbes after a decade of exile in the Royalist cause, to make his peace with the Commonwealth and return to England in the 1650s. The purpose of the sovereign was to protect those who covenant with it so to do. A King who cannot do so, through being in exile or dead, is no longer the sovereign in Hobbes’ view.

The interesting thing about Hobbes, from my point of view, however, is how much the times he lived through affected his thinking.  He was born in 1588, prematurely, he claimed, because of his mother’s fears about the Spanish Armada, and he died in 1679, the year of the first exclusion crisis. Thus he lived through a century (nearly) of dramatic change in the politics of England.

Under Elizabeth, parliament, while a fairly fractious body, managed to get along with the monarch fairly well, as it did under James I, mostly. When we come to Charles I, however, things get rather flakier. And this is where Hobbes’ theory of the supremacy of the sovereign came in. He wrote that the King could do anything, and that Parliament could not disagree but was obliged to give the monarch what they needed to do the job of ruling.

A number of others said similar things, including writing and preaching on the divine right of kings, and were imprisoned by Parliament for their pains. Hobbes fled to France. Where he fell out with Descartes, but that is another story.

I think the point I am trying to make here is that the times affect the thinking of the person. While Hobbes, even before the Civil War, was in favour of the divine right of the king, and that the sovereign has absolute power, the Civil War made his thinking even more pointed. Without the sovereign, anarchy prevails; rightly or wrongly that is what he saw in England after he fled.

So, now, we come to a more wargaming sort of point. The times we live in affect how we think and see the world. In previous posts I have touched upon, for example, the effect of postmodernism on wargaming, and also, more recently, upon archaeology and the narratives of Roman Britain. Similarly, I think that our times, of relative stability, wealth and leisure permit wargaming to occur. Thirdly, of course, the internet facilitates communication, be that between customers and manufacturers or between wargamers themselves. Wargaming is a product of, and in its own small way affects those communities, simply by its being.

How, then, does our society affect thinking about wargaming?

Well, in the past here I have considered the ethics of wargaming and why some people, at  least, regard wargaming as being unpleasant, perhaps, or downright nasty. I will not repeat the arguments here, but the upshot is that the critics do not appear to know what they are talking about. At least, I have found no good ethical objection to wargaming except the ’Yuck!’ factor, which is rarely a good measure of the actual ethical issue.

Secondly, of course, there is an issue relating to the general philosophical viewpoints of our world today, one of which is postmodernism. This is generally seen in the fragmentation of our society norms and the struggle of our political leaders to create a vision which the population can accept. On the other hand, while Hobbes would probably be appalled by the fact, it is a lot more difficult for western leaders to simply declare war and get on with it. We might regard that as being a good thing.

However, I think there is a downside to this, not because it means we have fewer interesting wargame material for modern battles, but because, as with other things in society, wargamers have become more thrill seekers; I’ve mentioned before that some part of the hobby is always looking for the fringe, the weird, the obscure. This seems to me to be another manifestation of our society and its inability to have another look at itself and discover that it has its own exoticisms, weirdness and interest. This is, of course, the thought lying behind some of the recent posts on ‘local’ wargames and the interpretation of Roman activity in Britain.

Finally, of course, this blog is doing the Socratic thing of asking more questions than its author knows the answer to. But I do hope that someone out there can at least tell me that I’m wrong.

Saturday 19 October 2013

Wargamer’s Text II – The Art of War Part 2

Having spectacularly failed to say anything about Machiavelli’s text last time, I will try a bit harder to focus. Part of the problem is, as I think I mentioned, that actually Machiavelli has such an unusual reputation as a political theorist (to put it politely) that there is a fair bit of undergrowth to clear away before we can actually see the text as a text, not as something freighted with centuries of interpretation, both positive and negative.

Anyway, as mentioned, the Art of War is set in a dialogue form, with a number of humanist friends having invited the well-known mercenary commander, Fabrizio Colunna to a dinner, and then they sit and talk about military and political things, as one does under such circumstances.

The first point made is that political and military items are not independent. This is then followed up in the first book with a discussion of the difference between mercenary and citizen troops. Colunna is of the opinion (and we know that Machiavelli was also) that mercenary troops are dangerous to the state, whether the state is a republic or a monarchy. The example of Milan is cited, where the state was taken over by the Sforzas, who were in command of the mercenary forces.

The idea here seems to be that mercenary soldiers have a bad attitude to the state, as they are mercenaries and do not have a stake in it. The argument then is that citizen soldiers will behave much better and not try to take over the state because they are, in fact, citizen of it, and thus have a greater stake in it.

These citizen soldiers are to be raised by a levy, a yearly draft, and to practice every once in a while. It is also suggested that to ensure the safety of the state, the captains of these levies should be moved around frequently, so they do not build up a following in the militia and attempt to undermine the state or take it over. The level of paranoia here might seem to be excessive, but I suppose that, from the point of view of Florence in the beginning of the sixteenth century it could be accounted for.

As we might expect from Machiavelli and the humanist point of view, Rome is held up as being the shining exemplar of the republic with successful armies and a free citizenry. The Romans had a citizen army and used it to the full. Each year an army was raised and sent out, and the burden, it is claimed, was not too great as it was done by rotation. And anyway, to serve in the army was to seek glory.

A lot is made of this point, that army service was not to gain power, or to acquire loot or money, but to serve, to fight, was to obtain glory. Glory, in the Art of War, does not seem to be linked to power, although in fact I suspect that there was a much greater linkage than Machiavelli would like us to think. After all, craven cowards or unsuccessful generals seldom came to political power in Rome, or in Sparta, for that matter.

Machiavelli claims that this Roman system broke down in the Empire, where captains served long term with their troops and those troops, themselves, became identified with the state as mercenaries, rather than citizens 9altohugh, of course, they became citizens at the end of their service, if auxilia). However, even legionaries (who were supposed to be citizens, after all) came to believe in the power of the military to make emperors, and did so quite frequently.

I suspect Machiavelli, here, of protesting too loudly, at least from the humanist point of view. My understanding of Late Republican Rome was that the armies were dedicated to their leaders, and the leaders took at least some of their initiative because they needed to keep their troops happy. Thus Caesar and Pompey both carried out large scale campaigning and annexation in the Middle East and Gaul simply because they had the armies and needed to do something with them to obtain glory, money and power within the Roman elite.  From this point of view, then, the claims for the Middle Republic armies and leaders had already broken down before the Civil Wars of the mid-first century BC.

Be that as it may, Machiavelli then goes on to observe that the problem with mercenary troops is that the forces they supply are both too small and too big. They are too small in the sense that a standing army of, say, six thousand mercenaries is insufficient to fight a battle for real. If a war breaks out you still have to go out and hire lots more.

On the other hand, a mercenary band of six thousand is too big, because you cannot pay it; it is simply too expensive. Furthermore, the other problem, alluded to earlier, is that six thousand heavily armed men, with their captains, are going to start to produce a political problem, and threaten the state. The solution, Machiavelli claims, is to keep only few mercenaries in the strongpoints of the state, and make sure you have a trained citizen militia. The latter, at least, he argues, in a surprisingly modern move, will at least keep the youth occupied and out of trouble.

As a wargamer I think I can see that there is a great deal of potential here for some interesting campaign games. Despite Machiavelli’s claims, the militia will be ill-trained compared to mercenary troops, but, on the other hand, there will be a lot more of them and they might (but only might) be better motivated. A bunch of player characters representing the various states, mercenary bands factions within the states could create an interesting and complex situation to run as, say, a club campaign. With enough factions it could even be located within a single state.

Saturday 12 October 2013

Wargamer’s Texts II: The Art of War Part 1

Niccolo Machiavelli is, probably, one of the most divisive and derided political philosophers in the Western canon.  This is for assorted reasons, but mostly because his political philosophy is regarded as being without morality, to be a pure grab for power and, when power has been grabbed, advice as to how to hang on to it.

Machiavelli has also had the misfortune for his name to be applied to all sorts of abusive terms. For example, as you probably know, the term ‘Old Nick’, used of Satan, is supposed to derive from his forename. Similarly, the expression ‘Machiavellian’ is, of course, derived from him. Any political manoeuver which is perceived as devious and subtle is thus termed, and so Machiavelli is condemned by association with such activities.

All of which is really to say that Machiavelli has not been treated kindly by history or politics, even though some of his works are still widely read. How relevant they are is really a bit moot, in my view, but they are still trotted out as a defence of the purely pragmatic approach to politics. The basis here is that a politician can, in fact, do nothing unless they are in power. Therefore, the need to seize power and hang onto it is vital for someone who wants to do the right thing.

I am sure I do not need to remind you of the context in which Machiavelli wrote. He was born in 1469, and entered the chancery of Florence in the 1498. He thus had a grandstand view of the Savonarola regime of democracy (at least, for some meanings for the term) and its collapse.

Of course, the date of Machiavelli’s appointment into the Florentine government is important for his writings. What we now know, at least as wargamers, as the Italian Wars were in full swing by the time of his appointment and, for the Italian states, tightropes were being walked between independence, client ship and destruction.

Even discounting the external pressures of France, Spain and the Empire, the Italian states did not do much to help themselves. In fact, political disunity did as much to aid the (relative) destruction of Italy as, for example, Celtic disunity did in Gaul and Britain against the Romans of antiquity.

Which brings on on to another interesting aspect of Machiavelli’s views, that of the renaissance. Machiavelli was heavily influenced by the writings of ancient Rome, which were becoming available through the printing press and humanist work. For example, in around 1503 machiavell obtained a copy of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and, later in life, composed a tract on the writings of the Roman historian Livy. This work was published in 1531, four years after Machiavelli died.

Of course, Machiavelli’s reputation rests mainly on The Prince, a work which, for a wargamer, is somewhat peripheral and which has fascinated and horrified generations of people. As wargamers we are probably more interested in his Art of War. As it is, The Art of War is not widely discussed (or even printed in full) in modern times. In a sense, this is odd, as it is one of two works of Machiavelli that were printed in his lifetime, but, as the note to my abridgement indicates, many of the sections are technical and of interest only to military historians.

Actually, I cannot think of many military historians who are interested in Machiavelli, but I suppose that there may be some.

How useful could Machiavelli be to a wargamer anyway? He, as with so many writers, harks back to the concepts of the Roman legion, of Livy and Polybius, and as such his ideas tend to the theoretical.  He is also notorious for abuse of the system of mercenaries in his own time, and belief that a citizen militia would be much more useful. The bloodless battles of which he accuses the mercenary armies were not, in fact, as bloodless as he claimed, and the armies of Cesare Borgia which he admired were not citizen armies.

However, Machiavelli believed that war and politics were entwined, and the Art of War was much read in the seventeenth century as well as Frederick the Great, Napoleon and von Clausewitz, so it is probably worth us taking note of what he has to say. We must be aware in our reading, though, that Machiavelli was not a seriously military man, although he did see some action in the early 1500’s.

Finally, before diving into the text, it is well to remember the style of the writing, which is a bit annoying (at least, I find it so). The book is written as a dialogue, which was a form very much in vogue among humanists. Indeed, the use of the dialogue style is probably to be related to the rediscovery of classical texts, such as the (you’ve guessed it) dialogues of Plato.

The dialogue form can be quite frustrating, but was widely used into the eighteenth century. For example, David Hume wrote Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion in the late 1700s. One consequence of this has been a lengthy scholarly wrangle about which, of the characters in the dialogue, represents Hume’s own view.  In terms of the Art of War I do not think we have a similar problem, at least most of the time, because we know from other things he wrote that Machiavelli favoured the militia system and the Roman legion. We may, however, have to be a little careful about any counter positions which are represented. Straw men, I think, possibly abound.

I feel like I have written much about Machiavelli, and a bit about the context of the Art of War, but nothing about the text itself. Next time I really will put some effort into saying something, at least, about that text, and what it might mean to use as wargamers.

In the meantime, the text I am going to use can be found in Kindle format on the ‘Library of Liberty’ website. Make of that what you will…

Saturday 5 October 2013

Texts for Wargamers I: De Re Militari Part 3

I confess to trying to delay the day of writing this post. Mostly, it is because while I have read the third part of De Re Militari, I did not sit down and write about it immediately, and hence have forgotten the detail. However, in the third part, Vegetius starts writing about armies and battles.

Immediately, this is a bit interesting. So far, a lot has been said about recruits, soldiers and units and their organisation. Now an army is being discussed. It seems to me that many wargame rules do not manage this sort of distinction very often. I have written before about the idea of emergence, and it is what Vegetius seems to be writing about.

Consider some older wargame rules. I do not want to pick on any specific rules, but some of the older ones start off with the capability of the individual solider. They then work their way up to a unit, with various caveats about how units move more slowly than the individual. Very often, the rules stop there. An army is nothing but the accumulation of a number of units. It has no particular identity over and above that.

I think that this may lap over into our wargames as well. As I recall, many of my early wargames were, effectively, battles of units. This unit may perform heroically, that might run away. There was some sort of acknowledgement of the fact that, for example, seeing another unit scarper had a dampening effect on the units around it. But there was no real engagement with the army as a whole.

An yet, historically, armies do have individual characteristics. For example, after the battle of Cropredy Bridge, Waller’s army disintegrated. The battle, to quote, I think, Clarendon ‘brake the heart of his army’. How could that be, unless the army as a whole could be treated as a whole?

Anyway, Vegetius prefers smaller, disciplined armies to larger ones. This is partly because he believes that disciplined troops can overcome numbers, and partly because smaller forces are easier to keep in supply. The bitter comment of a Thirty Years war commander sums this up: “Small armies lose, large armies starve.”

Vegetius spends a fair number of paragraphs describing how to keep the army in supply and preventing discontent in the ranks. Keep them fed and occupied, seems to be the message.

The question of movement is then discussed. This raises interesting questions about mapping. I have read some rather contradictory things about Roman maps. To start with, I have seen it confidently asserted that the Romans did not do maps. The closest they had were the itineraries, which simply listed the distances between the towns, forts, mansios and other items on a given route.  Of course, an army could use these for some sort of planning of movement, but they naturally peter out in the frontier territory.

On the other hand I have recently read confident assertions that military surveyors existed and would have done useful work in mapping routes, topographical features likely to be useful or awkward to the armies, and so on. Vegetius  says that an army commander should have an exact description “of the country that is the seat of war.” Well, yes, of course. That does sound very much like a map.

Various things in the campaign and pre-battle are then discussed, such as making encampments, determining the ‘sentiment’ of the troops before an action, and dealing with raw and undisciplined troops. This latter sounds like something of an admission that, despite the claims made earlier in the pieces about discipline and smaller numbers of troops, very often the later Romans landed up with ill-disciplined troops.

Quite a bit follows about how to deploy, which is ‘obvious’, or at least would be regarded as pre-modern obvious deployment. For example, if you have more cavalry, deploy on open ground; if not, use rough ground, and so on.  Force to space rations are discussed, although not named as such; troops should be deployed in deeper units if the ground is narrow. Cavalry should flank the infantry, heaviest nearest the foot. There should be a reserve.

The general should be on the right, between the infantry and cavalry, and he should be able to manoeuver his troops as required. There is a bit about not letting your left to get surrounded, while the right is less frequently in danger. The right, of course, is the most honourable side (hence the presence of the general). How many wargame rules establish that the best troops should go on the right? I cannot think of any…

Anyway, Vegetius then discusses seven different formations for the army, including an oblong square, oblique (refusing the left flank), refusing the right, which is ‘not so good’. Others are advancing both wings, , advancing both wings with the gap covered by light foot and archers, advancing just the right wing (presumably the best troops) to outflank the enemy left, and securing one flank on terrain.

Vegetius also comments that facilitating flight of the enemy is a good idea, discusses how to retreat and how to deal with chariots and elephants. He then leaves us with some general maxims, which reiterate some of the previous points.

So, a quick canter through De Re Militari. What have I learnt?

Firstly, that a fair bit of Vegetius’ writing have passed, consciously or not, into current historiography and, either hence or directly, into wargame rules. On the whole I have no problem with this, except to observe that Vegetius was not a general, strictly speaking, and his observations on earlier armies may be a little suspect, or at least, from my reading of him, viewed through rose coloured spectacles.

Secondly, that the issues and problems he discuss are not specific to his times, they do apply more widely, as we see repeatedly in history. Armies need to be fed, trained and disciplined before they can achieve anything.

Finally, Vegetius influence may not be as wide as we might like to think. While he was the main military writer of the medieval period, that does not seem to mean that his maxims were followed. I have seen it suggested that his main legacy to medieval warfare was the idea that war could be conducted in a rational manner. After all, we do not see many legions in the thirteenth century…