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.


  1. I am relieved, though somehow strangely disappointed, to see that this post is not about my mother in law - so I shall settle down to read it in a calmer frame of mind. Phew...

    1. I'll never get the coffee stains off my monitor now, you know.

    2. Good post, again. As with most of your recent series, it started personal hobbyhorses galloping off in all directions, some of which are not strictly relevant and will get no marks in the exam.

      I have difficulty in separating a public view of wargaming from the contemporary attitude to warfare. After any successful campaign, little boys have always been encouraged to march up and down with wooden swords, saluting, although maybe it’s a question of degree – after the excesses of WW1 the French experienced a national rejection of militarism. It also reflects the civilian conditions and attitudes of the day – at times when life has been hard and short anyway, the additional misery of being expected to turn out and fight to the death for one’s monarch (or fatherland, or landlord, or next subtenant up the chain) was just a fact of life. It was usually set in a context of patriotism, or religion, but it was always just coercion.

      I am astounded that they got a conscripted army to climb out of trenches and face machine guns as recently as 1914-18. I doubt if it could be done now. I know why they went, of course. If they climbed out of the trench, they were probably going to get killed or maimed; if they refused to go over the top then they would certainly be executed – no doubt about it. Going over the top was the smart choice. The war worked as it did exactly because the soldiers were more frightened of their own disciplinary system than they were of the enemy. Maybe that is how it has always worked. I remember when I was a small boy, one stood to attention when the National Anthem was played – not, I think, because I loved the monarch but because someone would give me hell if I didn’t, and they would use all sorts of sanctimony about God and Pride and Tradition to justify it.

      Nowadays, there is more (perceived) democracy and (probably) better availability of information, but at a mass, community, national level that may simply be indoctrination by one’s (inherited) choice of newspaper. I am astonished and delighted that some aspect of the government process of our democratic nations decided against invading Syria recently – I would have bet against it. How things look to the professional soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and elsewhere I don’t know, but it does seem to me as though it is at least more difficult for a government or head of state to declare war – with the promotion of public hysteria which that requires. On the other hand, it may be that social media might help the spread of popular movements which require hysteria – revolution, religious hatred.

      As of this morning, I think that Rupert Murdoch has more power to move the nation to war than does the monarch or the government, but I don’t fancy his chances either.

      The point? Well, as ever I’m not sure, but I believe that whether wargaming is viewed as a worthy and valid way to spend one’s time must reflect

      (1) how the world at large views warfare at the time

      (2) the extent to which people are allowed/expected to develop and voice their own opinions - I know they didn’t encourage liberals in Soviet Russia, how are they getting on in present-day Israel?

      And, of course, as you say the amount of noise generated does not necessarily reflect the competence or value of the viewpoint.

    3. A lot there to ponder, thank you.

      I guess that wargaming, as with so much else, is enculturated, and both reflects and influences the culture in which it is embodied.

      Football (soccer), for example, has largely moved from being a working man's sport to being one of global marketing, the rich and amounts of money which most national treasuries would be eager to get their hands on.

      On the other hand, wargaming does reflect, as you say, something of society's attitude to war itself. So the attitudes to wargaming are probably more complex than those towards Manchester United.

      Social media and newspapers etc are also interesting, not least because the phenomenon of wargaming is almost completely ignored; I suppose not being a spectator sport helps with that. However, it could be that social media in particular (and newspapers as well) simply reflect how irrational our society really is, no matter how logical we like to think we are.

      As to going over the top, I was put in mind of the USSR infantry in WW2: probable death ahead, certain death from NKVD commissars behind. What is your rational choice in that situation?

    4. Do you know, I love the way your blog gets the mind wandering down all the back routes that the wargaming guidebooks navigate you away from.
      It strikes me that the main reason that they climbed out of the trenches in 14-18 is that someone in authority told them they had to. I don't think rational decision came into it. Was that any different for the PBI in Hobbes' day? I don't know.
      Whether this would work in a citizen army these days, I ain't so sure, as the norm now is that it is ok to think for yourself. Is that the anarchy that Hobbes predicted when sovereign authority breaks down?

      Wargaming isn't a spectator sport, but real warfare is rapidly becoming one, with 24hour news and social media.

    5. Chris - re 14-18 - agreed - I think you restated my point - "someone ... told them they had to" means "they would be killed if they didn't" in this context. If someone in authority had instructed them to place their genitals on a hot stove they would have required a jolly good reason to comply - people are not instinctively so daft. There is also the strange concept of saving face - countless men over the years must have gone uncomplaining to their deaths simply because it was unthinkable to show weakness in front of comrades.

      Modern warfare on live TV makes me very uncomfortable about the seamless crossover into video games - to the spectator, what's the difference?

      Wargaming doesn't get media coverage just because it's a minority interest and wouldn't sell papers (apart from wargaming papers, and not many of them...). The only mass-appeal aspect of wargaming is the "You've Been Framed" gigglefest of grown men playing kids' games - however tedious we find that. Tim Gow's recent interview on Radio Sheffield or whatever got it exactly right - he made a feature of the intrinsic childishness of the hobby, and laughed long and loud at never having grown up. If he hadn't done that, you can bet the interviewer would have made that point for him. I mean, if you were a 14-year-old cub reporter for a provincial news station, what would be the first no-brainer question you would come up with when you were given this crap assignment?

    6. I suppose what I was saying is that it's not so simple as that. There was, I think, a more instinctive belief in or acceptance of authority in 1914 than there is now - WWI probably went a long way to end it - and I don't think it was necessarily so clear cut as the looming spectre of a firing squad. I certainly don't think that the feeling was 'the generals know what they're doing.' There was a strong feeling of not wanting to let their mates down, but I don't think that goes the whole way to explain it either.
      There were occasions, if I remember rightly, when whole units did refuse to go over the top. In these cases, it was generally the CO who got replaced.
      Not sure I'm making any particular point here except that I don't think it was just a conscious avoidance of punishment which caused the troops to continue to attack but a more complex cocktail of reasons which convinced them there was no alternative. But cleverer blokes than me have failed to explain the behaviours of groups of men under stress.

      Live coverage of war on TV makes me very uncomfortable too. I overheard a conversation at work recently (non-wargamers, I'm thankful to say) discussing footage from Syria in distinctly Hollywood terms. It has also made everyone an expert - these two lads knew far more about the weaponry being used than I did. You'd have been forgiven for thinking they were talking about the latest Bourne film.

      Hmm, I didn't know about that interview, but I take your point. The childishness is rather the point of many hobbies though, isn't it?

    7. Absolutely. I have had a look at the grown-ups around me over the years, and decided that there must be something else.

    8. Oh, my, lots to ponder here.

      Firstly, I fear the blog is a reflection of my mind: always wander off down dark alleys...

      Secondly, war has often been a spectator sport: there were civilians at Balaclava to see the show, and the Celts took their families along to note the bravery of the troops.

      i think the most disturbing thing about modern warfare is that, with unmanned drones and the ability to shoot dodgy looking people in countries with which one is not at war, the normal laws of war / Geneva / Hague conventions are looking weakened.

      Plus the fact that war starts to look very much like a video game.

      Is wargaming childish? Absolutely. But then so is much of human activity. Humans are one of the few animals that continues childish behaviour into adulthood. But it is probably how we continue to learn stuff. And it is no more childish than, say, running around after a ball, or cycling 100 km just to get to the end first...

  2. I suspect that those more positive comradely reasons for going over the top in WWI were also present in a lot of the Red Army in WWII. We've been fed a diet of the Soviet Union being all stick and no carrot. Let's not forget that a lot of ordinary people probably had both something to fight for and something to fight against. Life was less nasty, brutish and short for the average poor Russian who kept his nose clean in the 30s than 20 years before. And what happened to Ukrainians and others in the lands "liberated" by the Wehrmacht probably disabused many inclined to rebellion that life under the German jackboot would be better.

    I'm not trying to paint a picture of socialist utopia, just that the picture was probably more nuanced.

    1. I suspect that you are right, and that family, 'homeland', authority and unit cohesion are just a few of the reasons men do obey orders.

      Would it happen now? I suspect it would, actually. The numbers of objectors in combatant countries was not great, and from what I see the numbers of people in this country, anyway, capable of independent thinking and decision making has not increased massively. (present company excepted, of course!).

      I'm not sure it would take much persuasion to get us going over the top again, except me, because I'd never manage to climb the trench sides...