Saturday 25 April 2015

Wargames with Meaning

Readers of relatively recent posts might have discerned a possible line of thought that wargames might be speaking into our current world, even if they actually refer to past events. We might be conditioned to look at past events through, as it were, the spectacles of the present. Actually identifying such wargames is a bit tricky, however. We are not blessed with hindsight into our present situation. So, what I want to consider is what such a wargame might look at.

Now, commentary on our present situation is quite a frequent topic in what I shall have to call cultural objects (because I do not have a better expression). For example, I believe there was a recent US film of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s ‘Eagle of the Ninth’. It was rather hard not to interpret the legionaries marching into Scotland, all mountains, unknown paths, uncertain natives and rarely seen enemies as an allegory of the US intervention in Afghanistan (and, it must be mentioned, slightly more subtle than the ‘ISIS fighters’ of recent posts). Now this itself has to be interpreted in some cultural matrix. For example, there is a strong strand of anti-imperialism in US culture and politics; it is also possible that the original novel was conceived and written in a different matrix that either today or the implied audience of the film. And so on. Interpretation of these sorts of things is never easy.

On a similar vein, history too can be infected by the curse of being contemporary and fashionable. In fact, in the UK, academic history has to make itself fashionable in order to survive. The demands of the Research Effectiveness Framework (or whatever it is called) demand that the public be both informed and able to understand the work as disseminated. It is possible that this is why we have seen so many Black Death graves being excavated. Everyone love a good, gory, epidemic, as long as it happened a long time ago.

On this theme, however, we do start to see some resonances with contemporary politics. I have somewhere a book about Cromwell and the Scots. Towards the end, having dealt with Dunbar, the invasion of England and Worcester, along with all the machinations of the factions and politics, the author remarks that he wrote the book, more or less as a warning against the Scots and the English self-defining as different nations again. As I recall, the volume was released with the first rumblings of the idea of the recent Scottish Independence Referendum. What would have happened if the vote had been ‘yes’? The implication is that things would not have gone well for the Scots, although probably rule by Major-Generals was not on the table.

And so we head to more or less wargaming territory, and ask the question what would a historical wargame with contemporary resonances look like? Mr Grice suggested that a wargame of the 1689 Siege of Derry/Londonderry might not play too well in, say, Belfast. That is a game of a historical event which is still very much in the current consciousness of some people. It is fairly obvious that it might offend or, possibly, outrage some folk. But is there a more allusive sort of game we could get away with without running those sorts of risk?

I suppose that the sort of thing I am looking for is a game which, in and of itself, raises no eyebrows, but might cause a thoughtful onlooker to ponder anew the sorts of things that are going on in the world. For example, the play and film ‘Children of a Lesser God’ was, on the surface, a love story between a teacher and a deaf girl. At a slightly deeper level it was about how we treat those people who are perceived to have disabilities. The teacher’s attempt to get the girl to say his name was an attempt to force her into his world, the world of the hearing, the normal world, rather than the equally valid world of the deaf.

So, I am looking for a wargame which it, itself, a good game, but which also can be conceived to have contemporary resonance. I have in the past suggested Alexander’s problems in Bactria as a paradigm for recent conflicts in Afghanistan, but how about something like a 1980’s Third World war in Europe. There are, shall we say, issues with Russia and the west / NATO. It is perhaps not beyond the bounds of possibility to envisage an invasion. How would NATO have fared in the Eighties? Would they do any better now?

Perhaps that one is too obvious. Maybe a Roman invasion of Britain scenario would have resonance with the debates over immigration in the current general election campaign. Perhaps a Spanish Civil War game would have a light or two to shine on the growth of the far right in today’s Europe. It is also possible (although I’m not convinced about this) that the ‘Very British Civil War’ stuff I see around, set in late 1930’s England featuring assorted factions, some of them far right, might be a reflection of modern politics. I am not sure because I suspect it is more to do with using that early war British stuff that otherwise rarely appears.

Of course, we can define our wargame to be about something. We can claim that the Roman invasion of Britain game is about imperialism and its brutality, or colonialism and its consequences. We could move on from there and point to a similarity between, say, the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq and post-Roman Britain. All sorts of warlords, weird sects, and military entrepreneurs and so on enter the scene as the superpower pulls out. The point of this, surely, would be to demonstrate that however it works out, the population will be the ones who suffer.

As I am sure you can tell, I do not have that many ideas along this line. My mind is not that of a dramatist or playwright. Perhaps you can do better in looking from this perspective than I.


  1. I don't know about better but I'll respond instinctively or emotionally rather than taking time for careful thought.

    Sticking with Romans, in the 4-5thC ad or ce the Empire suffered waves of illegal immigration despite internal economic stresses, weight of regulation and disproportionate distribution of wealth. The results included various military operations formal and informal to secure borders, pre-empt perceived threats or retaliate for raids and the use of proxy minor client ststes to fight wars for them. That all sounds pretty familiar.

    In a less military setting the fascination with Black Death puts one in mind not only pan-epidemics but also looming climate change effects, drastic changes to lifestyles, waves of immigration and possible urban peasant revolts. My knowledge of medieval peasant revolts in Europe and the UK is even sketchier than usual but it seems to me that some have linked the two and one might game such revolts and fights between undisciplined but "righteous" peasants and the hirelings employed by the rich to suppress them and think about future possibilities from riots to rebellions.

    1. The 4-5th century Roman Empire scenario you sketch out is scarily reminiscent of daily news content.

      A slight amendment on the Black Death/peasants revolt is that THE "Peasants Revolt" of 1381 (like the Monmouth Rebellion) was more of an artisans (and even clerks) revolt rather than an uprising of the underclass. So in today's terms it'd be the "squeezed middle" - those who perceive themselves as carrying the biggest burden for the failures of the economic elite. But still none the less valid for it as a parallel.

    2. So it seems that we can interpret history to have a resonance with modern politics, either in large scale history (Roman empire), smaller scale revolts or even medical history.

      All this might mean, as Chris comments below, that if we interpret history sufficiently, we can find a resonance with contemporary events, or fears.

      But it might be deeper, too.

  2. A week ago, I'd have embraced this challenge with gusto, but the other day I was asked to comment on a blog on a Scot Nats site which pointed out the parallels between India, pre-, during and post-British colonial rule, and Scotland. It made a very cogent case, using facts that were incorrect, taken out of context or just made up specially for the occasion. (My comments about Mahatma Salmond and Pandit Sturgeon didn't go down well either.)
    So it gave me to think that maybe these historical parallels with modern times might be in the eye of the beholder sometimes.

    'Course, I still think there are parallels between the Romans in Britain and the British in India, but maybe I'm just as bad as this fellow.

    1. I would have pointed out the only parallel between the break-up of the UK and Indian independence would be that the smaller nation historically dominated the larger one ;-)
      Last English king if I recall correctly was in 1066. Last Scottish one was 1688. We have a Cameron as PM. Before that we had a Brown. Before that a Blair.

    2. I think the problem is that history is never really that simple. Historians can only select the facts, that they select those which interest them. Thus their current context informs their history. History is then both always incomplete and written from a certain perspective, so needs rewriting every once in a while.

      Mind you, with mde up facts and a polemic point of view, we could do anything, but whatever the anything is it is not history...

      As to kings, currently we have a bunch of Germans, of course....

    3. Except that the current incumbent was born in England of parents who were also both born in England, making her just as English as the rest of us that were born in England. The narrative about the royal family being German is an interesting one in that it speaks to a particular political agenda that conveniently forgets that the Anglo-Saxon tribes that settled the country were just as German originally. Come to that, if the royal family is German then I am Scots-Irish because my Scottish and Irish forebears arrived in England much more recently than the royal family. So, your comment about the royal family is a pretty good illustration of the point you made about perspective.

    4. I'm probably taking what was meant as a joke up wrong, but I always find the idea the Royal Family are somehow illegitimate by virtue of their coming from Hanover over 200 years ago rather distasteful. Surely one of the crowning glories of the United Kingdom as a political idea (and it one for which I have immense respect) is that it has hammered an extraordinarily resilient metal out of disparate alloys.

      One of the great strengths of the UK is how it is transformed and invigorated by immigrants - that the descendant of one of those immigrants holds the throne should be a matter of pride. Long may it continue.

    5. I was being a bit flippant. But making a genuine point about claims of English rule of the UK.
      As for the royal family being Germans, I couldn't really give a hoot what their background is. The immigrants they are descended from have got more in common with the "Oligarchs" from the former SU than poor migrants labourers from Ireland or artisans escaping religious oppression in France and Russia.

    6. As observed, an interesting response to an aside which does rather prove the point. are the UK royal family German? From a certain perspective, they are. Of course, that makes a lot of other European royal families British. And haemophiliac. Queen Victoria has a lot to answer for (she married a German, just to confuse the issue; he brought the idea of Christmas trees...).

      It does illustrate possibly several points: our sensitivity about ethnicity, legitimacy, immigration, power and money. after all, if Victoria had been poor, she would probably not have married, nor her children, quite so internationally.

  3. Hi! I've only discovered you blog recently and enjoy your posts very much, as I too like to think about wargaming in a broader cultural context.

    Considering your question, have you had a look at the 'Class Wargames' book by Richard Barbrook? (A free pdf can be downloaded at It deals with those questions from the perspective of the radical left. Now while I wouldn't subscribe to all he says, the way he uses wargames as tools to think about how we narrate the past is very inspiring - e.g. they staged a Russian revolution miniatures game at the Winter Palace (!), with a running commentary that explained what was going on to the public. The idea was to challenge the accepted 'necessity' of the revolution's outcome and show that it was a contingent process - something that may sound banal for historians but for many people I think can still be provoking, especially if the events that are represented are important for an ideological narrative.

    One way of applying this would be to stage games were islamic forces were part of European forces, so as to challenge to 'Clash of Civilisation' narrative that fuels today's right wing discourse. E.g. one could stage a battle of Frederick II featuring his 'Saracens', or the siege of Vienna in 1683 with Christian troops fighting for the Sultan etc.

    1. Thank you for the tip, I shall take a look.

      I think that wargames can be informative about history, and even working which forces were involved can be surprising about notions of, for example, ethnicity. And history is decidedly contingent.

      I think the problem arises when we start to mistake wargames for history, especially as some bits of history are seriously contested, and inform modern events (the Islamic caliphate, for example?).

      Mind you, I did hear on the radio a suggestion that the commemorations of the end of the ACW were muted in the US because the issues which caused the war are still not fully resolved in society. But I'm still not sure if I believe that or not.

  4. To be honest, I suppose I play wargames as an entertainment and I tend to stick to the narratives that I like.

    I am generally pretty skeptical of historical parallels, generally because there are usually as many factors against as for in any given situation. It does lead to some criminally lazy thinking like "Well if X is Hitler in this scenario, who is our Churchill?"

    It reminded me of something Laurence Rees said about the study of history, I'm quoting from memory so I may be a little off. "The reason to study the Second World War is not really to prevent the rise of fascism again, because it won't happen like that again - but mainly to be able to critically evaluate the stupid analogies our politicians make about the Second World War."

    I don't tend to play the games of the narratives that upset me - I stopped doing it after a friend and I led the Argentineans to victory in a Falklands War campaign. I was so unhappy with the result that I resolved never to play the side I wouldn't root for in real life again. That bad feeling is not what I want from an entertainment.

    1. Well, I think that we are formed, in our societies, by what has gone before. So in the UK at least, World War 2 is an important part of the national myth, imbibed at school: Churchill, the Few, the Blitz, the country pulling together and so on.

      The awkward historical facts of the RAF outnumbering the Luftwaffe etc are ignored and only occasionally make headlines when someone says something that challenges the myths.

      So history is to be studies partly to stop politicians misappropriating it, but also because it is part of what makes us, as a society, us.

      I suppose that the next question is 'should we not play games that might upset us?' or at least wonder why we do not. Is the Falklands war just too recent for us?

  5. I actually did have a game last year in Belfast, wherein we had a multinational force trying to claim back contested sectors from an indigenous force led by a formerly powerful leader, who had rallied disparate elements around him.

    It wasn't controversial for the location of course...actually no, wait, it was the Battle of the Boyne game...ah.

    Conversely, we found there that the actual history is made to suit the relevant politics. History is after all, written by...etc.

    That said, you make interesting points. There are definite parallels for any small campaign which can hold real events under the microscope of wargamer opinion. I think a lot of sci fi (not 40K I stress) gamers tend to do that with more modern campaigns, drawing analogues with everything from the Battle of the Bulge to the Falklands.

    1. I think that part of history is to try to prevent distortions by interested groups, but it rarely happens in the short term. I think we can examine history under the microscope, and even wargame it in different contexts, but what is not clear to me is how useful doing so might be.

      That is, is a wargame about anything else bu the game itself? I think it can be, but tends not to be. But I'm probably wrong.

  6. This is an interesting discussion and I have little to add to what has been written before. I have encountered in my studies many examples of history being interpreted through a contemporary lens. When returning to first principles it is easy to see the distortions but then one is left wondering if one's own perspective is unwittingly distorting the revised interpretation.

    Guy Halsall is busily writing on his blog about the purpose of history at the moment. I think this link should take you to the relevant posts:
    Perhaps his thoughts on the matter could add more grist for the mill.

    1. I think we always distort history one way or another. Of course, the sources we distort are also distorted. It is a wonder that we can manage to do history at all, sometimes.

      I do read the grumpy historian blog. He does have a certain perspective on life, and a penetrating one on history.