Saturday 28 May 2016

Historical Accuracy

I suspect that both words in the title should really be in scare quote. Thus the title should be ‘historical’ ‘accuracy’, or possibly ‘historical accuracy’. We shall see.

I have been fortunate in reading June 2016’s issue of History Today magazine. It is very interesting, and hardly a battle is mentioned in it. However, there is a fairly short article within it about ‘Making History’ by Suzannah Lipscomb, and its subject is historical fiction.

She starts by asserting, via a quote from Hilary Mantel, that historical fiction should be accurate and authentic. We will all nod sagely in agreement with that. We expect the bodices to be laced up in the right way, the swords to be worn on the correct side, the tea to be served with cucumber sandwiches with the crusts trimmed in the right manner. If we, with our expectations of the authentic representation of the period, accept that the author has done their homework, then we can relax with the fiction as we do in a hot bath and revel in the authenticity.

Except that we cannot, not really. A modern author always carries with them their contemporary baggage. It is hard to find, Lipscombe remarks, a historical fiction set in the sixteenth century that represents how important religion was in Europe at that time. This is an importation from the modern world. Religion is no longer the way the week, year or month are set. Even the religious believers among us do not have their lives shot through with religious observance, and our lives are not regulated by the Christian year. This was not the case in the sixteenth century.

If historical fiction convinces us that human nature does not change, it is doing a dangerous thing. The minds of people in the sixteenth century were different from us. Lipscombe observes that when Francis Dereham had sex with the teenage Katherine Howard without her consent, no-one accused him of rape or child abuse. In the manner of some recent judges, the woman was held responsible. This is not how the modern mind works (and a good thing too).

Some aspects of human nature, perhaps, do not change. We all need, throughout the centuries, to eat, sleep and find shelter. The furniture of our minds, however, can be radically different, even if the evolution of it is fairly slow. It is only, perhaps, by comparing one century with another that this stands out in stark relief.

The second danger of historical fiction is that in can convince us that we do understand the working of the historical mind. An author of historical fiction can create the historical mind of a character in their book (or film, or whatever). The danger is that if the author has done a good job, we start believing that this is what the historical original thought; this is what motivated their actions and so on.  This historical fiction author, if they do their job well, can sell us a convincing lie. However much we are convinced, it is still a lie. We do not, cannot, know what the original person was thinking.

Lipscombe finishes up by suggesting that historical novels should come with a sticker attached, reading: ‘This is not the past. It just looks like it’. She also suggests that this may not apply simply to fiction. Perhaps history books should come with the same attachment.

Historical wargaming is a form of historical fiction, I would suggest. We strive for accuracy in formations, in uniforms, weaponry, terrain. The rules we create for wargaming are judged on their accuracy to this historical record. Weapons are categorised as to their effectiveness and so on. Figures judged by their scaled down resemblance to historical originals.

Even the imagi-nations are not immune from this effect. We presume that human nature is the same, that the furnishings of the mind of the fictional protagonists resemble, in some way our own. The contemporary is imported into the fictional automatically, whether we like it or not. We create wargames from the context of our own time, import our own issues and ideas.

Of course, it is slightly worse for a historical wargamer, as opposed to a imagi-nation-er. The historian has to used flawed historical texts and artefacts to determine the nature of the era they work with, the wargame they wish to create. The imagi-nation-er does not. They can create the sort of world they wish, but are still constrained by what we think human nature is. I am sure that all my generals, of whatever era, are really nice, liberal, twenty-first century Westerners at heart. The fact that the historical prototypes of some of them would cheerfully have crucified thousands without trial is neither here nor there. We do not do that sort of thing these days.

So, historical wargaming should have the same label attached to it as historical fiction. After all, I think most armies on campaign at the least lost that parade ground feel of most of our wargame figures. When was the last time you saw a demonstration game of, say, eighteenth century armies where the figures were in rags, their coats washed out and their trousers were spattered in mud. Despite the existence of ‘campaign’ figures from some manufacturers, I have yet to see such a game.

And yet few of us, I suspect, can avoid the hankering after some sort of historical grounding for our games. Perhaps there is just something inherently fascinating about the past, and about examining it again and again. History is always being made and remade, as the present interrogates the past with its own, new, questions. The answers we get, of course, reflect the interests of the contemporary age, not the original. It is quite likely that the originals would not even understand the questions.

So, is there such as thing as historical wargaming, historical accuracy? Do the scare quotes need to be in place? Of course they do, as they do for historical fiction and, in all likelihood, for history text books as well. It is just that we are far too polite to make a fuss about it.

Saturday 21 May 2016

The Essential Wargame

I commented a bit ago that often times, the study of war suggests that there are some invariants in its conduct. A war is undertaken in certain ways, and these ways are invariant in concept if not in execution. Of course, formations and weapons change, but, overall, the plan sis the same.

I saw a copy of Military History Monthly recently. It is a nice, glossy magazine with a range of articles on various campaigns and battles, mostly of the nineteenth and twentieth century. If it floats your boat it is a nice read, although its coverage of anything pre-Frederick III of Prussia tends towards the sketchier. The point here is that there was a nice article on the battle of Sadowa. For those of you who missed that day in school, it was the final battle of the Austro-Prussian War in 1866.

The Prussian plan was to have three armies converging on the point where the Austrian army was expected to be. Despite the inevitable hiccoughs, the plan more or less worked, and the Austrians were outflanked and retreated. The comparison here was made with Cannae, fought in 216 BC. Military History Monthly has no truck with the trendy Before Current Era, by the way, and quite right too.

The thing is, I am not entirely convinced by the comparison. Hannibal carefully planned his battle, with the centre retiring before the legions and the cavalry on the flanks disposing of the Romans and hitting the legions from the rear. The Romans were to be (and were) encircled, and destroyed. Von Moltke’s plan as I said, we to march three armies into Austria and co-ordinate them onto a point where the Austrians were to be. The scale, at least, is different.

The coordination distances are, for the Prussians, much greater. Granted, communications were significantly faster, but Hannibal commanded a single army, while von Moltke had to deal with three on this front, and a few others elsewhere. Furthermore, it could be argued that Hannibal succeeded while von Moltke failed. The Austrians, severely battered, did manage to get away. The Romans did not.

Is there a form of essentialism here? Is there a valid comparison to be made between Cannae and Sadowa, so many centuries apart? Do we just argue that the concept of surrounding the enemy and destroying them was the aim, despite the differences in size, terrain, technology and people?

The initial answer is ‘yes’, I suspect, to all these questions. I dare say that I could trace through military history the idea of surrounding the enemy and defeating them. I suspect that a fair bit of that lay behind the Blitzkrieg of the Second World War, the storm troopers of the First World War, and so on back though history to Cannae, and possibly beyond. The differences in success can simply be laid at the door of the fact that the circumstances differ. The Germans in 1918 were simply running out of men to be the second echelon behind the storm troopers. The Allies learnt how to yield ground without their formations breaking up and so could blunt the assault. The Germans found that Blitzkrieg was less successful in a defensive battle, and that their enemies used defence in depth so that even if there was a break-through, the defences did not crumble.

We can also ignore, of course, those battles where one side was surrounded by won.  In some of the colonial wars, for example, the Western power’s troops were massively outnumbered and yet, largely though deploying incredible amounts of firepower, emerged victorious. Can we discount there battles? Perhaps we can argue that the disparity of weaponry was too disproportionate for the normal laws of war to apply. Or we can suggest that the native did not deliberately surround their enemy, it just happened to be the case. Or, possibly, the Europeans and their allies deliberately formed themselves to be surrounded sake in the knowledge that they could shoot their way out.

I have spent quite a lot of time over the years on this blog arguing against a one size fits all approach to wargame rules. It is conceptually very difficult to obtain a rule set which is fair and accurate to everyone from Sumerians to Medieval French, or from the War of the Spanish Succession to American Civil War. I have suggested, fairly vigorously, that we should not pursue this path, and should write and use rules which are more narrowly focussed. The question then arises as to whether this is true also of campaigning and the sorts of tactics used at Cannae and Sadowa.

I suppose that what we have here is both continuity and change. There is continuity in that there are certain ways of tackling your enemy. An enemy who is in a defensive position and likely to say there can be defeated by envelopment. Envelopment can also be used as a tactic to defeat a larger enemy force if your troops have better flexibility. On the other hand, an enemy with better artillery than you is well advised to sit back and use it to your detriment. Some comparisons work at some levels; others start to feel like comparing apples and cartwheels.

Is there, then, an invariant essential of warfare, and is there one that can be reflected at the level of wargame rules and wargames themselves? Is there such a figure as the universal soldier, who has marched through history, with only his clothing and weapons changing? Can we compare Sadowa and Cannae?

Many people would like to answer yes. Military history, and in many soldiers, like to think that they can learn from the past. They study the campaigns of Hannibal and Napoleon to learn what they can from them, to be able to apply the lessons from them to their problems of today. At a certain level this can work. But at the level of a more detailed plan and its execution, each general is presented, surely, with a set of problems and opportunities all his own.

Saturday 14 May 2016

A Brief Defence of Imagi-Nations

Now, I imagine the first response to last week’s post is that ‘it doesn’t apply to me.’ Of course not. It really does not apply because I am not a historical gamer. I am a fantasy or science fiction gamer, or I am a historical gamer but I play in an imagi-nation. The implication here is that these occupations get us off the hook as wargamers. In an imagi-nation, or any of the others, the wargames can exist in as much or as little a vacuum as we choose.

Thus, as non-historical wargamers, we do no need to worry about what our toys eat, where they sleep or what they believe they are fighting for. The game is the thing. We can prescind from all these rather dull and boring bits of social, cultural and intellectual history, and just play games.

This is, of course, all very fine and dandy. It enables us to cut through all the clutter of messy human lives and living, and gives us a clean cut wargame without worry. Something set in a world of imagination carries a lot less baggage than the real thing.

Except that it does not quite work like that.

A fair bit of our culture focusses on the present day. I have noted before that, for example, homosexuality is a major political and cultural issue across the globe. There are countries who are busily banning it and putting perpetrators in prison, and there are countries just as enthusiastically permitting members of the LGBTIQ communities to marry and so on. Is it any wonder that, for example, classical historians are taking an interest in Greek homosexuality?

The point is that the sorts of things that we as a society and culture are interested in tend to be reflected in our literature and research. We can argue, for example, that some of the best science fiction of the 1960’s came out of the Vietnam War. We can also suggest that one of the most popular comedies of the era, MASH, was, while set in the Korean War, also really ‘about’ Vietnam. And so on.

The point is that the best of our cultural creations, however heavily disguised, can be seen as describing our current situation, as developing it, commenting on it, describing and criticising it. Thus Gordon Gekko in Wall Street was, according to the writers, being cynical and critical when is said ‘greed is good’. The fact that this was taken up as a mantra by the financial sector and ultimately caused the 2008 crash is an unfortunate side effect. We are not that good at understanding stuff like that.  Similarly, the government of Yemen had to put out a statement a few years ago that there was not any salmon fishing available in the country. This had to be done despite the fact that the book and the film were really about government and how things are spun for the news. The salmon, the fishing and the Yemen were not the real target.

So, do wargames, even imagi-nations, have a topic rooted in the present day? Are they just pure escapism from the problems of today, or even, can they be?

I was reading a book review recently of a new tome (600+ pages) on the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. I have noted before that I have no intention of wargaming this. You might suggest that repeated denials might undermine the belief in that statement, but I shall continue.

Aside from the fact that the reviewer was a bit startled to have 300 pages per year of the rebellion, they did make a few astute points. Firstly, that the question was about the relationship of Scotland to England. We could possibly wonder where the Scottish Nationalist Party would line up – with the Stuarts or the Hanoverians?

Secondly, of course, there is the presently live issue about Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe. In part the Jacobites failed because of the support from the French government. The French, of course, were playing their own military and diplomatic game, and the Jacobites were hung out to dry when it suited them. The main failure of Bonnie Prince Charlie was to be unable to attract the lowland Scots and English to his side.

Thirdly, there is the issue of how to invade a hostile or potentially hostile country with some hope of succeeding to hold it. Armies throughout history have been faced with this one. The only way to hold territory which is hostile is to build garrisons. This has two effects. First, the strength of the army is dissipated into the garrisons. The field army is denuded of strength. Secondly, these garrisons have to be supported and supplied. This means that they either live off the land, and thus further alienate to inhabitants, or they need regular resupply, thus tying down even more of their colleagues running convoys.

The third way is to do as the Jacobites did, and strike at the seat of government. If BPC had taken London, who knows what might have happened. Failure, however disruptive to the other side, however, usually means defeat.

So, even as historically based book as one about the ’45 has some unexpected resonances with not only the political issues of the day, but also political and strategic (or even grand tactical) issues. Given that our wargames, of whatever nature are, inevitably, part of a cultural matrix, they may, however distant the feel of the game, have a rooting in the issues of the day. A Fuzigore rebellion against the local Rome look-alike state could have resonances which I really do not expect. An ECW game around the Covenanter army can be interpreted on the basis of modern Scottish nationalism. A galactic rebellion against an evil Empire can be freighted with ideas of democracy, totalitarianism and the fight for freedom.

Overall, then, we would have to conclude that a wargame is not just a wargame. After all, for most citizens, the weekly shop is the most political act they engage in. it would be unreasonable to claim that are wargames are not political acts. 

Saturday 7 May 2016

What Kind of Historian are You?

A long, long time ago, there was a young, enthusiastic, fresh faced wargamer. He could reel off lists of battles; describe weapons systems, fortifications and the methods of siege warfare, some of the politics behind the battles and campaigns, and so on. He could describe armour, munitions, logistical assets, artillery, how many horses it took to drag the guns along and so on, and so on.

One day, one of his parents, in a mix of frustration and anxiety, said to him ‘You know a lot about the battles, but what about anything else? What did the people eat? How did they eat it?’

Our wargamer was not perturbed or brought up short by the question, and continued wargaming. But the question bothered him a bit over the years. How one dimensional was wargaming, and how did it use the conclusions of history?

The question waxed and waned in his mind over the years. Sometimes he nearly managed to answer it. For example, there was a trend at one point in military history to account for state forming by the fact that rulers went to war and thus needed to raise taxes. Our wargamer could happily read this sort of military history, fight his wargames and think, with some justification, that the foundations of the battles were secure, that he was not just glorifying violence, or indulging in a passion for the pageant of armed conflict.

On the other hand, reading wargame magazines tended to depress him slightly. The major sources used by wargamers were usually, those written in the late nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century. While reasonably accurate in some senses, he found that, inevitably, history, or at least historiography, had moved on. The earlier writers focussed on the great leader, the individual whose bravery and foresight saved the day, the king who unleashed destruction on another country. The question of what might have been going on in these events rather passed them by.

Further questions arose in his mind, when he had time to think about them. Military and political history was all very well, he considered, but other things happened as well to change the way people thought about warfare. The rise of geometry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was both driven by and a driver for the methods of fortification and attack that were used. Political ideas, such as the representation of taxpayers in legislatures caused a great deal of conflict, both civil and military, and so on. Even, he noticed, fashion made a difference to how troops dressed. The average solider became, on the parade ground at least, a victim of the latest trends in the clothing of the elite.

Thus, a proper consideration of a period should be underpinned by all other sorts of history – political, social, cultural and intellectual. As the scope of the requirements for actual understanding widened in his view, our wargamer started to wonder about some of his colleagues. He was impressed at the depth of  their knowledge across all of history that enabled them to wargame quite happily in ancient Greece one week and Cold war Germany the next. The knowledge of history possessed by such wargamers, he considered, must be huge.

A little further reflection and observation disabused him of this impression, however. A wargamer is quite happy, in general, to pick up an army and a set of rules and play with them, without the slightest idea about the period, the politics, the campaigns or, indeed, what his tin soldiers would like to eat.  A game is a game, and the background does not seem to matter that much.

And yet the implications of his parent’s question kept coming back to him. We know a lot about how people in the past attempted to slaughter each other, but what do we know or care as wargamers? Is the game the thing and the thing alone?

Of course, people, even wargamers, have limited amounts of time and of interest. We can only do so much background reading, so much web searching and so on. Sometimes we just want a wargame, and to pick up the soldiers and rule, plonk them onto a table and roll a few dice. Sometimes we might just want to see what happens in a Napoleonic wargame, or how the ancient Greeks looked on a battlefield. A trial, a taste, is what we require.

Some gamers never seem to get beyond this, however. A period is a period and that is the end of the matter. Ancient Greeks fought in phalanxes and that is just a brute fact. But, with regard to our wargamer’s parent’s question, actually it is not. The Greek phalanx grew out of a particular social and political context, the Greek city and the way it was governed. The attributes of the solider, the horsemen and the light troops were dictated by this structure. Greek warfare was governed by other things than just plonking the troops on the table and seeing what happens.

So the question arising is this: what sort of historians should historical wargamers be?

As I have noted, often they are just superficial historians, skimming the surface for a nice battle in a nice new period and then moving on. Often they are content with older (and probably, cheaper) works of history that chime in with how the wargamer thinks. Wargaming is, after all, dominated by white males who think that white males make history. This is more or less what turn of the twentieth century historians seem to have thought too.

Really, however, history is much more interesting than that. It can be argued that what really matters in history is ideas, and those ideas are the things that fuel conflict and the manners by which wars are conducted. The conduct of a wargame, by that measure, should be governed by the mind-set of the original people involved. Thus, the ideal that a wargamer should aim for is to understand, so far as is possible, the minds of the original politicians and general who went to war and conducted the operations. Anything else should not be termed historical wargaming.