Saturday 8 April 2017

Annoying Books

Often I find that reading books that I disagree with is more productive than reading ones with which I agree. I suppose that I have to take a step back and try to work out what it is that I disagree with, rather than just forge forward safe in the knowledge that I and the author are of one mind.

As a case in point, the philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga is my favourite ‘irritating’ philosopher. The reason for this is, to me at least, a little mysterious. To some extent I do agree with some of what he says. I could, if I applied myself sufficiently, agree with quite a lot of what he says. And yet I find that something in his works annoys me. If ever I want a good intellectual work out, I read a chunk of what he has written and try to establish why I disagree. I have not really managed that yet. I suppose that if I ever do, I will have become some sort of philosopher.

This post, in initial conception, was going to be about Wolgang Reinhard’s ‘A Short History of Colonialism’. This is a tome from my winter book box which I finished a week or so ago, and rather good it is too. By ‘good’ I mean, of course, that on the whole and insofar as I know anything about colonialism, I agree with the book. Colonialism is intrinsically neither particularly good nor bad overall. It can be very good or very bad of individuals, leading to massive enrichment, slavery and death. But the overall accounting of colonialism is harder to judge.

I have, from time to time on the blog, attempted to provoke slightly by suggesting that wargaming, in some of its aspects, are neo-colonial. By this I have meant that we force non-European armies and political entities into European forms. In fact, it can be argued that this is exactly what Europeans did, for example, in some parts of Africa, where they ruled through appointing tribal chiefs, on the assumption that there must be a tribe somewhere.

However, Reinhard makes a careful distinction between colonialism in its various forms, which he wants to treat as a value neutral label, and imperialism, by which he means the projection of great power rivalry onto the world stage in such activities as the ‘Scramble for Africa’. These activities, which included the newly arrived great powers of the United States and Japan, were far more damaging to the colonised regions than the previous British trading hegemony, although that too was not without its faults.  

The accusation I can thus make to provoke has to be modified in this light to accuse some wargaming of neo-imperialism, then. I suspect that, if unpacked thoroughly, there would be some substance to the accusation, if only that wargaming, as wargaming, usually requires two enemies to be willing to stand up and fight. To that extent, given that European warfare might be described as being more about that than some other forms of warfare around the world, the accusation might stick. However, it may also be noted to be full of holes as other, non-European, armies did, from time to time, stand and fight.

Having now spent a considerable time (or number of words, at least) describing what the post was going to be about, I can now move on to what it is about. In a sense I have not gone mad (or madder than usual) because it does link up.

The other book I have just finished from my book box is Stephen R. L. Clark’s ‘Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy’. I did find this book rather annoying and, in places, rather obscure. That could be because he covers an awful lot of time and space, and large chunks are devoted to ancient authors of whom I have heard little. It is hardly an introductory work, I think, and pays little heed to the standard ‘Greek and Roman Philosophy’ of normal academic process.

Clark’s main point, as I understand it, is that ancient philosophers were not doing what we think of as philosophy. He understands the ancient authors as doing something along the lines of constructing plausible world views and ways of life, not some sort of abstract, cool, detached and analytic thought. This is not, so far as I am aware, a particularly original insight – Pierre Hadot’s ‘Philosophy as a Way of Life’ (1995) has trodden that path before. But Clark throws his net wider. He encompasses Jewish and early Christian thought as philosophy, as well as Egyptian and Babylonian thinkers and (although I suspect he would dispute the term) proto-scientists.

The point that struck me about all this is not the detail, on which I am not an expert and cannot really comment, but how alien to modern thinking ancient ways were. The world view is, in point of fact, completely different. The ideas about gods and their interaction with the world are so alien as to be almost completely incomprehensible. Even though some of the early philosophers are characterised as proto-scientists, that was not what they thought they were doing. The idea of experiment, for example, was far from their thinking.

In terms of wargaming, of course, the point is hopefully obvious to any reader who has struggled through thus far. A Roman army, for example, was doing many things, and some of them are not the sorts of things we would expect of an army. We force it into modern categories, as we force Plato, for example, into the modern conception of philosophy. We might talk about Roman tactics, or logistics, but given the foregoing, perhaps we need to reconsider these terms. Were the Romans thinking tactics, or were they doing the obvious (to them) given the circumstances, or even recreating the great Roman armies of centuries before?

I am not sure of the answers here, or whether there can, in fact, be any answers. I am fairly sure that we could not wargame without forcing the Romans into a modern framework and categorization. But whether that necessity amounts to some sort of imperialism over the past I really cannot say.


  1. Another splendid post, and on a topic close to my heart, as I am sure you realise from previous comments I have made. I've wittered before about us colonising the past from the present. I'm not sure I see colonialism as a neutral term, and modern usage argues against it being neutral. It has an implicit element of violence by one society against another for the benefit of the former. The colonial power may well have brought railways with it, but it has still done violence to another culture, and that violence outweighs any good done. Given modern usage, I'm not sure that rebranding the violent elements as imperialism really works. That may be me being overly persnickety about vocabulary though.

    In thinking about this, I am reminded of one of my colleagues asking me "What would strike you most upon entering a Viking village?" My response was that the basic assumptions of everyday life would be utterly alien to me. The same applies to warfare in the past. The basic assumptions are not necessarily our own, and the further back we go in time, the more alien they are likely to be. The nineteenth century would be a strange place to us, but we could probably cope for the most part. Ancient Greece would almost certainly induce some kind of culture shock. I think that is a relevant perspective for our wargaming. If the emphasis is on the game element, then it probably does not matter much whether our tin soldiers respond as modern people with sharp point sticks or not, but any attempt at recreation of the past on a games table needs to allow for this difference in attitudes. It needs to step away from our assumptions and consider how the armies of the time are likely to have been motivated and responded to challenges. Depending upon the level of the game, some of these attitudes will be more or less relevant. Does it matter why a Roman army had a good logistics framework, if your campaign focuses on army level manoeuvres? Perhaps that detail would be lost when looking from so high up, while in a smaller game it may have more obvious consequences such as limiting the courses of action available to a player. I don't really have any answers either, but I would dearly love to be able to put together a rules set where the victory conditions and morale rules reflect the attitudes of the different armies. This could easily result in two armies fighting each other in completely different ways, and may be awkward to implement. In the end, though, I don't have any real answers either, just a few ideas and more questions.

    1. I'm sure that the game element is just a game, that is, it does bring our interpretations of the past into play and we do not mind that because the game is the thing.

      Whether we can step aside from the assumptions of the present and really get a grip on any aspect of the past is moot, I suspect. The Roman attitude to death was probably much different from ours, and so the motivations of the troops in doing things - like putting themselves into danger - would also be different. Whether this could be reproduced in a set of rules I'm not at all sure. The modern reader will always impose modern categories.

      I've got more to say on the colonialism / imperialism thing next time, but I think Reinhard's point is that he needs a neutral term to discuss the history, and has chosen colonialism as a colony is not necessarily a bad thing.

    2. It's always interesting to see how far we can go in understanding the past. One of the major criticisms of post-processual archaeology was that it encouraged the archaeologist to imagine themselves into the past. The net result of this was a lot of interpretations rooted in white, middle class academia, because those were the people undertaking the analysis. To that extent, I agree with you about the difficulties of understanding motivation for people in the past. However, there is still the chance to understand something more, to look at what people did, and perhaps to glean elements of their motivation from a fully interdisciplinary analysis. It will never be perfect, but I do think we can incorporate these elements in our games. We might look at what the purpose of a given war was, to arrange suitable victory conditions, something that should be easy enough. We might try to understand codes of honour, and incorporate morale rules that play to these codes, like Byrhtnoth's closest warriors at Maldon standing and fighting to a finish over his dead body. Your troops don't have to live if you can still win the game by gaining more honour. These are simplistic ideas that spring gazelle-like to mind, but I'm sure you can think of other examples from your own reading. Some will be alien to modern readers, and may well sit uncomfortably, but that could be a good thing if it encourages them to learn. I fear more would just complain that the rules were wrong though.

      I look forward to reading more about colonialism/imperialism here. However, I do think that Reinhard has made a faux pas by choosing colonialism, because I cannot see colonialism as a neutral term, if only because of its implementation in the past.

    3. I suspect that we could create such rules, but there might be issues with nice white middle class liberals not liking the idea of fighting to the last over a dead hero's body. On the other hand, some, I suppose, might.

      we do have two problems with the past. Firstly, understanding the context of past events - what they meant to the people who experienced them, and, more widely, what was going on that they may not have been aware of, and secondly the context in which we are living, interpreting and writing rules.

      It isn't quite 'n'ere the twain shall meet' but it can be a fairly close run thing, I think.

      I think the problem Reinhard has is that there isn't really a neutral word for 'colonialism which may or may not be a bad thing'. He's chosen the C word, and you have to read the book with his attempt to make it neutral in mind. He does use more highly charged words (in his context) for various nasty things that happened too. Mind you, in his view of colonialism, more or less everyone is guilty....

    4. Yes, understanding the past is difficult, and we are likely to get many things wrong in the attempt. Still, it's fun to try.

  2. That reads like a small snippet of a larger thought but to quick (too quick?) thoughts in reaction. Are modern mass media and the Net (insert genuflections etc) all that different from ancient gods? They tell us the future and explain our faults and sins and why it's our fault, demands money then tells us what we must do. Sure, there are heretics and nonbelievers but there always have been.

    Secondly based on combination of translations of various ancient military texts and histories, and on , always possibly quite wrong, archeological work, including things like that recent cache of routine correspondence on day to day matters, these Greek and Roman ancients seem remarkably similar to us. What to men want? Food, sex, and either money, renown, power or to be left alone in a quiet life.

    1. It is a bit of a snippet, but my thinking (such as it is) is developing.

      While i think what you say is true, I do think that attitudes to things like honour, death and the values of things in life were different. For example in the literature we have from ancient Greece, which may not be representative, of course, older men selected younger men to 'initiate' them, while also having wives. Modern interpretations like to use this as evidence for homosexuality, but it seems to me, at least, that it was more about power - forming alliances between political families, than about sex as we understand it.

      One thing that is certainly true about modern media is that things are propagated a lot faster than in the Greek world, and that does have an impact. If you had to wait for a couple of months before receiving any comments on a blog, you would probably have lost interest by then.

    2. Things go faster but once put in context of technical capability and social system its not so different. 40 years ago this conversation could have been carried on between by mail between correspondants with replies taking mere weeks to arrive but a close analogy would be someone who read an article in a hobby quarterly digest and submitted a response through the editor waiting for months to see if it was even published and then several more to see if there was a reply taking years for the conversation to play out but the evidence is there that people did. Not all but then stats suggest the vast majority of blog readers don't comment.

      In Greek times, the conversation would probably only take place between philosophers or rich men and would most likely only take place face to face, quite likely in public or at least social setting, not across an ocean, but it would proceed even faster for being face to face.

      It depends on what is key, that we wish to discuss ideas or that we can do so over distance thanks to technology. Does the technology change the basics?

      Certainly some special classes (for want of a better term) might have had a different view of death, perhaps closer to current terrorists,but there seems a fair amount of evidence that your common soldier wasn't keen on death and preferred running away or even slavery if things looked bad. They did tend to be keen on loot and pillage, drink and women though.

    3. I would agree that there is both continuity and change in communication, but I also suspect that the medium does change the message, at least to some extent. I doubt that the medium is the message, but there are distinct differences between, say, radio and television, or between a written letter aimed at one person and a blog post available to many.

      A face to face conversation is another thing again - there is much more to communication than words in that case. So technology can change things, just not totally.

      I doubt if any common solider was particularly keen on dying, but I do think that, for example, expectations of an afterlife would have some sort of an impact on the sorts of things they were willing to do. For the citizen solider Athenians, having a decent burial and being remembered with honour seems to have been important. What the rabble thought is a different thing, of course, and probably lost to history. But then, as they were rabble, what they thought didn't seem to matter....

  3. For me this post poses a couple of tricky questions for a wargamer interested in the 'authentic'. Despite a nodding respect for Ross' point about consistency in men's wishes down the ages, I'm more on the side of the past being a foreign country.

    The first tricky question is: if the beliefs, mindsets and motivations were different, possibly to an extent we don't understand, how do we reflect this in a wargame? If we're gaming asymmetric battles, it might actually be easier to model differences in behaviours - somebody published a game about 'counting coup' many years ago in Miniature Wargames. But how about something much closer? Something less obviously asymmetric like British v French Napoleonics? How in wargaming terms does a professional army recruited from on the one hand a social elite, rich in influence but not necessarily in professionalism, and on the other the 'dregs' of society act differently from one drawn from all social sectors, with a more meritocratic leadership ethic? Or, to make it a truly 'men with pointy sticks' question ;-) how do we model the differences between Spartans and Athenians?

    The second tricky question for me personally is: Could these differences only be gamed at a role-playing/skirmish level? If you aggregate a number of actions by individuals in a 'unit' that means 'if A meets B in C circumstances then there's a 50% chance of X happening' does the minutiae of what was going on in the heads of our historical warriors matter if the end result seems right?

    1. Good questions. leaving aside the Napoleonic question, which I don't feel qualified to comment on (except to quote Wellington 'I don't know what these men will do to the enemy, but by God, they frighten me', the distinction of Athenians and Spartans is a bit tricky.

      A lot seems to depend on context. Everyone knew that the Spartans were good and would win, and sometimes it seems that they did, just because they had the reputation, at least on land. Being brought up in a society focused on war is not something we can imagine easily, I suspect.

      How different the upbringing of young citizen Athenians was is a bit moot, I suspect. 'To some extent' certainly, but at what level of granularity we see that on the battlefield I'm not at all sure. At the skirmish level we might see some differences. At the unit level, the constraints kick in of the motions you can achieve with a load of men with pointy sticks. On the other hand the Spartans practised as units- as a result of the society which deemed this important - so manoeuvred more easily.

      i doubt that there is a satisfactory answer to the questions, but I think there is sufficient evidence to suggest that what went on in soldiers minds was important and in some respects, different to our minds.