Another sort of historiography that concerns Elton (see last week’s post) is ideology. We find, for example, historians that are committed to, say, a Marxist interpretation of the English Civil War, and no quantity of evidence will dissuade them from that viewpoint. Thus, the fact that a fair number of MPs ultimately supported the King cuts no ice with them as they see the victory of Parliament as the triumph of the bourgeoisie, the lawyers and merchant classes. As an interpretation, of course, this does hold some water, but it is certainly not something to die on the barricades over, to say the least.
Broad interpretations of evidence are useful but dangerous, I think. In my own, home, subject of physics a lot of effort is put into deciding where and when a model is considered accurate, when a set of approximations work and when they do not. This is a lot trickier than it sounds, and the results are often surprising. Sometimes a model breaks down before it is expected to. My minor claim to physics fame (and it is minor, believe me) is evidence that the usual models, used in the usual circumstances, do not work. On the other hand, part of that same set of models still works when it should not, by the basic approximations made in constructing the model. There are reasons for this, and I could drone on and on about it for hours, but I will spare you that. The point is that models, even of our own construction, are not quite a simple as we might like to think.
I have, on this blog, form over discussing models, as my gentle reader with a long memory (or a handy click on the archive) will recall. A set of wargame rules is, I think, in essence, a set of interacting models, in the same way that a physics theory encompassing a range of phenomena, is also a set of models. We have to make models to render any of this tractable. In physics, the models and approximations made in creating them have to be tested against experimental evidence. This, in fact, is what physicists spend much of their time doing.
A model, then, is not the original, the thing modelled. If the model were, it would be the thing modelled and not a model of it. The Bohr model of the atom is not an atom, but a tool for thinking about and working with atoms. A set of wargame rules for a battle in a given period is not a battle in a given period, but a tool for thinking about the battle. Of course, both atomic model and wargame rule set need other things to work as models, such as experimental data, historical accounts of battles in the period, mathematical paraphernalia, toy soldiers and a situation.
In atomic physics, the situation is usually a set of boundary conditions which, once you have solved the differential equations, specify that solution to the physical conditions. In wargaming, the situation is given by a scenario, even if the wargame is a ‘pick up’ game, in that the two sides are placed on the table and the generals merely try to defeat each other. This is a scenario, albeit a very simple one; its physics parallel would be something like a single isolated hydrogen atom. This is something easy to understand (insofar as quantum mechanics is ever easy) but rather more difficult to find in real life (which, if you think about it, is probably a good thing).
Now, you may well be starting to think ‘Hang on a minute, I’m not a modeller and definitely not a physicist. What has this to do with me?’ I hope that the point is fairly clear, but if it is not I will labour it here. The point is that our language and the way that we approach solving problems is mediated by models and their linguistic cousins metaphors. I am not saying, although some people do come close to claiming, that language consists of metaphors in various states of decay, but I am claiming that models and metaphors are an important part of how we approach (let alone solve) problems.
A non-wargaming example of this is my car. A while ago, it developed the modern engine management system equivalent of a misfire. When I got the bill (a painful event) the readout of the exhaust reading had four dots on it, written by hand in biro. I puzzled over this and then realised what it was. The engineer had been working out the order of the piston firing. The four dots were his model of it. Through this, and sophisticated electronics, the problem was solved.
The problem is that within physics (and, I dare say, the other sciences) the limitations of models are known. People still use the Bohr model even though it is known not to be particularly accurate. Electrons do not jump from orbit to orbit. Nevertheless, in some circumstances, it is a handy model to keep in mind, even though other, more accurate models are available. In historical wargaming, the limits of the models are probably not known, or at least, not known terribly well. Thus we can and do run into problems.
For example, I am considering what to do about the Mughal army pictured a week or two ago. I, as a Westerner, know comparatively little about Indian warfare in the era of interest. I could simply pick up a set of rules that cover the period and place and use that – DBR for example. The rules would work, but here we come back to the ideological problem I started with. The issue is that Mughal warfare may not fit into the set of models the rules create.
I do know, for example, that the DBR model set does not work for seventeenth-century warfare because of the arrangement of pike and shot bases which is permitted but unhistorical. I can modify that, of course (and did, mentally at least) and carry on. But do the rules work for Mughal warfare? I have little idea (although I will try to find out). But the model set is in some ways an ideology, suggesting that all early modern warfare fits into this box, even the bits that don’t.
Lopping off bits of reality that don’t fit is exactly what Marxist historians of the ECW stand accused of doing. I am fairly sure that as wargamers it is something we should avoid.