Saturday 16 February 2019

Two Sorts of Historical Distortion

I vaguely mentioned before the break that G. R. Elton had some fairly swingeing things to say about historiographical distortion. In fact, he had about seven groups of people from whom, he thought, historical study must be rescued. Rather than just list all seven, most of which do not apply, I think, to wargamers in general, I thought I would concentrate on the two which could. I have not read Elton, you understand. The information here comes from this very useful book; the section on Elton is to be found on pages 68 – 76.

Hughes-Warrington, M., Fifty Key Thinkers on History (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015).

The first group Elton thinks create problematic historiography are amateurs. These view the past from the outside, as something strange and wonderful. They struggle to separate the extraordinary and the ordinary and so struggle to formulate appropriate historical questions, judge history on its own terms, and are prone to sentimentalise the whole thing. This, it seems to me, is a lot of where wargaming is at present, and it works two ways.

The first way is that wargamers, by their very nature, are amateur historians. I am aware, I think, of two professional historians who are wargamers, but mostly wargamers are not historians and their interests, in fact, diverge from historiography. Wargamers want details about weapons, units, deployment and numbers. Historians want to know what armies and their uses tell us about the past. These two aims might run in parallel but wargamers, in fact, want information that history cannot (and methodologically, will not) supply.

The second way is that wargamers, often, sentimentalise both history and their own memories of wargames. I am sure you have encountered the things I am talking about here. For example, the Armada Campaign I occasionally get around to running a bit of consciously ignores all of the general nastiness associated with sixteenth-century warfare: disease, casual cruelty, religious conflict, famine and the general nastiness of individuals and countries fighting for their existence. Most wargames ignore these sorts of things: I have never heard of a World War Two game depicting an SS unit desperately holding off advancing allies in 1945 so their engineers can blow up the ovens in the local concentration camp. We tend to gloss over this sort of thing, and a good job too for the general sanity of the wargaming community.

So history is coloured into a rather more attractive pastel shade of nicer history, but so too are those games in the past. We might look in awe (as I do) at those games shown in Grant’s The Wargame, or be amazed at the detail and scale of Tony Bath’s wargames campaigns, and we may well come to the conclusion that wargames in the past were better than those in the present. Further, our own wargames in the past may well assume a similar tinge. I recall, very fondly, a campaign set in Lincolnshire in the English Civil War where I did the whole recruitment, deployment and map movement thing, fought out the battles and even had a handwritten campaign newspaper – in fact, I think there were two, one for each side. Years later, I tried it again and it really didn’t work. Was it better? I am not sure that the earlier one was, but I did have a bit more time to play it out. Perhaps that counts.

The second sort of historiography that Elton is concerned about that I think might apply to wargaming, is those who support their own myths with history. Myths (in their technical sense of providing a narrative to agree on) are comforting, but they are not history. A recent example would be the arguments over the First World War, in the British case the ‘lions led by donkeys’ myth. Elton notes that the revisions of, for example, Irish and Nazi history are dangerous, both in terms of promoting terrorism and also in perpetuating ideologies which are repugnant.  There are too many people around, Elton suggests, who use history to justify their own views and the present situation (or their desired changes thereto) for historians to be comfortable with simply doing history for its own sake. Historians need to seek the truth, even if there is no solace from doing so.

Wargamers have a peculiar predilection for holding on to myths. Of course, most of their myths are not politically dangerous; the view that Alexander the Great was great because he conquered the whole of the known world is unlikely to promote an ideology that invading Turkey and then Afghanistan is a great foreign policy for Greece to follow. But even assuming that Alexander the Great was great because he conquered the known world is to beg rather a lot of questions relating to our views about warfare, conquest, colonialism and so on. Never questioning these assumptions might be dangerous.

These myths, of course, are part of the wider culture that the societies which wargamers live in put forward. I noted last time our tendency to view the history of China through the lens of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: all Chinese governments are corrupt, weak and ineffective. In fact this is a colonialist view, if not downright imperialist. Viewed from a Chinese perspective, things look rather different. The myths persist, however, and can inform our wargaming as well as our countries’ foreign and economic policies.

What, then, can be done? I am not thinking that all wargamers should become qualified historians (perish the thought) but that some critical reflection is appropriate to the wargamer. This perhaps applies more specifically to rule writers and scenario creators who want to claim some historical verisimilitude. The question should arise, for example, of what did Rourke’s Drift look like to the Zulus? What choices did the high command of the British army face in early 1916 while the battle of the Somme was being planned?

Many wargamers, of course, do take these broader approaches, which I think is a good thing. But the myths persist, and it is surely our role as responsible citizens to keep on challenging them.


  1. Fantastic...plays right into my own current research on the myths of Jacobite military tradition (see Sarsfield et al) and the 17th century Wild Geese.

    And yet another book you've mentione dthat I need to get.

    1. Ah, yes. Sorry about that. I did spend the non-writing part of my break in reading.

      I'm coming to the increasing opinion that the past is seen through an increasing number of distorting lenses the further back we look as every generation re-interprets history for its own purposes. Looked at in microcosm, however, a different picture can emerge - some work on a village near here indicates that the people were not 'catholic' or 'protestant', but in fact could and did move between the two in the C17 and C18. Which is not quite what broader history might tell us.

    2. Yes that's the crux of my PhD at the moment.

      Some notable books include anything by Guy Beiner on the '98rebellion and Gibney's 'Shadow of a Year'. Not direclt related to Jacobite era, but the methodology of what people choose to believe is interesting.

    3. You might be interested in this as well:

      Hughes-Warrington, M., Revisionist Histories (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013).

      I get some of the books cheaper from who seem to be a good wheeze for all sorts of weird and wonderful works. I will get round to reviewing revisionist histories sometime....

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