Saturday 6 April 2019

A Philosophy of Historical Wargaming

Someone once, in response to the question ‘what is philosophy?’ replied ‘Thinking about thinking’. That is, the activities of philosophy are, at least in part, thinking about how we think. More than that, philosophy is perhaps reflective and recursive; we think about how we think about how we think. Somewhere in this, we need to hit some bedrock, or human thought will be deemed to be impossible. As it happens I think that can be done and that human thought is possible, but here is not the place to go into that.

You might note, however, that there can be philosophies of things, such as ‘philosophy of mind’ or ‘philosophy of religion’. This would then suggest that these subjects are framed as ‘thinking about thinking about mind’ or ‘thinking about thinking about religion.’ What, then, might a philosophy of historical wargaming consist of?

Well, initially, of course, we have to split the topic into two. Firstly there is something to do with a philosophy of history, that is, thinking about history. Many people, of course, will gaily sail past this, and quite right too. On the other hand, Mary Midgley, in her latest (and, alas, last) book, notes that history is important because it tells us how we come to be where we are. She roundly condemns some modern university philosophy courses for ignoring, self-consciously, history of philosophy, and focussing only on the last twenty years. How, she asks, quite correctly in my view, can this be even slightly reasonable or logical (quite some condemnation for those philosophers who think it a good idea) when those twenty-year-old works will be in response to those twenty years before, and so on back to Socrates.

There is, of course, a fair bit of philosophy of history around, starting roughly with Hegel. I am currently reading a book which takes the ethical demands of history very seriously indeed, with a vaguely Hegelian basis. However, things have developed a lot since then and ethics in historiography is, perhaps, coming to be critical. The issues revolve around selection, silencing and advocacy. By these, I mean that historical writing is, by its very nature, selective of its sources. How, then, can this be done honestly and reasonably, when we all know that humans are often neither? A particularly stark and unpleasant example of this is Holocaust denial, which relies on a number of sleights of hand with the evidence (that is attempting to put it politely; if you want to argue the toss over this one, please do, just not here).

The second item is silencing: history tends to be written by the victorious and the powerful. There is not much around on how, say, the Moors felt about their expulsion from Spain, or the Incas about their conquest, or how medieval women felt about being besieged with rape threats (at least) if the city was stormed. The victims of war, economic mismanagement, persecution, patriarchy and so on are under-represented in the historical, and in the historiographical records. Even such people who can be viewed as less victimised such as servants are under-represented. Thus history, even when conducted honestly and with due respect to the existing evidence, can be (and is) biased.

 History, of course, is not, and cannot be neutral. What would an honest and unbiased account of the Conquest of Mexico look like? Most of the accounts we have are by the Conquistadors themselves, who had a vested interest, after all, in protecting what they had gained from both native and government interference. Further, of course, everyone wants to be a hero and, just to complicate things, there is little evidence that the conquistadors understood the political and social arena they had entered. No matter how careful the historian, bias, or advocacy is bound to enter their accounts.

A philosophy of wargaming is not, I think, high on anyone’s agenda. Firstly, most wargaming is, after all, performative, in the same way that most religion is, in fact, only meaningful when performed. A wargame only has meaning as a wargame, the activity. A long time ago I noted that some of the ethical objections I had heard to wargaming related to performative locutions, such as ‘I shoot at you’. These are to be understood at the level of the game in which they are performative.

That said, there is a suggestion that thinking about wargaming (or thinking about thinking about wargaming) might be an idea. The question ‘what are you doing when having a wargame?’ can intrude. Of course, most sensible people will ignore it and carry on gaming. I have never said that the blog is written by anyone quite so sensible. More to the point, the question ‘what are we doing when we are historical wargaming?’ might be, as the recent post on my Rajput game suggested, pertinent.

The question there, you might recall, relates to the question of the historical in historical wargaming. When neither the scenario nor the armies represent historical prototypes, what is being done? At worst, I suppose we might land up with a sort wargaming Holocaust denial, although the overwhelming number of wargamers are far too sensible for the latter. But ahistorical armies in fictitious situations are, perhaps, buying into one or more of the problems identified above with historiography. Anchoring our armies, rules and scenarios in some sort of history (even if that history is via an imagi-nation; most imagi-nations are based in some sort of historical period, at least) at least might permit the argument of reasonableness – the game is a reasonable representation of some event or period in history, real or imagined.

Of course, wargaming could then become mired in the same sort of relativist, postmodern, radical critique that besets some areas of history. There are, whether we ignore them or not, ethical issues associated with history and, hence, historical wargaming. How, for example, does a wargame relating to the Zulu Wars make a native Zulu feel? How, indeed, should it make them feel? The historical events are undeniable, but is it a game for them, or a painful reminder of a colonial past?

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