Saturday 26 October 2019

Representing War

I suppose, upon thinking about it, a wargame is a representation of war. It is not, thankfully, war itself. As is often noted, there are no plastic or metal wargame widows and orphans, no horribly mutilated wounded to be tended and treated, not the destruction of the built environment or crops, no refugees, and so on.

Further, I admit that I get slightly uncomfortable when there are such things. For example, a realistic portrayal of the 1940 blitzkrieg in Western Europe would have to consider carefully the impact of terror bombing cities and the resultant waves of refugees blocking the advance of allied forces. While it might make an interesting game, I am not sure that I would really want to play a wargame which had rules for creating such terrified people and for them inhibiting the movement of armed forces. Perhaps I just do not like reality in this case.

For another example, perhaps slightly less heavily charged than World War Two, how about rules for pushing armies back into already devastated regions so they starve and become combat ineffective? It was certainly a known and used strategy in the Thirty Years War, but do I want to wargame it, even at an abstract, campaign level?

I am not particularly wishing to develop this post into another meander through the ethics of wargaming, but wargaming does point up the sort of tension that a recent book I have read suggests happens in other contexts. The tension is between the romance and heroism of war, and the nasty side effects of death, destruction and general mayhem. The book asks how writers of an earlier age confronted the tension:

Bellis, J. and L. Slater, Eds. (2016). Representing War and Violence 1250 - 1600. Woodbridge, Boydell.

This is a collection of essays by an assortment of historians, art historians, and literature, which asks the basic question: how were war and violence represented in broadly medieval writing and art? As the editors' note (p. 3), the terms ‘war’ and ‘violence’ were ambivalent, connoting something glorious, epic, just and noble, while also being fallen, unchristian, hideous and brutal. Ideas of chivalry conjured romanticised notions of exceptional nobility, bravery, courtesy and ethical scrupulousness. But, as the first essay observes (Richard Kaeuper, p. 23 – 38) chivalrous behaviour was a class thing. A chivalrous knight may not assault a noble lady, but a passing peasant girl might be considered fair game. Further, even if the chivalrous knight did not do the rape, pillage, murder and loot thing himself, the people who did were under his command.

The fact seems to be that warfare and violence has an emotional register, both to the medieval authors of chronicles and their illustrators, and also between us and them. The medievals, after all, were of one mind concerning Christianity and its tenets, while we are not. The ideal of a just war, therefore, exercised them in a slightly different way from the manner in which it exercises (or should exercise) our leaders today.

The nub of the problem is here:

The so-called artistic representation of the sheer physical pain of people beaten to the ground by rifle-butts contains, however remotely, the power to elicit enjoyment out of it… When genocide becomes part of the cultural heritage in the themes of committed literature, it becomes easier to play along with the culture which gave birth to murder.

Hard words there, I think, from Theodore Adorno. On the other hand, it can also be observed that witnesses of extreme war and violence often find meaning in it in translated, dramatic, mythic forms, even to the point of the experience being in some way redemptive.  While this refers to twentieth-century suffering, we can wonder if the tension, if not its resolution applied to a medieval framework (p. 8)? Often suffering and torture was represented as Christian martyrdom, but not always. Whether this still makes sense to us is, of course, moot.

Were representations designed to thrill audiences, to titillate them, or to leave them unmoved? Of course, we cannot answer that question; we cannot probe the mind of a medieval author or artist. War can give life to an author’s work, no matter how much they might criticise the existence of violence, the manner of its conduct and the outworking thereof. Even not writing about war can be about war: think of the ‘war and society’ historiography I have discussed before. War, violence, campaigns and battles are, broadly speaking, expunged. But does not this act itself somehow violently exclude the reasons men were brought together in the first place?

There is such a paradox in wargaming generally. However much we abstract a wargame away from reality, we do still represent it. Even by not representing it (and, usually, we do not) it is still present in our games. I have given up (as you may have noticed) using casualty markers in my games, preferring blank markers without dead and wounded figures on them. I suppose this is to remove my game, my hobby, even further from the implied violence which is being modelled. Adding dead or dying figures to my table seems to do nothing for its accuracy or playability as a game, merely drawing attention to the violence and destruction of human life. I do not, really, want to turn that into a game.

My wargames, therefore, retreat (the term is probably used advisedly) into the ‘glorious’ end of the representation debate. My armies are well controlled, well provisioned, never run riot or loot or pillage. Any violence they indulge in is regrettable but necessary, carried out not because they enjoy it but because it is a duty. The necessary chopping bits off other people, or shooting at them with lethal weapons is abstracted away and ignored. But it is implicit.

On the other hand, I am not going to stop wargaming. What, after all, would I do instead? Chess is an abstraction of war. Monopoly is about the violence of capitalism. Even Patience has men waving swords around, and, of course, a violently implied hierarchy (which places males above females, as well). What is a good liberal to do?


  1. Very interesting points.
    I know some gamers have trouble with more modern games, due to the proximity to both more 'violent' violence, and recent events (WWII, modern) which appear closer to home.
    Though I don't see how a volley of muskets or hand to hand savagery 300 years ago or 1000 years ago is really any different, albeit that we don't personally know any of those involved.
    I suppose it's how we interpret the difference and recognise that what we are doing 'celebrates' (1) toy soldiers (2) military history and (3)movements on our 'toy' battlefield.
    We can hopefully never fully appreciate the stress and violence that we represent.

    Your points on writing about war are very interesting - especially so regarding medieval Christianity. There is a book called 'The Godhead' by Griffin and Tyrrell, which explores how mysticism was supplanted by Christianity across the spectrum of belief, and as both it and science expanded, they tended to de-construct much of the progress that early mankind had made since the evolution of its imagination as a survival mechanism 40,000 years ago.
    To an extent, man was thereby forced to live in his 'emotional' rather than thinking brain - while mysticism had, prior to this, more fully understood the mind (that's the premise). The book explores the spectrum of autism to schizophrenis and indeed, why the conditions have not (and should not) be 'bred out' of our civilisation, yet interestingly, points to much of the development of early Christianity as evidenced by sufferers/'illuminants' at either end of the spectrum.

    The point to all of this, is that your commentary reminded me of this 'regressive' science/religion/value system somehow perhaps having a link to war and violence - it's depiction and obsession.
    Interesting topic.

    1. No, here's a thing. I'm not sure how to respond....

      I suspect that problems some (including me) have with WW1 and WW2 are around the 'total war' paradigm, the idea of a society engaging in life or death struggle. Do we follow the 'win at any cost' model which led to terror bombing, blanket bombing of cities and other atrocities (or at least, borderline atrocities). I'm not sure I would like to, but some people may not mind as much.

      Is that a double standard compared with wargaming Waterloo? Maybe, although the casualties there were at least implicated by being on the battlefield, not blown out of their beds by high explosives. Again, I'm not sure.

      Finally, I suspect that the science / religion / value system also has something to do with wargaming, trying to systematise something that may not yield that easily. That maybe gives us an excuse for abstracting away the bits we don't like. Maybe wargaming itself does violence (in some sense) to violence itself. but now I'm coming over all postmodern again.

  2. This is a really interested blog post - thank you for sharing it. And thank you very much for the reference to, and review of, "Representing War and Violence". I shall try and hunt that down.

    I don't want to suggest to you a different approach in wargaming. I respect your approach completely, and it is a fully viable way of enjoying our great hobby.

    I take a different road. I quite like trying to represent the chaos, disorientation, stink, rasp and random unfairness of history in my wargames. Does it make them more "realistic", or "better"? Do I have a deeper understanding of history or warfare? No, or course not.

    Am I "eliciting enjoyment" from that chaos (in Theodore Adorno'a words)? If I say "yes", does that make me complicit in that violence and chaos, if not as a participant then as an onlooker? Maybe, to some, eliciting enjoyment equates to complicity, or even approval.

    That's such an interesting discussion.

    1. It is very difficult to grasp what might be going on. does representing violence which happened in the past (say, Waterloo) mean that we are complicit in it? Common sense seems to me to suggest that we are not. But then, most fiction, whatever its setting, refers to the author's present. So does a wargame of Waterloo bear a present day reference? I'm not sure what it might be if it does. Maybe it varies by context.

      But I have no problem with representing war as chaos, muddle and unfairness. That is how it was, at least in part. I cannot really see how it makes me complicit in the unfairness etc., but Adorno's uneasiness is, in the light of 20th Century events, understandable.

      It is not, it seems, something that pre-20th C soldiers worried about too much, nor did that many authors and artists. But there is a paradox there somewhere in what we are representing.

    2. Our war games are an abstraction of war. We may choose to abstract out the parts that, to our mind, do not affect the tactics, the strategy that is the problem we are trying to solve in the game. Consider the level of abstraction of war that chess has become. there is no dichotomy here.

    3. Perhaps chess has become so abstracted as to remove the paradox, so maybe historical wargaming hasn't because it is still 'based in real events'?