Saturday, 27 May 2017

Giving the Past Its Due

History is in a constant state of revision. One of the things I try to explain to people is that if they read a text, firstly, that text remains and can be re-read, and secondly, that when they do re-read the text, they will approach it with different questions and, thus, find different things in that text.

History is similar, I think. A historian, whether amateur or professional, approaches the subject of interest with a set of questions. These questions are framed by the current context of the historian. Thus, for example, there is far more interest in Greek homosexuality now than there was in, say, the Victorian era. This is not because the nature of ancient Greek sex and sexuality has changed over the past century or so. How could it? But our perceptions, our questions have altered. Homosexuality is now much more visible in society and thus a historian is more likely to approach an ancient society with a modern concern in mind.

I have noted before that wargamers approach history with a set of questions in mind. They want to know about units, tactics, generals, strength and make up of forces and so on. I have also noted that often a wargamer has to turn away from the historical sources disappointed. The required information simply does not exist. The wargamer is reduced to plausible guess work and, possibly, imagination. Where historians can stop and admit ignorance, the placing of wargame figures on a table requires something definite.

I suppose the key word is ‘plausible’. What actually counts is what was likely. How many hoplites was such and such a city likely to be able to deploy? What was the likely role of twenty-thousand lightly armed Arucarians? And so on. Even modern warfare is not immune from that sort of question. Often the much lauded tables of organisation are ideal, the hopes and dreams of administrators, rather than relating in any but a general way to boots on the ground.

History, of course, takes its twists and turns. We know, for example, in general turns of the relationship between England and Scotland from, say, medieval times. We can find in the reigns of Edward I, Edward II and Edward III various relations of power between the two nations, including military power. We can trace this further through history, via the Auld Alliance of France and Scotland and the vary relations between the three nations, to the Scottish Reformation and, perhaps, the only really welcome intervention of the English north of the border (at least by part of the nation).

History, however, has a habit of not stopping. We can describe the state of the border in Elizabethan times, and how it was fairly brutally pacified under James VI and I, although that bit is usually relegated to a foot note in history. We can also regard the intertwined political, national and religious webs of the British Civil Wars of mid-century, which led to the military defeat of the Scots. Interestingly, the concept of the Scottish nation was not defeated in anyone’s head. Various local, national and international states of affairs had combined to bring about, say Dunbar.

Again, history was it is known about today can focus in. there has been a fair fuss recently over the discovery of a load of bodies in Durham which have been identified as Scots, prisoners of war after the defeat at Dunbar. They were being moved south; the war, after all, was still going. Things being as it were they were interred in Durham where cold, poor food and disease killed many. They were buried.

Recently, the location of the burials was discovered, although my colleague, who was brought up around Durham observed that most of the locals knew they were there.  But, to me somewhat bizarrely, an argument started as to where they should be re-interred. Some argued for Durham, where they had died. Some, however, wanted the bones returned to Scotland. I think this really was rejected on practical grounds. Where in Scotland would the bones be returned to? After all, Leslie’s army at Dunbar was national.

The interest is, of course, in the mere fact of the argument at all. Somehow this discovery matters, and it must matter on the grounds of what is happening now. That is recent political developments makes an argument over 350 (or so) year old skeletons viable, and it can be undertaken by serious people. Somehow, we find in this, that history does matter, even though most people (including my colleague) express bafflement as to why this particular argument is being had.

And so it loops around to wargaming, historical wargaming in particular, but not exclusively. We represent something, say from the past. And yet that representation of the past is framed by our understanding of the present, by the questions we ask. Those questions are, perhaps, answered by history as it is written now, and also maybe by history as it was written then. There is not, cannot be, a complete answer, however. The written history of now and the history of then cannot completely overlap. Our knowledge is always incomplete; our worldview is always rather different.

I do not exempt science fiction or fantasy games from the above, because they are still representations of something framed by the present. Often, if you dig deeply enough, you will find issues of the present embedded in science fiction and fantasy. Lord of the Rings and A Canticle for Leibowitz , for example, probably would not have been written but for the experience of World War Two. Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy is an interesting pivot between the fall of the Roman Empire and the concerns of post-war America. And so on.

Our wargames, with their emphasis on facts and knowledge of the numbers, arms and organisations of the armies of the past, present or future (or some completely different place and time) do show, therefore, some of the issues which our culture – technological, bureaucratic, controlling, deterministic with acknowledged limits – has.

Maybe an interesting question is whether we could imagine a different sort of wargaming, freed from some of these concerns.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Honourable War

‘In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem’
2 Samuel 11:1 (NRSV)

King David is, of course, the hero of the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible, depending on taste and political correctness). And yet, somehow, in those two sentences, there is a mood of criticism. Even more so, in fact, when one reads the rest of that chapter and the next one. But I will leave that as an exercise for the reader.

The point here, is that the king was expected to go to war, in the springtime, presumably after the planting had been done for the growing season and men were available for warfare. In the world view of 2 Samuel, whenever it was written, edited, polished and finalised, kings go to war.  In that, it seems, they are a little like wargamers. The rationality of the battle does not matter. The point is to have a battle.

I mentioned last time that I was rereading, a bit, a book about the origins of war in early modern Europe. I have actually started on a chapter, specifically Steven Gunn’s ‘The French Wars of Henry VIII (p. 28-51). I have not finished it yet (that would be expecting too much, especially for an amateur commentator to actually finish reading something) but it has thrown up a number of interesting things.

As a wargamer, I sometimes think that Henry VIII is a bit underrated, a bit under used. His was an interesting reign for all sorts of reasons, both militarily and otherwise. Normally, of course, he is seem as something of a transition figure, between the medieval world of his father and the end of the Wars of the Roses and the modern world of the England of the Protestant reformation and beyond, with exciting things like the Armada and the beginnings of Empire.

Another view places Henry and England on the periphery, a bit player and observer in the Hapsburg-Valois wars of the early sixteenth century. The main issues were Milan, Naples and the expansion of France to the north and east. This was only going to bring conflict with the Hapsburgs, and that intensified when Charles V ascended the throne of Spain as well as the Holy Roman Empire. England did not have to participate in these wars, and yet she did.

We can of course adduce evidence of economic ties between England and the Low Countries to suggest that Henry made war in the best interests of the country. Customs duties relied heavily on the sale of cloth at Antwerp, and Henry’s revenue relied heavily on customs dues. It has to be said that, while these links rather tied Henry’s hands internationally, they did not determine his policy.

Henry spent quite a lot of his reign at war with France, and there were reasons for this. Firstly, it was because it was rather easy to motivate the English into fighting the French. In a world of generally little travel, strangers were treated with deep suspicion and the French were historical enemies. Poems about Agincourt were written; chronicles of the Hundred Years War were translated. The French were a ‘natural’ enemy.

The King also liked war. He liked the gadgets, and spent on artillery and fortifications. More than that, he liked the honour of war. Honour was interpreted in martial terms. The rhetoric of foreign policy war suffused with war. It has to be noted that honour rarely was found to conflict with common sense, but honouring oneself was pride. Honour had to be validated by others, and in this case Henry’s honour was dependent on the views of other monarchs and princes in Europe.

Battle was the ultimate test of honour and chivalry. Indeed, it has been argued that chivalry was the greatest cause of pitched battles between 1450 and 1530. English armies in France appeared to be rather aimless, wandering the countryside seeking to bring the French to battle. While defying the enemy without riposte was a reasonable way of obtaining honour, it was not the same as winning a battle. A siege was better, but Henry never managed to be present at a major battle and, by some measures, was inclined to be a little unhappy with subordinated who won major victories while he was otherwise occupied.

Policy was generally aligned towards the king’s honour. When it was not, the king was a bit uncomfortable. Handing a propaganda coup to an enemy by breaking an oath was not a great idea, of course. On the other hand, various claims could be ignored until they were found to be useful. The historic claim of the English crown upon the French was along these lines. To modern eyes the claim looks flexible, or a diplomatic ploy. It would seem that Henry did take it more seriously, at least when it suited him. He was not, for example, going to give it up. The French paid him a pension over it; he viewed this as a sort of rent for his rightful inheritance until he saw fit to claim it.

Such claims meant that attention had to be paid to the past. Henry VIII seems to have paid a great deal of attention to the activities of Henry V. There were lots of parallels, even if some of them, for instance being the son of a usurper, would not have pleased either monarch if it had been pointed out. The claim to the French crown was based on both honour and history. Henry v was moved by justice and right. Henry VIII was not going to do less, even if the claims were not pressed for the moment.

While, at some level, therefore, kings simply go to war, the reality is a lot more complex. Revenue, history, honour, justice and the inclination of both nobility and commoner as to their enemies also play a part. The inclinations of the monarch are significant, but not to the point of overriding everything else. Elizabeth I, after all, was a fairly pacific monarch, but towards the end of her reign was involved in a rather wide-ranging war. For the early modern state, forming as it was during the sixteenth century, war was the most complex and expensive activity it engaged in. 

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Ideas and Wars

I suspect it may be true that underlying a lot of what I write here is that warfare, and hence wargaming in different eras, is at least in part a function of the ideas which are prevalent in the era we are attempting to represent. Thus, for example, what we might call geometric war, a warfare dominated by fortifications of a given type, is a function, in part, of the rise of geometry and mathematics generally associated with the renaissance. The sort of thing that could be undertaken by someone with an understanding of abstract geometry was not the same as that of someone who worked with pieces of charcoal and string. The idea gave a different form of warfare.

This is not to say, of course, that the ideas dominated warfare. There were plenty of hold-outs, as it were. Henry VIII’s fortifications on the south coast of England were not geometric. The towers were round and, as packed with earth, probably would have been fairly effective. Again, a lot depends on function. As costal forts they were conceived to be artillery platforms, not to stand sieges necessarily. Nevertheless, Henry’s daughter Elizabeth had Berwick upon Tweed fortified in the continental manner, and, of course, moaned about the cost.

Beyond this form of reasonably practical response, warfare is a bit about ideas, at least. I have mentioned the effect of religion on the ways in which people and nations go to war. It is often said that religions cause wars, and this is rather unfair. Religion is often viewed by its protagonists and propagandists as being the reason for war. Thus, to quote Jeremy Black ‘The Seven Years’ War was widely portrayed in propaganda as a religious conflict, a development that was in keeping with the stress on religious animosity in the domestic publications of several states.’ (Black, J., ‘Introduction’, in Black, J., (ed) The Origins of War in Early Modern Europe, (1987, Edinburgh, John Donald) p 6). Immediately, however, he notes that alliances did not conform to confessional lines. Religious animosity should not be exaggerated to be the causus belli.

Religious belief, however, can determine to some extent, how states interfere with other states internal issues (think the Protestant minority in early modern France, for example; cases can be multiplied) and also how the wars were fought. While, often, Thucydides’ dictum that things in war go from bad to worse (I paraphrase wildly) it is also true that religion can mitigate the worst effects of warfare and, of course, provide some comfort for those whose lives are on the line. Religious propaganda and activities can also be used. In the years of the American Revolutionary Wars Britain held days of national fast and humiliation because of the ‘just and necessary Measure of Force which we are obliged to use against our rebellious subjects’. There is not much ‘holy Jesus meek and mild’ going on here, admittedly.

The point with the days of fast, of course, is that we see an alignment of the religious and the political. I am not too well up in the history of the later eighteenth century, but the language is that of the divine right of kings, and also of the ideas of just war that were floating around. As any rebellion against duly appointed authority was also a sin, then the war, provided the force used was proportionate, was just. I dare say propaganda on the other side was just as infused with religion, no matter exactly what the religious beliefs of the founding fathers was.

It is, then, I think, as mistake to suppose that the ideas around in society did not have an impact on warfare. It would be a similar sort of error to imagine that the converse was not true. For example, the horrors of trench warfare in 1914-18 led to a major rethink of, at least, Protestant theology, through the work of Karl Barth. These ideas, this rethinking, is still being argued over in theological circles today, and have some resonances with debates over warfare and society even now. Similarly, I think we could argue, the philosophy of Heidegger was, in part, a response to the First World War and the turmoil in Germany which followed it. I am not meaning to get involved in the ‘was Heidegger a Nazi’ debate, just suggesting that the context of the thinking going on was important.

There is, of course, as Terry Pratchett put it, a rake lurking in the grass here. That rake is our own context, that of us as amateur historians and wargamers. We interpret the past in a particular way. It, of us, is not imbued with the Spirit of God, of divine providence or similar things, as it would have been for most of the participants and early interpreters.  We live in an age of ‘scientific’, or at least, critical history. Things happen for, we argue, human reasons and, as such, they should be understandable and interpretable by human reason. Stuff was going on which the participants may have had little or no idea about; they may have associated that with divine providence or whatever, but we, we suppose, can know better. The point is that doing that is disrespectful to that past and those people. We rip their ideas and views out of context and disregard some of them.

Thus, I think, that while we can and do wargame while disregarding the views and opinions of the past, we really should not. Motives are, and were always, mixed, of course. We can say that the Romans were a very religious people, so long as the gods did what they wanted. That may be true, at least in part, put it does suggest a rather later, Enlightenment level categorization. The Romans, so far as I know, did not really draw a distinction between the gods and what they want and the people of Rome and what was best for them. It is simply a different view of religion from that of today. To force the Romans into post-Enlightenment categories is, at least, to distort and misrepresent the past in some way. We can and should not rule out self-interest, of course, but that is not separated from the religious world view and context of the time.