Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Why Play Wargames?

Occasionally people express disdain for the wargaming hobby, both in paper and miniature formats. To them it’s preserving and advocating a culture of warfare, reminding us of the uglier side of humanity, and encouraging people to find entertainment in the carnage of war. “Why would anyone want to make a game out of something so horrid as war?” they ask.

Conflict forms the basis for interesting games, novels, television programs, movies, and other entertainment. Some people even thrive on constant conflict in real life, much to the emotional exhaustion of those around them. Without the contrast of war and peace, we cannot appreciate the liberty, prosperity, and lives we enjoy today.

War can teach many lessons, not the least of which is its terrible cost in life and property. Studying wars in history class often seems antiseptic as courses focus on the political and economic causes, basic campaigns, and significant yet often isolated events. Students never really dive into the trenches and put themselves on the front lines facing the slaughter and destruction war causes, the results of a breakdown in diplomacy between two conflicted factions.

Games can become valued teaching tools, incorporating entertainment with a learning experience. Yes, of course, wargames are fun -- that’s the “game” portion of wargame -- but they offer a host of lessons: how to follow rules and use them and the resources one’s given to strive for victory; how historical elements of terrain and technology worked on the battlefield; how the reasons behind the war drove commanders to pursue various objectives, especially when those were counterintuitive to military strategy.

Three historical figures commented on war and the lessons it teaches. Their words should remind us never to forget past conflicts, to study history (whether in the classroom, library, or on the wargaming table), and to learn from experiencing it in such a benign form.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana, philosopher (1863 - 1952). Everyone’s heard Santayana’s famous quote about remembering the past to avoid repeating it. This is a common saying favored by teachers, writers, and others in the education business to justify studying various historical periods. It remains valid (see General Patton’s quotation below…) as an admonition to learn from the past, whether to avoid repeating it, improve our appreciation for our currently enjoyed liberties, or expand our understanding of ourselves and our society. What few people hear is another of Santayana’s quotes -- “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” -- which reminds us how conflict drives history forward, exacting a dreadful price in human life and suffering. Playing wargames can help us appreciate past conflicts in their own historical contexts so we might more clearly view our current situation and the consequences of future actions.

“Prepare for the unknown by studying how others in the past have coped with the unforeseeable and the unpredictable.” George S. Patton, general (1885 - 1945). The successful and often controversial World War II general remains infamous for his numerous maxims. This particular quote refers obliquely to Santayana’s in the context of studying the past to deal with the future, but also acknowledges the uncertainty of warfare (as well as life). The “fog of war” remains an element in many wargames. Some consider it the uncertainty of enemy strength and location, while others refer to “fog of war” as the element of the unexpected and chance often simulated in die rolls (the constant possibility of failure attributed to mechanical problems, difficult terrain, human fallibility, or just sheer bad luck). As in any subject, the more we know about the past -- its players, their motivations, the conflicts, failures and successes, and resolutions -- the more knowledge we have at hand to draw upon when formulating our own strategies for overcoming challenges in the unknown future. We can use our own judgment to compare and combine elements from different historical confrontations with our current situation, or the conditions for a possible future, to prepare contingencies and strategies to effectively resolve the problems we might face.

“You have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realize just what a blundering thing Great War must be.” H. G. Wells, writer (1866 - 1946). The prescient father of science fiction loved playing with toy soldiers so much that he published two treatises on the subject, Floor Games and Little Wars, arguably the first modern miniature wargame rules set. The quote above comes from the conclusion of Little Wars, which illustrates the futility of plunging entire nations into barbarous, destructive warfare, especially at the orders of an elite few with private or ideological points to gain. He argues that simulating war helps demonstrate its destruction and futility. Wells’ numerous novels often shows war’s destructive nature. The War in the Air (1908) displayed his prophetic vision; the speculative fiction followed one hapless fellow through a ruthless aerial war waged against nations that lays waste to civilian cities and plunges humanity into a new dark age. It ultimately foresaw the predominance of air power in the coming two world wars and the apocalyptic power of technology over humanity. Readers come away with both a sense of war’s savagery and its bloody price on society. Wargames help demonstrate this, allowing people to engage in war with minimal consequences, yet gaining a sense of its destructive power as “dead” pieces are removed from the game and objectives are defended, fought for, and destroyed. Play allows us to innocently fight a war and learn from it without condemning lives and property to destruction.