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The Philosophy of Wargaming

or why we play wargames

by Peter Hunt

But isn’t it just grown men playing with toy soldiers?  Now although you and I know that wargaming really is just grown men (and usually pretty drunk grown men at that) playing with toy soldiers, it would not do for our gullible public to know that.  The good name of the hobby allows us to get away with all kinds of things.  For instance whilst “her indoors” would quickly put her foot down if you were honest and said, I’m going to spend hundreds of dollars on something that I'll probably use once and then forget, then I’m going to spend the afternoon in a smoke filled room with a lot of drunken louts until I’ve drunk so much ale that I can't throw the dice straight and I'll end up the evening in some sub-continental dive eating Alsatians and contracting dysentery, mention the magic word “wargame” and away you go.  No, we owe it to our hobby to have a better reason for playing with toy soldiers than just playing with toy soldiers.

I found the answer in the preface to a book called “The War of the Two Emperors - The Duel between Napoleon and Alexander, Russia 1812” by one Curtis Gate, which is available from the Shatin Library and which I commend to you as a very good account of the background to and the events of the 1812 campaign.  Said preface consists of an attack on the Marxist determinist school of history as exemplified by Tolstoy and also some interesting "what ifs" supposing that Napoleon had got it right and defeated Alexander, or even had never attacked.  Bearing in mind that wargames are "what ifs" (even if such unlikely what ifs as what if 1,200 points of late kingdom Egyptians met 1,200 points of Normans, it is interesting to see how Mr. Gate justifies his flights of imagination:

. . . it is far from being idle speculation, still less a form of intellectual charlatanism, as Tolstoy believed.  Nations do not develop, rise or fall according to some preordained but unknown chain of circumstances, if only because they are led by human beings, who at any particular moment are offered a choice of policies to be pursued, of decisions to be taken or not taken.  The situation of being condemned to be free, as Albert Camus put it, is the essence of the human condition and the nub of human history.  Only with relation to what might have been can what was be judged.  The ability to do the wrong thing - as Napoleon clearly did in 1812 - is the first awesome privilege of human existence; but this ability can only be judged in terms of an imaginary criterion - the course of action that in those circumstances would have been right.  This is the fundamental morality underlying all of human history, and were we to be denied this right (and indeed this necessity) to construct alongside what happened an imaginary schema of what might otherwise have happened, the study of the past would cease to have any significance at all. 

This is, of course, complete bovine excrement but even so I can't help wishing that I had written it! Anyway, armed with this little gem the next time somebody poses the question with which I started this article you may reply:

But no!  Wargaming is the creation of an imaginary schema without which the study of military history would cease to have any significance and without which the fundamental morality underlying all of human history, indeed the essence of the human condition, cannot be judged!

No doubt this response will elicit gasps of amazement all round and somewhere in the great beyond Aristotle, Spinoza, Kant and Plato 'will look up from their game of Advanced Squad Leader - and smile.  I realise that this little piece has nothing to offer those poor benighted souls who play games about wizards and pixies or based on the stock exchange.  If you are such a person and someone asks why a grown man like you is playing with such things, I can only suggest that you could put a level-four spell on him and turn him into a frog or, alternatively, refer him to Ronald Li!

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