Someone, (I think the novelist L. P. Hartley, but I’m likely wrong) once said something along the lines of ‘The past is a different country. They do things differently there’. And herein lies the crux of the problem that I have been vaguely gesturing at in some recent (and probably much older) posts. How on earth do we interpret ancient texts? Indeed, who can interpret ancient texts?
Texts are used for many purposes, and the purposes that we read them for are, in fact, fairly unlikely to be the purposes they were originally written for, nor, indeed, the purposes the original readers would have been interested in. So, for example, we might be interested in finding out how many rifle armed militia men were present at an American revolutionary war battle. An account of that battle may say something like ‘The rifle bullets came so thick the sky was black with them and no man dared to raise his head for fear of them’. While this text might tell us that rifle armed troops were present, it really does not tell us much more than that, aside what it felt like to be on the receiving end. We could also raise further questions, such as how did the writer know that the incoming bullets were rifle rounds, anyway.
Already, from a simple and made-up example we can observe a few of the problems in texts. Firstly, we question the text in ways that the original writer, readers and the text itself could not, probably, have formed the questions. Secondly, the text might not be entirely accurate, in terms of modern ‘accuracy’. The problem of the unreliable narrator is one thing: the text might be enhancing the author’s own feelings of bravery and significance, for example. Secondly, the writer is not omnipotent. Things were almost certainly happening about which the author knew little or nothing. Their text is but a snapshot of the world as it seemed to be.
Next up we also have problems from the interpreter’s end. Our world is not the world of the author. Their world view is different, their language, meanings and values will all vary from our own. For example, even World War Two memoirs reflect a society very different from our own, one where, at least in the UK, society was more deferential, at least on the surface, than it is today. We have to attend to the social location of the writer and their readers to start to apprehend what their meaning might be.
There are further issues, of course. It is quite likely that the original text was written in a language which is not that of the modern reader. There are issues of translation, from, say, Latin into English. Languages are not one-to-one translatable. Interpretation is required. For example, where the Hebrew Bible in English refers to God being patient, the Hebrew (apparently) literally means something like ‘long of nostril’. The idea, as I understand it, is that it takes longer for the snort of exasperation to be emitted. And so a translation is ‘patient’. As my Old Testament tutor put it: ‘I just thought you might like to know that’. But it does indicate the sorts of problems we encounter here.
This is all very well, but it is not helping the wargamer’s cause, wanting to know how many men with rifles to deploy on the battlefield. And here we approach the rub, perhaps. Wargamers cannot really go with ‘we don’t know’. We need a concrete number of figures on the table, not just ‘around so many’. Granted, we can pick a number which makes it reasonable that the opposition will have bullets whistling around their ears most of the time, but that is an interpretation of the text resting on some, perhaps dubious, guesswork.
So we hit the main part of the problem. We have to interpret texts to extract the answer, but how do we do this and who can do it? If we admit that authenticity is in some sense part of historical wargaming, and that we derive any such sense from the texts which speak of the battles we are interested in, whom on earth can say that this is the right way to interpret the text?
The question of authority in interpreting texts is a major problem. For example, if the text is a religious one, such as the Bible, the issue becomes whether the text can be interpreted as historical, objectively, ‘scientifically’ and so on, or whether the text can only be interpreted by those within the faith community, perhaps who have some authorisation to do such interpretation. You only need to consider the history of interpretation within a particular denomination to start to realise the complexities that can arise here (and which are still argued over, extensively).
In wargaming we do not have quite the same issue over faith, although some of wargamers sacred cows, such as Alexander being Great because he conquered practically everywhere, start to bear a slightly uncomfortable feeling of blind faith. But still the question arises: in a diverse and diffuse community, who can interpret the texts. There is, of course, no one interpretation of texts, and one view would be to leave it to the experts. However, with a few exceptions, professional historians do not tend to wargamers. They interpret within their academic community. Only by interpretation of their interpretations can wargamers use this material. This gets complicated.
Short of advising all wargamers to obtain advanced degrees in history, perhaps the way forward is to ensure that we retain a level of critical engagement with the sources and the texts of wargaming. There will be multiple interpretations of ancient (or, as noted above, more recent) texts. We, as wargamers, do not in general have the resources to follow all the lines of inquiry, but as intelligent human beings we can engage critically with them. This, of course, applies to the texts of wargaming, such as rules and army lists, as well of the primary source material of history.
I think that there is a lot more to be thought about here, and a lot more to be written, but I do think that the task might be quite important for wargaming, otherwise we will just sit around, thinking that some classic of wargaming literature was the ultimate in wargame experience.