Playing with Fire

In a book outlining the history of wargaming, Martin van Creveld reflects on the full span of a large variety of games. Mauro Manatovani believes it is “a masterpiece”

As the subtitle suggests, Martin van Creveld, in his most recent book aims for the stars. Wargames, to him, differ from real warfare, in that they are not a continuation of politics, yet subject to artificial limits with regard to their location, time and rules for the means applied – for the purpose of obviating their escalation into real war, at the cost of failing to fully reflect the stress and strains of the latter. However, the author’s positive early definition – “a game of strategy which […] simulates some key aspects of [‘real’ warfare] including, quite often, the death and/or injury and capture […]” – gets slightly contradicted at the end: “wargames are almost impossible to define”.

Accordingly, van Creveld discusses a large variety of games: From “wargames” animals play, sham fights by many tribal societies, combat and contact sports, to (Roman) gladiatorial games, medieval and early modern history trials by combat, combat of champions, tournaments, maneuvers; to chess and the 19th century board games of the von Reisswitz type. The latter, when conducted, were for the purpose of training the German General Staff, involved topography, logistics, intelligence, command and control, friction and chance, at the expense of multiplying rules – to crisis management and BOGSAT (“Bunch of Guys Sitting around a Table”) games and, eventually, the huge range of computer games from the 1950s onward and the more recent paintball and laser tag games.

Based on scholarly findings as well as primary sources, van Creveld reflects on the full span of all these games as related to socio-economic, technological and religious developments and to human nature in general. He sees their origins and rise in four basic human needs often inextricably mixed: the will to appease the gods and to determine what their wishes might be; the need for some mechanism to enable adversaries to settle disputes, without endangering the rest of the society; thirdly, the wish to prepare men for wars to come; and finally, the wish for entertainment and excitement, pure and simple. The decline and disappearance (at least in civilized societies) of certain games is attributed to the loss of significance of the first two motives – and often to skyrocketing costs, as in the case of gladiatorial games. At this point van Creveld proposes what is arguably his most provocative thesis: These were the most popular games of the times because they were the deadliest and because violence was mixed with the notion of sex, appealing to both genders […]. The conspicuous female absence from active participation in the fights and wargaming in general, van Creveld claims, is due to their physical inferiority and their ingrained preference for socializing to fighting. And ultimately, the more rooted the games are in the aforementioned third and fourth human needs, the more they are thriving to the present.

This work excels in its broad and deep approach to the history of wargaming, to the interaction between virtual and “real reality”. While illustrations would be appropriate in the study, there are none, nor is there an adequate bibliography. The index could clearly be more useful, especially in view of the somewhat interwoven structure of the book. Moreover, some typos survived the editing (e.g. Alaric, king of the Vandals!) Yet, all this taken together fades behind a great interdisciplinary analysis by the great narrator we know. This is a masterpiece of international historiography. ž

Mauro Manatovani is the President of the Bibliographical Committee, at the International Commission of Military History (ICMH) and head of Strategic Studies at the Military Academy at ETH Zurich (MILAK)

Brought to print by Brig. Gen. (res.) Dr. Dany Asher – Israel’s representative at the Bibliographical Committee, ICMH

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