Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review: von Hilgers, War Games

Philipp von Hilgers, War Games: A History of War on Paper. Translated by Ross Benjamin. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012. USD$28.00 (cloth).

As with all social phenomenon, the history and evolution of wargaming is inextricably bound up with cultural, political, and scientific context. The purposes served by modern professional military gaming, the nature of the relationships and representations it seeks to embody, and the processes whereby it gained increasing acceptance through the 19th and 20th century tell us much not only about wargaming itself, but also about society itself.

It with this in mind that Philipp von Hilgers offers us an exploration of the historical evolution of professional wargaming in Europe (and, more particularly, Prussia and Germany) from the Middle Ages to World War II. In War Games: A History of War on Paper he looks at the historical precursor of the “Battle of Numbers,” a war-like mathematical game the emerged in the medieval era; the rise of abstract games of state power and warfare in the baroque period; the emergence and adoption of von Reiswitz’s famous tactical war-game (Kriegsspiel) in the early 19th century, as well as other the many other war-games of this era; and the subsequent transformation of both wargaming and its use in military education and planning during the 20th century. Throughout, he traces the linkages between this and the evolution of mathematics and philosophy, concepts of “simulation,” and other aspects of the broader political and historical context.

While all of this makes for very interesting reading, it does not, alas, make for very easy reading. This book is a heavy slog at the best of times, written in a dense and jargon-laden prose (“Just as proof figures come to the fore in mathematical discourses, the metaphorical recedes. Bringing the measurement of a natural space under control is now less urgent than sketching spaces that arise from a sign-based apparatus and that are anything but mathematically secured.” being a typical example). Very few wargamers or military historians are likely to penetrate beyond the first chapter, unless very highly motivated.

While some of this might be attributed to a combination of the book’s original German and its subsequent translation into English, I think the fault lies elsewhere. War Games is an unfortunate example of the tendency of far too much academic work to unnecessarily fetishize artificial linguistic-analytical complexity (i.e., make things sound much more complicated than they are). While political scientists do this too, it seems to me that cultural studies have a particular tendency to do so—and in so doing, ironically, establish wholly artificial barriers to broader cultural accessibility to their work.

A second (and in many ways more fundamental) problem with War Games is its methodology, or rather the frequent lack thereof. The author picks elements and anecdotes from history that seem to uphold his general conceptualization of  the topic, but only intermittently offers any systematic examination of how military gaming evolved. Themes are raised, examined, then discarded. The result often seems rather more impressionistic than historically rigorous, and the reader is left with a sense that another scholar might well arrange the puzzle pieces in a different way, to produce a quite different linkage of causes, contexts, and effects.

Given my interest in the topic, I had rather hoped to write a more glowing review of this volume. Certainly, the book offers a number of tantalizing insights, and suggests some fascinating intersections. I shall certainly go back to the volume on occasion. Overall, however, it falls somewhat short of its very considerable promise, generally for reasons that could have been quite easily fixed with greater clarity in the design and expression of von Hilger’s analysis.


6 responses to “Review: von Hilgers, War Games

  1. Matthew Kirschenbaum (@mkirschenbaum) 10/08/2012 at 11:48 pm

    Lawrence, I’d suggest starting with Peter Perla’s Art of Wargaming (newly reissued from John Curry) and Phil Sabin’s Simulating War.

  2. Lawrence Hung 06/08/2012 at 10:58 pm

    It seems that the book was intended to talk about the “history” rather than “historical analysis” as it subtitle suggested. Isn’t it the first book on the subject? All I browse in Amazon about wargames pointed me to miniatures books a lot of the times. I think I am interested to pay for a copy.

  3. brtrain 31/07/2012 at 1:15 pm

    Either way, thanks for saving me 28 dollars!

  4. Volko Ruhnke 30/07/2012 at 11:05 pm

    As I noted to Matt Caffrey at Connections while browsing the book’s language, it’s not the German, it’s the Germans.

  5. Rex Brynen 30/07/2012 at 7:05 pm

    Ultimately, however, this analysis–like any other–is making a claim of offering insight, and even asserting some degree of causal connection (even if processes are nonlinear and dialectical). To do that, one requires some explicit attention to why this particular “archaeology” is more convincing than an alternative, and isn’t simply an ahistorical kaleidoscope rooted more in the analysts imagination than the actual historical processes of the past. I see no reason why this book couldn’t have more explicitly discussed how it accessed archival material, and what it did–or did not–use. There are certainly cases where more systematically process-tracing the development and adoption of particular wargames would have made the argument both stronger and more convincing. Finally, the style seems to me to be more a product of tribal fashion (all scholarly disciplines do it) than analytical necessity. A more accessible text would not only have been more convincing, but also would have broadened its consumption beyond the “guild.”

  6. Matthew Kirschenbaum (@mkirschenbaum) 30/07/2012 at 9:14 am

    I’d say the style is an artifact not just of “cultural studies” (or the translation) but specifically of German media theory/materialities of communication. In a sense, the whole book is a kind of footnote to Friedrich Kittler’s gnomic reference to the sand table exercises of the German general staff in the opening sentences of one of his major texts, Grammaphone/Film/Typewriter. There *is* method here I’d argue, but like Foucault’s genealogy it is a methodology that embraces non-linearity, rupture, discontinuity. And like the most recent inheritor of these traditions, media archaeology, the object is to create alternatives to progressivist, linear narratives of an ultimately unrecoverable past.

    Put another way, this is a book that’s coming from a very different place than works by, say, Sabin and Perla. None of that, of course, should absolve it of its shortcoming, but I do think it succeeds in recovering a lineage and genealogy that departs markedly from the familiar story, where there is nothing between classical games of antiquity like chess and Go and the von Reisswitz Kriegspiel.

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