Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review: Martin van Creveld, Wargames

Martin van Creveld, Wargames: From Gladiators to Gigabytes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). 332pp. $27.99 paperback

vancreveldMartin van Creveld is a renowned Israeli military historian and theorist, and author of more than twenty books on everything from the history of military logistics to changes in modern warfare. However, while his latest book is published by Cambridge University Press, readers shouldn’t expect a wholly academic work. Instead, what he supplies is an interesting, always readable, frequently thoughtful,  sometimes meandering, and occasionally very frustrating account of more than two millennia of playing at war, from hunting and combat sports through to gladiators, trial by combat, jousting tournaments, duels, paintball, boardgames and hobby wargaming, military reenactment, role-playing games, political-military crisis gaming, military exercises, computer games,  and military simulations.

The author sets as his purpose addressing a broad range of questions:

Where did wargames come from? What purpose did they serve? Who participated in them, why, and what for? What forms did they take? What factors drove their development, and to what extent did they reflect changes in the art of war itself? What did they simulate, what didn’t they simulate, how, and why? What do they reveal about the conduct of war at the times, and in the places, where they were played? How useful are they in training for war and preparing for it? Why are some more popular than others, how do men and women compare in this respect, and what can the way the sexes relate to wargames teach us about the nature and relationships between them? Finally, what does all this tell us about real war, fake or make-believe war, the interactions between the two, and the human condition in general?

As might be expected, raising so many questions about so many genres of “wargames” over such a long period of history means that none of them is really answered very fully. Hobby wargamers and computer gamers, for example, will be struck by the somewhat shallow and uneven treatment of their pastimes. Those involved with the professional simulation of war will feel the same. Compounding this is the nagging sense that van Creveld cherry-picks his examples and evidence to illustrate his intended narrative about war and games, rather than engaging in systematic scholarship. There are footnotes aplenty, although sources range from ancient classics and academic publications to wikipedia entries, websites, and comments made at online message boards.

The section of the book devoted to gender is especially odd. Van Creveld is deeply interested in gender differences, and indeed has argued elsewhere that allowing women to fight will “wreck a military.” He is especially preoccupied with the idea that these differences have fundamental biological roots and that women are therefore ill-suited to any kind of war-fighting in a sort of men are from Mars/women are from Venus kind-of-way. Indeed, here the book veers into face-palm territory when the author feels the need to bring into the discussion  “modern movies such as Gladiator Eroticus: The Warrior Lesbians” (p. 287), argue that “busts, being soft and vulnerable, make it hard for owners to engage in combat of any kind” (p. 296), or draws to conclusions from his observation that women spectators of contact sports “often engage in blatant sexual displays with the objective of drawing attention to themselves” (p. 306). While there are a great many interesting issues to be explored with regard to women, war, and gaming, it is fair to say that this book contributes nothing useful to a critical understanding of these.

Leaving that aside, however, other sections of the book make interesting observations about everything from the social conventions of  gladiatorial combat or duelling to the challenges of conducting military exercises or wargames in a way that enhances combat capabilities. Van Creveld’s observations on the difficulties of gaming human psychology and perceptual differences are important ones, and his use of the phrase “hubris in, hubris out” (p. 177) to describe wargames that simply reinforce the biases of policymakers and planners is one I’m likely to quote myself in future work.

Overall this is a book well worth reading, especially if one skips over the chapter on “the female of the species.” As with some of van Creveld’s previous work, don’t expect systematic investigation or much in the way of methodology. Instead, be prepared for a textual experience that rather resembles an extended late-night pub discussion with a well-informed, but rather eccentric, regular: lots of pithy comments and witty observations, many thought-provoking, and others best ignored.

2 responses to “Review: Martin van Creveld, Wargames

  1. Tom Grant 28/08/2013 at 3:55 pm

    Rex, I’m grateful that you wrote this review, because I’ve been struggling with this book. Although I don’t expect Van Creveld to be that systematic, this book seems to have no overarching theme, other than “things that vaguely resemble war, but aren’t really war.” I’m all up for a good discussion of the history of Roman gladiators, but what exactly is the relevance to everything else? I had expected one part of the book to build on another, but it seems like a lot of knick-knacks that Van Creveld dumped into the same mental drawer.

  2. John Curry 28/08/2013 at 7:53 am

    I support this review. The book attempts to link a wide range of areas into a coherent narrative. Overall the book is entertaining and some of it is very worthwhile.

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