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Subject: A question about military history and historical understanding rss

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Whenever the subject of history comes up in this forum, it virtually always refers to specifically military history. As someone who once planned to become a professional historian, and indeed who went a good way down the path towards actually doing so, I naturally have some strong opinions about history. I've never really gotten the attraction of military history and so would like to hear from its aficionados what attracts them to it.

For context, let me explain my general attitudes about history. For me, the attraction of history is understanding what has happened in the past and formed the world today. I see history as the story of power in human affairs: who has it, who wants it, what they do to maintain it and what others do to try to take it. Who lacks power is part of the story as well, but largely I view economic and social aspects of history as auxiliary to political history. Wars I very much look at as politics by other means.

EDIT:
To be clear, the point is not to tell others they're wrong but to ask: What am I missing? As much as I love wargames, I've always treated orders of battle etc as no more relevant than where and how Julius Caesar relieved himself. A good passionate military historian might give me a new perspective.
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It has, among other things, a generational appeal to me.

My father was just a boy when flying fortresses destroyed his house. He remembers an episode where glass from a window had entered a woman's leg. She was bleeding to death. They had put her on a door, which they used as a stretcher. And amid all this confusion, they went away, god knows where.

I read of military history so that, in a way, I can come to understand what my father, and others like him, have gone through.

I also planned on joining the army and doing military school when I was young. That never came to pass, but the interest for war has never ceased. In a way I think that I want to close the gap between me, and the people that at my age had gone through the war. In a way the war was within me. Always there, never ceasing.

This is why I think I'm attracted to military history, and why I think I go back again and again to those sometimes atrocious books.
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whac3 wrote:
... As much as I love wargames, I've always treated orders of battle etc as no more relevant than where and how Julius Caesar relieved himself. A good passionate military historian might give me a new perspective.



I'd agree on the OOB side, but surely seeing how the military units
actually operated is on a different level from simple organization.
I could see (but haven't bothered) using an OOB to better understand
the organization in order to obtain clues as to how the unit operated however.
Just as looking through legislative debates might provide hidden clues
as to real agendas present in laws.
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Roger Brandon
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I see it as something similar to what foods people like. One person can absolutely love certain foods, while another person either doesn't have any fondness, or perhaps even loathes those foods. I HATE liver and onions but my dad absolutely LOVES it. Nothing he says can ever get me to tolerate, much less love it.

Same could go for music and so many other subjects, where a person just doesn't connect to something the way others do.

For me, I love history in general, but military history has been a huge interest to me since I was a kid. A lost battle could spell the doom of a great empire and history makes a major turn on it's road. There's something very powerful about the influence that wars and battles had on history. That's ONE of the things that interests me about military history.
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I'll echo what the others said, but also point out that military history, unlike many other kinds of history, happens to inherently include some of the elements that can make a compelling and dramatic game.

There's conflict. there are identifiable side. There dramatic events. There are decisions and direct and observable consequences for those decisions. This is less true for social history or art history, for example. This doesn't mean that one is more important than the other, just that from a narrative standpoint a game format fits military history rather well ,which is why there can be several thousand wargames designed and published. Lots of material.
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I'll give you two answers. One is my own and one is what I think one of my colleagues at U.S. Army Command and General Staff College might say--he's a PhD in Military History and specializes in the Civil War, particularly General George Meade.

My answer--it's pretty much a professional one. Having been in the service for nearly 30 years, history taught me much about how to make decisions quickly when there's little information. It also taught me a lot about the nature and character of war and human society and the interaction between the two. I tend to be far less interested in OOB and such as well (although I can understand those who attempt to make definitive judgments) and more interested in what personalities knew, how they knew it, and what their thinking was because of it. In understanding war and human society, relationships between political, economic, social, geographic, and other related factors in decisions for war and styles of conflict are of great professional interest. I teach operational art and design as well as tactics and intelligence; using historical examples to put my students in the shoes of historical counterparts pays dividends in letting them grapple with difficult problems and compare their thinking with that of those who had to solve them for real.

My colleague's answer would be also professional, but from a different angle. For him history is interpretation--it always changes and reflects the thinking of the particular period/nationality/perspective/author. How stories are told and retold is worthy of study as well as the facts and interpretations of those facts surrounding a historical event. It is a window into our past and--while it can never provide a complete picture of it--it is interesting and educational in its own right.
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whac3 wrote:
Whenever the subject of history comes up in this forum, it virtually always refers to specifically military history. As someone who once planned to become a professional historian, and indeed who went a good way down the path towards actually doing so, I naturally have some strong opinions about history. I've never really gotten the attraction of military history and so would like to hear from its aficionados what attracts them to it.

For context, let me explain my general attitudes about history. For me, the attraction of history is understanding what has happened in the past and formed the world today. I see history as the story of power in human affairs: who has it, who wants it, what they do to maintain it and what others do to try to take it. Who lacks power is part of the story as well, but largely I view economic and social aspects of history as auxiliary to political history. Wars I very much look at as politics by other means.

EDIT:
To be clear, the point is not to tell others they're wrong but to ask: What am I missing? As much as I love wargames, I've always treated orders of battle etc as no more relevant than where and how Julius Caesar relieved himself. A good passionate military historian might give me a new perspective.


There are many types of history - for example, Modern History (starts around 1760), the history of science and medicine, the history of management, the history of crime and so on and so forth.

Military history is just another type/branch of history.

Economic and social history is just one branch, like these others.

History of whatever 'brand' (yep - I bet there's a Professor of Marketing History somewhere in the World; probably a number(!)) is really about trying understand/explain 'Why?' things happened more than 'What?' happened. All history (events really) take place in a context - eg 'wars' take place within a social, political and economic context as well as other contexts (eg technical/technological). We're really covering what might be called 'different levels and directions/focii of analysis' here perhaps.

One of the fascinating aspects of military history is it concerns "decisions" (invariably tough/uncertain decisions) and is full of 'what ifs'.

I suspect one of the key appeals to folk here is the word 'strategy'. Keep in mind we are games enthusiasts and most games require 'out-witting/out-witting an opponent. We will probably have a higher propensity to be interested in military history here than say 'the Royal Society' or 'the WI' as a function of this. There may as the other poster here has suggested also be an age/generational demographic - there will almost certainly also be an underlying cultural demographic. When politics is pursued by other means military affairs are where we are off to the races and the rubber meets the road.

I don't think there's a new Earth shattering perspective to be had, I think different tastes and preferences will exist among different people. Your 'Why?' is simply at a different level to our 'Why?'.

I hope some of this makes sense. I'm also looking forward to discovering what others think.

Quick but kind regards,
Richard III (aka Knyfe)
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whac3 wrote:
the attraction of history is understanding what has happened in the past and formed the world today

This is it in a nutshell. The difference between knowing what has happened and understanding what has happened can only be bridged by detail. Depending on what you're looking for, the scope or scale at which you are trying to understand history, any given detail could be superfluous. But, if you want to understand the struggles, challenges, setbacks and triumphs of any group in war, you need to get details. Why did the France fall so quickly in WWII? How did Napoleon repeatedly trounce his foes? Were the Redcoats really beaten because they stupidly fought in lines while the Americans hid behind trees and rocks to pick them off at distance?

Consider: if you want to understand the choices that are available to world powers at various times in history, you must have some real insight into military operations and capabilities. Why didn't D-DAY happen in 1942? What would WWII look like if the U.S. stayed out of the fight? What happens if the Russians invade the EU next year? Why?

One benefit, is that once you start getting answers to these questions you find that world history appears far less cartoon-like and one dimensional. There are some very popular, very silly ideas about history that can be cleared up by learning about real military history.
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I enjoy reading and discussing political history, economic history, social history and religious history.

But military history makes the best games.
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Hungadunga wrote:
/...

But military history makes the best games.


Someone's going to point to the BGG Top 100 to challenge this HD!

Best wishes RIII (aka Knyfe)
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Moshe Callen
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Knyfe wrote:
Hungadunga wrote:
/...

But military history makes the best games.


Someone's going to point to the BGG Top 100 to challenge this HD!

Best wishes RIII (aka Knyfe)

Yeah, but we're wargamers and so we know better.
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whac3 wrote:
Knyfe wrote:
Hungadunga wrote:
/...

But military history makes the best games.


Someone's going to point to the BGG Top 100 to challenge this HD!

Best wishes RIII (aka Knyfe)

Yeah, but we're wargamers and so we know better.


:o) Indeed - just outnumbered, not outgunned. RIII
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Michael Sommers
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whac3 wrote:
Whenever the subject of history comes up in this forum, it virtually always refers to specifically military history.

Since most wargames are about war, that is only to be expected.

Quote:
For context, let me explain my general attitudes about history. For me, the attraction of history is understanding what has happened in the past and formed the world today. I see history as the story of power in human affairs: who has it, who wants it, what they do to maintain it and what others do to try to take it. Who lacks power is part of the story as well, but largely I view economic and social aspects of history as auxiliary to political history. Wars I very much look at as politics by other means.

It sounds as though you ought to like military history, since if wars aren't the exercise of power, I don't know what is.

Quote:
I've always treated orders of battle etc as no more relevant than where and how Julius Caesar relieved himself.

It depends on how closely you are examining the subject. If all you want to say or know is who won a particular battle, then the OOB is irrelevant, but if you are studying the conduct of the battle in detail, then the OOB is important. If all you care about is that he crossed the Rubicon, you don't care about Big Julie from Rome's bathroom habits, but if you are studying camp hygiene in the Roman army, then you do. The same applies to any subject.


Why study military history? People have been fighting wars since before the dawn of history; some of our earliest literature, such as the Iliad, are about war. Looking at the world today, there is no reason at all to think that war is going away any time soon. Therefore, it behooves us to study war carefully; to avoid it if possible, to win it if necessary.
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As I wrote in another thread, to me wargames have little to do with history but rather with historiography(does this word exist in English?.... I hope). I think that the larger the scale that the game is, and the closer it gets to become a civ game than a wargame in specific, meaning the more it includes elements of economy, politics, diplomacy, technology etc the more it approaches the core of history and leaves the surface where most wargames I'm familiar with swim(even the ones I like a lot- I have no problem since I don't demand more from them anyhow).

Carefully studied OOB, terrain features, supply rules and the rest for me don't have to do with the essence of things but only with their technical side. The decisions that are made affect the essence of things only by determining the winner, which is important of course, but history has more to do with asking "why" things were as they were while wargames deal mostly with "how" things were done.





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Michael Sommers
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shinobu wrote:
... historiography(does this word exist in English?....

It does exist in English, where it means, roughly, the history of history writing.
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wargamer55 wrote:
I'll echo what the others said, but also point out that military history, unlike many other kinds of history, happens to inherently include some of the elements that can make a compelling and dramatic game.

There's conflict. there are identifiable side. There dramatic events. There are decisions and direct and observable consequences for those decisions. This is less true for social history or art history, for example. This doesn't mean that one is more important than the other, just that from a narrative standpoint a game format fits military history rather well ,which is why there can be several thousand wargames designed and published. Lots of material.


Exactly. Knowing that the 1st Canadian Army, or 3d Army, or 2nd British Army was one of the armies in Northwest Europe is one thing. But knowing the orders of battle and relative sizes of the armies and their opponents put their battles in better perspective. Trashing an outclashed opponent is different than prevailing over a well-motivated opponent of greater size.

It's no different than sports. The mechanics of the game are one thing. If you find soccer, baseball, football or hockey boring, you will always find it boring. But once you decide the mechanics of the game are interesting, what is even more interesting are the storylines that go with it. You find out the captain of your hometown team was traded last year from their long-time rival and will be out for revenge this year. A long time fan favourite is set to retire, recover from injury, placed on waivers, etc. These are "order of battle" changes that lend drama or additional interest beyond just the "one damn thing after another" nature of conventional history, as one of my professors referred to it.
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whac3 wrote:
Whenever the subject of history comes up in this forum, it virtually always refers to specifically military history. As someone who once planned to become a professional historian, and indeed who went a good way down the path towards actually doing so, I naturally have some strong opinions about history. I've never really gotten the attraction of military history and so would like to hear from its aficionados what attracts them to it.

For context, let me explain my general attitudes about history. For me, the attraction of history is understanding what has happened in the past and formed the world today. I see history as the story of power in human affairs: who has it, who wants it, what they do to maintain it and what others do to try to take it. Who lacks power is part of the story as well, but largely I view economic and social aspects of history as auxiliary to political history. Wars I very much look at as politics by other means.

EDIT:
To be clear, the point is not to tell others they're wrong but to ask: What am I missing? As much as I love wargames, I've always treated orders of battle etc as no more relevant than where and how Julius Caesar relieved himself. A good passionate military historian might give me a new perspective.


There's different levels of information sought or fed by people interested in military history. Some are interested in the political, financial, or emotional implications of decisions made and results course of action. This is the how and why.

The who and what aspects are things like Order of Battle, terrain analysis, the type of equipment used. To me, in order to understand a battle, I want to know how the troops were composed, who they were led by and where they went. What I don't often like are histories that just systematically lump values together. E.g. 3.5 millions Soviets faced off against 2 million Germans on the East Front... well, not really, because there wasn't 5.5 million men holding small arms actually fighting. Order of battle is a detailed piece of information needed to understand the depths of a particular military history subject. This goes down to lower levels where some are more "gearheads" than others who will compare KV-1 and T-34 M40's against Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. D with a 3.7cm cannon firing APDS... etc.

Everything is a means to understanding the end, its how deep or high you want to go down.
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Unfortunately, history as it is often practiced is the accumulation of "facts" to support one's prejudices.
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Knyfe wrote:
Hungadunga wrote:
/...

But military history makes the best games.


Someone's going to point to the BGG Top 100 to challenge this HD!

Best wishes RIII (aka Knyfe)


I think I'm in the minority here, but I really like good simulations
of other aspects of history (politics, economics, ect). The biggest
problem I see is that these tend to be few and far between. Even the more
detailed games in such subjects often strike me as bare fumbling steps,
with more in common with some early wargames than with where the hobby
has progressed.

'Course, some modern, popular wargamish designs seem to be trending more
toward abstraction anyhow. So, as the term becomes more inclusive, perhaps
the most well known 'wargames' will be just as lousy as the euros which
supposedly cover other aspects of history.
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Political history seems to me to be the history of extroverts and manipulative, often sociopathic, power-seekers. I am interested in neither.

War seems more clean to me, a high stakes struggle bigger than all the participants, which equally rewards analysis and creativity, with an infinity of possibilities, endless problems and clever solutions, a broad variety of technologies, terrain types, cultural constraints, weather conditions, and objectives. War is filled with countless interesting stories, details of time and place that take me away to some other setting to experience another person's challenges and experiences. It has the artwork of a French hussar's uniform, the unforgettable lines of a Spitfire or a Panther tank, the amazing appearance of a Macedonian phalanx, Huey helicopters and pickelhauben. And it's not just for extroverts and sociopaths, it's for all types - mathematicians, inventors, commandos, fearless leaders, lone wolf fighter pilots, brave citizen soldiers in legions, code breakers, submarine diesel engine repairmen, cold hearted snipers, empathic nurses. All have their place, and their chance to shine, and their personal stories. Triumphs and tragedies exist at every level.

Also I like maps.
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I prefer political history to military history. It can be quite dramatic. Of course the two are often intertwined. Take the Crimea. Putin did.
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For me the decision making process has always fascinated me. When I worked on my masters in IR I focused heavily on decision making theory. Trying to figure out why someone made the decision they did (or better yet how they thought it could possibly work when it seems, in hindsight, to have been a really bad idea) is intriguing. When you really start to dig into decision making theory, you come to realize that there are a number of layers beyond the rational actor model which most of us think about when looking at why someone (or some country) makes a decision.

I also love looking at and analyzing different strategies which is also why I love wargames so much. Yeah, I know the Germans deployed their army groups in the manner they did for Barbarossa, but what if they didn't? What if they had put more panzers in the south or even made more panzers before the invasion? Wargames allow me to "play with history" in a way that nothing else really does.

Finally, I'd say it is the drama. Thinking about all those men locked in mortal combat boggles the mind. Thinking about generals deciding how to best deploy their men or thinking about those who try to take care of their soldiers the best they could (Omar Bradley) as opposed to the "Dogs, would you live forever? Attack!" approach of Frederick the Great.

And I am a highly analytical person and all those "what ifs" and wonder why they did that and what were they thinking moments allows me to flex those analytical muscles big time
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I'd have to agree with the OP's stated goal of understanding, but would have to part ways on the focus of power questions. Yes, they're there, but -- and this is just me -- I think that's a somewhat cramped and impoverished view of history and its potential to inform the present. It's just one reason why Howard Zinn annoys me so...

If history is a confluence of economic, religious, social, cultural, military, and philosophical lines informed by, among other things, material circumstances and the actions of people, big and small, with most of them just trying to live out their lives in some sense well, it's a vast and awesome undertaking.

And a big part of that unfolding story has been -- with potentially no pause since the advent of history, for better or worse -- the impact of military action and wars on the shape of the world. It has crystallized cultures, nations, and entire civilizations; shaped perceptions into the present; and impacted the world greatly. Within such "grand narratives," however, are humans living at the razor's edge; suffering, dying, triumphing, losing, changing history, and being forgotten by it. It has caused immense suffering and altered the very flow of civilizations. I'd submit it is worth studying, not alone but certainly I don't think a fair view of history can ignore or minimize it either.

It also is about the only form of history that one can discuss on a boardgame site since it is directly tied to our little niche of games ("wargames") ;)

Recognizing that you hail from a part of the world where military history has had a long, lasting impact: from the Babylonian exile to the various revolts and the fallout from the Bar Kohkba (sp.?) affair, to the impact of Yarmuk, the Crusades, WWI, and the once-a-decade conflicts from '48 on, it is possible that military history can provide insights that a comparison of kibbutzim against feudal estates might not fully capture. But it's just my $.02.

As one gets into more and more detail, the lessons are smaller in scope. I'm not really an OOB kind of guy, but I will say, recognizing how the fate of nations can rest on the 4,000 people or so at the point of a million+ man spear is eye-opening as well.

Hope to provide just a small contribution to what I imagine is a very personal interest for many people.





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whac3 wrote:
I've never really gotten the attraction of military history and so would like to hear from its aficionados what attracts them to it.


Blowing shit up.
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IMHO, military History just can't be disconnected from History as a whole. For many decisions made at war can only be fully understood if you are aware of the whole picture : culture, economics, religion, ideology... Orders of battle, weapons, numbers are important elements for sure, but they do not explain everything.

For instance, we can easily say Varro was a tactical fool at Cannae... just to forget he behaved like most of his senator peers would have. We can laugh at France's blindness in 1940, at the lost opportunites to crush Germany as it was occupied in Poland, just to forget the disgust of war WW1 had rooted in many minds, whatever the consequences. We can comment German Barbarossa for hours, but never should forget that many choices were made in an ideological background where strategy often had to bend to other ( destructive ) considerations.

I don't intend to give a lesson, of course, but I believe that good military history and good wargames should never forget they belong to a larger story.
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