A Muted Panoply

In the late 1990s, Interactive Magic and Erudite Software released three of the best wargames ever made: The Great Battles, respectively, of Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar. Lately I've been replaying these games and exploring the intricacies of combat across three continents and three centuries of warfare. We who aspire to an excess of masculinity could learn much from playing through the battles of history's greatest generals; for part of the allure of wargames, and I believe ancient-era wargames in particular, is that they often far exceed purely academic exercise, and enter into the realm of male wish-fulfillment, with a force which, at times, borders on hallucinogenic. As I play, I can almost smell fresh blood mixed with upturned earth. It's so invigorating, it's quite literally scary.

Someone recently asked me how I became interested in ancient history. I wasn't immediately sure what to tell him, so I thought for a moment before settling upon the truth.

"Violence fascinates me. I've lived a decidedly non-violent life, and I'm a rather pacifistic guy, but there's something irresistible about violence. I mean organized violence in particular, as in warfare. And, as with any kind of study, in the study of warfare it makes sense to start at the beginning."

The history of human societies is at least as well understood through a solid conception of warfare--its means and methods, agents and outcomes--as through any other discipline. As I look back on the centuries and millennia, I certainly do not fail to detect the progress of knowledge, the achievement of the arts, or the music of the spheres in all their wondrous turnings. But through it all, there beats the ugly pulse of war, which, upon examination, seems to underlie, and at times overshadow, every other human endeavor. When it comes time for war, everything else must fall away before the arms of conquerors and the bitter spades of the vanquished. And for every sword we beat into a ploughshare, we melt a statue and form it into a hundred swords. Like the man says, "War. War never changes."

Lucky for me, the closest I'll ever come to war is playing games. But I admit that I find it disquieting just how easily I've taken to wargaming as a hobby, when such games are chiefly concerned with how best to kill the largest number of fake people. Wargaming is a costless abstraction of the affairs of actual battlefields; but it is also an important precursor to the real thing, and the real soldiers of the world have recognized wargames as a valuable form of instruction and practice for about as long as men have waged war at all. To a certain extent, wargaming exercises many of the same faculties as actual command, and even the act of combat itself. So, as I maneuver my little pieces across the hex grid, redeploy my troops to protect my rear, and seek to engage my foe's vulnerable flank, I am sharing in much the same experience as every commander in history.

But I am not so thin of skin as to become distraught at merely imaginary acts of violence. No; I am only really troubled on those introspective evenings when, with a full belly and half a bottle in hand, I retire from the computer screen and reflect on the fact that there is some part of me that wishes it could perform those terrible acts in real life, and to real people.

Certainly, there is an element of romance to this desire; history itself is intrinsically romantic in character, and so any willingness to relive history must be borne of romance. But my reveries do not culminate in the flourish of horns or the beat of drums; and they do not always transpire on fields of conveniently short-cropped grass. One of the consequences of studying history in any detail is a modest appreciation of otherwise far-removed horrors, and a careful distancing from Hollywood-style depictions. I find that I want to join in the pursuit of a broken enemy; to glut myself on slaughter; to revel in defenseless killing. To see walls tumble as the city burns and the gaunt populace rend their faces. To feel a man's chest give way as my point finds purchase between his ribs. To be able to say of him that I:

...hit him at the joining place of head and neck, at the last
vertebra, and cut through both of the tendons, so that
the man's head and mouth and nose hit the ground far sooner
than did the front of his legs and knees as he fell.

Iliad 14.465-468, Lattimore trans.

Now, of course I don't really want to do those things. But somewhere in my head there exists this notion of the ideal human life, which encompasses every range of emotion and all the varieties of human experience. When I remember how central warfare has always been to the story of humanity, I cannot avoid thinking that a life devoid of such horror is but a pleasant aberration from some more complete form. I shall only live once, and if I am blessed with a life of peace, then I will never know the full story, as it were. I naturally do not wish to experience war; but some part of me does wish to have experienced war.

Moreover, I've lately grown to think that it would be dishonest to pretend that I can distinguish precisely between my fictional and real-world desires. I believe that the fictions that I enjoy affect the kind of person I am (as well as vice versa, of course). It would make little sense if I described myself as a person who abhors violence, but loves to fantasize about war. It is far easier simply to admit that I am conflicted in my desires, if only to a certain extent, and even while laboriously specifying that a conflict in desire need never cross over to a conflict in action.

In light of the above, I wonder whether wargaming is altogether healthy for me. Is it healthy to fuel one's bloodlust, but never to act upon it?

Comments

Reminds me of Thurgood Marshall's saying, "I'm a man of peace, but I adore a riot."

Lobo, this is one of the best articles you've ever written, both from a technical and emotional standpoint. Kudos.

I shall only live once, and if I am blessed with a life of peace, then I will never know the full story, as it were. I naturally do not wish to experience war; but some part of me does wish to have experienced war.

But that's what we have fiction for, to experience those things that we cannot or do not experience in real life (and I mean fiction as it encompasses all media: books, games, movies, stories, etc.). Sure, you yourself have never hit anyone at the joining place of head and neck, but by reading about it, actually, in a sense, you have. You've borne witness to it, you're complicit in the action, you are the impartial observer that does nothing to stop it (unless you close the book or shut down the game).

Is your experience of that fictional episode somehow invalid or insubstantial? If so, then why read fiction in the first place, if nothing we experience brings forth genuine emotion or insight? Yes, fiction is about entertainment, but it's also about engaging our emotions and our senses to bring to us new experiences. I have never been Huckleberry Finn, but by reading Mark Twain, I am closer than I was before.

I'm not saying reading about war is equivalent to actually going to war. But it certainly gives you greater insight than, say, not reading about war does. Fiction, in a way, gives you the ability to say, in some small way, "I have experienced war."

In light of the above, I wonder whether wargaming is altogether healthy for me. Is it healthy to fuel one's bloodlust, but never to act upon it?

Perhaps you should read "Jarhead". That book, written by a soldier, asks the same question.

Also, is it healthy to fuel any lust, but never to act on it? If I have a lust for cake, and all I ever do is dream about cake and plot about cake and play games where I manufacture various cakes, but I never allow myself to eat a cake, well, that's not very healthy, is it?

The difference here is that your lust is more destructive than simple cakery. It's also far more primal. I don't think the occasional wargame is bad. But if all you do is play wargames, and fantasize about war, and plot about war, and you never actually enlist? Yes, that would be unhealthy.

I think this is something that many men (and women, for that matter) have to go through, this reconciliation of deep-rooted bloodlust and abhorration of violence. Eventually, most people find the proper outlet to channel it. Perhaps you just need to keep looking.

Advice for my repentant warlord friend.

I too have been torn in the past as too the duality of my violent nature in the fantasy realm and my reluctance to even enter into an argument in the real world.

Born to Kill on my helmet next to a peace button kind of situation.

I found that if you realize that in another life you might have been a rampaging murderous captain of war then you need to let it out. Take your thirst for combat out for a walk, let it breath.

I started boxing, took up paintball, target shooting, anything that would let me experience the different parts of the whole. It helped my thirst for the real thing to reconcile all of my seperate experiences in my head to kind of "cheat" the feeling of war out of them.

I know what it's like to be pinned down by enemy fire, work my way through cover to come up to a man and fight him hand to hand and win only to skulk back into the woods and eliminate another with a well placed sniper shot because I had done all of them seperately.

It's like asking someone that has never been to Thanksgiving if the've ever had turkey, and stuffing, and cranberries, and gravy, and potatoes, and green beans, and pumpkin pie.

They would say "Yes, is that what Thanksgiving is?"

And you would say "No, but it's pretty damn close."

Very emotion piece Lobo, your thoughts on wanting to experience war while being blessed with a life of peace reminded me of this Robert Frost Poem:

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Courtsey of everypoet.com

I think there is a bloodthirsty nature in all of us. And the act of performing those act in a fictional world could somewhat satiate that thirst. So ultimately this may make most of us less violent in the real world, which is a good thing.

I actually found this games amongst my boxes of games I'm trying to clear out. I was wondering if you are playing it thru WinXP and if so, how?

Well done, sir. I commend your honesty, introspection, and skillful use of words, and thank you for sharing these thoughts with us.

Donan wrote:

I actually found this games amongst my boxes of games I'm trying to clear out. I was wondering if you are playing it thru WinXP and if so, how?

I think Lobo's box is still running Win 3.11

I used to have similar thoughts. The act of countless hours training to fire a real gun to kill real people during past law enforcement-related training effectively convinced me that even though I adore video game violence, I could not for a moment begin to value the real thing regardless of the circumstance. I'm horrified by the very thought. And a few years' work with people living unapologetically reckless, dangerous, or ruthless lifestyles (criminal or otherwise) conviced me that there are many, many varieties of human experience that I've absolutely no wish to have firsthand. Thank god for literature, video games, etc.

I think that in reality, the grief, regret, horror, and trauma of real-world violence usually eclipses the excitement, valor, etc. that the fantasy world provides. Games and most other fictional variants of violence don't begin to capture the emotional complexity that accompanies the human response to actual violence, both for the victim and the perpetrator.

Is it healthy to fuel one's bloodlust, but never to act upon it?

I think that depends on whether it's lust for real-life blood, or simply more of the fictional variety. Like most people, I can easily both fuel and satiate my own violent tendencies within virtual worlds, with no effect on my real-life choices. A very small percentage of people probably aren't able to do that.

Kat recommended Jarhead, and I'll second that. it's a stunning examination of similar subjects.

But somewhere in my head there exists this notion of the ideal human life, which encompasses every range of emotion and all the varieties of human experience.

The problem with that notion is that many varieties of human experience are mutually exclusive. I think life has the potential to offer certain experiences so valuable and important that forgoing others ceases to be a concern, though. What those experiences are varies from person to person, of course.

KaterinLHC wrote:

But that's what we have fiction for, to experience those things that we cannot or do not experience in real life (and I mean fiction as it encompasses all media: books, games, movies, stories, etc.). Sure, you yourself have never hit anyone at the joining place of head and neck, but by reading about it, actually, in a sense, you have. You've borne witness to it, you're complicit in the action, you are the impartial observer that does nothing to stop it (unless you close the book or shut down the game).

Is your experience of that fictional episode somehow invalid or insubstantial? If so, then why read fiction in the first place, if nothing we experience brings forth genuine emotion or insight? Yes, fiction is about entertainment, but it's also about engaging our emotions and our senses to bring to us new experiences. I have never been Huckleberry Finn, but by reading Mark Twain, I am closer than I was before.

I'm not saying reading about war is equivalent to actually going to war. But it certainly gives you greater insight than, say, not reading about war does. Fiction, in a way, gives you the ability to say, in some small way, "I have experienced war."

Very well stated. I also value fiction and imagination for all the reasons you listed. It's just that I sometimes thirst for experiences beyond fiction, and sometimes for things that are less than savory in nature. Make no mistake about it: this makes me very uncomfortable.

I thank you (and others, too) for the kind words. This isn't exactly the easiest topic to confront. It's never easy to look insanity in the eye. I'm glad that my labor shows through in the work.

Fletcher wrote:
Donan wrote:

I actually found this games amongst my boxes of games I'm trying to clear out. I was wondering if you are playing it thru WinXP and if so, how?

I think Lobo's box is still running Win 3.11 :)

Close enough. Win98. Oh, I almost forgot: Win98 SE, baby.

The Fly wrote:

I used to have similar thoughts. The act of countless hours training to fire a real gun to kill real people during past law enforcement-related training effectively convinced me that even though I adore video game violence, I could not for a moment begin to value the real thing regardless of the circumstance. I'm horrified by the very thought. And a few years' work with people living unapologetically reckless, dangerous, or ruthless lifestyles (criminal or otherwise) conviced me that there are many, many varieties of human experience that I've absolutely no wish to have firsthand. Thank god for literature, video games, etc.

I think that in reality, the grief, regret, horror, and trauma of real-world violence usually eclipses the excitement, valor, etc. that the fantasy world provides. Games and most other fictional variants of violence don't begin to capture the emotional complexity that accompanies the human response to actual violence, both for the victim and the perpetrator.

I was definitely thinking of your excellent approach to the topic as I crafted my own. Perhaps with time I shall share in your perspective.

The Fly wrote:

The problem with that notion is that many varieties of human experience are mutually exclusive.

Excellent point. One such decision most people must make at some point in their lives is whether or not to have children. Certainly can't have that one both ways!

I guess I'd say that, while the notion is obviously problematic, that doesn't stop it from holding true for me. I'd call it one of my rare descents into irrationality. Because the truth of the matter is, I'd like to lead a life with kids (for example), and to lead a life without kids. You might say I'm frustrated by my own mortality.

Interesting that non-violence is held in such high regard when Nature obviously does not hold the same convictions. A progressive buddhist might reply that it is all your state of mind anyway, should you be forced into battle, do so with awareness, don't hold back and do what you must without hesitation. I heard an interesting point from a non-violent rishi from India, who said that warriors and athletes were closest to the divine, second only to clergy, because they are so totally in the moment and dedicated to their purpose. There is a time and place for everything under the sun. If you must swing your sword, go for the killing blow. Just do not live by the sword and make your life a shrine to mindless violence.

Modern understanding of the issue has witnessed 2 world wars, with gasing, atomic bombs, the death of millions, and the ransacking of entire continents. Suicide bombers and nuclear weapons are the primary examples of how the machinery of warfare has evolved beyond what nature intended, and one misguided act of passion can have tremendous effect. Yet as reprehensible as an organization such as the Nazis were, I have always been fascinated by the fruits of their misguided labor.

"It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence." -- Mahatma Gandhi

"Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man." -- Mahatma Gandhi

I'll third Jarhead as an applicable side dish to this most excellent of articles. The point is about one degree divurgent from your own, and the intersection is thought provoking. Sorry, under duress my brain defaults all math analogy mode.

Which brings me to my humble suggestion. If you have any Lobo articles sitting on the back burner that are less your usual 110%, now is the time to put 'em out there. Save gems like this one for after the Oblivion daze when I've had enough sleep to appreciate them.

somewhere in my head there exists this notion of the ideal human life, which encompasses every range of emotion and all the varieties of human experience.

I'm just gonna step right out there and say that I've felt the same way, my whole life. I choose to lead my life one way, according to principles that I have reasoned out through my own reflection and study. But that's just being me. I feel as if I don't and never can achieve my greatest desire, to understand humanity, because I will never be able to experience 99% of it. Some of that is because I have no particular desire to become a rapist, rape victem, coal mine worker, slave, slaver, or general. The rest is that I have no ability to experience things from the viewpoint of a different race or gender or some social classes, aside from imagination and anecdotes.

I've also fantasized about what it would be like to feel testosterone pulse through me on a field of battle as I emerge victorious to hear the cheers of my comrades and the lamentations of those remaining we have spared. But I've accepted the fact that certain experiences I was not meant to have, and in most cases, that's probably a good thing.

Lobo wrote:

It's just that I sometimes thirst for experiences beyond fiction, and sometimes for things that are less than savory in nature. Make no mistake about it: this makes me very uncomfortable.

Interests in and impulses for actual violence (and other unsavory acts) are a feature of human existence. I think they're only cause for concern when the person having them can't recognize them for what they are and manage them appropriately. Whether video games or other violent media nurture and encourage those real-life impulses, or merely allow them to be examined and indulged in a safe, abstract environment is of course a central issues in some circles of debate.

Lobo wrote:

Excellent point. One such decision most people must make at some point in their lives is whether or not to have children. Certainly can't have that one both ways!

I guess I'd say that, while the notion is obviously problematic, that doesn't stop it from holding true for me. I'd call it one of my rare descents into irrationality. Because the truth of the matter is, I'd like to lead a life with kids (for example), and to lead a life without kids. You might say I'm frustrated by my own mortality.

Parenthood's exactly what I was thinking of when I wrote my initial response. I can't think of any experience that I've ever been able to willingly sacrifice so much for, on such a constant basis, without reservation.

I shall only live once, and if I am blessed with a life of peace, then I will never know the full story, as it were. I naturally do not wish to experience war; but some part of me does wish to have experienced war.

I get a distinct "Fight Club" vibe from your article Lobo

In light of the above, I wonder whether wargaming is altogether healthy for me. Is it healthy to fuel one's bloodlust, but never to act upon it?

I think you're on the verge of joining the SCA or a martial arts school.

Jolly Bill wrote:
somewhere in my head there exists this notion of the ideal human life, which encompasses every range of emotion and all the varieties of human experience.

I'm just gonna step right out there and say that I've felt the same way, my whole life. I choose to lead my life one way, according to principles that I have reasoned out through my own reflection and study. But that's just being me. I feel as if I don't and never can achieve my greatest desire, to understand humanity, because I will never be able to experience 99% of it. Some of that is because I have no particular desire to become a rapist, rape victem, coal mine worker, slave, slaver, or general. The rest is that I have no ability to experience things from the viewpoint of a different race or gender or some social classes, aside from imagination and anecdotes.

I've also fantasized about what it would be like to feel testosterone pulse through me on a field of battle as I emerge victorious to hear the cheers of my comrades and the lamentations of those remaining we have spared. But I've accepted the fact that certain experiences I was not meant to have, and in most cases, that's probably a good thing.

I again want to reiterate, maybe in not such a macho way, my belief in the importance of getting these feelings out. Boxing with my friends was one of the most theraputic activities I've ever taken part in. We've all since gone our seperate ways but at the time we were all fit and understood why we had gathered at one another's houses. To wail on each other until we could barely catch our breath.

This is an extreme and one that I would not participate in now with having a job that requires me not to have the hell beaten out of me on occasion but the theory still stands. People need outlets, but, we, the gaming few, really need two. We need the mental outlet of the immersive nature of our games, but, we also need the physical outlet.

If you have a few friends locally then try a sport, any sport. You don't have to like or be good at it as long as it gets you moving around competitively.

Personally I think Gamers are like dogs, we can sit there in one spot doing one thing for a very long time but every now and again we have to run.

I'm a normal, friendly, sweet guy in normal life. Too sweet, some of my friends may say. When I play a game, I become a true son of a bitch. Doesn't matter if it's a board game, or sports, or a mp computer game. Losing gets scraped temporarily from my dictionary, dirty play is a-ok. Without ever really breaking the rules I twist and turn them a little, careful not to cross them when in sight. And when no-one is looking, I sometimes cheat. I'm a bad winner, and a sour loser. I scould my trampled foes, I minimize and sweettalk my way out of defeat.

And I don't feel bad about it. Ever. Because it's all a game. And I resent it when people think I'm a bastard everywhere anytime, because they've seen that vicious look in my gaming eyes. Yes, I do take games seriously. It wouldn't be fun otherwise, now would it! I take 'em as seriously as WWIII, while remembering it's still a game. In a safe and harmless environment, the complete and utter competitive bastard in me is let loose.

And frankly, anyone taking my in-game evilness personally can screw themselves. They're just denying the asshole that sleeps restlessly in all of us. I don't think I "need" to get "The Beast" out once in a while, but it sure is fun. If it helps me be a saner person during daylight, nice. But that's just a bonus, baby

Nice read, Lobo

Lobo wrote:

with a full belly and half a bottle in hand, I retire from the computer screen and reflect on the fact that there is some part of me that wishes it could perform those terrible acts in real life, and to real people.

And this is what your poetry is for, my dear. You can kill people with your brain.

When I remember how central warfare has always been to the story of humanity, I cannot avoid thinking that a life devoid of such horror is but a pleasant aberration from some more complete form. I shall only live once, and if I am blessed with a life of peace, then I will never know the full story, as it were. I naturally do not wish to experience war; but some part of me does wish to have experienced war.

We all have an impulse to violence. However, war extends upon this. It's traditionally been a way to "make your name", something that everyone in your community recognizes as sacrificial, a risk taken on behalf of the maintenance of power, and that association is a way to gain glory. This is an external benefit, of course, and after the fact, and it assumes that war is something that is chosen. War that is imposed tends to be a lot less glorious for the defenders and a lot more swift, shocking and deadly.

But I believe the main *internal* attraction to warfare is that it is sanctioned violence. The normal rules of behavior are suspended on the battlefield. The idea that one's inhibitions can somehow be left behind and that you can be tested on a fair ground against motivated opponents is perhaps the classical romantic notion of war. Of course, it bears little resemblence to modern combat, and maybe it has not been accurate picture of warfare since before the Greeks formalized mass combat tactics. But I believe that our fascination comes less from just innate bloodlust than from a desire to be free to act on our deepest - and often darkest - desires, without fear of penalty.

This helps explain why the Marines advertise with a guy climbing a cliff, then standing with a sword in a uniform. They could simply show a montage of a daily soldier's life - early morning PT, 12 hour days, paperwork, hassles with managers, hard physical labor, stress, and occasionally getting to actually fire off a weapon, under controlled circumstances. For some reason, though, that lacks visceral appeal.

Just some thoughts.

Lobo, a great article.

Right away I want to echo Chiggie's remark that you might really enjoy martial arts or boxing. I realize it's just "playing" at violence in a different way, but it might satisfy the rush of adrenaline while still in a controlled environment. You will miss the lamentation of the women and elderly as you march through the city gates, but you will come to understand the deadly seriousness of violence much better, which may be what you're yearning for. Substance behind the pixels or hexagons or movie screen.

But that's not the most important part. It seems many of us come to games/movies/books to escape suburbia with its overly nice people and lawns. But the pendulum swings both ways. No doubt many soldiers write home to their families or read cheesy romance novels or even play Halo because they want to escape from daily violence, and yearn for a safer life where you can always put the book down or hit the "restart" button if you die.

Either way, since escapism never fully works, you will be left with the feeling that at the end of the day, nothing has changed, and if anything, you've wasted the chance to actually get up and do exactly what you've been pretending to do through a book or game.

My only advice for satisfying the sense that you will never experience 99% of life is to talk with someone who has. Well, talk to many people who have. Start a correspondence with a soldier in Iraq. Read whatever historical documents you can find on the barbarian invasion of Rome, or talk with historians who study that for a living. Learn through them what it was like. In most cases you'll be doing them a favor as well, as everyone wants to believe his/her experience is unique and counts for something.

But again, great article! You can tell it made me think.

Great article and very interesting discussion. I don't have anything to contribute really, but I just wanted to give Lobo props as well as all of you who contributed. Viva la Goodge!