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?