I read quite widely, but my literary diet certainly includes a fair amount of military history. Because I don’t read that much military history I generally prefer to focus on “big picture” books, the sort of thing that looks at history from a very high level, covering a campaign or even a whole war in a single book. Inevitably these sorts of books don’t generally dwell on individuals beyond the high command and spend virtually no time looking at conditions on the ground. I’m conscious this gives me a fairly one-sided and warped view of warfare but sadly I don’t have time to read everything in the world.
From time to time though I do dip into more personal accounts. The first - and for a long time the only - one that I read was Stephen Ambrose’s famous book Band of Brothers about Easy company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne division which was, of course, the basis for the TV series of the same name that I regard as pretty much the best piece of drama that’s ever been on television.
The story of the western front and particularly the airborne divisions holds a peculiar fascination for me. For a long time I assumed it was simply a case of familiarity: the troops that fought in Normandy trained here in Britain, started the campaign on our own doorstep over the channel in France and fought an enemy that was threatening my native country. But on closer inspection that reasoning falls down: if that were largely the basis for my interest surely I should be closely following the stories of the British divisions that took part in the campaigns rather than the American ones. It could be a case of media brainwashing, simply that because the US troops get more coverage, it becomes easier to identify with them. But really you’d have thought that someone in my position who knows a bit of history, plays some historical games and knows full well to check the specialist press for good history books could pull away from that with minimal effort if they really wanted to. And it’s not just me either: there seem to be an awful lot of books and games that cover not just the western front but particularly the actions of the 101st and people who probably ought to and usually do play or read more widely seem to keep snapping them up.
One possible legitimate answer is that the 101st fought in the three most famous battles of the western front: Normandy, Market Garden and The Bulge. And that’s probably part of the reason but again, the British Airborne were heavily involved in the first two so it can’t be the whole story. And I don’t think I really worked out the answer until I got into my most recent book, another first-hand account of battle in World War 2 but on the other side of the world: With The Old Breed, Eugene Sledge’s memoir of his time with the 1st Marine division in the Pacific.
The book is unstintingly graphic in its account of the horrors of the Pacific war. Not just the fear, injury and death which infantry on every front had to contend with daily but the peculiar brutality of fighting against entrenched, fanatical troops on tiny dots of rock in a vast ocean. He speaks of the way in which frequent hand to hand combat suddenly reduces men to bestial fury. The manner in which troops of both sides casually committed atrocities on supposed prisoners of war. The fact that static front lines on small land masses lead to a build up of rotting bodies, rotting food, excrement, flies and other vermin that infest your clothes and rations. The way in which simple things like the inability to wash one’s person or clothes or to use a toilet, combined with relentless tropical heat with resultant sweat and thirst grinds relentlessly at morale. The way in which all of these things leads to a situation in which acts of terrible barbarism come to seem commonplace and ordinary.
This is very different from the picture that countless films and books have given us of the western front. For starters the soldiers are going up against a foe enshrined as the 20th centuries’ greatest villains, whose motivations are transparent and widely known as opposed to the puzzling and inscrutable Japanese army and their strange fanaticism born of a literal belief in the Emperor as a living god. Prisoners of war on both sides were, on the whole, treated well and with respect. Front lines moved, weather conditions were generally benign, supplies were readily available, it was logistically easier to rotate units on and off the line to give them a break and so on and so forth. Nowhere is this more true than of the campaigns of the 101st: as elite, highly trained, relatively well-paid troops the unit as a whole could be expected to have extraordinarily low rates of wartime atrocities whilst exhibiting exactly the sort of inspirational bravery that civilians appreciate, almost worship, amongst the armed forces.
I have no intention of detracting from that exemplary record under difficult conditions, something few if any of us could hope to emulate if we were in their shoes. I have merely come to wonder whether the fascination with the western front and the 101st in particular springs from how easily they fit into our cultural casting of the second world war as a “good” war in which UK and US were on the side of “justice”. Focused down on that single campaign, and particularly on that single unit it’s easy to read things in that particular light because they were fighting against a great evil, and they did so whilst exhibiting great courage and restraint under conditions that were tough but comprehensible. Sledge’s record of the Pacific war on the other hand meets few of these conditions, portrays a terribly distressing conflict occurring under conditions we can barely imagine and indeed sometimes finds the supposedly morally upright allied troops as behaving - on occasion - with as much barbarity as the Japanese. and is correspondingly less popular.
This realisation has really given me pause for thought. When you start to grope back through historical records of other conflicts it becomes clear that experiences like that of the 101st are not only the exception to the norm but virtually unique. I once read a book called The Face of Battle in which the military historian John Keegan, who has never enlisted, tries to conjure up the conditions of the average soldier in long-past battles such as Agincourt and Waterloo. One thing that stuck in my head from that book was his description of a British division in the line at Waterloo which stood throughout the entire battle never seeing action against the enemy but enduring a continual and withering barrage of fire from the French artillery. The unit was completely decimated and endured that hellish, unimaginable ordeal for no better reason that no senior officers, engaged as they were with areas of active fighting, thought to order them back and into cover. The accounts of older conflicts are necessarily lacking in detail but it’s not hard to imagine that in the days of swords and spears warfare must have been almost unimaginably horrific.
What’s this got to do with games? Well, little so far, I just thought it was an interesting observation about the way military mythology is constructed and how we manage to delude ourselves that conflict can somehow be a more wholesome experience than its obvious inferences would suggest. I know a couple of gamers who absolutely refuse to play historical war games of any shape or form because of the association with actual combat and actual suffering and I respect that position. However it’d be hypocritical of me to suggest that this sudden epiphany should somehow alter the viewpoints of people interested in the military or in military games because it hasn’t altered mine. Rather, I suppose I feel that perhaps designers of war games on a tactical scale should perhaps take a bit more time and effort to properly set the scene of what they’re trying to portray. Abstraction and a distance from causality are a necessary part of operational and strategic games, but when you’re playing a tactical game it’s terribly easy to forget that the little counter you just flipped over is representative of the real agonies experience by a handful of real people who were fighting in atrocious conditions. As I mentioned in my review of Labyrinth recently, it was the first game that made me feel physically sick when I first set off a terrorist plot that killed innocent civilians. Whether through card text or counter art or a clearer connection to the wider narrative of conflict I think perhaps that more war games should be aiming for the same effect.