Early in my teaching days, I ran across a problem: While half my students were ignorant of basic stuff — seriously, they’d ask me questions like “what is Parliament?” — the other half had decent primary school educations… and of those, a fraction actually knew quite a bit. I found this a particularly challenging situation, because one of my stock techniques was to have them “game out” various historical situations. Let’s say you’re Charles I. It’s 1625, you’ve just been crowned, and you’re in a bit of a spot…
The idea was to introduce material as the students thought it through. Here’s the problem you’re facing. What if you — King Charles — did this? Ahh, but look, here’s that. And oh, by the way, the other thing. It’s a classroom management problem: bringing the ignorant up to speed, without having the knowledgeable jump too far ahead. Done right, and the students really got a lot out of it — they remembered the solutions, because they’d thought of them themselves. If the nerds kept jumping the gun, though, nobody learned anything.
Eventually, No Child Left Behind “solved” the problem for me, by making ignorance universal, but in the interim I hit on the “video game” solution. We’ll pretend we’re playing something like “Civilization,” I’d tell them. I’d give a class a set of initial conditions — the video game’s rules — and have them run with it. Then I’d introduce the actual historical material. The smart, well-educated kids pretty quickly figured it out, of course, but it was much easier to keep them on task by referring to our Imaginary Kingdom…
As it turns out, that’s a useful technique for my own thinking, too. Comparisons of The Current Year to, say, the later Roman Empire are useful, and instructive, but the problem is, I know a fair bit about the Roman Empire, so if I’m not careful I tend to get lost in the details. And thinking about it “out loud,” as it were, by writing a blog post about it, tends to exacerbate the problem — this is, after all, the Internet, so there are lots of people out there who know way more about the Roman Empire than I do who are eager to jump in on the discussion. Those zillion-comment threads are fascinating, and you can learn a lot from them, but the point isn’t to become better informed about the arcana of the Later Roman Empire, it’s to think through the current problem.
So let’s say you’re playing a video game in which you are the newly crowned emperor of a globe-spanning empire that is obviously in sharp, perhaps terminal, decline. You came to the throne under some very fishy circumstances, so your personal power base is weak. You’ve got a fast-rising, aggressive power just over the horizon to the west. You have a bunch of lazy, whiny, demanding, yet effectively useless “allies” to the east, and to the south, a morass of warring tribes and an almost nonexistent border. You’ve got a lot of natural resources, but your infrastructure is a mess, and your human capital declining by the day. Your army is large, but politically suspect. What do you do?
(We’ll assume that you’re in full command of all your wits in this scenario).
Now, I’m no “gamer.” I personally topped out somewhere around “Civilization IV.” Those “real time” strategy games defeat me, since my poor simian brain just doesn’t fire fast enough to keep up with it all (funny how the same kids with all the “learning disabilities” who needed unlimited time and distraction-free environments to take my exams could handle that shit no problem, but that’s a rant for another day). But still, I think I can manage the basics, and the first thing I’d do is check the manual: How, exactly, do you win?
I don’t mean “solve all the empire’s problems,” since that’s impossible, and any game that ended in utopia wouldn’t be worth playing — I mean, maybe there are elves and dwarves and dragons and shit in this video game, I dunno, go nuts, the only limit is your imagination, but the game’s main selling point is that the strategy, at least, is realistic. I assume that in the game’s world, time marches on, such that “victory” is limited to “staying in power for X years” or “passing the throne on for your dynasty” or “defeating the rival empire” or something. What are the victory conditions?
After that, I’d turn my immediate attention to the army, since infrastructure, natural resources, etc. don’t mean much if I’m going to get overthrown right away. Here’s what I’ve got: big, strong-on-paper legions of dubious loyalty who haven’t seen much action in a while, and didn’t do so hot in the action they did see, backstopped by very small, but still militarily effective, palace guard-type formations….
….annnnnnd right now I’m probably reaching for the ol’ reset button, because my historian’s training and knowledge tells me I’m real trouble. Lots of Roman Emperors, some of them very talented hard boys, faced a similar situation, and they never really solved it. But if I decide to soldier on, at first I’m considering a Hadrian-type solution: withdraw, dig in, downsize. Those whiny, useless “allies”? Look to your own defense, as I think Jay-Z once said.
But that’s not going to work in my game’s world. Remember, we said that although we have lots of natural resources in the Imperial core, our infrastructure’s a mess and our human capital declining daily. What, exactly, are our newly demobilized legionaries going to do once they get back home? Guys like Hadrian didn’t know, either. I’m pretty sure he tried settling demobbed legionaries in “colonies,” the way Caesar did, setting them up as both pioneering farmers and a kind of vanguard of Romanization (not to mention a last-ditch militia reserve).
The problem with that, though, is twofold: First, there’s not enough land worth settling. Second, and far more important, the ex-legionaries don’t have the skills. Back in Caesar’s day, there were enough semi-civilian soldiers around who could make a go of farming. By Hadrian’s, the legionaries were all long-service professionals — enlistments ran 20 years, meaning you’d be an old man by the standards of the day when you got out. Plus that, since the legionaries were all long-service professionals who often died before they got out, “soldier” soon became, effectively, a guild profession — lots of guys in the later legions were the sons and even grandsons of soldiers.
So far we haven’t specified the base of our game’s economy, but given the initial infrastructure conditions, it’s pretty easy to see that there aren’t going to be jobs for the demobbed guys, no matter what economic base we choose. Hell, maybe our game is a Tolkien-style fantasy realm. Doesn’t matter — just as the Roman legionaries only had legionary-type skills, so our demobbed guys only have fantasy army-type skills. They’re aces at riding dragons or whatever, but that doesn’t translate to anything in civilian life… even if there were jobs out there anyway, which there aren’t.
So maybe you don’t demobilize those guys, you just reassign them. The problem with that, though, is that as we specified in the initial conditions, your legions are politically suspect. Your commanders are more politician than general, and since our initial conditions specified that you came to the throne under murky circumstances, it’s a safe bet that none of them are personally loyal to you. Given that, where do you reassign the legions? The southern border? Yeah, they could really do some good down there, straighten out those warring tribes…. but do you really want a bunch of guys with guns that close to you, especially under the command of guys who don’t know you, aren’t loyal to you, and (probably) had no hand in putting you on the throne?
And it goes without saying that you can’t really use those legions, either, except under extremely limited circumstances. Who are you going to pick a war with, such that you know you can beat them, but that the glory for doing so reflects on you, the Emperor, and not Miles Gloriosus, the on-the-spot commander? And god help you if you miscalculate, pick on the wrong guy, and get your clock cleaned….
Really, the only thing I can think of to do is make sure my legions are adequately stiffened by my palace guard, who we’ve specified are the only reliably effective formations we’ve got. Maybe I “promote” the furthest-away field commanders to staff positions close to me, then feed their legions, one at a time, into a low-level conflict on the southern border, making sure that the palace guard handles the critical missions for the new, more politically-reliable commander. One thing I absolutely do NOT do, though, under any circumstances, is weaken my palace guard….
See what I mean? By thinking about this stuff as if it were a video game, you get out of the “presentist” mindset, for lack of a better term. In the history biz, presentism is
the anachronistic introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. Some modern historians seek to avoid presentism in their work because they consider it a form of cultural bias, and believe it creates a distorted understanding of their subject matter. The practice of presentism is regarded by some as a common fallacy when writing about the past.
Emphasis mine, because that right there is some bullshit, “modern” academic history is nothing but presentism, but let’s leave that aside for now. Humans are naturally “conservative,” in that we can’t help feeling, deep down in our bones, that what’s now is forever. “The past is a different country, as I’m pretty sure Dr. Dre said, and they do things differently there, and even the most conscientious historian has difficulty getting into past people’s heads. To return to an example I’ve often used, people often spelled their own names differently in different documents.* What does that say about their conception of their world, and their place in it?
Thinking about things in video game terms, then, highlights the assumptions we make about our world, the ones that unconsciously color our analysis of events. I think we’d all agree that putting chicks on SEAL teams is a skull-fuckingly stupid idea, but if asked to explain why, we’d probably go with stuff like “unit cohesion.” Even though she’s apparently “just” a boat driver, there’s no “just” anything on a commando team, and we all know there’s no way in hell she can do most of the stuff the rest of the team can, since something like 70% of young men in military shape wash out of SEAL training. It’s well known in the army that the top 10% of female recruits are outperformed by all but the bottom 25% of male recruits, and that those bottom-scrapers can be “motivated,” as I think the euphemism is, to surpass the gals. There is simply no way, none, nada, zip, that any woman is physically capable of performing up to a male SEAL’s level. Biology doesn’t work like that…
But does everyone see what I mean? The problem isn’t, or isn’t just, that intersectional genderfluid SEAL teams are going to be much worse at doing commando stuff. That’s the obvious short-run consequence, but thanks to our natural human “conservatism” we tend to think that’s the only consequence. It’s not, and indeed, “being worse at commando stuff” is actually incredibly minor. The major consequence, which becomes obvious when you think about it like a video game, is that when you come right down to it, the palace guard is the only thing propping up the emperor…
…and the emperor just told the palace guard to go fuck themselves. No, really: how else are the SEALs supposed to interpret that? As a big victory for gender equality? That shit is going to get them killed. They most certainly know it.
Alas, real life’s reset button is…
*And that’s before you get into the problems of historiography, which though fascinating are irrelevant here. Just a quick taste: Apparently Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s first chancellor, was unusual in that he always spelled his name the same way: Wulcy. How that became “Wolsey,” I have no idea, and I’m pretty sure it was “Wolseley” for a while in historical writing. Names were quite irregular and highly variable in that era. For instance, a guy who rose to prominence under Henry’s father was born William Writhe, was often referred to as “Wrythe,” then changed it, for whatever reason, to Wriothesley, the pronunciation of which is anyone’s guess (the modern consensus seems to be “Riz-lee”).