A History of War on Paper
The convergence of military strategy and mathematics in war games, from medieval to modern times.
For centuries, both mathematical and military thinkers have used game-like scenarios to test their visions of mastering a complex world through symbolic operations. By the end of World War I, mathematical and military discourse in Germany simultaneously discovered the game as a productive concept. Mathematics and military strategy converged in World War II when mathematicians designed fields of operation. In this book, Philipp von Hilgers examines the theory and practice of war games through history, from the medieval game boards, captured on parchment, to the paper map exercises of the Third Reich. Von Hilgers considers how and why war games came to exist: why mathematical and military thinkers created simulations of one of the most unpredictable human activities on earth.
Von Hilgers begins with the medieval rythmomachia, or Battle of Numbers, then reconstructs the ideas about war and games in the baroque period. He investigates the role of George Leopold von Reiswitz's tactical war game in nineteenth-century Prussia and describes the artifact itself: a game board–topped table with drawers for game implements. He explains Clausewitz's emphasis on the “fog of war” and the accompanying element of incalculability, examines the contributions of such thinkers as Clausewitz, Leibniz, Wittgenstein, and von Neumann, and investigates the war games of the German military between the two World Wars. Baudrillard declared this to be the age of simulacra; war games stand contrariwise as simulations that have not been subsumed in absolute virtuality.
Philipp von Hilgers's War Games is a major work of intellectual history and media archeology. By recovering a lost genealogy that runs from the game boards of early modern Europe to the sand tables of the Second World War, he articulates the space of the war game—which mathematics and semiotics cohabitate—to demonstrate the truth of his grand opening claim, that such games are 'the most effective and fateful concept the twentieth century produced in order to master its crises.' Hardly a work for the military fetishist or ludologist alone, War Games should be read and broadly engaged by students of math, media, crisis, and representation.
Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Associate Professor of English, University of Maryland, and author of Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination
Starting with the war games, which the Prussian general staff, in the early nineteenth century, invented in its fight against Napoleon, Philipp von Hilgers investigates the link between warfare and mathematics, states of emergency and computability, from the Middle Ages to the present. It is a timely book which not only speaks to cultural historians, but also to the teenagers online who inherit the games they are playing from military planners who are spending millions on electronic and real life conflict simulations.
Wolf Kittler, University of California, Santa Barbara
Beginning with the rise of the war game in the Holy Roman Empire and ending with the general staff of Hitler's Third Reich, Philipp von Hilgers explores the interrelationship between and influence of mathematics and military affairs. War Games raises new critical questions about the underlying mathematical nature of simulations and reality in a military context and is therefore a crucial text for contextualizing the 'strategic simulation' from the Cold War to the present.
John Laprise, Northwestern University in Qatar