Boys and their Toys

When the Riskies asked me to guest blog during their Waterloo Week, I was excited. There were so many things I could write about.

I could write about the events of the battle, and its impact on world history.

I could write about the nature of Napoleonic combat–the three arms of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, and the weapons they used; how those weapons affected the tactics of the battle; how Marshal Ney’s attacks illustrated the imperviousness of infantry squares to cavalry, and how the defeat of the Imperial Guard demonstrated the superiority of line over column.


I could write about the decisions that were made, how Napoleon might have won the battle, and what the likely consequences would have been.

But then a sobering thought occurred. In a rare moment of self-reflection, I suddenly wondered: “Why do I know about this stuff?!”

I mean, I’m a peaceable guy. I’ve never served in the military. I’ve never used a weapon in anger. I’m not a historian, or a historical novelist. Heck, I don’t even play one on TV. And yet I’ve done many, many hours of research, read countless books, visited innumerable museums. Why? Just for fun? Am I a mutant, or what?

No, I’m not a mutant. The truth is much worse than that: I’m a guy. And what’s more, I’m not alone in this. The world is filled with guys. And we guys, insofar as we like to read at all, like to read about war, weapons, and general mayhem.


That explains those men who spend a fortune on period costumes and weapons and drive hundreds of miles to line up in the hot sun and recreate important battles of history.

It explains the wargamers who argue for hours about the relative merits of chain mail versus plate armor, and whether or not a halberd is a purely offensive weapon.

It explains why a quick glance at my bookshelves turned up 102 books on military history, books on dueling, drill manuals and period fencing books. And it explains why I have precise knowledge of how to load and fire a flintlock musket, of the differences between smallswords and spadroons, and of the different kinds of shot used in a man-of-war, but only the vaguest idea of how to change the oil in my car.

Why this fascination? Is it in our genes, inherited from our primitive, warlike ancestors, who fought for recognition, territory, and to pick up chicks (perhaps literally)?

Is it the appeal of military virtues like courage, discipline, duty, camaraderie, and honor?

Is it the fancy uniforms, the deadly weapons, the glittering array, and the idea that somehow these will help us to pick up chicks?

Or is it the very horror of the battlefield–the closest thing mankind (and I do mean mankind) has devised to hell on earth? Sometimes a thing is so terrible that it is hard to look away even at hundreds of years’ remove.

The truth is, I don’t know why I’m fascinated, but I am. I don’t watch football. I don’t drink beer. I don’t do stupidly risky things to impress girls (at least, not anymore). I like fluffy kittens, and Notting Hill is one of my favorite movies. Be that as it may, I’m still a guy. I quote from Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and I flip to The History Channel to look for reruns of Conquest and Mail Call (which could equally be called Male Call). And the story of Waterloo grips me: the bravery, the excitement, the terror, the discipline, the suffering, and the death. It brought in a new era then lasted nearly a hundred years, finally ending on another battlefield in Belgium. It’s war; and, like it or not, it’s part of who we are.

Todd-who-also-knows-how-to-row-a-trireme-and-couch-a-lance

About Elena Greene

Elena Greene grew up reading anything she could lay her hands on, including her mother's Georgette Heyer novels. She also enjoyed writing but decided to pursue a more practical career in software engineering. Fate intervened when she was sent on a three year international assignment to England, where she was inspired to start writing romances set in the Regency. Her books have won the National Readers' Choice Award, the Desert Rose Golden Quill and the Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. Her Super Regency, LADY DEARING'S MASQUERADE, won RT Book Club's award for Best Regency Romance of 2005 and made the Kindle Top 100 list in 2011. When not writing, Elena enjoys swimming, cooking, meditation, playing the piano, volunteer work and craft projects. She lives in upstate New York with her two daughters and more yarn, wire and beads than she would like to admit.
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Lois
14 years ago

Sooooo cool, a blog from Todd!! πŸ™‚ For me, practically all of this is new, so I can’t comment on a whole lot. All I truly know about Waterloo is that it happened and the major players. Yep, I’m boring.

But in any case. . . you might be a guy, but there sure isn’t a law that says guys can only like what we think of as guy things and gals with gal things. And a peaceful guy could still be just as interested in a battle of a war — because of the passage of time, there is many aspects to battles and the like to look at and study. Can’t avoid the stuff, it happened after all.

But me, a gal, looooved baseball, regardless of how crappy the Mets play (who cares, they aren’t the evil Yankees, hee, hee. . .), Star Trek and Star Wars is a given, but I have my large fluffy cat and the History Channel for me is where I go for The Universe and all things space related. πŸ™‚

Lois

Todd
14 years ago

Thanks, Lois!

I used to be into baseball, actually. When I was growing up in New York, the father of one of my best friends explained that the purpose of television as enabling one to watch the Mets play baseball without going to the stadium. In those days it took faith and courage to be a Mets fan, since they had sucked for so very, very long. πŸ™‚ (Since then, they’ve actually gotten good again, and then gotten bad again. Go figure. πŸ™‚

In some ways, baseball and war would be similar, if they allowed the players to hit each other with the bats…

Todd-who-enjoys-a-nice-game-of-chess

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

Way cool, way cool. Your first blog, Todd? Definitely your first Risky blog. Back to reading your blog…

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Welcome, Todd!
I think it is way cool that you know how to load and fire a flintlock musket!!!
Did you play with toy soldiers when you were little? I always rather envied boys their toy soldiers, even though I loved to play dolls.
I have become fascinated with the Napoleonic War and its battles and how they were fought. For some reason, I am interested in the ancient battles and warfare as well (even before the movie 300!)I love the History Channel.

My husband doesn’t drink beer or watch sports and he loves fluffy kittens, but his war is really WWII. He’s seen every WWII movie you can think of, especially the old ones. One of his favorite Cds is the music to Victory at Sea.

But for me it is the Napoleonic Wars and there is no greater battle than Waterloo.

Thanks for guest blogging!!!!

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

Thank the gods for guys. πŸ™‚

If writers only wrote about what they knew (ignoring that oft-quoted adage), thousands upon thousands of books would lie unwritten in the brains of the writers. And with all the hours of research you’ve done? You’re an expert! Perhaps you could give a talk at the next Beau Monde conference.

I’m fascinated by children and adults who will use those small toys and recreate and argue about the world’s greatest battles. How do they keep all that information in their heads?

You want a sport where players use their sticks to hit each other? Why not follow ice hockey? Baseball is too tame a game. Ice hockey on the other hand is brutal.

Is it the appeal of military virtues like courage, discipline, duty, camaraderie, and honor?

In this Lois was headed in the right direction with bringing up sports. It’s a combination of all these talents and ability to teach them why team sports are so popular (well, at least why I advocate them).

A pick-up line based on military history? Oh, do tell. πŸ™‚

Jane
14 years ago

Another History Channel fan here. There’s a new series premiering tonight called “Surviving History.”

Todd
14 years ago

Hi, Keira! Thanks for the welcome. Actually, this is the first blog post I’ve ever done.

I don’t think I could call myself an expert, though I know a lot about some things–my research has been motivated by what interests me, rather than being systematic. So I know a lot about the types of troops, their weapons and equipment, tactics, training, and so forth, but not as much about the actual battles that took place. I’ve always been much more drawn to the history of how people lived and what they did than to the dates and maps of world events. Just my own peculiarity, I guess.

You want a sport where players use their sticks to hit each other? Why not follow ice hockey? Baseball is too tame a game. Ice hockey on the other hand is brutal.

During college my school had an excellent ice hockey team, so most of us were fans. (Our football team, by contrast, was terrible. Well, it almost always is.) I remember one hockey game against Army, who were being systematically destroyed. At some point, our band members all got up and shouted in unison: “Hey, Army! Is this all you can be?”

Todd-who-hopes-they-fight-better-than-they-play-hockey

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

Your college team can claim to have beaten the U.S. Army. I’m sure it makes for great cocktail conversation…even for you. You were there to witness it.

It would be rather interesting if one your physics conferences were in the same town as RWA, and you had to go back-n-forth presenting at both. πŸ™‚

Louisa Cornell
14 years ago

Well, well, well, what have we here? A blog by Todd! And a quite good one too!

My brothers both know all about muzzle loaders and in tribute to our Cherokee/Creek mother they are very proficient with longbows. Now my nephew loves medieval weapons. The crossbow is his favorite. I have a few swords and medieval battle axes lying about so his mother blames me for his interest.

My father was a huge fan of Victory at Sea, O Divine One. He also had a large collection of books on World War II and the Korean War (his war as he served in the Army in Korea.)

I loved the History Channel when I lived in areas where I could get cable. Unfortunately, there is no cable available out here in the boonies so I have to be content to order my favorites on DVD.

I am just beginning to collect books on the Napoleonic wars and it is fast becoming an obsession.

Between my brothers, my nephew, and myself I guess we are a fairly well armed family. Hmmm. Does that make us rednecks in spite of the fact that most of our weapons are NOT shotguns on gun racks in the back of pickups?

Todd
14 years ago

Keira wrote:

A pick-up line based on military history? Oh, do tell. πŸ™‚

Yes, well, pick-up lines based on military history work about as well as asking if she wants to see your mint collection of Star Wars action figures, still in the original packaging. You do the math. πŸ™‚

Todd-who-doesn’t-understand-why-interesting-facts-about-black-powder-don’t-bring-the-ladies-in-droves

Todd
14 years ago

Diane wrote:

I think it is way cool that you know how to load and fire a flintlock musket!!!

Yes, well, “know how to” is more a statement of abstract knowledge than actual proficiency. πŸ™‚ I think that the “three rounds a minute in all weathers” that Sharpe constantly cites can only be achieved by constant practice. And given my higher-than-average-ratio-of-thumbs-to-fingers, I might accidentally blow my own head off. πŸ™‚

Did you play with toy soldiers when you were little? I always rather envied boys their toy soldiers, even though I loved to play dolls.

I did have one of those sets of plastic WWII figures when I was a kid; I’d set up elaborate battlefields under my bed. (It was a high bed with drawers and shelves in front, so the space under it in the back made an excellent hide-out.) In spite of that, though, I never really became a WWII afficianado, though I have many friends and acquaintances who, like your husband, are very into it.

For a long time I was only interested in pre-gunpowder era warfare, especially Roman, Medieval, and Feudal Japan. Then I got interested in the Renaissance pike-and-gun armies, and when I started dating Cara I became obsessed with the Napoleonic Wars and (by extension) the whole age of enlightenment. Even more recently, I’ve started to read more about more modern wars. But I still know far more about earlier periods. Perhaps WWII is too close to my own lifetime. πŸ™‚

Todd-who-would-rather-go-up-against-flintlocks-than-machine-guns

Susan Wilbanks
14 years ago

A pick-up line based on military history would probably work on me.

::Here Susan pauses, an “Aha!” expression on her face, as she suddenly realizes why her husband isn’t so gung-ho on her taking up reenacting as soon as she gets more time/money::

I was fascinated by military history as a child, I think largely because I had a brother who started West Point at the same time I started kindergarten. Back then I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I’m glad I didn’t go that route, since I’m not good with hierarchies, so I’m much better off holding the army at an academic/literary distance! Anyway, I started researching the Napoleonic Wars seriously ~5 years ago, and it’s turned into an obsession. On this topic at least, for a girl I’m quite a guy. πŸ˜‰

Todd
14 years ago

Jane wrote:

Another History Channel fan here. There’s a new series premiering tonight called “Surviving History.”

I got very into a short series on the History Channel called Conquest, hosted by Peter Woodward (whom I knew from the short-lived Babylon-5 spin-off, Crusade). Each episode would concentrate on one type of weapon, with historical details and practical demonstrations. A series for which I was clearly the target audience. πŸ™‚

Louisa/Doglady/Pam wrote:

My brothers both know all about muzzle loaders and in tribute to our Cherokee/Creek mother they are very proficient with longbows. Now my nephew loves medieval weapons. The crossbow is his favorite. I have a few swords and medieval battle axes lying about so his mother blames me for his interest.

And well she should! Well, no, he’s a boy, so his interest is hard-wired into his genes. It’s like being born addicted to drugs. πŸ™‚

At various times in my past I’ve been very into both fencing and archery. (No Native American heritage for me, though–they could have used me for the definition of “paleface.”) There is actually an archery group here in Pasadena that meets on Saturday mornings in the Arroyo, but I don’t usually wake up early enough to attend. πŸ™‚

Between my brothers, my nephew, and myself I guess we are a fairly well armed family. Hmmm. Does that make us rednecks in spite of the fact that most of our weapons are NOT shotguns on gun racks in the back of pickups?

Hmm. Did Medieval rednecks have crossbow racks on the backs of their wagons?

Todd-whose-skin-turns-red-looking-at-photos-of-sunspots

Todd
14 years ago

Susan wrote:

A pick-up line based on military history would probably work on me.

Which may help explain why that particular nerdy tendency among guys hasn’t been bred out of the species long ago. πŸ™‚

On this topic at least, for a girl I’m quite a guy. πŸ˜‰

And more power to you!

Todd-who-never-had-much-success-dating-the-“typical-girl”

Cara King
14 years ago

Keira wrote:

It would be rather interesting if one your physics conferences were in the same town as RWA, and you had to go back-n-forth presenting at both.

Even better: put them at the same hotel…and we romance writers can sneak up to their floor and use the half-empty ladies rooms. πŸ˜‰

Does that make us rednecks in spite of the fact that most of our weapons are NOT shotguns on gun racks in the back of pickups?

Louisa, darling, I think it makes you nerds. (As a queen nerd myself, I should know!) πŸ™‚

Cara

Louisa Cornell
14 years ago

I am afraid we stand guilty as charged, Cara! I am interested in reading about warfare prior to WWI and the males in my family are far more interested in the mechanics of the weapons of those periods than they are in the actual warfare. War nerds. I shall have to remember to tell them.

Elena Greene
14 years ago

Great post, Todd. I knew we invited you for a reason! πŸ™‚

I’m also peace-loving by nature and philosophy. Yet despite being a girl I have quite a respectable collection of resources on the Napoleonic Wars and am gradually working my way through all the Napoleonic journals and memoirs I can get hold of. But my focus is not so much on weapons and tactics. Though I find those things interesting, what draws me most are the psychological aspects of war, how it brings out the best and worst in people’s characters.

And then there’s the Richard Sharpe/Sean Bean factor. I’m sure that’s what draws many women into an interest in the Napoleonic Wars. Of course, I watch the films purely for research purposes. πŸ™‚

Todd
14 years ago

Thanks a lot for the kind words, Elena!

Elena wrote:

I’m also peace-loving by nature and philosophy. Yet despite being a girl I have quite a respectable collection of resources on the Napoleonic Wars…

Well, I certainly didn’t mean to imply that women are not interested in these things as well–and I would expect the women of this group to have a much higher rate of interest than a random collection. πŸ™‚ I’ve met plenty of female reenactors, and at least a few female wargamers as well. But fascination with the mechanics of war seems much more common among men.

And then there’s the Richard Sharpe/Sean Bean factor…Of course, I watch the films purely for research purposes. πŸ™‚

Oh, of course! πŸ™‚

Todd-who-watched-Rachel-Weisz-in-The-Mummy-purely-for-her-insights-into-Egyptology

Santa
14 years ago

Great first blog, Todd. This is yet another fascinating component of what men are really thinking.

My husband is a peace loving guy but can cite military exchanges and their applications to everyday life. Come to think of it, he’s pretty much a walking contridiction; in that, the two sports he does follow are golf and hockey.

Kate Dolan
14 years ago

I found the baseball and sports analogies very interesting because today (while sitting at the Orioles game) I was thinking how fortunate we are to live in a society where where we can spend money to watch men compete to show off their prowess without anyone losing a limb. Were it not for baseball, or hockey or lacrosse, etc., we’d be watching more real fighting, IMHO.
If we’re drawn to watch competition, it’s only natural that those with an interest in history would be drawn to learn more about “ultimate” competitions like battles. The stakes don’t get much higher. But I have to admit, even when reading Bernard Cornwell’s very entertaining books, my eyes tend to glaze over when I get to a description of loading a firearm or the placement of troops on a particular site. I just can’t get a grasp on it. Guess that’s where movies help!

Todd
14 years ago

Santa wrote:

Great first blog, Todd. This is yet another fascinating component of what men are really thinking.

Thanks, Santa! Though there are certain other, um, elements, that make up a lot of what men are really thinking, that, um, I didn’t want to get into…actually, never mind. πŸ™‚

…he’s pretty much a walking contradiction; in that, the two sports he does follow are golf and hockey.

Hmm. Well, they both involve striking small objects with sticks. It’s just that one takes place at much higher speed, and requires the use of body armor.

Kate Dolan wrote:

…my eyes tend to glaze over when I get to a description of loading a firearm or the placement of troops on a particular site. I just can’t get a grasp on it. Guess that’s where movies help!

I’m not a very visual person either, and conjuring a picture from a verbal description is not easy for me. I had a real problem with a couple of drill manuals that didn’t have enough pictures to really convey the actions they were describing; I often had to actually try to go through the motions myself before I could get it.

Movies sometimes do a good job and sometimes not so good. The Sharpe movies aren’t bad, but I did have a couple of recurring complaints–for example, they always made it look like a cannon shot caused an explosion, as if it were a shell rather than a ball. That’s probably because it’s really easy for their special effects people–a flash and a puff of smoke at the mouth of the cannon, followed by a flash and a puff of smoke where the “cannonball” strikes. A more realistic picture, with the cannonball zooming along removing limbs and heads as it goes, would be harder to do and unsuitable for television. πŸ™‚

Another error that I’ve seen many times in movies is where they give you the aerial view of one army attacking another, and the two armies are these big mobs of people (or orcs, or aliens, or CGI constructions, or whatever). I always think, “OK, what are all the guys in the BACK doing?” By the nature of things, in every era of warfare troops are always spread out along a line that’s much wider than it is thick; though the scale changes enormously, from a few hundred yards in the ancient world to hundreds or thousands of miles in WWI and WWII.

Todd-who-would-want-to-be-one-of-the-guys-in-the-back

Todd
14 years ago

Wow, just went into serious babble mode. Sorry about that!

Todd-who-is-chagrined

Janet Mullany
14 years ago

Hey, Todd, nice to see you in the driver’s seat!

Diane, I think all American men of a certain age are fascinated by the Second World War. Whenever I find my husband parked in front of the History Channel, I bring out my standard line: Remind me again. Who won that one?

(The origin of that snarky remark is that I heard far too often about how America won the war (to which my other standard line is, oh yeah, and where were you in 1939?)

Sports–well, there is something rather appealing about the grace of hockey players, particularly as they hump each other against the side walls.

To me, though, the big one is World War I.

Todd
14 years ago

Thanks, Janet!

I guess I’m not of a certain age, because while I do find WWII very interesting, it’s not really an obsession for me. I’ve really done more reading about WWI (especially about aerial combat).

Todd-who-must-therefore-be-of-an-uncertain-age-but-he’s-not-quite-sure

Kate Dolan
14 years ago

Thanks, Todd, I appreciated “serious babble mode.” You pointed out some inaccuracies that should have been obvious, but never occurred to me before. I will definitely point them out to my son, who spent most of the day watching battle scenes from Lord of the Rings so he and his friends could figure out their video game strategies…
Also, your line about wanting to be one of the guys in the back reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Black Adder IV. When the general tells the troops he’s “behind them all the way,” Blackadder adds “yes, about twenty miles behind us…”
And finally, thanks for your observation that the problem with reading the description of the troops on the glacis etc. is related to not being very visual. I KNOW I’m not visual. I was afraid I was stupid as well. Glad to be affirmed as simply “not visual.”

Todd
14 years ago

Kate wrote:

You pointed out some inaccuracies that should have been obvious, but never occurred to me before.

Well, I don’t mean to be too harsh…movies are under the burden of having to make it all look good. πŸ™‚ And a lot of them try very hard to be accurate as much as possible. (Apparently a lot of veterans commented on how similar the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan was to their actual memories of the invasion of Normandy.)

I KNOW I’m not visual. I was afraid I was stupid as well. Glad to be affirmed as simply “not visual.”

Well, I don’t want to be stupid either. πŸ™‚ But seriously, I think it’s pretty common.

Todd-who-couldn’t-visualize-how-this-comment -would-come-out