It's now 2012, and with the Tau's codex either the next up or the one after that, the rumours are really starting to fly. New alien allies, new HQ units, some limited Force Organization Chart swapping, maybe some new kinds of suits, some better CC units-
And that's where it often seems to come to a screeching halt, as far as Tau players are concerned. It's troublesome enough to have decent CC units coming from alien allies, despite the fact that that's exactly what alien auxiliaries are for, to plug holes in Tau doctrine. When there were rumours of some kind of Demiurg tarpit-style squad, plenty of people cried foul. Tau units, with anything even approaching close combat skills, immediately raise the hackles. But it gets worse, it gets oh so much worse, with the rumours of a CC-oriented battlesuit. The rumours have been so unspecific as to be useless; it could be anything from O'Shovah's bodyguard being more appropriately outfitted to a battlesuit armed with a 2+ shield generator and flechette dischargers to just giving suits the option of taking power weapons. Rather than be excited by the possibilities, however, so many Tau players seem set to cry heresy at the idea. The Tau, they complain, hate close combat.
But do they, really? There are only three quotes from Codex: Tau Empire that bear this out. First, on pg. 9, the book notes that Fire Warriors "see ranged combat as preferable to the somewhat brutal affair of close combat. They are not naturally equipped for such fights, preferring to use advanced weaponry rather than brute force to win battles." More damning is a quote on pg. 12, which baldly states that "The Tau regard close combat as primitive and always plan their attacks around the application of firepower." And so far as recruiting alien auxiliaries strong in close-quarters combat to balance the Tau's own weakness there, on pg. 10 of the codex it is noted that "The Tau do not necessarily seek out aliens that exhibit a particular penchant for close combat for example, regarding them instead as savage and unsophisticated."
Now, this sounds decisive. After all, it's right there in black and white; the Tau think close combat is a primitive and brutal affair, prefer ranged firepower, and consider aliens who are good at it 'savage and unsophisticated'. One might wonder what such Tau would make of Howling Banshees or Striking Scorpions, but no matter, the Tau are entitled to their prejudices just as any other race in 40K. And if there's anything more omnipresent than war in the grim darkness of the far future, it's prejudice. But the Tau, at least, do try to rise above their baser instincts, and there is textual support for that, as well. While the Tau may hold a dim view of close combat-oriented alien auxiliaries, on pg. 27 we learn that " the Kroot are afforded virtually the same level of respect as a Tau, since their skill at arms is much valued by the less physically able Tau. The Kroot are honoured for their martial prowess and are rewarded for their efforts." Given that the Kroot are equally average shots compared to Fire Warriors, but are armed with weapons inferior in almost every regard, it's difficult to believe that the Tau honour them so for their shooting prowess. And on the subject of alien auxiliaries not conforming to the Tau way of war, this isn't always regarded by the Tau leadership as a problem. For instance, on pg. 13 we learn that "As the Tau empire expands, the need to fight large-scale engagements has caused the purist Fire caste approach to be questioned and, at the suggestion of the Ethereal caste, large numbers of auxiliaries have been incorporated into the Tau military, the most common being the mercenary Kroot and the insectoid Vespid." Now the Vespid's unique neutron blaster might be of some worth for shooting-oriented Tau commanders, but the Kroot? Again, their guns are inferior in every way, and they're no better at shooting. All they do, that Tau don't, is close combat. And, of course there's the little detail that the Ethereals, the most civilized and honoured of all Tau, are exclusively armed with close combat weapons. How distasteful can it be, if the spiritual and temporal leaders of the empire practice it to the exclusion of all other forms of combat?
So, if there is support in the text both for the status quo and a possible change, what can explain the vehemence with which some Tau players put forth their opinions? And make no mistake, those who dislike anything even approaching a close combat unit in the next Tau codex hold their opinions strongly indeed. You can see it in the way they phrase things; it's never a matter of 'I don't think' or 'I don't like' or 'I would prefer', but rather declarative states, things like 'the Tau would never' or 'the Tau hate'. Well, and it might seem a little vain of me, but I'm going to go out and coin a little descriptor, here. The issue, so far as I see it, is one of prescription versus description.
And yes, I'd be more than happy to expand on that thought, thank you.
Those who complain that a close combat alien auxiliary or battlesuit are utterly and entirely anathema to what a Tau Empire cadre is consider the codex to be prescriptive; that is, they believe that it prescribes the way things should be. When reading a codex prescriptively, it is not only possible but almost inevitable that a strong sense of what is 'right' for an army would arise. In such a case, the idea is that what is presented in the codex isn't just a fictional politically and militarily historical document, but a direct statement from the game developers to the players, the proverbial Word of God. And like the most ardent of believers, prescriptive readers consider the Word of God to be eternal and unchanging, a definitive set of instructions on how things should be.
However, it is equally possible to read a codex descriptively. In such a case, the understanding is that the codex is describing how things have been and are, but makes no comment one way or the other on how things will go. A descriptive reading of a codex allows for significantly greater leeway in terms of visualizing a 'proper' army, though the tradeoff is that it can dilute any specific character the game designers have attempted to present (such as the infamous 'more Purifiers on the table than in the galaxy' build). However, descriptive readings open up the scope of the setting more for the player, allowing them to craft narratives and backstories that might clash, but don't outright conflict, with what is presented as being allowable in the codex. It's considered more of a guidebook, then.
I'm sure I haven't been so impartial as to keep from making it obvious what view I hold. Yes, I stand by a descriptive reading of Codex: Tau Empire, and indeed of every codex. Change is a good thing, so long as it flows organically from what has already been established. For instance, Codex: Necrons retroactively declaring the C'tan's power broken before the Necrons went into stasis was a terrible idea, not because the C'tan weren't a rather lacklustre idea, but because there are other stories of the Deciever running around in the 41st Millenium; if he was shattered into an endless number of fragments tens of thousands of years before humanity took to the stars, that raises some issues. On the other hand, the most recent Codex: Tyranids did an excellent job of moving that race's story forwards through the introduction of Hive Fleet Leviathan, producing units like the Tervigon and Mawloc, and even managed to re-introduce the Zoats in a sensible way. Both of these codices represented changes for their armies, but one was simply executed better than the other. And of course, even if it's not prescribed by an earlier work, change isn't always welcome; nobody ever outright said the Grey Knights didn't slaughter Sisters of Battle, after all. But on balance, for 40K to remain a compelling force, both in the fluff and on the tabletop, the game and the factions that populate it are going to have to change, even if only subtly. The alternative is to invite the collapse of interest in the property as nothing ever happens, something 40K already threatens with its 'humanity balanced on the edge of multiple disasters but never succumbing' background.
So, yes, seeing Fire Warriors armed with power-katanas would be an awful idea. The race has been clearly described as being small, weak and somewhat lacking in co-ordination, grossly outmatched in close combat by even unaugmented humans. But they've also been described as clever and inventive, constantly searching for ways to deal with whatever threat a hostile galaxy can present to them. Codex: Tau Empire describes a race unhappy with close combat and unsuited to it themselves, but don't mistake that for a document that prescribes any close combat units joining the cadres of the Tau on the field of battle.