Published November 6, 2017 in Warp & Woof
History’s Greatest, Cruelest Levers of Power – Wars
And, How Morbid the Fascination
Why So Fascinating?
Power is an intriguing study. It’s not an overstatement to say that history is all about exploring the exercise of power by different peoples in different times. Politics is power, and Carl von Clausewitz
said, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” His assumption was that nations would always pursue power, by politics and diplomacy, then when those fail, by war.
This was the world of feudal barons and princes, of nation states, of empires. It has been a driver of history from ancient times right through the twentieth century. Even in the 21st century, we see ethnic groups and non-state actors resorting to organized violence for achieving political goals. And, some nation states still occasionally threaten their neighbors with war (North Korea, Iran?).
Great nations and empires aspire to control much larger expanses of territory than lesser nations. Alfred T. Mahan
and Halford J. Mackinder
gave us theoretical frameworks for imperialism, based on world geography, around the turn of the 20th
century. Like Clausewitz’s depressing philosophy in “On War,” their theories emphasized power and global hegemony (for further discussion of geopolitics, see my post from last May, “The Russian Bear and 21st Century Geopolitics
Later historians have addressed the role of technology
in wars. Again, domination in the field, leading ultimately to strategic ends, was the aim. In the twentieth century, both world wars seemed to support the thesis that victory in those titanic struggles belonged to the side that mastered the superior technology, and marshaled their economic resources to get it into the field. Not the most elegant plans, nor even the quality of the fighting men, that supplied the decisive margin in the world wars, but successful application of muscle.
So, for the student of history, exploring the role of wars is inescapable. Their study will always reach beyond the basics of “telling a story,” and touch politics, economics, engineering and physics. Military (and naval) history is the best way to bring all these disciplines together, through the lens of geography. Not all history buffs are so motivated, but some of us could not escape the morbid siren call of war, at least in our youth.
The Perfect Tool – Table-top Combat Simulation
My first exposure to commercial table-top simulations of military operations was in junior high school. A publisher in Baltimore had devised some fun board games and distributed them nationally. They used maps for the playing board, cardboard punch-outs for the playing pieces (representing combat formations), and relied heavily on probability (dice rolls) to resolve “combat” encounters between aggregations of opposing pieces. This was Avalon Hill Games, Inc
. Its “Tactics II,” laid out on my bedroom floor, was an occasionally enjoyable pastime with friends – but, it became an obsession for me!
It was ahistorical, but loosely based on modern military tactics and formations. It was my very first exposure to any of this knowledge. There were armored divisions (designated by a bathtub symbol with two “Xs” on top), infantry divisions (a rectangle inscribed with a large “X”), airborne divisions (same symbol as infantry but including a small gull wing icon on the bottom). The map board was an idealized landform with mountains, forests, rivers, roads, and cities – including an island which could be reached only by bridge from the mainland, or with airborne forces. Movement of the playing pieces (“units”) was over a square grid, and the terrain features conformed to this grid. All playing pieces had weighted “strengths” indicated on the piece, and varying abilities to move over the grid, depending on terrain. Combat between opposing units was resolved against a “Combat Results Table” which determined 6:1 odds to be uniformly overwhelming – probability of success declining as odds got lower.
This simple abstraction of military engagement in the twentieth century became the basis for a much more complex line of games from Avalon Hill, and another company in New York, Simulations Publications, Inc.
(SPI). Both game publishers indulged in historic re-enactments, “future history” conflicts only imagined (cold war clashes), and idealized tactical combat from different times and places in history. Some SPI games became monumental efforts. The grandest I attempted was “War in the Pacific,” which sought to provide a vehicle for the most dedicated gamers to re-fight ALL of World War II in the Pacific, from 1941-45. Its four large maps required a leaf extension and
plexiglass base for my dining room table. The map grids had long since replaced squares with hexagons (enabling orthogonal movement of pieces). The simple “CRT” with odds expressed as ratios of strengths, was now replaced by multiple probability tables for different types of combat, elaborate logistics rules and procedures, not only accurate orders of battle for army units, but actual warships – identified by name – and all the aircraft types present in theater! I played one entire Pacific War campaign – it took over a month of meeting daily (in the evening), never being able to eat at my dining room table for the duration.
By its peak in the early ‘80s, SPI had produced a powerhouse of historical data, good writing (not only complex game rules, but historical commentary in its two magazines, Strategy & Tactics
, and Moves
). They provided a unique opportunity for players with no technical expertise to engage in a pre-computer form of decision science
. It was all rather advanced. But, in the end, not profitable – hostile takeover by the publisher of “Dungeons & Dragons,” and SPI’s ultimate demise came in 1982. Avalon Hill survived, but diversified into computer games and children’s titles, as a subsidiary of Hasbro.
Table-top wargames produced insight into history, risk and probability, geometry, and world geography. Rather than simply reading others’ interpretations of history, I could act out the drama in three dimensions (two-dimensional map plus time). My favorites were games that allowed for envelopment and breaches of defenses (Avalon Hill’s “1914” and “Stalingrad” – or anything dealing with World War II on an operational and strategic level), games featuring limited intelligence (naval games were good at this – Avalon Hill’s “Bismarck” and “Jutland, or “Battle for Midway” by another publisher, Game Designers Workshop), and games that emphasized strategic availability of assets attenuated over time (“War in the Pacific” or “War in the East”).
Beginning with that primitive “Tactics II” when I was fourteen, and lasting until I finally gave up, as an adult (quit playing when I got married), I learned about battlefield tactics, the influence of weapons technology (especially when a new technology changes the battlefield environment), and the importance of intelligence (most games provided far too much intelligence – not enough “fog of war”). The role of decision theory, and the analysis of data, became a theme in my later life as I moved from the world of librarianship into information systems at the Library of Congress. Books, including combat narratives and after-action reports, morphed into tables of data, file structures, and vectoring. Gaming was a useful intellectual activity as the digital age began.
Who Did This Stuff?
As I entered adulthood, living on my own, still single, it occurred to me that the other devotees of table-top wargaming were a strange lot. They were all male. They were young and single, like me. They had no social life to speak of. As a socio-cultural group, they had some diversity of education, but all were white. Some were young professionals (often federal employees, including one CIA analyst), but many were less educated – blue collar types. Some had military backgrounds, but not all. I met no engineers, or anybody with a STEM educational background. They were all under the age of 35. And, there were no women, a serious drawback.
As I got older, with family responsibilities, and more financial resources, my orientation gradually changed. I began pursuit of graduate studies in an area inspired by those games — systems analysis and decision sciences, computer information systems. The military history interest began to fade. Strategic Studies during the cold war continued to be a reading interest, but there simply wasn’t the time to spend hours and days playing complex table-top simulations.
Pacifism – When Young Men Grow Older and Wiser
My fascination, morbid or otherwise, with the study of power exercised by nation states ultimately ended shortly after the Gulf War of 1991. This military adventure seemed such a flagrant display of U.S. national hubris that it almost looked like an effort to expend surplus cold war military equipment! The final deployment of the Navy’s Iowa class battleships was the perfect illustration. It was as if A. T. Mahan was finally being interred, 100 years after writing “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.” A moral imperative was now replacing the imperial imperative, in my mind. Nation states weren’t what they used to be – no more titanic struggles of opposing ideologies (Soviet Union: gone). Avoidance of war now seemed the primary goal of all advanced nations’ foreign policies. The march of history was clear. George W. Bush marched the opposite way with his invasion of Iraq in 2003, but otherwise it looked like the peacemakers had finally won the day.
Global capitalism may have been the foundation of this sea change in history. There were no significant national interests overriding the interests of multinational corporations. Their interest was profit, and profit meant trade, free from the uncertainties caused by war. There continued to be some asymmetrical conflicts
, notably between the U.S. and various non-state actors (Al Qaeda and ISIS), but non-intervention by the larger nation states outside their own regions would be the rule. Russia may be an exception here, but she is primarily concerned with former Soviet states on her periphery.
And, that is the moral imperative, discovered only after spending the formative years of my life studying the cruelty waged against fellow humans in the name of power. War is simply wrong. Why waste one’s days studying it? “Neither shall they learn war anymore.”