Computer geeks and war

By Dave Kopel & Glenn Reynolds. Dave Kopel is research director at the Independence Institute. Glenn Reynolds is professor of law at the University of Tennessee, and writes for InstaPundit.Com.

National Review Online, October 1, 2001 9:55 a.m. More by Kopel on the study of military history.

America is hearing a great deal about the martial society of the Afghans, about their extensive experience of warfare, their great skill with firearms, and their tradition of humbling foreign militaries. All of these things are (mostly) true, though a visit to almost any shooting range will turn up Americans of astonishing shooting skills, and the military experience of the United States is hardly to be sneezed at. And a lot of bin Laden's troops are Arabs, not Afghans, and the Arab world hasn't produced a great military leader or fighting force for a very, very, very long time.

Yet we have repeatedly heard that Americans -- not so much our military, as our overall society -- don't have the right stuff for warfare. Americans, too wedded to technology and commerce, know nothing of war, some say. The public will not understand the considerations involved, the risks, or the nature of the conflict.

In fact, the opposite may be true. As a population, the American public probably has more deep expertise concerning serious military history than any previous society. This expertise has been acquired steadily over the past four decades, and it has happened largely without notice from the media, academics, or the punditocracy, and in spite of the removal of most military subjects from the mainstream educational curriculum, and despite the p.c. movement's success in driving military history out of history departments.

One reason that this military education has gone unnoticed is that the people acquiring the expertise are mostly techno-geeks, the very people that some commentators point to as evidence of our unmartial character. Yet to anyone who knows it, geek culture is full of military aspects.

Military history is widely admired among geeks. So is skill with firearms. As an article in Salon noted a while back, geeks tend to be strong gun-rights enthusiasts, regarding both computers and firearms as technologies that empower the individual. Geeks, who know that they can program their VCR, also believe themselves capable of cleaning a gun safely.

Some geeks take their enthusiasm further, engaging in massed battles with broadswords and maces as part of the Society for Creative Anachronism's popular rounds of medieval combat. Though the weapons are usually blunt or padded, injuries are about as common as in rugby and football, and the rules are far less refined. Geeks also read military science fiction, by authors like David Drake, Jerry Pournelle, S. M. Stirling, Eric Flint, and Harry Turtledove, in which war is not glorified, or simplified, but presented in surprisingly realistic fashion.

But the biggest source of geek military knowledge comes from that staple of geek culture, wargaming. Ever since the introduction of wargames in the early 1960s by companies like Avalon Hill and Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI), geeks have made wargaming a major pastime. The games, once played on boards with cardboard counters, now often run on PCs, and realistically reflect all sorts of concerns, from logistics, to morale, to the importance of troop training.

Wargaming, like chess, has always been an activity mainly for intelligent males. At the peak of board-based wargaming, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, most good high schools had a wargame club. And you can be sure that the average member of that club ended up with a job and an income far ahead of the average student at the school.

Board-based games attracted a smaller set of the geek population in subsequent decades, as computers became a new way for geeks to have fun, and as Dungeon & Dragons (originally just a small part of the wargaming world) grew massively in popularity, spawning scores of imitators.

Avalon Hill, the founding father of the industry, nearly destroyed itself through a bad lawsuit, and ended up getting taken over by Hasbro, which has junked almost all of AH's once-formidable catalogue. Today, Decision Games is probably the leading wargame publisher, with the flagship magazine Strategy & Tactics (a military-history magazine with a game in every issue), and with a catalogue of board and computer games ranging from Megiddo (1479 BC, the epic chariot clash between Egypt's Tuthmosis III and the King of Kadesh) all the way to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

Today's computer format for games works better at creating "the fog of war," since the computer can hide pieces. The computer also makes it easier to play solitaire — and solitaire was always a major form of wargame play; the players were attracted by the ideas, not by the chance to chat while playing Bridge.

How well have wargames taught war? Well enough so that several wargames have been used as instructional or analytical tools by the United States military.

Over the years, game designers learned how to playtest games before publication, so that players would be forced to address real strategy and tactics, as opposed to manipulating artifacts of the game system. No game could possibly simulate everything realistically, but the best games pick some key challenges faced by the real-world commanders, and make the players deal with the same problems. For example, the many games depicting the 1941 German invasion of the U.S.S.R. find the German player with near total military superiority in any given battle -- but always wondering whether to outrun his supply lines, and conquer as much ground as possible, before the winter set in. Other games make the players work on the delicate balance of combined arms -- learning how to make infantry, tanks, and artillery work together in diverse terrain, and learning what to do when all of sudden your tanks are destroyed, but the enemy had 15 left.

Some wargamers prefer purely tactical games, such as plane-to-plane, or ship-to-ship combat. These players come away with amazing amounts of knowledge about submarines, or fighter planes, or Greek triremes, or dreadnaughts. And since real wargamers like lots of different games, many wargamers learn a lot about many different military subjects.

Even the least successful games teach a good deal of geography and history. And they always demonstrate how the "right" answer to a military strategy question is usually clear only in hindsight.

The wargaming magazines are all about military history, naturally, and most wargamers end up reading military-history and strategy books too. If you ask, "Who was Heinz Guderian?" most people will guess "A ketchup genius?" Wargamers will be ones who answer: "The German general who invented modern tank warfare, and who wrote a famous memoir, Panzer Leader."

Most people who wargame don't become real warriors -- although the games have always been especially popular at military academies. But anyone who spends a few hundred hours playing wargames (and many hobbyists put in thousands of hours) will soon know more about the nuts and bolts of warfare than most journalists who cover the subject, and most politicians who vote on military matters.

So here's the funny thing. While the official American culture around, say, 1977, was revolted by anything military, a bunch of the nation's smartest young males — the "leaders of tomorrow" -- were reading Panzer Leader and Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart's Strategy, and of course Sun Tzu's Art of War -- which wargamers were reading long before it became a business-school cliché.

This was no accident. Many of those who founded the wargame publishing business feared that, with the anti-militarism caused by the Vietnam, and (later) with the adoption of the all-volunteer army, American society would become estranged from all things military, leaving ordinary citizens too ignorant to make meaningful democratic judgments where war is concerned. They hoped that realistic simulation games would teach important principles.

We've never really tested the societal effect of having such a large number of knowledgeable citizens. The Gulf War was too short, and too much of a set piece, for public military knowledge to play a major role. But there's reason to believe that it will be different this time -- especially as the favored geek mode of communication, the Internet, is now pervasive, meaning that geeks' knowledge, and their knowledgeable opinions, will have substantial influence. They will be able to put the military events of any given day into a much broader perspective, and they may be opinion leaders who help their friends and neighbors avoid the error of thinking that the last 15 minutes of television footage tell the conclusive story of the war's progress.

The phenomenal educational effort of the wargame publishers has ensured that, despite the neglect of matters military by most educational institutions, important aspects of military knowledge were kept alive, and taught to new generations of Americans, in a fashion so enjoyable that many didn't even realize they were being educated.

Some of our favorite wargames:

Reynolds: Mechwar 77 (NATO vs. Warsaw Pact, company-level tactics), France: 1940, Tobruk, Terrible Swift Sword (very detailed recreation of Gettysburg).

Kopel: War in Europe (huge division-level recreation of WWII in Europe and the Mid-East); Sinai (Arab-Israeli wars of 1956, 1967, 1973), Guadalcanal, Chaco (Bolivia v. Paraguay, 1932-35).

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