Intemperate, Inflammatory, and Scandalous Harangues

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Having prompted myself to ponder the politics of the American Civil War, I thought that for my next book I should pick something that fit with these events. After reading Back Channel, about a year-and-a-half ago, I looked forward to reading more from Stephen L. Carter when I got the chance. At this point, one of his books seemed themely and so I embarked upon The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln. This book was written two years before, and two books before*, Back Channel.

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln imagines that it is Lincoln, not his vice-president Andrew Johnson, who survives the assassination attempts on the night of April 14th, 1865. Having survived the war and the assassination, Lincoln now becomes bogged down in both personal tragedy and the politics of reconstruction. Having so recently celebrated the New Year of 1967, I transport myself back to the beginning of an 1867 where radical elements within the Republican party are bringing articles of impeachment against the president.

Reading the book, I had to go back and check the date that it was published. If Carter hadn’t written this novel ten years ago then he surely should be writing it today. The story seems to speak directly to current effects but does so, not just behind 150 years of distance but using historical fiction so as to free Carter from needing to compromise with his storytelling in order to adhere to historical accuracy.

The impeachment proceedings of Andrew Johnson created much of the precedent that we will be presumably be seeing this week, guiding the current Senate’s impeachment trial. For example, I was entirely unaware of the term “Managers” until the one-month delay between the House vote and the transmittal of the articles of impeachment to the Senate.  I now understand it was the 1868 trial the created this structure, where so-named Managers from the House act as prosecutors for the Senate’s trial.

Stephen Carter’s writing combines some of the best traits of legal thrillers (e.g. John Grisham) and historical fiction. When I read Back Channel, I commented at some length about the marketing of Carter as an “African-American author.” While I further commented that such a distinction is entirely unnecessary (his work easily stands on its own merit and requires no affirmative action nor special category), it is also true that Impeachment (even more than Back Channel) is about the social and political aspects of the racial divide in post-war Washington DC. That facet of the story is also excellent and engaging. In fact, given my concern about the fictional account of slavery in Class of ’61, Carter’s background and ethnicity only add to the strength of his portrayal of a free black woman trying to make a career in Lincoln’s Washington.

I also previously indicated that Carter shows no sign of political affiliation. I’m not so sure about that after reading The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln. Certain elements of the story, such as the rights of black Americans to own firearms for their own self-defense, would only go over well with one half of the body politic in today’s environment. In fact, had this book actually been written now, in 2019 or 2020, Carter would almost certainly be accused of a pro-Trump bias. Lincoln’s fictional impeachment has too many parallels to today’s headlines. Such parallels equate the heroic figure of Lincoln with Donald Trump – and we know that doesn’t go over so well.

Besides the gun stuff and yet another discussion about the welfare of slaves – is it better to be well cared for and in chains or free to suffer? – there is plenty of wisdom concerning the process of impeachment. Several of the characters (and those who should know at that) inform our heroine that impeachment is not about the law and it is not about guilt or innocence – it is about politics. The story starts (an intro bit about the April 14th assassinations aside) with the articles of impeachment being sent from the House and the preparations for the Senate trial. The politics are, I should think, more convoluted than those of today. The fictional Andrew Johnson being dead, a conviction of the President will place Senate President Pro Tempore Benjamin Wade into the oval office. But Senator Wade also leads the body which will be the jury. Because, as in the real trial of Johnson, it was Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase who presided over the trail, Wade also gets a vote. If you are familiar with the actual impeachment trial of Johnson you may know that Johnson was acquitted for lack of one additional vote against him.

The extent of Carter’s prescience in having this book available for us now can be explored by looking the deviations from the historical impeachment of Johnson. Johnson was, one may or may not recall, a Democrat. He joined the Lincoln/Republican ticket as a rejection of the secessionist leanings of so much of his party, forming a combination ticket of “War Democrats” and Republicans called the National Union Party. Recall further that, in the first few years following the end of the Civil War, the Republicans, despite being a newly-formed party, had an overwhelming majority in Congress – not least because the Southern States remained ineligible to send representation. After Lincoln’s assassination, the political situation was that an overwhelmingly Republican congress now faced an unexpected and unelected (at least, to the office of president) chief executive. The impeachment vote in the House fell along party lines and the Democrats didn’t have enough Senators to acquit at trial. Similar to the Articles of Impeachment from Carter’s story, the actual charge against Johnson (that he replaced Stanton with Grant as Secretary of War without Congressional approval) was considered dubious at the time and was not-too-much later declared unconstitutional. Carter, of course, has removed the “party lines” angle, necessarily, given that all the fictional players were Republicans.

Last Friday, the Wall St. Journal printed an editorial piece by our sitting Vice President who references John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage. Among the men that Kennedy admires is Senator Edmund G. Ross of Kansas. Ross was one of the six Republicans who did not vote to convict Johnson, thus failing to achieve the 2/3rds required. Ross (in a role filled by Bostonian Charles Sumner via Carter) was an ardent abolitionist and political opponent of Johnson. In voting, he declared that he would consider only the facts in the trial itself, not the politics. Vice President Pence, in writing his piece, urged Democrats to break with their party as did Ross** and vote on the greater Constitutional principles; that impeachment should not be taken likely or hinge on matters of party politics.

One part of Carter’s book that I particular enjoy (and I was expecting it, because a similar afterword completes Back Channel) is how, after his story completes, he details the points where he knowingly altered historical fact in service to his story. Such an exercise is at least as educational, and probably more so, than a work of historical fiction that meticulously sticks to the known facts. He also includes an interesting conversation between (fictional) characters at the very end. They wonder, to each other, what the impact of the great events they have witness will have upon history. The answer, it is suggested, is that the progress of history is too momentous to hinge upon a single individual. In other words, we readers are to assume that after the historical deviations which took place over the course of The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, the world would simply return to it course as we have learned about it in our history books.

This fits in quite well here, on my own page.

*Sort of. Carter also writes under the name A. L. Shields. He published a book so authored in 2013.

**Some suggest that Ross may have been bribed, although is is certainly not proven.

Conjunction Junction, How’s That Function?

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This is the fifty-ninth in a series of posts on the Vietnam War. See here for the previous post in the series and here to go back to the master post.

In February of 1967, preparations began for what was to be one of the the largest operations of the Vietnam War, code-named Operation Junction City. The offensive targeted the communist stronghold referred to as “War Zone C” with a massive invasion intended to trap and destroy what was referred to as the “mini-Pentagon,” an informal term for the Central Executive Committee of the People’s Revolutionary Party. This was the administrative headquarters directing the anti-government forces in the South.

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The operation has an unprecedented scale for this scenario series. In the weeks before Junction City is to take place, preparations such as this diversion, are among the player’s tasks.

In gaming terms, I had some high hopes for this operation. It is covered by scenarios in three (or four, depending on your counting method) games; Vietnam Combat Operations, Volume V in The Operational Art of War, a scenario in each version of Squad Battles, and a campaign scenario in Radio Commander. In some ways, it provides an unprecedented opportunity to compare different games and different scales while looking at a single battle. The key is the scale of the operation. Junction City itself lasted for 82 days and that can be pushed to over 100 if you include preparatory operations such as Operation Gadsden. The U.S. forces committed included much of the 1st Infantry and 25th Infantry Divisions, the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, and the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. This is potentially 30 turns in Vietnam Combat Operations with a maneuver area this actually meshes well with the TOAW mechanics.

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Horseshoe? It is hard to separate hammer from anvil in this screenshot. In what is considered by some to be bad luck, the “horseshoe” faces downward.

As I’ve explained, the scenario manual instructs you which units were historically involved in the operation in question and directs you how to place them historically. Satisfactorily doing so will earn you victory points as well as help match your play with the built-in triggers. You are, of course, free to deviate from the historical path in whatever ways you see fit.

Operation Junction City consisted of a horseshoe-shaped static perimeter intended to isolate the area containing the mini-Pentagon and to prevent enemy from escaping the operational area. With the perimeter established, a massive mechanized force entered the open end of the horseshoe from the south, sweeping north. They would either engage the enemy forces and annihilate them or force them against the waiting forces of the prepared perimeter.

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In the end, my massive operation netted little more than a captured supply base.

The problem was, the communists, perhaps alerted to their vulnerability by sources inside the South Vietnam government, were able to move their logistics center to Cambodia and avoid being trapped by the operation. What engagements there were resulted in lopsided American victories, but the large scale battle where the U.S. expected to have a clear advantage did not materialize. While casualty ratios (per U.S. estimates) were on the order of 9:1, that did mean a non-trivial loss approaching 300 American servicemen in addition to equipment losses. In this, the scenario accurately recreates the operation. Besides a few inconclusive (and obscured by the game’s fog of war) battles, my only result was the location and destruction of an enemy supply center.

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A very nice array of assets. both armor an artillery.

Absent a major, defining battle, one probably can’t expect the tactical-level games to integrate in any way with the operational treatment. For the Squad Battles scenarios, there is really nothing about them that gives a uniquely “Junction City” feel to them. In fact, the first of the two fits in just as well with one of my previous articles as as it contributes to this topic.

March 20th, around about midnight, saw a VC assault on a Fire Support Base 20 near the village of Bàu Bàng. Such an assault was anticipated by the American command, due to its proximity to a known communist stronghold, and so forces (3rd Squadron) from the Fifth Cavalry Regiment were deployed to defend the artillery. This fight is sometimes designated as the Second Battle of Bàu Bàng, the first having been fought in November of 1965. When I played a (First) Battle of Bàu Bàng in Steel Panthers, I suspected that a research error had caused some M48 Pattons to incorrectly make it into the order of battle. It is this, the 1967 scenario where the defenders have a mix of M113s and M48s and the Squad Battles setup accurately provides them.

Now, for all my complaints about deviation from historical lethality, my results in this scenario were very much matched to the historical results. I wound up losing only one AFV (it happened to be the one highlighted in the above screenshot) whereas the U.S. lost two vehicles to enemy fire in the portion of the actual fight modeled* by the scenario. Although the ability to rapidly react and to establish and expand a perimeter was a key element in the U.S. victory, I mostly fought from fixed positions. In any case, the scenario gives the (American) player a nice mix of armor and artillery. It’s a slaughter, but that’s the reality. The real-world casualty ratio was pushing 100:1.

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Another fire base defense scenario.

Move ahead a day, and we get to the next of the Squad Battles scenarios. This one was part of the Squad Battles: Vietnam package, as opposed to Squad Battles: Tour of Duty, but like the first it is a fire base defense scenario. In this case, the defenses are manned by dug-in infantry of the 4th Infantry Division. What’s special about this scenario is that it (as seen in the above screenshot) models the direct fire capability of the artillery batteries using flechette ammunition, also called “beehive” rounds due to the buzzing noise they produce on their way to their target. Direct fire from defending artillery was often a factor when defending a fire base and this scenario allows the player to experience this capability hands-on.

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Cavalry riding to the rescue.

As with the previous day’s action, armor was a factor. The player is granted four tanks to rush toward the sound of the guns. Moving them at maximum speed, they can engage the enemy for the last few turns of the scenario. In my case, they may have contributed to the salvaging of one of the victory locations, although it is hard to tell. I also lost a tank to RPG fire during the advance, which is consistent with the historical results. It was a hard-fought battle, but it is an easy win in game terms.

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Another Radio Commander intro sequence, in the voice of an embedded reporter, answers my question about Coleman’s rank. Is he a grunt?

On to my third tactical scenario, this one from Radio Commander. First off, the campaign sees fit to address some of my open issues from previous steps. The cinematic intros continue, this time via commentary from a civilian reporter. We’re now clear on Coleman’s educational background and rank. What I don’t understand is whether or not an officer, provided they lead troops in the field, would have qualified as a “grunt.” Was this how the term was applied 50+ years ago? Besides that, I finally have my company up to full strength. I’m in command of three platoons instead of the usual two.

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Dropped behind enemy lines, my guys need to find and trap the guerrillas.

I can’t knowledgeably comment on the historicity of this scenario. The action is too small and, frankly, too uneventful to be notable. It is certainly possible that something very similar happened at this time and place, but to verify or disprove that would take more effort than I’m willing to put in. I strongly suspect, instead, that this is yet another example of making a scenario that encapsulates key points from the larger battle, but at a scale more appropriate for the game.

Operation Junction was the largest airborne operation in the Vietnam War. By Vietnam, the U.S was seeing the need for parachute drops being, well, dropped in favor of helicopter insertions. The drop of 845 paratroopers was only a small part of the overall operation, but a noteworthy part. In my (above) operational game, I missed my chance to use the 173rd in their paradrop role. As I was reading the instructions, I actually inserted the second battalion of the 503rd via helicopter before I realized they were supposed to use an air drop. I probably lost some mission points for this, but given that I had more than enough helicopter transport to go around, my way was likely more effective otherwise.

The Radio Commander scenario, Hammer and Anvil, has an early AM drop of your subordinate company. Once in position, they are to push the enemy toward waiting mechanized elements of the 196th Brigade. This small-scale drop takes place about a month after the historical airborne operation. My gut tells me there was nothing that actually corresponds to this configuration of forces.

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Herding cats. Armed, communist cats.

That aside, the scenario is an interesting in terms of its different approach. In this go-around, the objective is not to engage and defeat the enemy, the trick is to force them to move in the direction that you want them to. In doing this, there are plenty of things that can go wrong. You can miss them entirely, as you pass by them in the jungle. They can slip around your flanks or through the holes in your forces, escaping out of the operational area. They can achieve sudden, local superiority and teach you a nasty lesson. In short, it reflects the experiences of America’s large-formation operations against the insurgency.

There also seems to be, tucked away, a scripted event meant to advance a story line about war crimes. I’ll avoid commenting too much… for now. I will say that fictional battlefield atrocities seems like a cheap way to make a point, particularly if it is untethered to reality either through actual events or at least statistical occurrence.

That bit aside, I’d say all four of these scenarios provide some useful insight into various aspects of this operation, even if none of them are quite the gaming challenge that one might be hoping for.

*As is often the case, it is hard to pin down what segment of the battle, exactly, is represented by the scenario. The battle went on for something like 4-5 hours before massive air power drove off the VC. Despite the effectiveness of mechanized units against the assault, it is estimated that the bulk of the enemy losses were due to airstrikes.

No Me Pongan en lo Oscuro a Morir Como un Traidor

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Yet another film I was sure I would never watch. Think of it from my perspective. Starring Kristen Stewart? A drama about a U.S. soldier befriending a terrorist prisoner? This can’t turn out right, can it? But once again, Netflix has forced my hand. Camp X-Ray* has been removed from streaming during a relative lull in the cull, meaning this it is one of a very few choices to watch-now-or-forever-hold-my-peace.

Turns out that Camp X-Ray was much, much better than I had expected. I was expecting a poorly executed political statement. In fact, politics seem entirely absent from this drama. Or maybe the better way to phrase it is that one brings one’s own politics to the table when looking for meaning in this film.

Even Kristen Stewart’s wooden acting turns out to be an asset in the piece. It entirely fits her role playing a young woman who struggles in a male-dominated culture which doesn’t quite accept her. Iranian-American actor Payman Maādi is outstanding has her counterpart behind bars.

I have to admit that part of my unreserved positive feeling about this one is that I expected so little going in. I also happen to be just finishing up Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, reading it with one of my kids. That book and the Harry Potter series is used throughout.

It’s a slow film and its a stark film. Not a lot happens over the course of the nearly-two-hour run time. I think that’s the point. The film ends just about ten years after the events of 9-11. That is a very, very long time to be stuck in limbo. That is a very long time to be “at war,” especially against an undefined enemy and under terms that, while they are ever changing, never seem to be resolving. One line seems to hold particular insight into the meaning of freedom, particularly in an unfree environment. Kristen’s Cole points out to Maādi’s Ali that if he would just follow the rules, he could be transferred to another, less restrictive environment. He responds.

If I follow your rules, what does it mean? It means that I’m agreeing that you have the right to give me rules. But you don’t. You don’t have the right to give me rules. So me? I never agree to follow your rules. Never. Maybe you think I’m stupid.

Do you?

*The title of the film is a reference to the initial, temporary camp set up in Guantanamo Bay in the spring of 2002. One might recall the pictures of detainees being held, hooded and kneeling, in outdoor, chain-link-fence cages. Camp X-Ray was replaced by Camp Delta, and it is the latter where the bulk of the film takes place. The opening of the movie, sometime around late February 2002, briefly shows the X-Ray of the film’s title.

Hail the Winter Days After Dark

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Oh Netflix, how do I watch thy offerings? In Order of Disappearance.

The first weekend of the new year saw a handful more movies being removed from netflix. Among them is the Norwegian language film In Order of Disappearance, so I watched that one while I could.

As is often my custom, I refused to read any of the summary of the film before I watched. Because of that, I didn’t know what to expect. I only knew it starred Stellan Skarsgård, whose work I generally like. In this case, I’m really glad I took the plunge. In Order of Disappearance starts out on a somber note, with the kidnapping and death of the main character’s grown son. It was a good bit into the film before I realized that it is actually kind of funny. About half way through I checked the “categories” for the movie and, sure enough, it is classified as a comedy. This is the second time recently that I was taken by surprise by a Norwegian black comedy. If my small experience is anything to go on, the Norwegians really have a knack for this genre.

I also didn’t realize that this 2014 film was remade in 2019 as an English-language version starting Liam Neeson. I saw ads for that film but dismissed it out of hand. Not only did it look like a cheap knockoff of the Taken series (which itself wasn’t all that great) but, ironically, I figured Neeson is getting too old to star in action movies. Neeson is 67 and a year younger than Skarsgård, although the latter was 62 when the original was released. I never made a connection between the two films until after I had finished watching it and was looking at information on-line. Speaking of on-line, I stumbled across one reference that said that the main character, Nils Dickman, is supposed to be 45.  I guess they are all too old.

In Norway, the title of the film is Kraftidioten. The term translates literally as “The Power Idiot.” I’ve seen those familiar with Norwegian use “The Prize Idiot.” Apparently, this is a term that doesn’t have an English equivalent. The distinction that I read is that, while an “idiot” may be something of a moron, a kraftidiot is decidedly not stupid – he just does stupid things, perhaps through bad character rather than ignorance.

I said the film opened with the death of the son, but that is not quite true. The opening shows long shots of a snowplow clearing remote roads. The film felt very comforting to me, as I myself am huddled up in snowy, cold, and wintery weather. The beautiful landscapes and soothing monotony of a plow pushing through the empty land was really very pleasant. The imagery of winter is repeated throughout the film, sometimes accompanied by music very reminiscent of Fargo. Rural Norway may deserve a support actor award for this film.

I may actually have to watch Cold Pursuit now. The remake had the same director and, from what I’ve read, it pretty much recasts the original film in English. Is it the case here that, figuring in American moviegoers just really don’t like subtitles, the studio thought a straight-up translation was worth the investment? I also want to see if the streak of misogyny that runs through the original survived the trip across the ocean. I started to notice a pattern – every female character turned out to be pretty unpleasant and, one way or another, screwed over their husbands – mostly without cause. It seems like some kind of statement and, furthermore, the kind the wouldn’t fly anymore in this culture. I wonder.

These Last Days’ Events Seem Frightfully Great

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Today’s journey starts nearly two years ago when I read an article in the Wall St. Journal about historical board gaming. At the time I owned none of those games. Since then I have made a pair of purchases. After buying 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis based on the discussion, I wrote a bit about it and particularly the derivation from Twilight Struggle‘s design. I dwelt on the similarities and differences between 13 Days and Twilight Struggle from both a gameplay standpoint and a design standpoint. That obvious connection between the two irked some folks on the discussion boards – they felt that 13 Days was a little too derivative and that perhaps there was some impropriety in “borrowing” from the Twilight Struggle theme without due deference to the original designers.

Meanwhile, there was a particular name whose heavy influence these titles I had also been discussing; that of designer Mark Herman. He designed Fire in the Lake as well as having a deeper historical connection to its development. His creation of We The People in 1993 is often cited as the origination of the Card Driven (War)Game (CDG) as a genre. That ties him, at least spiritually, to Twilight Struggle (and, therefore 13 Minutes via 13 Days), Freedom: The Underground Railroad, and 1960: The Making of the President. Throw in my spurious connection between Richards Berg and Borg, and we’ve drawn a line between Herman and Memoire ’44 as well.

You see, it was Mark Herman that took back* the Twilight Struggle baton from 13 Days.

In his “Designer Notes” Herman writes how he had an interest in smaller games in the late 1970s, but various pressures had shifted his focus to the big games. Without mentioning 13 Days by name, he indicates that its use of his own (We The People) mechanics and the Twilight Struggle theme motivated him to get back into small, quick games using the CDG mechanic. He thought of his follow-on to We The People, the Civil War themed For The People, and how it neglected to model the run-up to the firing on Fort Sumter. The result was a 20 minute game, Fort Sumter: The Secession Crisis, 1860-61, intended to the first in a series of smaller games.

Elsewhere, Herman makes a comparison relative to theme with Twilight Struggle. Specifically, he is saying that “games on this period have an advantage” when it comes the inclusion of history in that the players have, themselves, lived through some or all of the events depicted in the game. To me, this seems another reference to 13 Days. Because, you see, the two games are structured very much alike. The both games consist of three hands, where all but one of the cards are played – either for the “event” printed on them or a (usually lesser, but more flexible) number value. The last card of each hand is then saved for an “aftermath.” There are differences between the two games, of course, and some of those differences, while minor in and of themselves, make for a significantly different feel in terms of game play as well as in terms of the theme.

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Open move. Fredrick Douglas influences the New York City papers, but its a bluff.

Both 13 Days and Fort Sumter start with each player secretly choosing an objective (from a random 3 in 13 Days and a random 2 in Fort Sumter). The big difference is that in 13 Days, you know which three cards your opponent has and vice versa. In Fort Sumter, you have no idea except to say it is not the same two choices you have (or, in later rounds, those that have already been played). Furthermore, Fort Sumter has more spaces to choose from – four trios of “dimensions” instead of just three. At the same time, you only get four cards (three playable) instead of 13 Days‘ five. The end result for all of this is that in 13 Days, the key element is bluffing. You already have enough information about your opponents choice that you might be able guess what objective the other player has, by watching his play. If you are correct, that could translate to a decisive advantage in scoring. In Fort Sumter, on the other hand, you mostly have to concentrate on your own goals. There is some opportunity to counter the moves of your opponent but, for the most part, you neither have the knowledge nor the opportunity to do so.

Critically, this makes 13 Days much less feasible as a computer game. I talked a little in my previous article about how a 13 Days “AI” might be structured. Most of your decisions revolve around how your opponent is going to perceive your moves and how much you react to (or ignore) your opponent. This has a decidedly psychological angle. Decision-making in Fort Sumter, in contrast, will be much more focuses on the player’s own goals. Automating that decision-making is aided by the relative simplicity of the game. Perhaps its not so surprising then that, approximately a year after the board game was released, a computer version also became available.

Fort Sumter‘s digital version was developed and published by Playdek, the same development house responsible for the well-received Twilight Struggle conversion. Several years later, Playdek and GMT (publisher of the physical Twilight Struggle) announced a partnership for the development of multiple games from the GMT catalogue. Specific projects in the announcement included a computer conversion of Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-?; a yet-to-be-published title, Imperial Struggle; and unnamed games from the COIN series. The first two are reworking of the Twilight Struggle game structure to model the post- 9-11 world and the English-French rivalry leading up to the American Revolution. The COIN games, I have opined, trace their lineage from Twilight Struggle, through Labyrinth, and into that ever-expanding COIN series. You can easily see the appeal of extending the Twilight Struggle (computer game) engine into a portfolio of games. Lots of releases from a core of common code.

At the time of the announcement, the first product of this partnership was going to be Labyrinth, albeit without a target release date. To date, I’ve not seen updates on Labyrinth‘s but, in the interim, we’ve had last year’s release of Fort Sumter. Given the lineage between GMT, Twilight Struggle, through to Fort Sumter, clearly this seems like a positive (if small) step in that “generic engine” direction.

I do not have the Fort Sumter board game and so I have no experience playing the game against any opponent other than the Playdek AI**. Overall, it seems like a simpler game when compared to 13 Days. I’ve gone into some of that simplification above. Another key component, present in both games, is the idea of a escalating crisis. Fort Sumter‘s version of DEFCON is considerably simpler. Rather than actions indirectly or directly increasing tension, the equivalent consists simply of the blocks that have yet to be put in play. The combination of simplified features makes the game feel that much shallower.

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For the last regular round, I hope that a double-value of Fort Sumter will keep me in the lead.

The one area where there is a little bit more to the game, relative to 13 Days, is the “Final Crisis,” or what 13 Days calls the Aftermath. Recall how I discussed that the 13 Days Aftermath is a similar mechanic to the Space Race in Twilight Struggle. You can either put cards in the Aftermath to gain points for an end-of-game scoring opportunity (+2 VP to the side with the most points), or you can dump cards into the Aftermath to avoid having them played during the regular game. The problem is, “spacing” opponents cards in this manner adds to their point total in the Aftermath.

Fort Sumter avoids this dilemma by having two separate card functions, depending upon when the card is played. The event, including to which side it belongs, and the play-value of the card are all irrelevant in the Final Crisis resolution. All the matters is its color. Thus, while the “aftermath” is still a good way to get rid of cards from your hand that you don’t want to play – there is just no downside to doing so. This simplification is balanced by the fact that the “Final Crisis” play itself is active. Each player secretly sorts their hand, and then with the order so determined, plays their held cards one at a time. Each play entitles the player to move or remove up to two cubes targeting the “dimension” indicated on the card. If, however, both players target the same dimension in the same round, they both must remove their own tokens. This takes most of the strategy away from cards themselves and makes it (almost) a straight-up cube placement mechanic. Given the number of strategy cards, there is no way to predict what your opponent might have and so the chance of a match is almost entirely random.

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Fort Sumter relates to the start of the Civil War because it says it does. Not sure how Seward is being connected to Buchanan here, though.

So 13 Days is probably the more interesting player-versus-player game while Fort Sumter makes far more sense as a computer game, although definitely a fast-and-easy one. But what about the historical angle? When I originally looked at 13 Days, I made a distinction between that game’s integration with historical theme versus Twilight Struggle. While none of these games is meant to be either a historical or military simulation, to me, Twilight Struggle integrates the historical theme much more than the other two. On a sliding scale, however, Fort Sumter seems the most to consist of a generic mechanic with the historical stuff laid upon the top.

As with the other two, the historical background in the accompanying Playbook is a good read. I agree with Mark Herman’s comment – that part of the Struggle (tee hee) is that we are an extra 100 years removed from the present day when it comes to Fort Sumter. A yet, while enlightening, the historical background doesn’t quite imbue meaning to the game’s mechanics. For example, let’s take a look at the second (above) screenshot. My opponent, playing the rebels, has an advantage in the Fort Sumter space, which I am trying to reverse. Given that have two more cards to gain control and the AI can’t know that I want to control Sumter, it should be a given that I’m able to take it. Meanwhile, my biggest advantage is in the “Border States.” The notes explain how this dimension represents the cascading of southern States leaving the union. The pivotal “border states” rectangle represents, most importantly, Virginia and the uncertainty over which side she would support.

Fine, but what does “winning” the “Victory Point” for this mean? By controlling this space, do I prevent Virginia from seceding? Have I merely prevented Maryland from seceding, matching the historical result? Maybe I delayed Virginia’s secession without preventing it, thereby also delaying the Confederacy’s preparation for war. I think it goes without saying that, had Virginia come in militarily on the side of the Union, that would have decisively altered the course of the war. Is that reflected in game terms? While the historical chrome does make the game more interesting, it is hard to build a “story” from the course of a game in any way that makes sense.

Let’s contrast this with 13 Days.

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Turkey and Berlin have no point value. Both my opponent and I have yanked our “commitment” to deescalate the risk of nuclear war.

In my previous post on the subject, I mentioned the mechanic of the “Cuban Missile Crisis” card in Twilight Struggle and how it translates into game terms a world on the brink of nuclear Armageddon. 13 Days is far more abstract, but I can still build a story from it. Let’s take the screenshot above, similarly taken from a game nearing its end. Playing as Kennedy, I can see that Khrushchev is being pushed politically to escalate the nuclear threat. If I am too soft, he’ll win political points (either at home or abroad, I don’t know which one he’s pushing for) that will disadvantage the U.S. in the Cold War for years to come. On the other hand, if I push too hard to counter him, the war could go hot and one of us loses, consumed in fire. Meanwhile, I’m bluffing. I’m signalling that my biggest concern is the politics of protecting Italy, but that’s not true. I’m trying to score political points over Cuba and augment that with a strong military stance using the U.S. fleet in the Atlantic. Since I started this round on the brink of nuclear war, I had to drop support for missiles in Turkey as well as leave Berlin hanging in the wind, militarily, to back the world away from that nuclear button. The game is abstract, yes, but the theme allows you to make it historical if you so desire.

As of that above screenshot, if the game played out as I expected it would, there was no way to know who was going to win. I get to go last, so I aim to pick up a couple of points in my objective after the Soviets can no longer counter me. This might put me up a point or maybe two, but that won’t matter, because ties go to the Soviets. I also had to give up my advantage at the United Nations in order to back away from the edge and that means the “Personal Letter” will be taken by Khrushchev for the game’s end. Who wins will all come down to the aftermath, and I don’t feel confident in that arena. Throughout the crisis, I have been struggling with my supposed ally’s in the free world while the Soviets have been strengthening their own relationships. The result of controlling the “Alliances” block, in game terms, is three more aftermath cards in the kitty than I will have. In story terms, a “stalemate” in terms of the crisis itself will favor the Communists in the long run, as they were all along thinking of the long term effects on their alliances.

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Kaboom!

Unfortunately for the Soviet Union, and the mass casualties that resulted from the nuclear exchange, Khrushchev miscalculated. Instead of doing what I expected, he used the card “Guns of August” to push the world to the brink of war on the “World Opinion” track. I can’t connect the book Guns of August to my story except to say, as Germany miscalculated the ability to contain the Diplomatic fallout from backing Serbia, so did alt-world Khrushchev miscalculate how much he could use pressure the rest of the world to force Kennedy to back away from the brink.

Obviously, the Soviets had gotten used to their influence over the sympathetic liberal reporters in the Western press and counted on that control to manipulate Kennedy into a position such that if a war started, everything would look like America’s fault. He didn’t count on the fact that, even though many reporters had political differences with the Administration and the military, when it came down to it they were still Americans and still Patriots. Khrushchev found he could not manipulate the press and when he pushed the world into war, he was forced to take the blame for the resulting loss of life among his own people.

As information about the situation in 1962 has become declassified, it lends support to the position of hawks like LeMay; a massive first strike by the U.S. may have crippled the Soviet Union sufficiently that they would be unable to mount a successful retaliation and would therefore be unwilling to retaliate at all. Nuking the Soviet Union, particularly if it was widely deemed that Kennedy had been forced into the decision, might have resulted in a U.S. “win.” At least that’s how I interpret the above result, where the Soviets have clearly won on points but, in doing so, triggered a nuclear war. Such a detailed analysis is more than a little silly – few of my details were really part of the game. My point, however, is that 13 Days lends itself to undertaking such an exercise in ways that I don’t believe Fort Sumter is capable.

I spoke before about this idea that you win, both in Twilight Struggle and in 13 Days, if you can make war look like the other guy’s fault. Fort Sumter lacks even the clarity of this iffy mechanic. What does it mean to end the game with more points? Can war be avoided? Is, with Lincoln having been elected, the Civil War inevitable even as you are trying to influence whom the history books blame it upon? Perhaps there is an implication that a better run-up to Bull Run might have resulted in a Confederate military victory. Could holding Fort Pickens as well as taking Sumter make a military difference? Could a more complete control over the weaponry stored in the southern Federal Arsenals have given the South an early and decisive military advantage? Maybe a few additional victories in the court of public opinion could have meant intervention by England, France, or both?

Its a tenuous historical connection – only there if you really want to make it happen. The elements may be there but I can’t get them to coalesce. Even the concept of Victory Points is deliberately vague. What does it mean to accumulate said points in terms of the outcome of the war? Herman says, in the design notes, that he struggled with this. He suggests that a top contender for what the points represent was “Strategic Will,” a phrase that still doesn’t help me understand much. In the end, he felt that leaning toward the abstract would prevent confusion for players and make it a better game.

How do you win? You get more Victory Points. Anybody can understand that.

Last of all, I’ll say that for whatever its faults, there are reasons Fort Sumter may still be a must buy. Translated to the computer, it becomes a game that can be completed in about 10 minutes. As such, it may fill a gaming need for something quick yet cerebral. It also, if you catch it on sale, can be had for under $2. Even at full price, it is under $5. Hard not to surrender to temptation.

*Some restructuring removed a link I previously had to a Wargamer.com review. So that the link doesn’t disappear, I included a link to the board game and the PC game. Oddly enough, given that the reviews were written by the same author, the board game review seems positive while the PC game review is negative. In particular, the historical theme is credited in the first but deemed a shortfall in the second. I will discuss this aspect further.

**I don’t know if anyone is reading through all my meandering writing seeking a critical review of the game. Just in case you’ve perservered thus far, I’ll throw out this bone. The AI seems weak, even against an fairly new player. I’ve only lost game in the handful or two I’ve played, and that involved a pretty stupid move on my part. On the other hand, in my last game, I saw a really dumb move from the AI. I had played the event that allows an early play of the “Peacekeepers.” Essentially, this freezes the state of one space on the board through to the “Final Crisis” phase. I played it on Washington, the pivotal space for the political dimension when that had no units from either side on it. It essentially made it very difficult to earn any points from a political objective and all-but-impossible to earn the Washington points. My thinking was that there was a 1-in-4 chance that, at the time of play, the AI had a political objective and therefore I had a 25% shot at denying him that one point. The next round, the AI chose Washington as his objective, knowing that I already had it blocked. Rough-order-of-magnitude thinking, that a 90%+ chance that he will be unable to get that point. It’s just throwing away a point for nothing and, as it turns out, that single point made a difference. Again, that’s a lot of words but, I’m thinking that if the AI can’t see what it a near-certain implication of a card play, I have to wonder if it is really all that sophisticated.

True Faith and Allegiance

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Among the movies being removed from Netflix for the end of the decade was Class of ’61. With a running time of only a hour-and-a-half it was something I could commit to finishing before the New Year rang in. My watching it spurred me to try out a game I’d acquired but had yet to play. I’ll save that, though, for another post.

This film was created in 1993 and stars an impossibly-young Clive Owen. It was a follow-up of sorts to Ken Burns’ The Civil War, riffing on some of the themes from that series as only a dramatization can do. The project brought together Steven Spielberg, in the role of producer, and his soon-to-be regular cinematographer Janusz Kamiński. Historical oversight was provided by Civil War author Shelby Foote with contribution from  Ken Burns. The project, like Burns’ The Civil War, was envisioned as a series, but the show was not picked up and what we are left with is the pilot episode as a “film.”

The key historical plot element is the loyalty oath that West Point cadets were made to swear after Fort Sumter surrendered. Students were from both North and South and the Army thought it prudent to try to lock in those Southerners who might be considering returning to their home states to join the rebel cause. I gather that the oath was modified somewhat to require allegiance to the “National Government,” a clear reference to the budding rebellion.

I will support the Constitution of the United States, and bear true allegiance to the National Government; that I will maintain and defend the sovereignty of the United States, paramount to any and all allegiance, sovereignty, or fealty I may owe to any State or Country whatsoever.

-from the 1861 West Point cadet oath.

The drama begins as many of the Southerners refuse to take the new oath and instead depart West Point (Seniors only a few weeks shy of graduation) to return to their home states. In particular we follow three cadets. The first and, as far as the movie goes, least important, is George Armstrong Custer who really was, as portrayed, the last in the class of June 1861. The distinction of the month is necessary. The “real” Class of ’61 graduated in May. What was originally the Class of ’62 had their graduation accelerated due to the surrender of Fort Sumter in April. The West Point program was five years of study but the June class of 1961 as well as the subsequent wartime class were all graduated after four years. Custer’s two classmates and close friends from the series are fictional, cast as a top and a middling student who also happen to be a future infantry and a future artillery officer (to offset Custer’s attraction to the Cavalry). Of course, they represent the divided country as well. Custer was from Ohio and of German (aka Pennsylvania Dutch) descent, a cultural background that is as “North” as they come. Another friend hails from a Virginia plantation where his family owns slaves. The third is an Irishman from the violently-divided city of Baltimore, representing those caught, geographically, between North and South.

As the friends part, various subplots involving love that spans the Mason-Dixon divide, some runaway slaves, and an artillery duel between teacher and student seem to fall into typical mini-series ground. There are also some battle scenes from Bull Run (First Manassas). These look like performances by reenactors, which I can appreciate. The results are rather scant looking battle scenes, apparently limited by the number of reenactors available.

All-in-all, its not great but its not terrible either. If the “movie” seems like too much build up and not enough substance, we had better chalk that up to the fact that this was supposed to be just the first episode in a series. This is all the more glaring at the end when the titles announce that pretty much everyone died.

I had a funny thought while watching the movie. There are a series of scenes where the welfare of slaves is questioned. Were they are being well-treated; are they in fact well off? The film poses several answers. It suggests that the subtle racism of Washington and Baltimore, while not enshrined in law, can feel as bad or worse than the laws of the South. It also suggests that one’s answer depends on one’s audience. That is, just because one doesn’t advocate for one’s freedom doesn’t mean one doesn’t want to be free.

My thought, however, is the in the portrayal of this on-screen. This was 26 years ago. Twenty-six-years-on would it still be possible to portray fictional situations involving slaves and slavery? Especially on the small screen, where this was intended to air? Portray the lives of slaves as too “nice” and you might be accused of being an apologist for slavery and a racist. Portray the treatment of slaves too harshly and you might be accused of being a sadist, trying to create entertainment out of torture and suffering. Perhaps even some form of cultural appropriation. These days, it would seem that the safe route is to try to stick to non-fictional situations and base your drama only on what happened or, at least what plausibly might have happened. Unless you are Quentin Tarantino.

One other interesting little fact associated with this movie. Among its characters, one of the star-crossed love interests is Lily Mackall (or perhaps Magraw), a courier for the socialite Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow. Lily is played by Laura Linney in her first top-billed role. Following the airing of the show, the women’s auxiliary of the Sons of Confederate Veterans was inspired to change its name. They became the Order of the Confederate Rose, naming themselves in honor of Rose Greenhow and her wartime deeds of daring. That seems like something else that you can’t do in today’s America.

Mercy Sakes Alive

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This is the fifty-eighth in a series of posts on the Vietnam War. See here for the previous post in the series and here to go back to the master post.

What feels right and what doesn’t?

I complained recently about the way close artillery support seems unrealistically ineffective in The Operational Art of War and Squad Battles. This is not an observation based on data – it’s just a gut feeling. In fact, it would surprise me if the these wargames, which have been around for so many decades, were really all that far off.

On the other hand, Radio Commander does feel good in my gut. If you’re facing a close fight and you call in some air or artillery support, it almost immediately shifts the balance. Fire support comes quickly and is generally on target. Again, no hard data to back this up, but the in-game experience seems to be consistent with the reading of after-action reports.

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Flanking and eliminating the enemy.

Contrast that with the realism of the missions that make up the campaign. The next mission in the sequence (pictured above) is escorting an ARVN resupply convoy on its way to a besieged ARVN camp. So far, so good. Recall that the standard setup for this game has you in command of two airmobile infantry platoons plus supporting forces. The same applies here. Now, I can’t say this would never have been done but escorting trucks with foot-bound infantry seems like a pretty inefficient method of protecting a convoy.

What I do have in support is a unit of armor (M113s) plus artillery and air support. Like the artillery, the M113s seem to better conform to their performance in line with what I’ve read. In Squad Battles and in Steel Panthers, these vehicles seem extremely brittle when compared with the literature. In Radio Commander, in contrast, these are very effective units.

Hopefully not to ruin it for you, but this mission introduces certain story elements relative to the political difficulties in Vietnam. The scenario begins with some anti-Vietnamese banter from the attached unit while we are also operating with an ARVN unit – an event that feeds into the conversation tree. That same ARVN unit witnesses and reacts to a napalm strike on an enemy-held village that resulted in significant civilian casualties. I’ve yet to see if it is an integral part of the story or scoring or just included for color, but it seems to be building that Vietnam experience.

So does Radio Commander feel right?  Once again, it is a question of expectations. Is this an RTS with realistic combat elements? If it is, the campaign is structured very much like the typical RTS or even the similarly-constructed Men of Valor. You’ve got some core people that you husband through some key historical landmarks, without necessarily trying to reconstruct any particular battle or operation. If this is your ruler, Radio Commander is doing a better job than most. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a tactical wargame similar to Squad Battles, then we’re still in the realm of those introductory/tutorial missions that help you get the feel of the game and UI without explicitly trying reproduce historical combat. By this measure (and I’ll compare to the Squad Battles campaign game), it has its pros and its cons. We’ll say the jury is still out.

Return to the master post for Vietnam War articles or go on to the next article, in which Radio Commander is but one of several games to compare engines using the same battle.

Liberal Fascism

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Some categories of movies I’m never going to watch.

I say that, but in at least one of those categories, I’m showing a pattern that runs contrary to my claims. A bit more than two years ago, I watched Hillary: The Movie. My primary purpose at the time was to get a deeper understanding of the legal and constitutional issues surrounding the Citizens United court ruling. Now, I’ve just watched Death of a Nation, a similarly-themed piece made for the Trump era.

In this latter case, my reasoning was based on some stuff I read on line. I read complaints that Death of a Nation was, suddenly, unavailable on several streaming services. It was a time when I was particularly concerned about the removal of dissenting opinions from sites controlled by the major media companies. While it is equally (or perhaps more) likely that the likes of Amazon and Netflix had simply pulled the film from their offerings for their own, inscrutable business reasons, I decided to treat the incident as one of censorship and put Death of a Nation onto my list of films to watch.

To the extent that they even know it exists, it seems that much of non-conservative society really hates this film. Wikipedia descriptions of the film and of its creator, Dinesh D’Souza, lead with the most incendiary of terms. D’Souza is a “far right political provocateur” and a “conspiracy theorist” who presents “revisionist history.” Almost anything I’ve seen written on the film trashes the title from top to bottom. But is it really that bad?

In a word, no.

Death of a Nation will, for the most part, confirm the things that conservative viewers of the film already know to be true. It would probably be difficult for liberals to make it very far into* the film and, for those that did, they would almost certainly object to most of its content. But doesn’t that just mean that conservatives believe things that aren’t true?

For the most part, the material presented in the film is (as far as I can tell) accurate. Its problem is more one of style than of substance. Although not quite as bad as your typical History Channel program, it is still dumbed-down to be digestible by the lowest common denominator among its viewers.

The structure of the film starts out with Trump’s election and the, literally, immediate call to bring him down. It was this part of the movie that made the biggest impact on me. Although this less than three years ago, it already seems like a distant, bad memory. Seeing the protests, the rioting in the streets. Seeing the anguished talking heads. Seeing the politicians swearing to do whatever it takes to remove The Donald from office… and then putting that into the context of what is happening today – well, let’s just say that I think it says something. More obvious than ever is the overblown, apocalyptic language from the left. According to them, the world was going to end if Trump remained in office. “You better get your abortions now,” one activist shouted to an applauding crowd. Yet, three years of Trump in office hasn’t changed all that much. We can talk about the tone of politics and the culture wars and we can argue over whose fault it is, but for all of the left’s fearmongering and all of Trump’s bluster, life pretty much goes on as it has before.

D’Souza’s approach, having shown the progressive’s hostility toward the President, is to pick apart the major criticisms of Trump. They say he is a “fascist” and a “racist”, so the film goes into some historical exposition about the meaning of these terms, particularly in the context of the United States.

For the fascism accusation, he re-presents information that many have seen before, connecting Fascism and National Socialism with their roots in Communism and International Socialism. This has been done better and in more details by the likes of Edvīns Šnore’s documentary The Soviet Story and Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, just to name two. It is nonetheless a quick catch-up that then can be used challenge the broadly-accepted notion that Hitler and the Nazis were extreme-right-wingers, diametrically opposed to Socialism and Progressivism.

For the racism accusation, D’Souza again offers up a counter argument. When it comes to Republicans versus Democrats, Trump versus Never Trumpers; it is the latter for whom racism permeates their roots. He challenges the idea, popular with the left, that somehow the foundation of America itself was fundamentally racist, offering arguments an awareness on the part of the the Founding Fathers of the conflict between American freedom and slavery. When the cotton gin revitalized slavery in America, he points out, it was the Democratic Party that provided political protection for that institution.

Among the more original arguments I heard in this film, D’Souza makes an interesting connection between a “for their own good” defensive of slavery and the modern communist/socialist/progressive justification for the curtailment of liberty. This line of thinking came from some who defended the institution of slavery. Essentially, they argued, the slaves were better off being “cared for” by the system that enslaved them than being left to the mercy of the cruel, competitive world as free men. It is a small leap from that to the idea that every worker, every citizen, is better off being kept as a ward of the State; the essence of Socialism. This point is made to counter the argument that while, yes, the roots of the Democratic Party may be racist, they’ve long ago left that behind. He argues that it was the utter failure of Hitler’s program that caused the Democrats to finally eschew all progressive causes associated with Nazism (e.g. eugenics), as did pretty much everyone else in the world. But, he says, the core precepts of Progressivism aren’t that far afield from the pro-Slavery and Jim Crow Democrats.

Both of these points are worth making, but D’Souza takes it all a bit too far. In making his claims, he beats you over the head with evidence that supports him and ignores anything that doesn’t. He isn’t content to point out the similarities between the politics of slavery and the politics of socialism. He rather concludes that the Confederate South was some sort of proto-Marxist society. He even goes so far as to say that, had Lee won at Gettysburg, there would have been no nation to oppose the Nazis in the Second World War. This is absurd. Furthermore, for every Southern-sympathizer that thought that slavery was “for the slaves’ own good,” there were certainly many more who simply denied the humanity of slavery’s victims. In addition to those who fought the Civil War to protect the racist institutions of the South, there were plenty who fought for State’s rights and principles of self-determination.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to argue the root causes of the Civil War or assert whose “Cause” was right. My point is that, while it may be true that some of those with the Confederacy were very much in the mold of modern Progressives, others would be more accurately recast as modern conservatives. He does a disservice to his actual argument (that it is inaccurate to call Republicans the party of racism) by overreaching (The Confederacy was the dream of modern day Progressives).

On the other hand, these complaints are less criticisms of the film than the fulfillment of exactly what I expect from this kind of production. I don’t know if there is a name for this “category” of film making, this politicized documentary, be it from Michael Moore, Al Gore, Matt Damon, or Citizens United. Perhaps the term polemic would be the right one to apply. Although it purports to instruct, and I did learn a few new facts while watching it, Death of a Nation‘s intent is to influence. Witness the prominence that two performances of patriotic music are given in the film, overshadowing much of the “documentary” that preceded them.

So the movie wasn’t so bad and, taken with a grain of salt, can enlighten the audience on a few historical points. The problem is, I’m not sure a film like this has any hope of being effective.  This nation now seems so divided into pro- and anti- Trump camps that we wonder if there is any other ground to stand on. This film targets and will resonate with the pro-Trump folks, but it certainly won’t sway their opinion – they need no convincing. It also won’t arm them arguments to persuade others. Even the most convincing of non-political arguments (e.g. Richard Spencer is not a conservative) isn’t formulated in a way that can be used to spread that information among the non-believers. By the end of the film, Donald Trump is presented as the embodiment of all-things conservative and the only salvation for the nation. For anyone who is not already 100% pro-Trump, this is just ridiculous. It is, perhaps, as absurd as accusing Mr. Trump of being the embodiment of racism and fascism.

I don’t think you’ll want to watch this film. I didn’t really want to watch it either. However, neither of us should be told what we can and cannot watch. For that reason alone, this film was a must see.

*Indeed, some of the critiques focus almost entirely on the comparisons between Trump and Lincoln, something illustrated on the DVD cover and on the movie poster. In the scheme of the film, however it is something of a minor point. I wonder how many reviewers formed their opinion simply by looking at the poster?

Happy New Year

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This is the fifty-seventh in a series of posts on the Vietnam War. See here for the previous post in the series and here to go back to the master post.

A new year deserves a new year in my gaming world as well. Time to move from 1966 into 1967 and the Year of Big Battles. Surprisingly given the phrase used to describe this phase of the war, there are no operation-scale, big-battle scenarios – either in The Operational Art of War (TOAW) or within the other games I’ve been playing. Perhaps this is because, once the U.S. got its big battles, they wound up being, more often than not, entirely one-sided. Against full-scaled U.S. operations, the insurgents either fled or got walloped.

So it looks like I’ve got an array of 1967 scenarios that are fairly similar to what we saw for 1966. Despite that, who doesn’t want to mark the passage of time. And who better to herald the New Year than the United States Marine Corps?

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The Marines are chasing some guerrillas into the hills in the southern part of Quang Nam. Note that I have both artillery and air support.

The next scenario in the Vietnam Combat Operations series, this time Volume V, starts of the 1st of January 1967 and covers the first half of the year. Although January 1967 saw operations all up and down Vietnam, we’ll focus in on the Quang Nam province in the center of the I Corps zone. The focus is because this time and place, and the Operation Tuscaloosa that was active here, is also covered in Squad Battles: Vietnam.

In my version of Tuscaloosa (see screenshot above), I encountered some unknown insurgent activity a bit further south from the battle that actually took place. The river crossing marked Go Noi indicates an island that was a Viet Cong stronghold and it was near here that the Marines in Operation Tuscaloosa fought a bloody battle. Given the variability of Vietnam Combat Operations and the fog of war, I ended up on a different river. Over a period of a couple of weeks I have been bringing in reinforcements so that, by the time of the screenshot, I have 3 battalions engaged plus artillery and air support. It’s a bigger operation than the historical one. Still, its nice to feel a connection of sorts.

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Ambushed while crossing the river.

The battle portrayed in Squad Battles: Vietnam is split into two scenarios. The fight took place on January 26th, 1967, when two companies of Marines were ambushed as they attempted to cross the Thu Bon River. The point that they had chosen for the crossing had a large (500m wide) sandbar which separated two branches of the river. While the Marines had plans prepared for the possibility that their crossing would be contested, they were not aware that the VC had the entire sandbar targeted from entrenched positions on the south bank of the river.

The first scenario in this pair has you commanding one company of Marines just as they are ambushed by the Viet Cong. The Marine plan, on encountering resistance, was to call in artillery support and then frontal-assault the enemy positions with H Company while the second company, F, moved into a flanking position on H’s left.

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Fire for effect!

I am always pleased to have access to the fire support that would have been realistically available in engagements like these. In both TOAW and in Squad Battles, I feel that indirect fire is less effective in the game than it was in reality. Author John Culbertson, who fought in Operation Tuscaloosa and wrote a book about this engagement, estimates around 50% casualties from the 155 mm fire. It can be hard to tell with fog-of-war settings on, but Squad Battles casualties from artillery seem to stay within the single digits, percentage-wise.

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There’s no way that I can take the enemy-held objectives, but I feel like I have to do something.

As my artillery support ended, there were still a handful of turns left and I had a strong position on what appeared to be the enemy’s right flank. If this weren’t a one-off scenario, I’d have been tempted to wait for air support or reinforcements. There weren’t enough turns remaining in the game to take the two additional objectives (seen in the above screenshot near the center of the enemy line and in the village behind his left wing), so assaulting the enemy position seems more like an easy way to squander victory points than a game-winning strategy. On the other hand, waiting out the scenario’s end would be boring and so, seeing as I had a tactical advantage, I crossed the second branch of the river and attacked.

It is not clear from the scenario setup whether the forces in this scenario are supposed to represent H company or the flanking F company. Perhaps it is a scaled-down version of the entire two-company fight. In the historical battle, H Company was ordered, following the artillery bombardment, to frontal-assault the enemy positions. Supported by flanking fire from F, they were able to overrun the VC trenches. There were 55 Marine causalities during the battle, a steep price to pay for a sandbar. 57 VC bodies were found and another 60-70 were estimated to have been killed but removed.

Not having read any account of the battle before I played, I did not strive to duplicate that historical result. Despite being considerably more timid than the actual commander, I was still able to achieve a minor victory per Squad Battle‘s scoring.

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The counter-attack is a more typical company versus company engagement. No support here.

After the crossing had been secured, the VC battalion headquarters was determined to be located in the village of Le Bac. The second of the two scenarios has a rather typical company-on-company assault scenario. It is better than some of the jungle scenarios in that the relatively open terrain allows for reasonable maneuver.

For this second scenario, the artillery support is absent, although it was still available and still used in the actual assault. In the historical attack on the village, the artillery was decisive. The Marine advance through the village consisted more of mopping up the dazed survivors of the artillery barrage as opposed to the house-to-house fighting that Squad Battles requires for victory. Requiring the player to fight for the village makes for a much more interesting game then watching the artillery do all the work for you, so this is one difference I won’t complain about.

Happy 1967 and Happy 2020.