Evil Product Support

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I never played Dungeon Keeper.

I recall playing a version of Sim City, probably a mid-1990s version such as the one linked. I don’t remember playing it much, so I may have had a demo version. The concept of a economic simulation definitely appealed to me, but I’ve come to realize that simply creating a cool economics simulation doesn’t necessarily make a great game. Or even a good game. The execution is important. When not designed well, such games become a frustrating morass of micromanagement. Done right, well, one need only look at the success of the genre over the decades.

While Sim City never got far with me, I did get myself into a few of the more focused games that followed using the Sim City formula. Capitalism and the city-builder series (Caesar, etc) were some games that I did get into around that time. The focus on economic factors (in the former) and history (in the latter) were what aspects that caused these games to jump out of the crowd, at least for me. Quite a crowd it was, I might add. This was a time when the the management sim was branching out in all sorts of directions. Theme Park and the various railroad simulations tempted developers into finding new and innovative subjects upon which to lay the template. And in its time, Dungeon Keeper seemed to do just that.

The big concept behind Dungeon Keeper was not simply to create another variation on the management sim template, but at the same time, create an upside down look at the role-playing genre. Instead of managing a band of adventurers, setting out to sack a dungeon and to gather its treasures, you would be in charge of the dungeon itself and so need to repel those awful intruders. While none of this was exactly new, the combination of them all together seemed rather novel. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that it came at the height of developer Peter Molyneux’s popularity. Another key to its success was its emphasis on humor and the twist that you didn’t play as the good guy but rather as the master of the baddies.

But I never played it. While a great idea, I had other games on my mind. It was successful enough that it spawned its own sub-genre of games. I actually bought Ghost Master, finding it in a bargain bin (an actual, physical one), which is an obvious nod to its Dungeon Keeper predecessor. Ghost Master is, however, another game that I never installed and never played. To this day, I feel guilty about it. I feel like I am a part of the target audience for these games, yet I am not biting. I wanted to play this game and I wanted to like it. I feel like I’ve let those ghosts down.

Let’s jump ahead a few more years as the industry produced even more variations on the theme. One 2004 take on it was Evil Genius, which got its share of attention in its time. It is very cast in the Dungeon Keeper mold, but instead of the Dungeons and Dragons, swords and sorcery theme of the original, this one is based on the world of James Bond movies. Note that it also came out after the Austin Powers film series and, perhaps, draws as much from the parody of James Bond as it does from the (albeit tongue-in-cheek) movie originals. It may not have rated as high as Dungeon Keeper, due to bugs and other problems, but it had its share of admirers. It also went on sale (a virtual bargain bin, this time) pretty recently.

I bit.

Evil Genius illustrates the good, the bad, and the ugly of today’s massive supply of classic gaming experience. I don’t remember how I got it – most likely either a Steam sale or a Humble Bundle – but I really love how these classic titles have, largely, become easy to acquire and run decades down the road. Installing this one, however, I ran very quickly into problems. Once again, I found that the mouse buttons were reversed for me, requiring (as I do) my mouse to be configured for left-handed players. I found this lack of configurability to be intolerable.

To make matters a little worse, as I began searching for a solution, I came across something that confused me further. One on-line critique of the game suggested that the game UI was actually designed with the mouse buttons, in many cases, doing the reverse of what you’d expect from them. Essentially, the article said, for the game to function normally (as in, right-handed mouse) you had to reverse the mouse buttons in Windows. This does not actually appear to be the case. When following through the tutorial, where the mouse-button instructions are explicit, the mouse button matches the tutorial exactly (although, remember, I’ve already reversed them in Windows). I can’t imagine what this writer was talking about, but it cost me an extra hour or so of fiddling before I decided, what ever his experience, it didn’t apply to me.

Mouse buttons are clearly not configurable through the in-game menu so, having found a similar solution recently, I began searching through the undocumented configuration files. There I found a mouse invert configuration that I thought might help me. Once again, this took me quite a while change, test, and verify, so I lost another good chunk of time. Further on-line searching backed up my experience. There is an analysis about what in that configuration file, and how only some of it actually works while some of the configurations are actually dangerous to mess with. The mouse setting was not on the “works” list, so I figured it is not just me.

I also found some other write-ups; instruction on how to get the game patched. Now this part baffled me a little, considering this is a Steam game that I’m working with.

I still considered Steam-purchased software to be a case of paying to buy a game when, in reality, I’m only renting it. If Steam ever decided they no longer wanted to let me use a particular game, they could just take it away. In exchange for less-than-total ownership, however, I not only have access to games (and prices) that I wouldn’t otherwise, I also don’t have to store locally the games that I’ve purchased on line. The bargain should also mean that I’m not hunting for patches and mods and the like. Steam automatically installs to the supported patch, so everything should be up to date. It also has a less-than fully supported system for user-made modifications. While not ideal, this should get the player around the days of research that otherwise is required to bring an older game up to its best available version.

With Evil Genius, however, the version available is the originally-shipped version, version 1.0. While the game was still being supported, the publisher did ship an official patch, but this is not part of the Steam package. To make it more confusing, there was a user-made patch that came out after the developer studio closed (happening only about a year after the game was released). Both sets of patches are available on-line, but there were several versions of the game (and thus the patches) and, apparently, no one version quite matches the Steam release. After chasing some dead links, I finally downloaded a version that seemed like it should work (and so far seems like it does). Part of me hoped that a patch would fix the mouse configuration problem, but it didn’t.

In the meantime, one more possible solution occurred to me. In fact, I don’t know why I never thought of it before, given how long I’ve gone in circles with this mouse-button issue. I guess sometimes you have to be pushed past some mental limit. Anyway, what I realized is that I use a “gaming” mouse and, while I never actually reconfigure anything on it, it is in fact pretty configurable. So back to searching the internet to find the configuration package from the manufacturer. Finally, now, I have a solution where I can swap my mouse buttons before starting the game, using not Windows but the mouse driver, which results in the mouse behaving correctly when I am in-game.

I can’t believe I didn’t think of this earlier. Finally, I can play the game as it was intended.

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I stand, surveying my control room, while a conference table awaits me in my inner sanctum.

It is a hard game and, I think, it was meant to be. The intention is not to give the player the thrill of world domination whenever they can spare an hour or so of fiddling. This style of game is one that you play night-after-night for months on end. The instructions are rather open ended and, obviously therefore, open to mistakes. Should I kill every non-friendly that I see? Is there are way to boost my chances at completing a given mission? These things, I think, are meant to be discovered by trial-and-error. Recall that I am playing on easy and, on top of that, you start out in an introductory mode meant to gradually introduce components of the game to you. Even having all these advantages, it sometimes seems hard to make any progress.

In searching for the fixes to my above problems, I came across some other bits and pieces about the game. I saw that, when the game was being actively sold, there was a “strategy guide” available for it. For those who don’t remember, many of the more popular games had third-party hints manuals that would help you optimize your gameplay, provided you had some extra bucks to burn. There are also (or at least there were, many of the links are no longer active) free guides in the form of Wikipedia sites and forums that were made to help bring you up to speed on how to effectively play the game. Clearly players were prepared to invest significant amounts of time and energy into this title.

I also came across some of the original reviews of the game. One that stood out compared it, and not entirely favorably, with Dungeon Keeper saying that, more than anything, Evil Genius made the reviewer want to break out their old copy of Dungeon Keeper once again. I gather that, while Evil Genius was 5 years ahead in terms of graphics and interface (at a time when 5 years meant a lot, mind you), the gameplay package doesn’t quite live up. This I can’t speak to as, like I took pains to say at the beginning, I haven’t played the original.

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Just the other day I heard of… some Indonesian junk that’s going ’round.

Evil Genius does have its pros and cons. It does a reasonable job with its atmosphere, making it feel like a Bond-esque thriller rather than just a management-sim grind – at least much of the time. The way the game is split between your underground lair and “the world” does give it a different feel than, say, a sim-hospital. The humor is not bad, given them medium, and often subtle. Little finds, hidden in animations or within the text of the missions, and actually entertain more than a more obvious “here comes the joke” style. I do wonder if I may be reading a bit too much into the above screenshot, though.

On the other hand, the game struggles to live up to expectations, especially when viewing it 15 years on. One aspect of a well-designed game is that it keeps you engaged while you play. While often hidden behind the nifty animations, behind the scenes of Evil Genius are a series of timers so that, once you initiate an action, you have to wait a certain amount of time for it to complete. In many cases, there are a series of times that are all interdependent. For example, to complete a mission, I may have to hire a number of “workers,” train them to be specialists, transport them to a particular corner of the world, and then apply them for a certain amount of time to a given mission. Even in fairly uncomplicated assignments, it doesn’t seem uncommon to have to sit for 5+ minutes watching little people meander around on the screen, with no real in-game possibilities until all the tasks, one by one, complete. Is this really the way I want to spend my gaming hours?

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Some gratuitous violence leave bodies everywhere. I particularly appreciated the empty casing flying out of the rifles during the shootout, although it is difficult to see in a still image.

Hours it can be, indeed, is meant to be. This game seems to be a major life-choice for some. By contrast, what I am looking for, these days, are games that I can pick up quickly and put in a few hours when I’m in the mood for that particular style or subject. I can admit the game is clever but it may be asking for more from me than I want to give it.

 

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Is This the Real Life?

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I don’t remember when Bohemian Rhapsody came out as a single from the A Night at the Opera album. I am too young.

I do remember when Wayne’s World came out. At that time, I was well familiar with the song. I had a copy of Live Killers and I had listened many times over. My friends and I enjoyed the pseudo-operatic harmonies and would sometimes sing along. Through the 80s, though, I saw Queen more in terms of their pop, almost Disco, hits rather than their 1970s “progressive” sound. By that time, although the Bohemian Rhapsody was a fairly successful single in its time, it wasn’t something you’d hear on the radio.

So when I saw Wayne’s World, the scene with the song struck me as  bit tongue-in-cheek. The idea that these metalheads would considered Bohemian Rhapsody as a rock classic, much less a heavy metal favorite, had to be a joke. In fact, the story floating around at the time was that Bohemian Rhapsody itself was recorded as a joke and was never meant to be included on the album (called A Night at the Opera, mind you) at all, much less released as a single. While obviously in error, the rumor had some basis in truth. The recording of the song is said to have been somewhat of a silly affair. The placement into Wayne’s World (as well as Freddie Mercury’s death a few months before), propelled the song back onto the charts and placed it amongst the great, hard rock classics.

The song has been analyzed, line-by-line and word-by-word. It is true that Mercury put a lot of thought into this song. He reportedly had been working on it well before joining the band Queen. However, I see it as a mistake to take it too much more seriously that they did at that original recording session. I’ve read an analysis on how its about coming out of the closet, and it certainly has a new meaning when sung by a man doomed by the AIDS virus, but I’d say it is the beauty, abstractness, and simplicity of the song that lends itself to all manner of after-the-fact meanings.

With the release of the movie of the same name, the song is back as a record-breaking best-seller. This time, it is topping the charts for digital downloads.

The movie had me from the first teaser trailer that I saw. However, when it actually came out, I was seeing mixed messages. The one comment that probably settled it for me, though, was a response in a discussion about how some people didn’t like it. “All my musicians friends loved it,” a friend responded. I am sucker for for a certain type of musician movie and the buzz bore out my impression from the trailers; that this would be one.

Criticisms include the historical inaccuracies, either with regard to the band or to details of the life of Freddie Mercury. The film also presents a distorted view, musically, to the works of Queen and their significance to the band’s development and success. Another criticism was that the whole movie served as lead-up to a precise recreation of the band’s 1984 Live Aid concert. That’s all true and, perhaps, all beside the point.

The way I look at this film is that it is about just what the title says it is. Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s the deeper meaning of the title for the nature of the band Queen, for Freddie, and how they perceived themselves. Its about the creation of the song, the success it brought them, the use of it to open the performance of Live Aid, and the legacy that it represents to Mercury after his death. It may even be about how those lyrics, in retrospect, are saying a lot about Freddie’s life.

As if nothing really matters.

Your Heart was an Open Book

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Something I have picked up in my reading is that there was, once upon a time, a cadre of people who would retire from government service to the British Empire. With their pension, they could move to some imperial outpost in an economic backwater and live quite comfortably for the remainder of their days. Some, obviously, chose to use that life of leisure to write, thus giving me the impression that such a thing was commonplace.

Certainly if I could be spending my mornings on some island in the Pacific writing this blog, with my afternoons and evenings to convalesce, I would jump at the chance. I suspect that, to the extent this really happened, it is an artifact of a bygone world.

When Ian Fleming wrote Casino Royale, he did so from Jamaica. He also wasn’t entirely at his leisure. While he retired from his wartime, military service, post-war he obtained a management position with The London Times. Tasked with oversight of the publisher’s foreign correspondents and blessed, apparently, with a generous vacation policy, he was able to spend three months out of every year in Jamaica. He continued to work as a in this role, at least part time, into the 1960s, well after the publishing and commercial success of many of his James Bond novels.

Shortly after writing Casino Royale, but before its release, Fleming and his wife traveled to Jamaica via New York City. In taking the Silver Meteor from NY to St. Petersburg, the couple followed the route that Fleming had taken during World War II when he visited Jamaica for the first time. This trip, as well as some of Fleming’s other personal experiences in North America, became the basis of his second novel, Live and Let Die, which he wrote over the following few months.

Ironically, given my own introduction to the book, Bond (that is, Fleming), remarks extensively on the retiree culture of St. Petersburg and how Americans gathered there to live off of their pensions. His commentary likely has more to do with the style of living rather than the source of the funding.

Fleming tried to put more gravitas into his second book relative to his first effort. The distinction fades under the shadow of the film treatments of the novels. Live and Let Die (the movie this time) was the eighth James Bond story to be made into a film and the first with Roger Moore as the lead actor. Leaving out the transport of the story twenty years into the future and Moore’s particular interpretation of Bond, the film is only loosely based on the novel. It also comes well into a well-established movie “universe” (as we say today) rather than playing the introductory part of the book. After all, Live and Let Die was written before anyone, except of course Fleming and his editors, knew who James Bond was*.

I did watch Live and Let Die, more than once. Perhaps mercifully, I recall little of it. I do know, from my rating on Netflix, that I didn’t much care for it. Reading the novel, imagery from the Dirty Harry movie The Enforcer spring into my mind, particularly in the novels early chapters, rather than the Bond film. The parallel is, of course, the Harlem-based criminal network operated as an all-black concern.

My other thought, reading this novel, is that you couldn’t publish it today.

In part, the book is something of a “travelogue.” Fleming, the Englishman, through Bond (the Englishman) witnesses the “exotic” culture that is Harlem, gulf-coast Florida, and the black (largely poor, service-industry) subculture of the United States. Then we travel to the Caribbean islands for the “island” culture of superstition and strange religion. For the modern American, the description of New York City becomes more of a time-traveling trip than a visit to a strange land. In either of these roles, the book does so through unflattering stereo-types, cartoonish distortions, and the use of words that are no longer allowed to be uttered. It might be tough for some to “read through” this, to see the story behind the forbidden language. Indeed, the 1950s voice of the narration may well be impenetrable for the modern reader, raised in a world from which such language has been all but redacted. In my opinion, however wrong the use of brushstrokes, the painting itself is not mean-spirited. Black Americans are portrayed as exotic, compared to the English, but not particularly negatively. Yes, they are the Badguy, but it a Cold War spy novel, there are good guys and bad guys. It’s circumstantial, not racial.

I’ll emphasize that the language of the book, shocking as it seems, is within the norms of the early 1950s. Fleming doesn’t stand out with his racial stereotypes or his use of forbidden language. Pre-1960s literature will probably shock anyone who suddenly begins delving into older works. It all makes one wonder what role this plays in the modern effort to redefine the Western canon of literature. It becomes tough to reshape the culture through neuro-linguistic programing if your subjects are simply going to pick up the books of their grandparents and reabsorb the culture you’re trying to squeeze out of them.

Fast forward to 1973 and a very different era. Live and Let Die (the movie, now) was released in an era where “black culture” was portrayed exaggeratedly and provocatively on film. Among our “acceptable villains” of that time, the Black Panther -like organizations were a stock antagonist, a la Dirty Harry. While the book and the film are distinct stories, as well as being distinct in their portrayal of the race issue, this still matters. As I said, my visualization of the book is still bent through the lens of the  1970s, where these themes were introduced to me. There is a power of culture to alter even the black-and-white words printed on the page that you’ll never see if you’re not looking for it.

Behind all the culture shock, we have a fairly decent and engaging Cold War spy novel. There is none of the superhuman physical feats or exotic technology of the James Bond movies. We just follow the path of an agent trying to get to the bottom of a Soviet funding source in the heart of British and American North America. The title is a reference, and perhaps commentary, on the difference between American and British culture, not to mention policy. The CIA agent comments that if Mr. Big (a simple acronym of Bond’s nemesis, Buonaparte Ignace Gallia) is naught but the leader of a crime syndicate, the CIA policy is to “live and let live.” Bond, and by extension England, cannot allow this chaos to advance through the world and prefers a motto “live and let die.”

God save the Queen.

*James Bond was, actually, the author of a bird watching book which Ian Fleming owned. Fleming was an avid bird watcher and when he was trying to come up with just the right name for his spy/hero, the name of this American expert on Caribbean birds fit the bill. One might go on to speculate that Fleming learned from Bond about the Rufous-throated solitaire (Myadestes genibarbis), a Caribbean songbird after which he named the main female character in Live and Let Die, Solitaire.

Fight and Pull Away

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This is the thirty-sixth 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.

Just in case I was under the impression that every historical operation that is explicitly simulated in Vietnam Combat Operations necessarily ends in its historical outcome, here comes Operation Utah.

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Intelligence said Task Force Delta would find the The 21st PAVN Regiment near the village of Chau Nhai. I found nothing.

Recall that Vietnam Combat Operations is a detailed simulation of the entire Vietnam ground war using four-day turns. The scenario is played by following along with a document that narrates the course of the war and, in particular, highlights operations that are modeled in the scenario. Although the player is free to conduct the war as he sees fit, points are awarded for completing historical operations in a historically appropriate way.

In this case, however, I air lifted the Marines to the various villages of Chau Nhai, but made no contact with any Viet Cong or North Vietnamese formations. I did make a bit of blunder in the execution. I moved part of the Marine Task Force assigned to Utah into Chau Nhai a few days early. It could be that I suppressed a trigger that would have put the enemy in my path, had I waited. Or it could be that I simply did not find the enemy unit, which was an outcome for many Vietnam operations.

Unable to visualize this operation in The Operational Art of War, I instead went to a book to get my context for this operation. For me, this book is a new one. The Marines published books that roughly parallel the series that I’ve been reading from the Army, and they did it almost two decades earlier. The corresponding book to Stemming the Tide is U.S. Marines in Vietnam: An Expanding War: 1966 by Jack Shulimson. Similar in scope and size to its Army counterpart, it also follows much the same style. Or, should we say, the Army versions follow the style of the earlier Marine versions. I did not read the whole book, only flipped to the chapter on Operation Utah, so I’ll refrain from general commentary.

Perhaps because it is 18 years older, An Expanding War is not published electronically on a government website. Instead, I found it on Archive.org. Although it is much larger is file size, I find the PDF the preferred version to read it in. The eBooks created by scanning an original printed copy and then the text is converted automatically. That means there are a lot of mistakes in that image-to-text translation. In the PDF, the original scanned image is still there, so even when the computer sees gibberish, you don’t. If you read directly from an ebook format, the original images are gone and the mistakes become a distraction.

The Operation Utah battle was a significant encounter, even though the bulk of the fighting lasted only two days. Casualties on the U.S. side approached 100 dead (98 plus 278 wounded), plus another 30 from the South Vietnamese (in addition to 120 wounded). The insurgents suffered at least 600 killed. When the Marines entered the battlefield, they found themselves debarking in a heavily defended landing zone. Many aircraft were damaged, including both the transport helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters flying close air support. Being a joint operation with the ARVN, a large chunk of the Marine’s difficulty came from maneuvering to support their allies.

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Zoomed out for perspective, the screen shows some distance insurgent positions in the high ground near my landing zone.

Squad Battles: Vietnam takes on this operation with its scenario, The Battle at Chau Nhai. The scenario narrows down on a particular subset of the fighting, taking place a few hours after the landings. Difficulties with the insertion aside, the Marines had encountered only light resistance when they were instructed to maneuver into a position to support a stalled ARVN unit. A few hundred meters along their new path, they were hit from prepared positions at close range.

An Expanding War explains how, despite supporting artillery and air being at the ready, the attack came from too close for support to be deployed. This jives with the design of the Squad Battles scenario which, like many in the package, lack any off-board support. In this case, at least, that seems warranted. The scenario design can also be forgiven for leaving off the ARVN units, which put the Marine’s into jeopardy by refusing to provide the support for which they were positioned. If these additional units and their positions weren’t a factor in the fight, leaving them off the map makes no difference. I am again a little baffled by the decision to exclude the mortar support integral to a Marine unit of this size. Mortars were present and were a factor in this battle.

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I try to flank the enemies left while he tries to flank my left. Round and round we go.

This scenario is made interesting due to the fact it is a combination of some offense and some defense, with a swapping of roles through the course of the game. While I had read the scenario description, I hadn’t tried to “read into” the scenario description. It is often hard to tell, in advance, how much of a scenario’s notes are simply putting the on-screen fight (in the is case, less than two hours in a multi-day fight) into the larger context, or preparing you for the nature of the fighting you will face with clues about the setup parameters. In this case, it actually improved the experience because I was somewhat surprised by what, after all, was part of the historical course of this battle. Essentially, I was barrelling ahead in full attack-mode when the surprise appearance of extra enemy forced me back on the defensive.

This scenario ended with a favorable score for me, although it felt more like a draw. In the timeline of the actual fighting, the end of the scenario corresponds to a point where the Marine commanders decided to call in close air and artillery support and use it to withdraw to defensive positions. The heavy fighting would continue through the night and another day before the enemy broke off the engagement and withdrew from the field.

Get Out of the New One If You Can’t Lend Your Hand

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I know any number of what we’ll call “libertarian anarchists.” These are people who believe, strongly, that no government at all is preferable to any government and, further, that this belief is the only moral stance that one can have about the very nature of government. Obviously, their political involvement is going to be limited. To the extent that they comment on politics, their commentary usually takes one of two forms. First, they like to point out the hypocrisy of any political stance that claims to believe in X, except where it applies to Y. The purpose of this seems to be to demonstrate the superiority of their own world view. The second assertion is that both parties (focusing, of course, on the American two-party system) are wrong on roughly half of what they advocate, meaning that both the parties are equally bad. The purpose of this seems to be to justify the anti-political nature of their activities (or non-activities, as the case may be) by demonstrating that all politics and politicians are wrong. And bad.

What this often means is that the worst criticisms, the worst attacks, are reserved for those who almost entirely agree with them, but not quite. This is perhaps because one feels that those most in agreement with them are the most likely to be influenced. It may also be a variation on the idea is that the greatest sin is when you fully understand the nature of your evil, but choose to do it anyway. In other words, isn’t the “limited government” libertarian, who fully comprehends what’s wrong with government, doing the most harm, by advocating for government anyway?

Next in line for invective are those actively involved in politics who claim to have common cause with the libertarian activists. The “Liberty Republicans,” in particular, seem to be singled out. While the theme, at least on its face, is anti-politics or, particularly, against the two party system, the negativity isn’t really spread evenly. The “both are to blame” seems to smack around the right harder than the left. “While Democrats are for increasing the size and reach of government, the Republicans want to [fill in the blank.]” It would seem to me that if your fundamental philosophy is to reduce the size and reach of government, albeit reducing to zero, it doesn’t matter what fills in that blank. You’ve just identified the real enemy and the enemy of your enemy, whatever his faults, is still your friend.

I’m picking on a particular political sub-type here, but this flaw seems to be a problem throughout the right side of the political spectrum. Conservatism is thick with people who say “I’m an independent.” Granted, the left has always had a huge chunk of “I’m an independent,” but (in my experience) it is usually intended as commentary about themselves. What they mean by “I’m an independent” is “I have an open mind and consider all sides of the issue before I choose to back the leftist view.” At least that’s been my experience. A left-leaning person who claims political independence is at least as locked into their views as the one who acknowledges their allegiance to the party, if not more so. Think about it, “I’m a Democrat but I don’t agree with…” leaves a lot more room for dissent then merely planting your open-mind flag on the hill you’re about to defend.

On the right, by contrast, “I’m an independent..” is as often as not preceding an attack on Republicans. Republicans are too radical, or not radical enough, or really Democrats, or not like Republicans used to be, etc. Even if its true (and worded thoughtfully, it probably is), aren’t we missing out on the bigger picture. If you’re libertarian, or conservative, or even that which used to be considered “moderate,” isn’t it that case that whatever you see as wrong with Republicans is also wrong with Democrats, and then some? Can you really justify the “Republicans are even worse on [core Republican issue] than the Democrats?” You can’t believe that. Even if you did, hasn’t post-election 2019 made you rethink your position?

Related.

The more I reflect on the state of society, the more it seems that we are in the early stages of a civil war – simply a stage where the bullets have yet to fly. At some point it seems that everyone is going to have to pick a side and learn to get along with their adopted brothers-in-arms. The alternative is to stand between two closing armies screaming “I’ll take on the lot of you” until somebody shoots you just to shut you up.

Or am I becoming too cynical?

Iron Triangle

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This is the thirty-fifth 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.

From the scenarios I’ve been playing so far, it seems like the 1st Cavalry and the 3rd Marines are fighting the whole of the Vietnam War. However, the area just north of Saigon was also the scene of heavy U.S. activity in that early deployment and ramp-up phase that characterized late 1965 and early 1966.

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Fortified position at the top of the mountain.

The Battle for Nui Bad Den is explicitly a hypothetical encounter available in Squad Battles: Tour of Duty. It’s not only hypothetical, it is pretty much impossible.

Nui Bad Den is a lone mountain in otherwise flat terrain near Tay Ninh. With its commanding views and height, it was established as a radio relay station in 1964 by U.S. Special Forces (Mobile Strike, or MIKE). It was strategically located near the communist stronghold that the U.S. called the “Iron Triangle.” While the U.S. controlled and defended the top of the mountain, the Viet Cong (VC) were dug into the lower slopes and the surrounding area. In some places, literally dug in, with tunnels dug through the mountain to provide shelter, storage, and concealment.

This scenario supposes a VC ambush on the U.S. units. As far as that goes, it may be something that happened many times to the American units atop the mountain. The setup in this scenario, however, is that it starts with the U.S. having three different company-strength patrols moving back up the mountain towards their home base. The VC attackers simultaneously strike the base at the top and each of the three companies on the mountain’s slopes. As a result, the player must fight four all-but-unconnected battles, one on the defensive with the other three being semi-offensive. It all seems more than a stretch.

One could imagine, naturally, that the four engagements are taking place, simultaneously, within a single hour. The problem, from the gaming standpoint, is what you’ve done is create a mini-campaign, of sorts, with four company-sized engagements which all kind-of, sort-of depend on each other. Thus the advantage of a battalion-level battle (I spoke of this earlier) is mostly negated.

While I am at it, I’ll resume the play of Men of Valor, which starts its next set of scenarios (Operation) only a few days later and not far from the Squad Battles scenario. In order to give the player a nice overview of the whole war, our Marine from the first operation gets assigned to accompany U.S. Army units in an a different area of operation. I can’t imagine the military swapping privates around between branches like this, but then I can’t imagine much of what I see in Men of Valor actually happening.

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Red smoke marks the airstrike location. Also, check out those termite hills.

I do find this game frustrating and often not in a good way. The biggest issue is that you cannot save. The game is saved at checkpoints, a hold-over from the genre’s console roots. A checkpoint is generally followed by a cut-scene which, while not too terribly long, starts to seem so after the 20th time being forced to watch it. You are also treated, with each character death, to a dramatic reading of the letter to your parents as well as a summary of the number of rounds you’ve fired and such. It seems like the point of it all is to punish you for having died before allowing you to hop back to your last checkpoint.

Even worse, though, the checkpoints are not actually saves. If you quit the game and come back to it later, you have to start at the beginning of whatever mission you were on. To put it another way, you are required to survive all the way through each mission in a single sitting. Already been at it for two hours and have something better to do? Too bad, because if you stop now you’ve got to start all over again.

It’s not that the game is too difficult, but it is set up in a way that (unless you’ve read a walkthrough ahead of time) you must discover some of the tricks of the game by trial and error. An example from the first mission in this operation* may illustrate. In one of the sequences, toward the end bit between two checkpoints, a particularly nasty machine gun nest opens fire upon you. With it blasting away, it becomes very difficult to move about the playing area. Trying to think strategically, I decided that taking out that machine gun had to take priority over my stated goal, because otherwise I’d probably get killed before I could finish what I was supposed to do. What I didn’t realize is that, once I complete my goals, the machine gun nest will be “automatically” taken out by one of my teammates. I probably lost more than an hour before I got that figured out. Top top it all off, it was an hour that got thrown away because I ended up quitting before I finished the remainder of that mission.

Plus, as I said before, it is neither realistic nor particularly enlightening regarding the real experiences of a Vietnam soldier. Despite the historical-looking trappings, this is still about running from medikit to medikit, hoping you can replace your health faster than the enemy’s bullets are taking it away.

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The kitchen facilities of a VC tunnel complex.

What Men of Valor does bring to the table, though, is the visuals. I don’t mean the graphics, of course, this is a 2004 release on a 2002 graphics engine (Unreal 2.0, for what that’s worth). What I mean is that the tactical games for Vietnam simply fail to capture some aspects of the war adequately.

For example, in one of the newsreel videos I was watching from 1966, the news crew was accompanying a patrol that was pinned down by a sniper. The unit called in airstrikes on the sniper position. An airstrike to take out a single shooter! In another, Stemming the Tide describes battles where 80% of the communist casualties are due to close air support and close artillery support. Generals repeatedly acknowledge that their victories are due to the effectiveness of this “off board,” to use game terminology, units. This doesn’t really come through in the tactical games.

In Men of Valor, it is pre-programmed in of course, but we get get to see small groups of soldiers calling in air support and marking the targets with smoke (see the middle screen shot). Then we are treated to a rather spectacular air strike.

Note also the details, the kind of details I’ve read in the narratives of the battles, rarely come through in any other medium, be the games or Hollywood movies. The giant termite mounds, which provide battlefield cover. The extent of the tunnels, including perhaps a kitchen intended to support a regiment. Men of Valor is one game that, at least, shows you what they look like.

As far afield as this game takes me from the informative simulations in some of my other posts, there does still remain some value in its depictions of the battlefield from the ground level.

*In case it wasn’t clear in any earlier posts, I’ll try to clarify. In the terminology of this game, the “Operation” is the major chapter, each one separated by the passage of many months. “Da Nang,” “Starlite,” and “Iron Triangle” are the first three. Missions are the subset chapters, if you will, and might be days apart. Within the mission, various goals are separated by cuts-cenes, all meant to be within a single day.

Return to the master post for Vietnam War articles. The next article moves on to the Marine Corps sector and Operation Utah.

Don’t Stop Me

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There was a rash of films being removed from Netflix coincidental with the turn of the calendar to February. Too many, in fact, for me to watch them all before they were gone. Besides Touch of Evil, I managed two comedies. Well, I started one and then watched another.

I started watching Whatever Works but I couldn’t manage to finish it. It is a newish/old Woody Allen picture. Newish, as it was released in 2009. Amazingly, that only puts it among the last dozen “new” Woody films. It is also old, however, because it was made using a script written in the early 1970s. Allen created the project with the intent to star actor Zero Mostel, of Fiddler on the Roof and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. When that was no longer possible, the script was shelved.

On-line reviews of Whatever Works were mostly flat. The biggest complaint was that the main character, played by Larry David, was unlikable. I’ve long been a fan of Woody Allen films (although I’ve mostly stopped watching his stuff made after 1990) and it doesn’t sound too different than a lot of his work. It sounded like a complaint from, perhaps, a younger generation who couldn’t quite appreciate Woody’s style. The problem is, they’re right. The main character is just so unpleasant as to be, not simply an exaggeration of the Allen New York archetype, but an absurd and unrealistic characterization of the ultra-liberal, ultra-intellectual, Queens denizen. It becomes hard to tell whether it is supposed to be caricature or what Allen imagines someone really smart would say if he weren’t held back by societal norms.

The character (Boris Yelnikoff, for what its worth) finds a beautiful 21-year-old (played by Evan Rachel Wood) on his doorstep and she moves in with him. As she is from the deep South (Louisiana and Alabama), she is morbidly stupid and takes everything literally. Once again, Allen seems like he might have been trying to say something about cultural clash but decided that rural, Southern culture equates simply to “dumb.” Naturally, the girl falls in love with the geriatric Yelnikoff. I turned it off before they got married.

It all seems so self-indulgent.

Next, I went to another film that’s been on my watchlist for nigh on fifteen years.

Back in the 2002 time frame, a new generation of zombie movies began coming out. Up until that point, I had never gone for the shock-horror genre and so had never watched any of the original Romero films. The first of the Resident Evil movies and 28 Days Later (both 2002 films) marked a resurgence of the genre. Predictably, I had no interest in Resident Evil, both because of the horror genre and due to an utter lack of interest in video-game-to-big-screen conversions. I did, actually, put 28 Days Later on my watch list and soon-after rented it, based on its positive reviews. The other positive review I read around that same time was for Shaun of the Dead. Very positive, in fact. It also went onto my list, but I never managed to watch it.

When it eventually game out on Netflix streaming, Netflix’s algorithms determined that this was a film that would be a must-see for me. In this case, I figured they were probably right but somehow still never got around to watching it. Not until, that is, they decided I would no longer get the chance.

They were right. It is funny. It is also clever, particularly in the core gag wherein the characters repeatedly don’t notice that the zombies are not alive, because, who can tell the difference these days? It also has no trouble holding up after 15 years and 2,000 intervening zombie movies.

So, why Zombies?

Past generations had few qualms about making movies with stock enemies. Frontier Indians, Mexican bandidos, Nazis, Zulus… whomever needed to be cast as villains could also be dehumanized on the screen without a second thought. In the current environment, however, it gets harder and harder to demonize a stereotype. Russians, maybe, still can be cast as criminals and gangsters (and I’m sure Donald Trump’s shadow can keep that going for another decade or so). North Koreans might do if you’ve accidentally cast some other Asian nation and need to backtrack. But, frankly, we’re running out of bad guys.

George Lucas suggested pitting us against masses of robotic soldiers and, in doing so, demonstrated its stupidity. Why would flesh-and-blood creatures engage in a war of attrition against mass-produced machinery? Makes no sense. Peter Jackson raised the bar, somewhat, with his Orcs – still mass produced (per the film, at least) but nevertheless a foreign race competing for our living space. At the same time, they were a foreign race whom it cannot be “racist” to discriminate against because they’re evil. Kind of like MAGA hat-wearing Catholic School teenagers. But unlike the red-hatted masses, they’re pulled out of the realm of fantasy and so limited in both their allegorical potential as well as their suitability in a large number of film genres.

Enter the Zombie. The Zombie is human and, indeed, is (much like our ideal society) a wonderful mix of gender, ethnic group, body type, and sexual orientation. At the same time, they are obviously “the other.” They can be immediately identified as not-one-of-us and also have absolutely nothing that engenders sympathy. But being human, they can easily (and as subtly as necessary) be stand-ins for whatever fellow humans we consider the new enemy. They also, if films are any indication, likely to spring up at almost any time for a wide and wild variety of reasons.

Mindless, slow witted masses are perhaps something we all feel these days. Don’t we all fantasize about taking the world back from them?

In Defense of Dominoes

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This is the thirty-fourth 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.

At the end of January, the Wall St. Journal ran an editorial written by author and former National Security Council staff-member, William Lloyd Stearman. The subject of his article was how America’s active participation in the Vietnam War, while not saving South Vietnam as a nation, likely saved the region from communism. The article is titled, America Lost Vietnam but Saved Southeast Asia, and is likely behind a paywall for you.

He makes a number of interesting points which, despite my immersion in books from the period, hadn’t quite occurred to me in just this way.

First off, he suggests that it was Vietnam that brought the United States into World War II. More than a year before Pearl Harbor (the article actually has a mistaken date for the events in question), Japan had demanded military transit rights in French Indochina. The French acquiesced to their demands after rapidly surrendering under the threat of Japanese military invasion. Ultimately Vichy France, under Axis diplomatic pressure, turned over the whole of Indochina, making it a Japanese protectorate. President Roosevelt quickly announced sanctions which froze Japanese financial assets in America. The British and the Dutch followed, within days, with similar policies. Says Stearman, it was this act by the United States which convinced Japan that the U.S. would, in the end, use its fleet to block Japanese expansion in the region. In an effort to preempt an American attack, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

The author then continues on to talk about the effects that America’s active involvement had in South East Asia, possibly saving Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Indonesia from communist takeovers. The U.S. ramp-up, he says, inspired British intervention in Malaysia and Indonesia. Similarly, Suharto may not have fought the Chinese-backed coup, which took place in Indonesia on September 30th, 1965, had he not witnessed the actions of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Had that coup in Indonesia succeeded, it is likely that the Philippines would have been destabilized by their own communist insurgents. Given that the U.S. had a long standing defense agreement with the Philippines, and that a civil war there would have likely triggered that agreement, this would have begun a U.S. involvement on an even larger scale than the one in Vietnam. At least, so opines Stearman.

He also draws one more controversial conclusion about the Vietnam War. He says that contrary to popular opinion, which generally declares that the Vietnam War was unwinnable no matter the U.S. strategy, North Vietnamese sources acknowledge a path to American and South Vietnamese victory. This line of thinking says that, had the U.S. and ARVN blocked the Ho Chi Minh Trail, particularly through Laos, the communists in South Vietnam would have been denied critical supplies and reinforcements. In fact, the North Vietnamese did not understand why Washington did not authorize such an action, particularly as everyone knew that the “neutrality” of Laos had already been violated by the communists.

This jives with one of Moore’s points at the end of We Were Soldiers…, although in his case he is talking more about the pursuit of combatants into Cambodia and Laos as opposed to preemptive disruption of the inbound troops and supplies. Of course, Stearman doesn’t address the counter-argument that extending the war into Laos would have either turned domestic opinion against the war or, perhaps worse, caused the conflict to spill well outside of Vietnam’s borders and across the Cold War -embroiled globe.

This discussion of Britain, Malaysia, and Indonesia prompted me to pop open a Steel Panthers scenario, called Operation Claret, that deals with British Fighting in Malaysia and Indonesia. It models an encounter between British special forces and Indonesian Marines which took place in October, 1965 as part of England’s secret operation across the border into Indonesia during the Indonesia/Malaysian hostilities of the mid-1960s.

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Defending the bridge.

This is a different kind of scenario altogether. The British, the preferred side for a player versus the AI, are on the defensive. They start in possession of all the victory locations but with insufficient forces to hold them. In the fight that is modeled, the British must cover their withdrawal across the international border back into Malaysia.

My game ended up in a draw, perhaps due to some confusion about how the scenario should be played. The British forces are insufficient to hold all of the the victory locations. Further, the victory point tallying overemphasizes losses on the British side, meaning it is even more important to give ground so as to reduce your own casualties. At the same time, the British teams are unusually effective, often neutralizing multiple Indonesian units in a single turn. This might be the most effective I’ve ever seen units in Steel Panthers and, I can only assume because I didn’t try to look it up, must be due to a mismatch between unit quality in this scenario.

Point being, what looked like initially a very strange scenario due to its very low unit count actually did turn out to be an interesting exercise for this game engine.

Return to the master post for Vietnam War articles. Going forward, you can return with me to the speculative scenarios in Squad Battles and Men of Valor.

An Odious Thing

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At the end of last week, Netflix removed the film Touch of Evil from their streaming offerings. This is a 1958 film noir piece by Orson Welles. It takes place on the U.S.-Mexico border and tells a tale involving the nature of honesty and corruption among police. It is (slightly) based on the novel Badge of Evil from 1956.

There is a story that Welles obtained the script from a producer when he asked that he be given the worst script available. Welles claimed he wanted to prove he could make a great film out of a bad script. Another set of stories involve the post-production intrigue. After the initial showing, the studio re-edited the movie even going so far as to re-shoot some of the scenes. Welles has claimed that he was locked out of the editing process, although versions of events suggest he was simply unavailable, in Mexico, working on another project. Whatever the truth, Welles was not satisfied with the final product and wrote a memo to the studio detailing his grievances and how he would fix them. Based on this memo, a 1998 re-editing took place in an attempt to make a “Director’s Cut” corresponding to Welles vision. The original Welles version has been lost.

It was this 1998 version that was on Netflix.

Welles was, of course, know for his directorial innovations. A number of the actors in this film worked for a reduced rate simply for the opportunity to work with Welles. Star Charlton Heston recalled that Welles was originally only to act in the film but Heston insisted that making him the director might be a condition of Heston’s getting on board as the lead actor.

Welles plays an aging policeman and is made up to look old, fat, and well-past his prime. The costume is so convincing that I wasn’t sure I was even looking at Welles (although, as Orson Welles himself aged, he came to look more and more like his 1958 character). Somewhat implausibly, Heston plays a Mexican law enforcement officer, costumed in a Mexican-style mustache. Several character question why he doesn’t have a Mexican accent when he speaks English, and acting decision that Heston later regretted.

The story is so-so and parts definitely don’t age well. I took a film class in high school that covered, among other works, Citizen Kane and, while watching Touch of Evil, recognized some of Welles’ signature techniques throughout. Perhaps what impressed me the most was the opening tracking shot, described as the longest tracking shot in film-making at the time. More interesting than its technicalities, however, is the tension that it creates.

[Spoiler Alert]

As the film opens, we see an assassin placing a bomb in the trunk of a car. Shortly thereafter, an old man and a stripper walk out from a nightclub and get in to the now-wired car. We in the audience tense up, wondering if the car will explode as starts. It doesn’t. Instead, it drives through the empty parking lot, through an alley, and then out onto a crowded street. We are now left hanging on every nuance of the camera’s focus wondering when the bomb will explode and whom might be the collateral damage. Quality stuff.

For me the craft saves what would otherwise be something not going out of your way to watch.

It’s also worth watching for its commentary on current events.

The story involves cross-border criminality and drug gangs. Orson Welles, himself, had no serious problem with marijuana use but felt heroin was akin to “suicide.” The script reflects these sensibilities of his in a rather over-the-top manner, blunting the films ability to contribute sensibly to the “opioid crisis” debate. But on other subjects, the film is amazingly topical.

Welles made the decision to transform the lead, Heston’s character, from a U.S. District Attorney to a Mexican cop. Heston is also the exemplary “honest” cop in the story, which makes for some interesting dialog. Heston expresses some traditional, dare we say, libertarian themes about government and policing but they come from a foreigner. He often precedes his commentary, phrased as inquiry, with speculation about how things are “in your country.”

A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.

So says Heston’s character. Is he criticizing only those whom he is coming to see as unethical policemen or is this a criticism of American policing as a whole? Taken as a 2019 statement, one would almost certainly suspect the latter. In 1958, did this portrayal of Mexico as the less corrupted government make sense? Was it meant to be ironic? Or was Mexico, to American audiences, just some unknown country to the South about which, well, pretty much anything might be believable?

Since the Second World War, Mexico had entered a relatively peaceful and prosperous phase, which would extend until the 1970s when the effects of long-term one-party rule became ever-more damaging. In 1958, the country was still considerably poorer than the U.S., but it wouldn’t have been seen as a failure.

Heston also comments on the nature of the criminal justice system with a message that could bear some repeating in our age. Welles’ police captain suggests that the job of a cop is to lock up criminals perhaps, he implies, by any means necessary. Heston objects,

Putting criminals behind bars, no! In any free country, a policeman is supposed to enforce the law and the law protects the guilty as well as the innocent.

We’re rapidly approaching an absurdist dystopia where the English common-law maxim “Everything which is not forbidden is allowed” becomes T. H. White’s “Everything which is not forbidden is compulsory,” his definition of totalitarianism. But it is a tyranny of good intentions. So many among us expect that the purpose of law is to guide us in our good behavior, a path on which we all would anyway want to remain. We have forgotten that the law is there to protect the guilty, not to avenge the victim. Or worse, avenge society against non-conformist thought, even in the absence of a victim.

Heston doesn’t stop there. He also weighs in on the border wall debate. Interestingly, he doesn’t side with the post-Heston, pro-Wall NRA.

Susie, one of the longest borders on earth is right here between your country and mine. An open border. Fourteen hundred miles without a single machine gun in place. Yeah, I suppose that all sounds very corny to you.

The open border of 1958 perhaps didn’t impress Americans, like Susie, one way or the other. We took it for granted that as a free country at peace, with neighbors who are friendly to us, we had no need to guard our borders like some kind of police state.

The film shows the characters dashing back and forth across some fictional border crossing willy-nilly. Yes, there are agents at the border but their duties seemingly consist of asking travelers whether they are American before letting them pass (an experience that I’ve had, myself, at the border crossing in Tijuana). It wasn’t that long ago that this was normal, proper, and entirely unalarming.

The ideal 1950s that conservatives long for with their construction of a wall simply didn’t exist. The reason your grandmother immigrated to America “by the rules” was there just wasn’t any real incentive to do otherwise. If your wait for official approval is twenty-years (or, perhaps, forever, as it is in some situations), the risks of bypassing the whole immigration process don’t seem that terrible anymore.

The world has changed since 1958. Maybe fourteen hundred miles without a single machine gun is, today, a pipe dream. The only solution on offer is our current arms race between bad and worse. I wonder if it would, instead, be possible to address the underlying problems?

Where’er We Go They Dread the Name of Garryowen

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This is the thirty-third 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.

Today, we take three or four different views of the 1st Cavalry operation in Binh Dinh that took place at the outset of 1966. This province was strategically important to the U.S. operations in Vietnam and yet, at the same time, a stronghold of communist support. Encamped somwhere in Binh Dinh was a North Vietnamese division commanding two NVA regiments and a Viet Cong regiment. The U.S. high command made uprooting this enemy a priority and the task fell, again, to the 1st Cavalry.

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Operations Masher and Double Eagle, in the greater context.

There were actually two operations, conducted in concert, which were slated to target the insurgents in this area. Masher was the designation given to the 1st Cavalry operation in the Bon Song valley but, just to the north, the U.S. Marines were conducting Operation Double Eagle.

Once again, Vietnam Combat Operations provides an organized context for these operations within the wider war. Note that the “1965” part of the scenario title has been dropped as Vietnam Combat Operations, Volume 3 extends through the end of 1965 and into 1966. As before, it is a very different scenario experience. To play, I carefully follow along with the instructions on my tablet, meticulously completing each turn. I’m struck, as before, that the results of the game really do match the narrative I’m reading in Combat Operations: Stemming the Tide. This really shouldn’t be a complete surprise, as the Vietnam Combat Operations documents cite Stemming the Tide as a source.

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By mid-February, my fighting has shifted to the Kim Son Valley, where I’ve located a VC and and NVA division.

It does say something for the skill of the scenario designer that the game engine is playing along properly. Note that in the first screenshot, I’ve located one of the NVA regiments near the coast in the northern part of the province, similarly to how the historic operation progressed. More impressively, the fighting moved south, between the first and second screenshots, pretty much on the historic timetable. In this grand operational scenario, I’m in the right place at the right time.

I also continue to be pleased with the way combat happens when and where it is supposed to but doesn’t happen where it shouldn’t which, as I’ve said before, seems very difficult to engineer in a TOAW scenario. For the first time for me as I play this series, the pace is picking up. While Operation Masher (by now, it was relabeled Operation White Wing as Johnson found terms like “Masher” a little too violent and bad for public relations) is the largest engagement across the entire map, I have several more smaller engagements, involving both U.S. and South Vietnamese -only forces. I’ve wound up stretching the limits of my air support to cover all the fights adequately.

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Opening moves for Operation Masher at a finer scale.

The original scenario set for The Operational Art of War also had a scenario for Operation Masher/White Wing called Bong Son 1966. The scenario name is a reference to the provincial capitol, which was centrally located relative to the actions in this operation. The “Battle of Bong Son” is also used as a descriptor for the first phase of the campaign which included the first insertion points and the initial fighting for the 1st Cavalry, first near the city and then around the “Bong Son Plain” to its north.

The scale of this scenario is similar to the early 1st Cavalry foray in Ia Drang. Somehow, though, it captures the feel of the operation much better (again, using Stemming the Tide to set expectations) than the earlier scenario did. Significantly, the setup of the scenario means that I follow a similar path through the province as the actual fighting did, moving from North to South as the turns go by. There is significantly less of the feeling that the historical order of battle is simply scattered across the map, leading to an entirely ahistorical set of fights.

But it still isn’t perfect. Or, to put it another way, it doesn’t live up to the feeling of Vietnam Combat Operations, Volume 3. Most significantly, the enemy is all over and ubiquitous. The scenario introduction explains how the ARVN forces were given the task of holding open the coast, freeing up the US forces to hunt for communist forces inland. Very quickly, however, my ARVN units were under threat in the southern part of the map while my 1st Cavalry forces were getting pinned down in the north. It seems I had chosen my landing spots a little too far apart and the enemy was threating to smash me apart, piecemeal. You can kind of see this in the above screenshot. Sort of. If you know what you are looking for.

The real operation that was characterized by an inability of the US to find the communists. There were many instances where the US was sure they had nailed down the location of at least one of the targeted regiments. Airmobile forces were inserted to find and fight the enemy while specifically trying to prevent him from slipping away from battle. Yet time and time again the US forces would come up empty handed. To this day it isn’t known for sure, in many cases, whether the insurgents slipped through the holes in the 1st Cavalry’s blocking force or whether the intelligence on their whereabouts was bad from the get-go. What we do know, however, is if the enemy found himself at an advantage, he would fight.

With this context, Vietnam Combat Operations, Volume 3, captures it all much better as, most of the time, you’re staring at an empty map and wondering where the enemy is. In Bong Son 1966, the enemy seems to be everywhere and often in superior numbers to your own. While I think it is less accurate, it does capture a certain feel of the Vietnam War. As a US commander, it must have seemed like if you made even a small slip-up and left a company somewhere unsupported, the NVA or VC were bound to appear and extract payment for your oversight.

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Into the Kim Son Valley. Note also the major NVA forces along the coast.

There is another characteristic of the TOAW system that, although I’ve complained about it before, seems to work here. The ideal operation would have the US move into an area and try to fix the enemy position and destroy it. When the US were unable to completely blocked all the retreat routes out of the battle area, the communists seemed to inevitably find a way to escape the trap. In this, the TOAW mechanic, which often requires that all six hexes surrounding a unit be occupied in order to win a battle decisively, seems to capture the necessity, in Vietnam’s operations, to thoroughly engulf the enemy before an attack.

In terms of capturing the right feeling, it works better than I expected it would have.

The Bong Son 1966 scenario also provides another segue, allowing us to drop down one more level of detail into Squad Battles: Tour of Duty‘s depiction of this operation.

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A zoomed out view shows most of the active battlefield in a single screen.

The Squad Battles scenario, called The Battle at Kim Son, is configured to take place on February 16th. The scenario notes don’t make it clear whether this is to recreate an actual portion of the battle from detailed reports or just be representative of the type of encounters that were occurring in this time and place. Trying to match up with the narrative in Stemming the Tide, it is possible that this reproduces an encounter that 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry had while trying to set up blocking positions during a sweep of an area called the “Iron Triangle.” Certainly this designation is to be confused, by future generations, with the other Iron Triangle, north and west of Saigon. Back to this battle, a company of the 2/5 encountered NVA forces entrenched on high ground while attempting to move into their assigned position.

Once again, this scenario seems to be lacking the available artillery support that proved decisive in so many battles. At least, this time, you have access to the U.S. command’s mortar support. The battle also has a large enough force and the tactical decisions that I noted are needed to make these scenarios work.

I didn’t do all that well in my play-through, getting my effort scored as a minor defeat. I did manage to take two out of three objectives (often enough for a win in Squad Battles) but I also took more losses than I inflicted. In a war where victory was determined by kill ratios, this is a significant failure. I think my biggest mistake is that I should have used smoke, from my mortars, to help close in on the enemy without taking losses.

Part of me wouldn’t mind retrying the scenario with a better strategy in mind. However, I’d run into that problem with so many of these scenarios. A large part of the challenge is that I didn’t know what I was facing. Do I need to hold a force in reserve for defensive purposes? Where is the strongest portion of the enemy force? Having played once, I now know the answers and the joy of discovering that is lost. It also is much easier to win a scenario if you know where all the surprises are waiting.

Return to the master post for Vietnam War articles. Up next, a Wall St. Journal article puts the Vietnam War in a context of Domino Theory.