Riverines!

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This is the forty-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.

When one reads a book about a war, traditionally one looks forward to a fairly high level view of it. You read about the armies and their maneuvers. Where individual decisions come into play, you might focus on the generals. Perhaps, more rarely, the performance of lower-ranked soldiers, where it might have turned the course of a battle, might be explained. While books written about and from the perspective of the common soldier are probably more popular now, it seems to me that the majority of war non-fiction is about leaders. Of course, one obvious exception is the memoir that focuses on the experience of the individual soldier, whether biographical or fictional.

The author of The Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam, Andrew Wiest, begins his preface by noting that one of the inspirations for his book was having read Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July. The other major inspiration was his personal relationship with a veteran of C Company (of the 4th Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division), which prompted him into writing a book about this unit’s original deployment to Vietnam. The book focuses mostly on the experience of the individual rifleman up through their squad leaders rather than the officers and the grand strategy.

Another motivation for this books comes from the unique identity of the 9th Infantry as perhaps the last of its kind.

One upon a time, in Merry Olde England, regiments were raised for King and Country by local lords. The components of an army tended to be geographically based and brothers-in-arms might truly be brothers or, at the very least, neighbors. The American army inherited English traditions and up-to-and-into the First World War, there remained a regional component to American units. Look no further than the regimental designations in the Civil War for a clear example.

The First World War, for the most part, saw the last of geographically-based regular army units. Obviously, National Guard activation remains an exception to this day, but for the regular army, the location of a unit’s base while stationed at home is probably not a good indicator of the origin of the men that make up that unit. The Second World War saw the end of another trend. Up through WWII, the transition from peace to war meant the raising of new military units to fight that war. Contrast that to the post-War era, where the United States had endeavored to maintain sufficient forces to meet whatever challenges it may face. For the individual soldier, the difference is being recruited or drafted and then trained as part of their deployed unit version being assigned into an already-existing unit after training. In this last respect, the 9th Infantry, itself, marked the end of its own era.

The 9th Infantry was deactivated at the end of WWII. Despite being reactivated for the Korean War, it did not have a combat role and was deactivated again in 1962. In early 1966, the U.S. sought to extend their influence in the Mekong Delta. The 9th Infantry would fulfill this mission and three of its battalions would be organized as “Riverine” forces; using watercraft and waterways rather than helicopters to move to and from battlefields. The 4th Battalion of the 47th Infantry Regiment* was one such riverine unit.

As a newly-activated unit, the men of C Company were, by and large, draftees who all received their notices at the same time. The arrived for induction together, trained together, and when their training was complete, they deployed to Vietnam together. A rather horrific voyage carried them from California to Vietnam, incidents from which are related to the reader of the book.

Inevitably, the unit began to suffer attrition. This took the form both of soldiers killed as well as injuries that were serious enough to remove them from duty. As the original cadre was whittled away, C/4/47 became more like any other unit in Vietnam, filling up with replacements having no connection to the originally-deployed unit. While some of the replacements’ stories feature in the book, the narrative, for the most part, focuses on that original core and how a year’s worth of  duty in Vietnam affected them. Inducted in May, the unit deployed to Vietnam in December 1966. Any soldier who remained in their unit until the end returned to the United States around New Years’ Day of 1968.

In this, the the book sheds some light on the failure of “the numbers” to capture the impact of Vietnam on soldiers’ morale. For this unit, the numbers looked good. Combat deaths were 10% or lower over the course of their tour while losses inflicted upon the enemy where considerably higher. Their missions were successful. On the ground, however, it felt different. Missions often felt like, if not quite a failure, perhaps a waste. Men were as apt to fight booby traps or maybe just weather and rough terrain as enemy soldiers. When they did fight the enemy, it was often in the form of an ambush, where they were at an initial disadvantage that had to be overcome. That, in the end, said battle was deemed a victory was small consolation to the American unit that lost many good men in the opening moments of the fight.

While combat deaths were relatively low, by the time the company returned to the United States, most of the original members were gone. In addition to the deaths, there were injuries, many of them severe and permanent. There were also those who just transferred to other units and other locations. The net result of seeing the vast majority of your brothers-in-arms having gone had its psychological effect, independent of how the unit’s performance fit into the strategic picture. It is also important that losses, for the individual, weren’t balanced by gains on the individual level. When men died, either in an ambush or by faceless traps, there would be no counter-punch. While men had a natural instinct to get “payback,” it was unlikely that they would actual be able to again catch and fight the very enemies that had bloodied them in an earlier battle. There were no front lines to overrun or strongholds to capture and hold. In this, the war would seem to just meander on and on with no measure of progress except the loss of your best friends.

As depressing as that assessment sounds, the book does manage to avoid politics. The men themselves, even the draftees, largely entered the Army as patriots ready to fulfill their duty. In May of 1966, even the country at large was mostly supportive of the war. The men were shocked to return** to a country that, in 1968, was wracked by anti-war protests. While the narrative seems free from anti-war bias, the author does not hesitate to identify incompetence, either in overall policy or in the individual commander. It’s one thing to lose a friend to the fortunes of war but it is so much worse when it was you’re own side that caused the loss.

Bottom line, this book is a compelling read. It provides a picture of the Vietnam War, not as it looked to us as a nation or the military, but to the individuals who were called upon by their country to serve and so did their duty as best they could.

*Fictional character Forrest Gump served in the 2nd Battalion of the 47th, which was not one of the Riverine units.

**This book, unique to those I’ve read so far, spend the final chapter or two discussing the return of the men to the U.S. This includes how Vietnam dominated their lives in the decades after the war and the impact upon them of the internet and the reunions that began to take place in the years before the book was published.

The Sons of Ragnar Lothbrok

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This exercise with historical games began when I first started watching Vikings. I think I was originally watching on the History Channel; each new episode as it came out. When I first heard Vikings was going to be broadcast, I was a little nervous about a) how the History Channel might fumble the development of a historical-based drama and b) the obviously over-stylized interpretation of the period in question. As I watched a handful of the episodes, I wasn’t thrilled, but neither was I entirely put off. Eventually I lost track of the shows, as one often does when trying to catch things on the TV’s schedule.

Around that same time, I happened to be reading one of the books in The Saxon Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell. It was a the combination of Cornwell’s writing and the depiction of a shield wall on Vikings that made me decide I wanted to find a game that would go with the experience. My first attempt was a using Medieval 2: Total War and a mod-package called The Last Kingdom, apparently made by someone inspired in a similar fashion as I. From there, I got interested in the Wolves of the Sea expansion for Field of Glory, which generated its own a long and sordid tale. Worse yet, now that I finally have that expansion in hand, there were no battles created for the period of the Great Heathen Army or Alfred the Great. In any case, before I got very far, I ended up focusing on the Cold War period, rather than the Age of Vikings, and never got back to it.

Now, it seems, Vikings has come a full circle for me. I’ve watched up through the awkwardly-named Season 402, wherein the Sons of Ragnar Lothbrok (as defined by this series) threaten to intrude upon the story line of The Last Kingdom and the other books of The Saxon Chronicles, itself now a TV Series.

My initial misgivings aside, this is a period that’s ripe for a fictionalized treatment. Actually, with The Last Kingdom and Cornwall’s other works, I’ve always been impressed by his treatment of Dark Age history. Stories of Ragnar Lothbrok and his offspring survive today in the form of myth and legend. The primary source for this era, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is too thin on detail to create from it a modern novel-style narrative without a whole lot of elaboration and speculation. If the paucity of details weren’t bad enough, the accuracy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has been called into question, at least in terms of some of is assertions. Being written in the court of Alfred the Great, one would have to expect an interpretation history favorable to his reign, as opposed to just a strict record of facts. To some extent, the self-history of the Saxons can be cross-referenced with the oral histories of the Norse via the Tale of Ragnar’s Sons. The Norse story, however, is clearly mythological in nature. Historians question whether Ragnar Lothbrok was was even a single personage, as opposed to an iconic representation of Scandinavian virtue. One can freely mix a story about the “real” Ragnar with mystical elements without worrying to much about “accuracy” because nobody really knows what an accurate version would look like.

Even still, one wonders at the necessity of shoving every Norse legend into a single TV show. Ragnar’s character on Vikings not only sires his sons through his wife Aslaug, as is documented in the sources, but his wife previous to Aslaug (when he is but a farmer) becomes the also-legendary Lagertha. His life-long friend Floki, having created the first fleet of boats capable of sailing to England, turns out to be none other than the historical Flóki Vilgerðarson, the discoverer and founder of the Norse colony on Iceland. We also find out that King Alfred the Great was, in fact, the bastard son of Queen Judith*. Not content to have this Judith marry two successive kings (father and son!), as her namesake did, this Judith not only has a long-running affair with the her father-in-law**, she has also produced a son with one Athelstan, one of the few survivors of the massacre at Lindisfarne Abbey, the first Viking raid upon the island of Britannia. Here, naturally, we credit the raid to Ragnar Lothbrok. Granted, these historical events are not well pinned down and did, in fact, all occur in the generation or two in which the story takes place. Nevertheless, it remains quite a stretch to weave them into a single familial narrative.

A little more problematically, from a math standpoint, Ragnar’s brother, Rollo, takes part along with Ragnar in both the raid on Lindisfarne and the Siege of Paris, an event that followed the war of Ragnar’s sons by several decades. For Rollo to have accomplished all that he does in the show, from raiding Lindisfarne to besieging Paris to being crowned Duke of Normandy and founding the dynasty that would go on to rule England (as well as Sicily), he would have had to have lived to be around 140 years old.

The departure from the historical would seem to be made particularly problematic by the fact that this is a History Channel production. One would expect a fidelity to the historical as a top priority. Of course, when Vikings first premiered, the History Channel was also running programs like Ancient Aliens and Pawn Stars. While long ridiculed for its seeming mockery of the channel’s name, by the time Vikings came out (and certainly by the time it was popular), nobody expected much history from the History Channel. The creator of Vikings, for his part, defended his decisions to heavily dramatize his story. He claimed that an exciting, albeit ahistorical show, would draw far more interest in actual Viking history than a dry and historically-accurate series. In this, history (so to speak) has backed his claim.

Particularly given that the depiction of small-force combat was one of the things I liked about Vikings, I’m a little sad to say that it doesn’t scale up. The portrayal of the larger battles, at least the ones I’ve seen so far, does not particularly impress. The emphasis is on the stock-fantasy “epic” battles, where the heroes smite the nameless hoards before facing off with each other in a one-on-one duel. Part of the problem is that there aren’t records of the battles whereby Ragnar’s sons conquered England. It is possible, even, that no big, decisive battle did occur. The campaign could easily have consisted of weaker armies retreating before stronger ones and a series of sieges and plunder.

Unfortunately, this inability to realistically visualize the period extends to the gaming world.

No One Else Can Take My Place

One game that is explicit in modeling the Sons of Ragnar and the Great Heathen Army is Crusader Kings II. A little over a year after the initial release, Crusader Kings‘ fifth expansion extended the start date for the game backwards to 867 AD, shortly after the start of the Great Heathen Army’s campaign. Other mechanics were added to add unique capabilities to the Vikings and to pagans in general. The technology system was revamped to allow for the greater range of advancement that will occur when you extend the potential length of the game backwards towards the fall of the Roman Empire.

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Ivar the Boneless, supported by Sigurd, leads the Viking army in a war against East Anglia. It isn’t really 865 AD.

I’ve begun a new campaign, for academic purposes of course, that has me playing as Alfred the Great at the beginning of the Viking scenario. That means my older brother, Æthelred, is still king and I might expect to inherit his title if he dies reasonably soon. Of course, Crusader Kings can rapidly diverge from the historical formula so I could just as easily find myself fighting it out for control of Wessex as saving and uniting England. Doing my part to spoil the historical flavor up front, I’m arranging a marriage between myself and a Frankish princess, hoping to catapult my fortunes forward via continental politics.

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The Saxons raise their forces to confront Ivar’s horde. 24,000+ Heathens is pretty great indeed.

Whatever happens politically, the challenge of this scenario is the Viking threat. Sons of Ragnar Ivar the Boneless and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye are leading the Great Heathen Army in the vicinity of York, a force that exceeds 24,000 soldiers when all totaled. While the very name of this force brings to mind a vast, angry horde, modern scholars’ estimates are far lower. A figure under 1000 has been arrived at by calculating the documented carrying capacity times the recorded number of boats. The consensus produces figures in the low 1000s.

Why Crusader Kings starts the Vikings off with an army roughly ten times the size it should be is a matter for speculation. I don’t think its as simple as they had some bad data. More likely, a part of it is the necessary balance to give the Viking forces the military power to accomplish what they historically accomplished. Within the game mechanics, historical outcomes may well require a force that is perhaps ten times the size of the real one.

I don’t think it is just the Vikings, either. Across the board, the Dark Age armies seem overpowered in a number of ways. It seems easier to raise large forces of 10s of 1000s of soldiers than historical data suggest it should be. The seasonal limits on military campaigns are also very weakly enforced. In reality, soldiers would have been sent home for the winter to avoid battling the elements. Not only that, they probably would have also been sent home during planting and harvest, so that war time wouldn’t interfere with unduly with their kingdom’s food supply. Crusader Kings, instead, uses the basic 4X mechanics of upkeep costs to the player’s treasury combined with war weariness calculations. It creates practical limits to the raising of armies, but not limits based on the same factors as were (likely) most important in reality.

I think I’ve complained about the seasons and weather before. If not, I’ll complain again. Crusader Kings (and the EU family of games) get points for modeling weather and the seasons. But only a few. The arrival of winter in the northern climates should, more often than not, put a dead halt to military action until the spring thaw. Instead, the way the game handles it – increasing attrition during winter months – makes it just one more “cost” to manage when maintaining an army. It seems to me that you’re more successful keeping your army in the field and just feeding money and reinforcements to it through the supply system versus actually losing the 4-5 months out of the year required to cycle your armies home and back with the weather.

Although that’s one of my persistent complaints, lets just return to the army size and with it go back to something I said about Medieval II: Total War. Contrasting with Rome: Total War, medieval-period battles were much smaller than those of the classical age such that a “typical” fight could be played with the Medieval II units at a one-to-one ratio between rendered and modeled men. That goes doubly so for the Dark Ages, where the ability to support large armies was even less than in the tail-end of the High Medieval period. Remember, I was first drawn into Vikings by its depiction of shield wall combat in a battle consisting of hundreds of participants, not thousands – something at the low end of Medieval‘s range. The drawback, of course, is that Medieval II isn’t (nor is it really meant to be) much of a simulator of realistic combat.

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The Last Kingdom is a comprehensive mod that includes a cinematic introduction.

Enter the Medieval II mod, The Last Kingdom. I first came across this overhaul of the Medieval‘s Kingdoms sequel many years ago. I recall reading introductory material from, I think, The Last Kingdom‘s developer’s website, which I can’t locate today. Whether I just can’t find it or whether the site has been taken down, I don’t know. This stuff is 10 years old by now. I’ll tell you what I remember, but half of how I remember it is probably wrong.

I believe the developer is, himself, in academics as a profession. His intent was to make a strictly historical mod, accurately portraying aspects of life the Viking Age. He found himself limited in that goal by the mechanics of Total War, and so the result is a mixed bag of historical fidelity and Total War mechanics. He also uses, as a major source, Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom. As a result, in addition to the historical elements he has some of Cornwell’s fictional or speculative characters participating in the campaigns.

The modified elements run the gamut of what conversions typically do. The artwork and skins are redone to provide a more authentic-looking Viking/Dark Age depiction of clothing, armor, and weaponry. New unit types are introduced to distinguish between the various Northern European cultures. The build-tree has also been redone to provide a set of buildings and technological advances more appropriate to the period. Lastly, the stats of the units have been altered to change the feeling of the real-time battles.

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Non-campaign battles are built using army points, with random or automatic unit selection.

Originally, my interest in this was for historical battles, to the extent that we can find such. Like I said above, Medieval seems to be right at the spot where it is capable of representing the vast majority of organized fighting from it’s period as a one-to-one ratio.

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Modifications include the graphics, unit types, and parameters that govern battle resolution. It looks nice.

My initial impressions of this mod were very good. Normally, Total War battles are frantic affairs. Units race around the field, often executing contorted commands frantically clicked in by the player. Almost any realism mod is going to start by slowing everything down. This mod does that, and more. I won’t speculate on exactly how it was done but the shield walls act like shield walls. When similar units meet, they’ll stand in line bashing away at each other for a long time. Eventually, one side or the other will begin to dominate. In reality, shield wall combat was exhausting but not particularly deadly as long as the line held. Once a line broke, the fleeing army might well get slaughtered unless they were protected by other, intact forces.

This is still Total War, so the downside of the more deliberate battles is there is a tendency to fight to the last man. I’m guessing the casualties are ahistorically high, but that is pretty much guesswork all around as we’re not going to be finding detailed battlefield reports circa 865 AD. A second major problem I have with this as a tool for fighting one-off historical battles is my inability to get those battles set up in the game engine.

I’ve long had trouble using the scenario editor in Medieval II: Kingdoms and this mod seems to exacerbate the problems that are already there. The random battles are fairly easy to use, especially (if you are trying to get a historical setup) since you can hand-pick the armies on both sides of the field. Two issues conspire to make this less than fully satisfactory, both obvious when comparing experience of playing Total War in the campaign mode. First, there is no way to “carry over” your army, from either a victory or a defeat, into a future battle. You can construct a new army, but all units will be at full strength. This is particularly noticeable in that the campaign engine manages casualties and experience, allowing your army to be reshaped by the battles in which it engages. Likewise, the terrain. In the campaign game, the battle maps are created based upon where the encounter takes place on the strategic map. In the single battle mode, you need to choose from a more limited set of maps, which can detract from the experience. For example, in that last screenshot, I didn’t actually want to fight the battle as a contested river crossing, it just seemed to turn out that way.

This heightened realism mod, whatever faults it has, does seem to be quite a find for Dark Ages tactical battles. The larger problem is the lack of historical information on battles to which to apply the engine. Information is scarce regarding the details of battles. Similarly, there are no strategic or operational engines that focus on realism. The Last Kingdom does add new life to its Viking-centric campaign, but at the end of the day it remains a Total War game. For Crusader Kings, it does a descent and immersive job of portraying the politics of the time but, as I’ve identified early in the article, it is probably pretty far from being an accurate operational engine for the Viking invasion of England.

*This character is a fictional daughter Ælla of Northumbria, who may or may not have had daughters. The name and some of the narrative is based on Judith of Flanders, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor.

**The mixing of fiction and fantasy can become confusing. Judith, the real Judith, was the second wife of Æthelwulf, son of Ecgberht, not his first as was shown in the series. As his second wife, the once-and-future kings of England were not her own children, but rather her stepsons. Indeed, it was cause for court intrigue as some wondered whether Judith’s children by Æthelwulf, being the grand-children of the Holy Roman Emperor, might claim the thrown of Wessex over their older half-brothers. As it turned out, she had no children in this, her first marriage, nor in her second to Æthelwulf’s son Æthelbald, who is left out of the Vikings series entirely (see the discussion on time compression in the main text).

Xenophobia, Part. 9

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A few days after King Kong coming off Netflix, District 9 was also set to be removed. This is a Peter Jackson -produced film about aliens, set in the near future (of 2009, as the movie is already ten years old). It was a feature-length remake of a five-minute short film called Alive in Joburg by director Neill Blomkamp. Blomkamp was working with Jackson on a Halo -based film but, when that didn’t come to fruition, Blomkamp proposed to  make District 9.

Mercifully, I read nothing about the movie before I watched it. I only knew it had good reviews. For some reason, I also thought it was related to the TV series Colony, about which I also saw good reviews. I decided that I would first watch District 9 and then Colony. When I found out the connection was all in my head, I ended up watching neither. Nevertheless, the link between the two remained in my imagination.

With that background, the “twists” of the District 9 story were all a surprise to me. I’ll try not to give away too much here, but no guarantees. If you want to watch it without my bias, go watch it – you’ll likely find it worth your while. Netflix’s rating system suggested that, while the average review was 3.6 stars, I would rank it 4.7 stars out of 5. That is probably a little over-ambitious, but I think they have correctly identified that this is “my kind of film.”

The format mixes mockumentary-style presentation with what might be meant to look like “found footage.” In this case, the “find” seems to consist of both used and cut material from the makings of a TV documentary special. For example, some scenes are shown using body cams or surveillance cameras. At the same time, other scenes are show using conventional camera techniques. As the viewer, we are to place ourselves in a world where an alien spacecraft has been hovering over Johannesburg for the last 25 years or so, and yet it is a world otherwise of our own present day.

Many have read deeper meaning into the film. Certainly the location and the story’s premise leads one to see parallels with apartheid. A key plot point is also formed around the “smart gun” technology of alien weapons. We see that there are restrictions on weapons (and technology in general) as well as open and flagrant violations of those restrictions. We also have the multinational corporation contracted to privately handle traditional governmental functions, like security. That results in another plot where the secret motivations and methods of said corporation (conveniently, Multi-National United) are exposed.

But is it allegory or is it just a splatter film*? While the references to South African history are obvious**, is there really any message about the politics of South Africa to be found in the story? Similarly the themes of guns and corporations. While the ideas are there, are they presented in a way that is supposed to talk to us about our current (or at least, 2009) societal problems? Does that fact that the government tries to seize illegal guns and fails argue for or against gun control? Is it even supposed to be an argument?

The one theme that is clearly part of the movie and intended to be is what I talked about with King Kong. As the movie progresses, the audience comes to identify with the aliens (prawns, as one of their nicknames has it) as the sympathetic characters of the film. Even our main character transitions away from being a pathetic anti-hero. He becomes someone we can respect as he also becomes less human and more alien. Unlike King Kong, we do not see human civilians being killed by the prawns. Worst case, the privatized army of Multi-National United get shot back at after they have already initiated the aggression. At the end, we’re left with a vague hint that we don’t really know the intention of the aliens. Maybe shortly (3 years?) after the film ends, the prawns will return and destroy us all. Maybe not. In that ambiguity we find ourselves free to take the side of the “other” over the human race.

*A new term I learned this week, specifically referring to Peter Jackson’s early works.

**1982 is the arrival date of the alien spaceship. This also happens to be the end date of the District Six relocation project, where 60,000 non-whites were forceably relocated from the Cape Town neighborhood to Cape Flats and designated areas. Are there supposed to be implications about the resolution of the South African racial problems in the face of a new “other?”

Pacifier

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This is the forty-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.

To those who saw Vietnam as a growing failure, the results from from the battlefields of 1966-1967 demonstrated that failure. Road to Disaster describes the the strategy of seeking large-scale engagements as “attrition,” and as a fight that Westmoreland was clearly losing. The narrative is that U.S. commander through this period in adding more troops to the fray was simply throwing good lives after sunk costs. His repeated requests for increases came on top of a decided lack of progress. In other words, while he could show nothing so far he would claim that “just 100,000 more soldiers” would turn the stalemate into a victory.

There is another side of this argument. At the time, Westmoreland’s claim was that he was showing substantial improvement and that the additional troops would hasten the achievement of victory for the U.S. The numbers, it was said, showed solid progress, particularly in contrast to the year before. It was asserted that the ability of the communists to continue the war was being steadily degraded. While that assertion seems to have been proven entirely wrong by the Tet Offensive in 1968, I don’t think it is quite as far-fetched as it might seem in retrospect.

Taking the Offensive: October 1966–September 1967 gives a counterpoint to Road to Disaster‘s tale of disaster. This version not dominated by the ultimate failure to save South Vietnam and the anti-war post-analysis that is so prevalent today. This is now the third in the five-part Campaigns of the Vietnam War, a booklet-type format summarizing the major phases of the U.S. Army involvement in Vietnam. Compared to the first two, it is considerably less dramatic. For the most part, it summarizes the Army’s operations, breaking them down by region. Perhaps more interesting here is the Analysis section at the tail-end of the book.

That analysis is generally positive about the performance of the Army during this period, a sharp contrast to the gloomy outlook of Road to Disaster. Whereas VanDeMark cites the “attrition” strategy as utter failure, both in general and particularly through 1967, Taking the Offensive explicitly calls it successful. As evidence it cites the 10:1 loss ratio between insurgent and U.S. forces. In the first nine months of 1967, there were 66,000 communist deaths compared to 10,000 South Vietnamese forces and 7,000 U.S. servicemen. Furthermore, they calculate a disparity in replacement rates, after which the U.S. force rose by 66,000 while the communist forces declined by 20,000. Another metric cited is the percentage of the rural population living under the government’s control rose from 44% to 48%.

Part of that latter figure is related to the relocation of civilians to refugee camps in secure areas. Even Taking the Offensive acknowledges the problem with tracking, as a good thing, the creation of refugees by forcible removal from their home villages. By the numbers, it both increases the population under government control as well as denying the communists the resources (whether provided voluntarily or under duress) that they would obtain from the local population. While Road to Disaster goes into considerably more detail about the inability of the South Vietnamese government to care for refugees, Taking the Offensive refers to the “squalid refugee camps” “straining the ability of provincial administrators to care for” the refugees which contribute to the ostensibly positive pacification numbers.

One final area where Taking the Offensive and Road to Disaster diverge is in their assessment of the health of that South Vietnamese government. Road to Disaster paints a rather bleak picture of a dysfunctional system. The rather-compelling conclusion is that saving South Vietnam was simply impossible due to a government that simply was unworthy of popular support. Worse still, it seems that there simply wasn’t anyone competent waiting in the wings. One might conclude that the War in Vietnam was essentially lost with the removal and assassination of Diệm, who for all of his faults, may have been a capable administrator. This fits with the story of Road to Disaster which is analyzing the failure of the Kennedy administration to do what it should have known was right. In this case, it seemed that they would have put a halt to U.S. support for the coup, had they just got themselves a little better coordinated. Taking the Offensive, on the other hand, talks about “the growing political stability of the South Vietnamese state.”

The campaign in Binh Dinh, where the 1st Cavalry moved in to again clear areas near the populous coast of insurgent forces, is included in Taking the Offensive, but only to introduce the situation of mid-1967. The U.S goals in targeting the province in the fall of 1966 occur too late for the series’ previous installment and apparently too late to feature in the current one. In the more detailed Combat Operations series, operation Irving is in the Stemming the Tide book, it coming right on the transition between defensive and offensive operations. Within that context, Stemming the Tide doesn’t tie the operation into the pre-Tet offensive campaign in terms of impact. It does give the military details, which are a primary source for the Vietnam Combat Operations TOAW scenarios. Nevertheless, Vietnam Combat Operations Vol. 4, per its subtitle (Counteroffensive II), it is grouped with the U.S. offensive actions that extend through 1967.

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1st Cavalry deploys to the Binh Dinh coastline to search the Kim Son Valley.

The TOAW scenario steps through the phases of the American search for the 3rd PAVN Division in Binh Dinh province. You are instructed to create a headquarters at LZ Hammond (the highlighted hex, above, near the center of the screen) and allocate your forces in a mix – some active and some in reserve. As I described earlier, executing the historical operations grants you extra points towards your score. It also sets you up to properly trigger engagements with the enemy as they should occur historically. Of course, and this is the point isn’t it, it also lets you choose to alter those historical engagements.

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After making themselves scarce in the Kim Son Valley, the 95th Battalion attacks my base at LZ Hammond

For example, as I was beginning to redeploy my forces away from Kim Son and into the mountainous area just west of Hoa Hoi (see the red victory point flag on the coast), a sizable enemy force showed up just outside LZ Hammond. Historically, this was a ten-minute bombardment that occurred in the middle of the night, notable (mostly) for the damage it caused. One American serviceman was killed and 32 were wounded, while 17 aircraft were damaged. Searching for the enemy turned up nothing; they were gone by morning.

In my pretend version, I moved all the forces that I could spare in an attempt to trap the attacking enemy near my strong point. It’s a level of reaction entirely out of place for 10 minutes worth of mortaring, no matter how destructive that fire may have been. Now an operational level treatment doesn’t go into that kind of detail – I can’t distinguish between an attack by mortar crews as opposed to an attempt at infantry overrun. From my perspective in TOAW, I had identified a large (potentially superior) enemy formation and therefore I planned to destroy it. It’s an interaction closer to what really occurred near the coast when multiple companies of communist forces were pinned down in the village of Hoa Hoi.

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The Hoa Hoi scenario specifically includes the command helicopter of Lt. Col. George W. McIlwain,

That most significant battle of this campaign, that engagement at the village of Hoa Hoi, is presented as a scenario pair in Squad Battles: Tour of Duty. The scenarios were put together by John Tiller himself, so I was again looking forward to seeing the engine put to its best use. Obviously, with only two steps to the scenario, it is not the breaking down of the battle into key parts which worked so well before. The two scenarios correspond, more or less, to two major phases in the historical battle. In the first phase, the U.S. command was made aware of a communist presence in Hoa Hoi but had no idea to what extent. A platoon was inserted to determine what was there. When the platoon met significant resistance they soon realized that they were facing a numerically-superior force.

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Of considerably more interest are the Huey gunships.

The first scenario portrays the insertion of a platoon into a hot Landing Zone. As is typical for Squad Battles, it ignores any landing zone preparatory bombardment (no off-board artillery here), but does allow you to designate your LZ “on the fly,” so to speak. In the two preceding screenshots, you can see my helicopters approaching the area around the village, coming in from the south. Instead, I flew them around to the northeast (see below).

Perhaps the highlight of this scenario is shown in the second of the two above screens. The insertion is supported by two Huey gunships with rockets. To me, this allows something closer to what an American unit in a contested landing might expect in terms of air and artillery support.

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I felt better about losing my two gunships when I began the second scenario and saw the wrecks of all three aircraft from the prior scenario.

Unfortunately, my use of those gunships ended up in some embarrassment for my command. Even before I could get my guys landed, I lost both of the air-support helicopters to enemy fire. Both in the real calculus of that war and in terms of victory points, whatever the success of the infantry’s mission, that significant loss of assets is not going to look good on paper. I did, in fact, do pretty well with this scenario once you set aside the downed helicopters, but losing two “vehicles” meant a loss on points. My sense of failure was mitigated somewhat in that when the second scenario is loaded, all three helicopters from the first scenario on present on the map as wrecks. I have not read that the actual battle had significant cost in terms of support aircraft. In particular, I would think if the command helicopter would have been shot down during the operation, that would have been notable. I don’t know if John Tiller had sources that I didn’t read, or he was just starting you at what seemed to be a likely outcome of playing that first scenario.

That second phase of the battle includes the final assault on the village with a full battalion of troopers. The second scenario in the pair begins with the helicopter lift of those forces and ends with successful (or not) capture of the village. In this, the scenario has the features that I complained about in the single-scenario battles. The reinforcement and, ultimately, replacement of the initial platoon began shortly after the fighting started, a soon as U.S. commanders realized what they faced. Yet, despite a desire to take out the enemy quickly (before they had a chance to make their escape during the night), the final attack could not be organized before night fell. The assault and capture of the village actually took place the following day, using forces that were encamped overnight around the village.

What this highlights for me is the inability of these games, or any games, to determine the conditions under which history could be changed in the Vietnam War. Whether or not, in a particular campaign or battle, a player can beat history seems not to be what would tilt the outcome to a victory. Assuming one accepts the premises of Road to Disaster, they key factors resided in the political. U.S. politics, in terms of the extent to which the Johnson presidency was willing to risk drawing in China or the Soviet Union into a broader war. Also South Vietnamese politics as, ultimately, a military victory could only be sustained if it was followed up by good governance which would gain the support of the people. Many of the best Vietnam War games do model these political factors and the “morale” impacts that determine the support of the people. In all cases, though, the results of these calculations and whether they result in the player “winning” or “losing” the war, depend entirely on the assumptions that the game designer creates. Would pursuing retreating insurgents into Laos force the North to the negotiating table or cause the Chinese to send in ground forces? The best we can do is speculate.

Return to the master post for more Vietnam War articles or move forward to a book review.

Xenophobia

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I re-watched Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong the night before it was removed from Netflix.

This was the movie Jackson said he always wanted to remake. He had even attempted it at age 12 with hand-built models and his parents movie camera. When his film The Frighteners had some fair success, he proposed a remake of King Kong to the studio, but they didn’t think it was a good bet in competition with remakes of Godzilla and Mighty Joe Young, already in the works. But following the monster success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson was able to make the movie and make it how he wanted it. Perhaps that latter bit was something of the endevor’s undoing.

The film is over three hours and that is before the release of the “directors cut” version. It has too many characters, too many subplots, and to many Jackson-style action scenes. As a tribute to the original, 1933 version, it does have its merits. Jackson also tries to channel some Stanley Kubrick, suggesting the story is a version of Heart of Darkness (“It’s not an adventure story. Is it, Mr. Hayes?” “No, Jimmy. It’s not.”) All-in-all, its not a bad film, but it may well have been better to experience it with an hour or so shaved off.

The reason I watched it again is that my kids had never seen it and they’re at an age when they should appreciate dinosaurs fighting a supersized gorilla.

I suppose I was older then they are now when I first saw the 1933 version. Like Jackson himself, I was greatly saddened when the great ape was killed by the army, mostly for being misunderstood. Jackson, perhaps with a little too heavy a hand, tries to make sure that we understand that Denham (Jack Black) is the villain and Kong, along with most of the others he drags along on his adventure, are innocent victims. Such subtleties are lost on young kids.

At the end of the film, and argument broke out between my children. My daughter’s sympathies were with Kong and she was angry at the army for trying to kill him. That riled my boy a bit and soon the shouting began. Although my son acknowledged that Kong had turned out to be all right and it was not his fault he was brought to New York, he felt the army had no choice but to respond how they did.

“What is the army supposed to do? Kong was killing people? They have to stop him from killing people?” – Boy

“They should know, they should leave him alone.” – Girl

Eventually, it nearly came to blows. My daughter was cheering on Kong as he knocked down airplanes and my son thought it was terrible to applaud the killing of humans. Although my daughter took in the message of the movie as it was intended; the audience is expected to come over to the side of Kong by the time he is taken from Skull Island; there is also something admirable about my son’s position. When it comes down to it, shouldn’t we value human life above non-human life? If our city is really under assault by some strange, inhuman creature, shouldn’t our loyalty be first to our fellow man?

The boy is the younger and his attitude is more instinctive and less influenced by the surrounding culture. It may also be individual personality differences at play, unrelated to age or gender.  I have to wonder, though, if there is something essentially male versus female in their reactions? Is the girl instinctively more likely, like Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) herself, to want to protect the big, hairy beast? Is the boy genetically predispositioned to defend the homeland against the invading hordes? Or am I like Jackson, overdoing a what was originally 100 minutes of monster/action movie and trying to project greater meaning where none exists?

 

A Multiplied Disaster

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If you’re playing a grand strategy game and have a major loss, do you do what I do? Assuming available resources, the plan is often to max out the build queue, build an even bigger army, and then go after the force that just defeated us. Essentially this was the Roman Republic’s reaction following the losses at Trebia and Lake Trasimene. Rome raised a new army centered around eight legions, more than she had ever deployed in her history. By way of contrast, a Roman field army typically consisted of two legions under the command of a Consul. In extraordinary circumstances, two consular armies could combine to present four legions and accompanying support. Hannibal got eight and and the proceeded to wipe them out at Cannae, including one of the consuls.

Cannae is one of the “Epic Battles” in Field of Glory II. Playing it, as I recently did taking Hannibal’s forces, gives some insight into Field of Glory II scenario design.

The introductory text to the battle’s scenario explains Hannibal’s strategy. He knows he is outnumbered but also knows he is facing a newly-recruited army. Because, you are told, the Roman’s know the weakness in her green troops, they deploy them in a deeper-than-usual formation. Hannibal puts his strongest forces on his wings, particularly beefing up his left-flank cavalry. He also deploys his infantry in an inverted crescent formation, calculated to draw the Roman’s inward, allowing his lines to extend beyond the Roman flanks, despite his inferiority in numbers.

As the game begins and the battle lines come together, this is exactly what happens in Field of Glory II. The initial meeting of infantry is at the center of the line, with the advantage going to the Carthaginian veterans. This draws the Roman wings inward allowing the Carthaginian wings to flank them. The slaughter of the Roman army ensues*.

It would seem next-to-impossible that a generic AI would react in just this way, reproducing Rome’s loss. Particularly given the depth of the deployed forces, it would seem smarter to feed the rear lines into the weakening center while using superior numbers to try to outflank the Carthaginians. Note, I haven’t tried this strategy, nor am I speculating that it would work; it is just what I’d expect the game to attempt to do given the situation in the early turns. My point is that, in order to create a satisfying Battle of Cannae, the AI has to be nudged in the historically-accurate direction. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

What it highlights is the qualities that will go into a well-crafted historical scenario in this game system and that it means more than a well-researched order of battle. It also has strong implications for randomly generated battles for play against the AI and the single player campaigns which are made of those random battles. I commented on this before, specifically with respect to Hannibal, but it may apply across the board; a hard-coded campaign of chained historical battles is probably the only way to reproduce history.

*I note that the victory screen did not reflect that complete destruction of the Roman forces that history records. Field of Glory II presents an option to continue fighting after you’ve won “on points.” The way it is phrased, it implies that such continuation can allow for higher casualties but I don’t know if it works out that way. One of these days I’d like to experiment – is it possible to achieve the complete destruction of the enemy by refusing to allow the game to end until all enemies are removed from the board?

 

From the Delta to the DMZ

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This is the forty-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.

Not quite a year ago, Adrian Cronauer passed away at age 72 after a long illness. He was an Air Force veteran, a writer, a lawyer, and had worked various positions in radio. Obituaries, though, had more to say about Robin Williams, who himself had committed suicide roughly five years earlier.

Cronauer had written a comedy for TV based on his experiences as a DJ in Vietnam. After some twists and turns, the film was made with director Barry Levinson at the helm and with Robin Williams staring as Cronauer. The film script was heavily reworked from Cronauer’s original proposal and much of what is portrayed in the move is pure fantasy. At the time, Williams was at the top of the stand-up circuit, at a time when stand-up comedy featured huge in popular entertainment. He was known to TV audiences as Mork from Ork and teenagers across the country had memorized his routines from his stand-up albums. Good Morning, Vietnam, however, showed that Williams could be a star dramatic actor, capable of top box office draw.

I recall at the time that everyone knew the catch-phrase of the film’s title. The film performed well and was critically well received.  For whatever reason, it never seemed like something I wanted to watch. A Robin Williams comedy routine superimposed on a Vietnam War story didn’t seem like it would do it for me. Finally, it was the passing of Mr. Williams and Mr. Cronauer that made me decide to see what it was all about.

First off, a good chunk of the film is Robin Williams doing his routine, but as a radio DJ. It was largely unscripted. Thirty-some years on, it is both a credit to Williams’ ad-lib talents and a nod to the style of 1980s stand-up. It is also a very good-looking film. The movie was filmed entirely in Thailand so, unlike some movies, it is an entirely believable portrayal of Saigon and the surrounding rural areas. There are numerous shots of soldiers doing soldier-things, ostensibly while listening to the radio. There are anachronisms a-plenty (M-16s when everyone should have M-14s and errors in uniforms and military protocol, to name a few), but it does look sharp.

The story-line itself feels a little shallow perhaps because so much of the screen time is dedicated to Robin’s monologues. Of course, the success of the films owes much to those monologues. I suspect the pitch was essentially the Robin Williams routine, but made into a movie. Beyond that we can also see Williams’ ability to play something other than funny. In fact, he may be better playing the darker emotions than he is at being silly. This becomes clear in his later work, but it may begin to be evident here as well.

Cronauer leveraged his fame derived from the film to advocate for Vietnam Veterans and, in particular, prisoners of war. He became Special Assistant to the Director of the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office. He was never the celebrity that Robin William’s portrayal made him out to be. However, in his later years he was approached by many a veteran thanking him profusely for what he did. His voice on the radio made soldiers in Vietnam feel a little closer to home.

Return to the master post or continue forward towards the end of 1966 and the execution of Westmoreland’s plan to take the initiative using his build up of U.S. forces in South Vietnam.

So Row Well and Live

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Speaking of departing from reality, we saw in a previous screenshot Scipio headed back to Rome for his new assignment, but many months too late. Had he been where he was supposed to be, he would have been already fighting in Spain and Rome would have won The Battle of Ebro River. Yet in my Alea Jact Est game, no naval combat took place for me so far.

For naval combat I had to dig into my Mare Nostrvm installation. I can’t believe this game has been out for five years now, but there it is. It’s a tactical game of galley warfare in the Ancient world. A player can either engage in a series of linked historical battles or random fights based on army point allocations. The latter can be played either against the AI or against another player. The historical battles are organized as campaigns requiring one to win one battle to move on to the next one in that campaign. Campaigns span history from Greeks fighting Carthage pre-500 BC up to the end of the Roman Republic and the Roman Civil Wars.

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Planning a turn. This should be an easy victory.

The turns are played in a planning phase followed by simultaneous execution. Your ships follow exactly the orders that they are given, although they do have to remain within command distance of their squadron leader (three such leaders are visible in the above screenshot, see the trailing red banner) to be under player control. Commands can also be given just to the lead ships, in which case all subordinates will adopt the same orders, as well as to each ship individually. You can mix-and-match as needed, first giving division-level orders and making individual exceptions.

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Executing. Those Carthaginians may not be where you thought they’d be.

It’s not a fancy game, but it has enough bells and whistles to make entertaining. As your plan is executed, the sounds of drums and waves accompany the little ships as they move. The decks are animated with red and blue dots running about. When two ships get close, missiles fly between them and when then grapple, the little dots rush forward to engage their counterparts.

The commands themselves are limited. You can instruct your ship either to try to ram the enemy or to grapple. If a ship is not moving fast enough, the ram option might be missing. Plowing into a ship broadside will sink it immediately where as entangling two ships cause a battle to ensue between their crews which might take several turns to resolve. Ships can be sunk, captured, damaged, or just ensnared by another ship.

As far as the simulation goes, it has the features that one might ask for in a game of this type. It models both sail and oar power (although sails may be disabled per scenario, as was the case here). It also (obviously, from the screenshots) includes land. There is little in the way of own-side AI. You, the player, needs to anticipate where the enemy ships are going to be in a turn or two and plan accordingly. In other words, you plot your moves by targeting hexes and not enemies. The computer AI seems competent enough – I’ve been beaten by it a few times and not seen it do obviously stupid stuff.

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Quite a mess. Rome prevailed, but it was not the one-sided battle of antiquity.

In the real Battle of Ebro River, Rome used the element of surprise to rapidly gain the upper hand, at which point the Carthaginians turned tail, abandoning their ships on the shore. No such outcome here. Although Rome still won, the battle was a close-fought thing. As you can see, my formations were completely disordered and I lost a number of ships to enemy rams*. If anything, the computer seems like he is holding it together better than I am. However, Carthage started at a disadvantage all around.

The Carthaginian fleet was surprised while foraging, modeled here by restricting Carthage’s movement during the first turn. Their ships were also manned by novice crews, making them inferior to the Romans in ability. Rome also had larger and more ships, giving them further advantage when the fighting turned to hand-to-hand. The Carthaginian’s one advantage was the superior maneuverability of their smaller ships. It was not enough for them to defeat Rome and it was also insufficient here.

*For some reason, I have been unable to sink any enemies using rams in this scenario. Every enemy I have defeated, I have defeated through capturing. I should probably just read the manual.

Vengeance Porn versus Chick Flicks

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If you came to this article from a Google search and decide to read on, you are bound to have some remorse. This won’t be what you think it is from the title. What it is about is a pair of fictional stories, one a book (and maybe, eventually a movie) and one a movie (but never a book), that are set in America somewhere in the 1969-1970 time frame and featuring Vietnam as a locale and a major plot point. I don’t know what you were hoping for, but you’re not going to find it here, ya filthy animal.

Without Remorse was, quite literally, my beach reading some time back, when it was newish. I remember enjoying it at the time and, recently, when I found myself looking for something on the lighter side, I decided to read it again. I now see it, as described on-line, referred to as “A John Clark Novel.” At the time I had no idea that this was the back story on a recurring character and certainly had no idea that he was to become the lead character in the Rainbow Six novels and actually “Rainbow Six” himself. I actually thought it was supposed to be an “Admiral Greer” backstory.

Not so long ago, I reread Red Storm Rising and I found it did not hold up as well as my memory would have it. This, even though my memories of it were not that flattering. My earliest impressions of Clancy’s writing were tainted by his clunky, overly-technical descriptions. Without Remorse, on the other hand, I remembered as being enjoyable. Based on a revised analysis of just these two data points, I’m going to say I think Clancy’s writing ability may have improved a good bit the more he wrote. Or more to the point, Without Remorse remains a good read.

Knowing why the book was written, however, doesn’t help. When I thought that John Kelly/John Clark was just an interesting passer-through in the Clancy fictional world, I could read the story more at face value. Knowing, as I do now, that this book was written as a setup for all the future books that feature this character, I’m a little less enthusiastic.

It was clear from around the very first appearance of Jack Ryan that he was Tom Clancy’s idealized self. Their biographies and personalities are pretty similar. It’s just that Jack Ryan just does it all a little better. Now, under some circumstances, there is nothing wrong with this. An author must put a bit of himself into his works and it all seemed fine when Ryan was put aboard the USS Dallas in The Hunt for Red October. As the books continued, though, Ryan both saw rapid promotions as well as ramping up of his physical participation in these covert operations. Not only are these two character arcs fairly incompatible but I couldn’t get it out of my head that I’m reading about Clancy as he’d like to see himself, running around and stopping the baddies.

Now bring in John Clark. Obviously, by the fact that I missed his character’s appearances in the other Clancy books I’ve read, I have little opinion about the guy. I have read, however, that Clark is a kind of Jack-Ryan’s-other-half. That is, once again, Clancy has created an idealized version of himself through whom he can act vicariously, although this time much more of an action hero. I had already thought Ryan was a little too physical for a Tom Clancy stand-in, so the idea that he needs a beefed-up version seems even more over-the-top.

Of course, as I’ve said, I didn’t know anything about John Clark at the time I read Without Remorse. Taken independently, it’s the story of a Vietnam veteran who turns vigilante to wreak vengeance upon Baltimore’s drug dealers over the murder of a loved one. In that sense, it combines Rambo, Death Wish, and Point of Impact/Shooter (which actually did a version of the story a year earlier) into a tale of what we all sometimes wish we could do. That is, if we weren’t constrained by the law and other trimmings of civilization. Oh, and if we were trained in covert operations and assassination by the United States Navy.

Critics found the story overly-long. We do get, essentially, three revenge stories for the price of one. Kelly/Clark takes on the drug dealers, who, from what I know about Baltimore drug dealers, probably did have it coming. He also takes vengeance on the commies for having captured and tortured some fine, American pilots. He also gets to stomp on a commie spy. In a more plausible world, one tale of revenge might be enough. I remained enthralled in the stories throughout, though, and I think the juxtaposition of all three is intended to make a statement about morality and legality when it comes to killing. Sometimes it is bad, but sometimes we think it is good. Sometimes we even think one thing but perhaps only because we don’t know the whole truth. Perhaps that’s taking what is essentially a beach novel and pushing it too far. In the end, it did for me what a good beach novel is supposed to do – it kept me up at night turning pages, unable to put it down.

Love and Honor, another movie coming off of Netflix, lacks even the depth of a beach novel. Here we follow the story of an army volunteer, Joiner (I shit you not), whose girl back home has broken-off their relationship.  His friend, who is Wright (get it, he’s right!), councils him that there are other fish in the sea, yet Joiner decides he is to jump ship (excuse the mixed metaphors) and go back to the U.S. to confront the girl under cover of a 1-week leave in Hong Kong. This is all superimposed with the first Moon landing, which is going on at exactly the same time as the thing with the girl.

Wright decides to join Joiner on his odyssey. He is a “player” (to use some modern terminology) – handsome, smooth-talking, and good with the ladies. In fact, he is probably best thought of in such modern terms. While the film takes place in 1969, with some cars and clothes to emphasize the point, much about this simply comes off as present-day. The moral of the story, a “hate the war, respect the soldier” message, seems targeted more at our current foreign entanglements than that of a generation ago. Perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising, given the popularity of period-not-so-period pieces these days, that some twenty-teens twenty-somethings can just assert that “We’re children of the sixties” and we ask no more of them.

Anyhow, Wright and Joiner go off on the adventure and, seeing how Wright is played by male-lead Liam Hemsworth, we see him make adventures of his own. Will he find love? Will he fall in love? Will love change him? If you know the genre then you know the answers have to be yes, yes, and yes.

Honestly, it’s not the worst movie. Taken purely as a feel-good, teen-romance (albeit with nearly-30 actors playing those teens), it does alright. Try to read much more into it and you’ll likely come away disappointed. Not only does it fail to provide any historical depth, but it fails to convey whether it is even trying. For example, the weaving of the plot in with the moon landings. Is that supposed to help convey some higher meaning? If it is, I failed to see what it was.

I will say one thing that the movie did illuminate for me. Watching the images of twenty-teens actors in what is supposed to be a 1960s anti-war protest invites compare-and-contrast between the protest movements between now and then. One massive difference is the draft. In 1969, it wasn’t just that those college-aged protesters saw injustice in the war. They, at least the boys, were also at risk to be themselves sent to Vietnam. Oddly enough, I read a reassertion of just this point two nights after I watched Love and Honor while reading Road to Disaster and I hit late 1967 and the acceleration of the Vietnam War protests. On this last point, the movie actually seems to be self-aware. During the climatic dramatic moment the leading-gal says to the main antagonist, “I thought you were a traitor. The truth is that you’re only a coward.”

If nothing else, living in a time of an all-volunteer military makes it easier to criticize anti-war protestors who were just out to save their own skins.

Death or Glory

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I had previous complained that Alea Jacta Est falls into an unhappy medium between a tactical and a strategic representation of the Roman Republic. My comments about the game’s treatment of the Pyrrhic War is that it left the player with too little of value to play with, focusing primarily on the operational level of that war. It occurs to me that one of the issues is that the Pyrrhic War scenario may be better played as Pyrrhus, not Rome. Rome won the war, in part, by fielding new legions* when the existing ones were defeated in battle. So the Roman strategy is one of replenishing their forces, throwing them into battle, and then see who wins. If it’s a loss, then repeat. For Pyrrhus, however, he has more operational decisions. He is more limited in his resources and so has choices to make. How can he fight his enemies in detail, particularly once Carthage is involved. Does he focus on Italy or take the fight to Sicily?

Similarly, in the early part of the Second Punic War a gamer may be better challenged by taking the part of Hannibal. He too has the single but large invading army which he can use against the Roman forces wisely to break the Roman will. Yet from the Roman side too, the operation strategies may be more interesting. While there are similarities between the invasion of Pyrrhus and the invasion of Hannibal, the Second Punic War is far more complicated. While Hannibal leads the main Carthaginian force, his brothers have forces in Spain. As the war progressed, Italy, Spain, Sicily, Africa, and even Greece all became potential fronts in this conflict. Given all that, it might be worth looking, again, at the war from a higher view.

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Cooler heads prevail and I hold off engaging Hannibal until August.

As I briefly described before, the meat of Alea Jacta Est family is managing army operations. This consists of movement, the resulting combat, and the management of supply. In this case, the movement is implemented as a planning phase followed by a month’s worth of simultaneous execution. In addition to all of that, the make-up of armies must also be managed. In the AGEod family, this is more than just creating “stacks” of units subject to supply limit. First, the mix of the army’s units drives the tactical level and provides one of the player’s main methods of impacting the detailed battle results. In addition to balancing the combat unit types, the commanders must be chosen to be sufficiently capable of managing the army for which they are responsible. This can imply balancing the military with the political as poorly-performing generals inevitably make their way up into senior command positions. It’s a complex system, and one that (for the Second Punic War) I’m jumping into with inadequate preparation. Rather than think about the game as a simulation of the war as a whole, I’m going to look at it more as a framework playing Hannibal’s early victories, but seen from the Roman side.

I started the scenario that begins in the late fall of 218 BC. Hannibal is across the Alps and the stage is set for the showdown across the river Trebia. Modern politics is often (and annoyingly) compared with warfare. In the Republic of Rome, however, success at the ballot box was often tied to one’s success on the battlefield. Sempronius Longus’ eagerness to engage Hannibal, even when at obvious (particularly as seen in retrospect)  disadvantage, is in part because achieving personal glory on the battlefield would translate to political and financial success in Rome. It was therefore easy enough for Hannibal to draw Sempronius into a fight across a river in winter conditions, where he was defeated.

Taking on the vague persona of “Rome,” I’m under no such pressure. I was slow to relocate Sempronius’ forces from Sicily** and then, once they were in northern Italy, moved them into camp to properly prepare for battle. I was so slow, in fact, that Gaius Flaminius and Gnaeus Servilius Geminus replaced Sempronius and Publius Cornelius Scipio as consuls. Maybe Sempronius was on to something? I also waited a few more months for reinforcements to arrive (which, frankly, I was still trying to get figured out) and for the weather to be good. I wouldn’t make my move until August.

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I moved my camp to the same side of the river before fighting, but you can’t argue with the numbers.

Having fully assembled both consular armies and beefed up my forces, I first crossed the Trebia River at an unopposed crossing so that I could attack Hannibal on even ground. As it turned out, it didn’t do me much good. Despite my organization, I came upon a Carthaginian army which significantly outnumbered and outclassed my own. All my preparation wasn’t for naught. The loss wasn’t a disaster; my losses were only about double that of Hannibal and more than half my forces remained in fighting order. I was able to retreat back across the river and keep my army intact, ready to fight against Hannibal (and, yes, lose) another day, as he moved south through the Italian peninsula. Publius Cornelius Scipio, meanwhile, although many months behind schedule, moved back to Rome in preparation for leading his historical command in Spain.

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As Scipio returns to Rome, Hannibal catches my weakened army near its camp, again giving about twice as good as he gets. Problem is, I can handle the losses but he can’t.

I’ll not dwell on the campaign that followed except to note one thing. As I continue my chase of Hannibal through Italy, I’ve yet to experience the massive defeat and resulting loss of all legions that marked Hannibal’s greatest victories. Part of this may be due to my more pensive operations; the Romans have yet to be caught out with the consuls split and defeated in detail. Also, by the time I actually did lose a single legion to Hannibal, I already had a replacement waiting in Rome. I suspect that was triggered in the scenario by the historical defeats that never actually happened in my game. It is also, I imagine, due to a leveling effect that comes from the random resolution of battles. Statistically speaking, this should tend to avoid the outliers in terms of extreme victories or defeats, as a Cannae or Lake Trasimene would seem to be.

The end result of all this is that, because Rome never has a catastrophic loss and because I’m recruiting replacements in anticipation of heavy casualties, the pace of my campaign picks up rapidly. In the game, I can force a major battle every two or three months through the seasons with favorable weather. I lose, sure, but each time Hannibal also loses forces he can’t replace while Rome is able to patch up her legions in short order, ready to send them out again. What is it about the modeling that causes this departure from reality? Am I allowed to beat the cycle of military defeats followed by Senate reaction by anticipating my losses? Is this a reasonable result of my losses being lower than the historical ones? I have no idea, but it does have implications with respect to exploring “what ifs.”

*In the Pyrrhic War, it was less an issue of creating replacement legions as rebuilding the ones that had been depleted. I use the terminology because, isn’t a unit which has had the bulk of its soldiers replaced in many ways “new?” Plus, I want to make the comparison with the actual destruction of legions from which Rome suffered in later wars.

**In another historical note, I came across a telling detail regarding the relocation of the Sempronius’ consular army from Sicily to Italy. In game, I marched them by land, a procedure that took time and cost me through attrition. Sempronius himself dismissed his army after having them swear an oath to reassemble at Armenium (right edge of the top-most screenshot). Essentially “strategic movement,” as it is sometimes called in other games, was left as an exercise for the individual soldier. It must have worked, at least to some extent.