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Another Song About A Drunk

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This battle with the bottle is nothing so novel.

There are a handful of songs that, to me, really capture the essence of being an alcoholic. I mean this in a good way, but use the term to differentiate from songs about going out and having some drinks.

Number 10. Wastin’ Away Again

For many, this might be the song about drunkenness. It rates so low on my list because familiarity breeds contempt. Growing up, I’d heard it so many times on the radio that I never really bothered to listen to it. “Lost shaker of salt?” I guess I knew that salt makes Margaritas, blah blah blah, but so what.

Once I actually listened, really listened, to the whole thing, though, I realized it has many features of the songs further down on this list – all rolled into one. The epiphany came too late in life to earn this any better than #10.

Number 9. If You’re Hurtin’, So Am I

It’s a song about co-dependence, not dependence. That has to drop it a few notches.

This song forms a vivid image of the destruction that spreads outward from a destructive habit. It is the sorrowful expression of someone who has cared too much and has finally decided to draw a line.

By the way, I finally saw the official video a year or so ago, and it really ruins it for me. My image of Joey was a 20-something in a leather jacket, not a guy in a suit. At the same time, stay away from the YouTube videos that don’t use the studio recording of the song. Johnette needs a little post-processing to help out on this one.

Number 8: No Long Term Potentiation

Somehow, I’ve got this one all the way up to number eight, despite not even being a real song.

The pseudo-Irish folk, semi-scientific description of drinking is profound for a number of reasons. First, a good buzz always enhances humor in something that you just know would be funny if you actually understood it. Who cares, just laugh and have another beer. The rhymes are amazingly descriptive “Diuretic activation, urination, urination, urination, dehydration, give me a beer.” It also helps that, at least for those of the right ethnic background, nothing goes together like drunkenness and Irish folk songs.

Finally, it’s his expressions. The slight slur of speech, the redness of face, and the goofily earnest expressions (especially as he reaches for the beer at the end) all emit a genuine aura of liquid-induced courage. I can’t say whether it’s good acting or he’s had a few to help with the filming, but he’s got so much of it just right.

I’ve linked to the “original” version of the song, where he falsely describes fermentation as a form of anaerobic oxidation because it rhymed so well. He’s corrected his mistake, but a) the added vocals detract from, not add to, the charm and b) the original rhyme really did work.

Number 7: Oh Danny Boy, Danny Boy, Danny Boy

Speaking of the songs that go with drinking, Tubthumping managed to take the ridiculous singing that accompanies a drunken night and combine those lyrics with no more than a dozen other words, creating an almost four minute hit song.

The catchy tunes and rhythms, along with an actual prescription for getting ripped (Whiskey + Vodka + Lager +Cider) made this, itself, a good song to actually accompany a night of drinking. It’s not what I was going for, at all, in this list. But combined with the fact that it does, if in a bit too much of try-hard manner, capture the chaos of a drunken night, that puts this at number seven.

Number 6: Turn the Lights Up Over Every Boy and Every Girl

Semisonic’s Closing Time makes the list because of, perhaps, when it came out and my own fuzzy memories of the lights coming in the bar. At 11:30 PM, 4AM seems a lifetime away. As the night goes on and the BAC rises, the potential of the night seems like it must, eventually, fulfill itself. All of that hope comes crashing down 3:50 or so when the lights come up, and you realize you’ve wasted yet another Saturday night.

The song is said to be written about birth and fatherhood. I’ve never heard it that way. To me, it was a musical framing of those godawful words when the liquor laws of the State of New York have once again shined a light upon what a loser you are.

Number 5: I’m a Drunk and a Sentimental Man

The high-functional drunk is always workin’ for the weekend, at which point a week’s worth of every emotion imaginable is released in a cloud of “mustard gas and roses (Vonnegut)”.

Irish Whiskey juxtaposes the souless existence that surely drives a man to drink along with the relief (or perhaps focused anger) that might come some over-indulgence with one’s fellow travelers.

The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies made their name by capitalizing on the Big Band craze of the late 90s, but it is their ska-core works that really stand out.

Number 4: The Four Right Chords Can Make Me Cry

Once you pay attention to the lyrics, it is obvious this song is about drug use (specifically Chrystal Meth). However, the intent of the song is to reproduce the seductiveness of the chemically-altered life while, all the while, you know that what you are doing is no good for you. No good at all.

Semi-Charmed Life reflects, darkly, the overwhelming of the senses during the big, outdoor festival concerts of the 1990s. Before Lollapalooza and its ilk became annual summer tours, Southern California had any number of small-time festivals filled with skate-punks, too much sun, illegal margaritas, and those California girls. In the end not much came of it besides the hangovers but, back then, I did believe in the sand beneath my toes.

Number 3: All Drunk and Sad at 4AM

As much as I hate to include a single band twice in this list, the song Hi and Lo is special to me. It captures, in all of about 3 minutes, a lifetime of drinking, falling down, aging, and, perhaps, moving beyond?

This song’s special place in my heart, and on this list, is enhanced by vague memories of a night out in Boston with the CPDs on stage and very, very dry martinis in hand. The darkest hour turned brighter than a rose.

By the way – Cherry Poppin’ Daddies? Can you even say that anymore?

Number 2: The Disappearing Dreams of Yesterday

Sunday Morning Comin’ Down.

Line’s like “No way to hold my head that didn’t hurt,” and “The beer I had for breakfast” would put this at the top of a lot of people’s songs-o’-drinking list. But for me, what gets it to the number two position is the description of the “sleeping city sidewalk.”

If the only effect of drinking were the times that we were drunk, it would be all rainbows and happiness (plus a bunch of bar fights). What really characterizes the hardcore drinker is the emptiness of the morning after. The physical effects of a hangover are bad enough. But the emotions; of loss, of loneliness, of time wasted; these can be far more burdening than a headache that you know will pass. Those feelings also respond much quicker to that “hair of the dog,” inviting the risk of true physical damage to help salve the emotional damage.

Johnny Cash’s version is the one that gets it just right (although I’m partial to the Me First version as well.) The Man in Black knew substance abuse.

In any case, a song that has you drinking on a Sunday morning is one that knows the alcoholic. “There ain’t nothin’ short of dyin’…”

Honorable Mentions:

Johnny Cash’s problems with drugs and the drink may have been significant, but they didn’t define him. Jim Morrison on the other hand… I really felt this list should have had a Doors song. “Woke up this morning and I got myself a beer…” fits the theme, but the song overall doesn’t quite make it. Their cover of Moon of Alabama is another also-ran. Many of us amateurs may also “believe in a long, prolonged, derangement of the senses in order to obtain the unknown.” Or whatever. It sounded better when I was drunk.

Late December, 1933. Prohibition had just ended and the alcohol was flowing again. Seems like just subject for a song. In fact, The Four Season‘s Oh What a Night was originally written about the end of prohibition, but was changed to be “late December 1963” before release. Even still, lines like “didn’t even know her name” can ring true.

This is probably another case of a song being out at just the right time in my life, but I’ll give Oasis an honorable mention. Of course, if you’ve ever actually had a Sunday-morning Champagne Supernova, the mere title of this one might speak to you.

The Dead Kennedys, I suppose, were a little bit before my time and so Too Drunk to Fuck didn’t really sing to me like it may have to some others. I do know at last one fella whose experience, as documented, caused him to give up the drink.

Speaking of which, I figured Rancid would probably get a number on here, but once again the songs have bits and pieces of the theme without having that one song that does it. In Nihilism, he was “So full of scotch [he] could not stand up” (BTDT), and the line “I started thinkin’ you know I started drinkin’. You know I don’t remember too much of that day” describes many a start and “the music execution and the talk of revolution” many of finish, back in the day (Roots Radicals). Somehow, I couldn’t find a place for Rancid on my list.

Anyhow, can we have a drum roll please?

Number 1: There was Whiskey on Sunday and Tears on Our Cheeks

The Pogues were going to make this list one way or another. They may have even had a shot at multiple entries, but I certainly don’t want to do that multiple times.

There is one Pogues song that captures some of the best features of the other nine songs on list. Besides that, it is a beautiful song.

When Shane MacGowan wrote The Broad Majestic Shannon, he envisioned it for the Clancy Brothers. He said he hoped that they would hear it and record their own version. Many years later, Liam Clancy joked that he would have recorded it, but he couldn’t understand what Shane was saying. Or maybe he wasn’t joking.

Take my hand and dry your tears, babe.
Take my hand, forget your fears, babe.
There’s no pain. There’s no more sorrow.
They’re all gone.  Gone in the years, babe.

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Just before it came off of Netflix, I caught the 2015 German-language film Phoenix.

When I watch a move or read a book, I try to avoid reading the cover blurb or its online equivalent. First, the blurbs tend to give away plot points that are intended to be discovered through the consumption of the media. Spoilers, as we all call them. Secondly, those blurbs often seem to be written by someone who never actually watched the entire film. They are superficial conclusions drawn from, perhaps, bits and pieces of the work. Mystifyingly, many of the blurbs indulge in both sins simultaneously.

Such is the case with Pheonix. The blurb summarizes the plot by, basically, revealing the film’s ending. It left me waiting for a “reveal” that the film was trying to slowly illuminate over its course. Thus my experience was that it plodded towards an inevitable conclusion, which probably shouldn’t have seemed all that inevitable. Furthermore, by identifying the “reveal” as the narrative throughout the movie, it completely mischaracterizes the motivation of the main character.

But what can I do? When a movie is being pulled off of Netflix streaming, I often have no idea whether it is something I’d like to watch or not. I try to use the viewer rankings (still available for DVD rentals, although removed from the streamed offerings) and reviews, which tend to be a little more careful about spoilers. But just because the film is considered good doesn’t mean I’ll be in the mood for the subject matter, so the Netflix synopsis becomes a necessary part of the decision in whether or not to let a film drift away unviewed.

This may be one I would have just as well off forgoing. My opinion of the film, of course, irreversibly tainted by the bad blurb. Would it have still felt so slow to move forward without the plot having been spoiled? I can’t say for sure, but I except it would. The film got some great professional reviews, but I felt it was trying to be artistic for artistry’s sake and profound because, you know, Holocaust. Maybe I’m being a bit to critical, but I feel like it is getting a good chunk of its credit via its pretentiousness.

One Netflix reviewer suggested that this is a (poor) remake of the 1965 film Return from the Ashes, a film I’ve never seen or even heard about before. However, the synopsis of that film does seem to bear out the suggestion. Indeed, there seems to be more there, there. Specifically, the older film ends with the story completely resolved, with the villains having been arrested or worse. In Phoenix, we’re left to imagine the ending. Perhaps even the beginning – the motivations of the characters are heavily implied but never confirmed.

It’s a strange way to structure a film and, while not a terrible experience, not a great one either.

 

There’s a Blackhawk Down in Mogadishu – American Government Issue

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One of the pleasures of visiting relatives over Thanksgiving is that I have heretofore unexplored bookshelves from which to choose reading material. The downside is I rarely have time to finish while I’m there, meaning I’m usually stuck adding to my own bookshelf when my flight arrives back at home.

This year I pulled, from my father’s bookshelf, the book Black Hawk Down. I’ve watched the movie based on that book now a couple of times (I may even watch it again, now having finished the book) but never read the original (source) material. The movie struck me as decent, but not exceptional. By contrast, the book is exceptional, turning the an assembly of facts into a easily read story. Naturally, one can easily see where the movie took its scenes from within the pages of the book, but as is almost always the case, a film rarely does justice to a well written book.

This book also presents a much more balanced view of the fight than I had expected. Americans are critical both of each other and of the plan. Somalian fighters and witnesses are included, with a description of the event from their own perspective.

The author writes it surprised him, undertaking this project, that while the battle itself was extremely well documented (due to the technologies in use at the time), nobody else attempted to condense it into a narrative. In particular, he figured there would be a military-produced discussion of the battle which he could turn into a novel-like narrative. Instead, he has found himself now an expert, even for the armed forces, on what happened in October of 1993.

War is All Hell

Some time ago, I took a look at a The Star and the Crescent as an engine for the 1956 Arab-Israeli War. I have the pair of TSatC and Air Assault Task Force, both of which can play the scenarios built for the other. As I explained then, the AATF interface suffers from a non-configurable mouse, and I find it therefore unplayable. But TSatC uses a Windows interface that a) uses the system configurations and b) plays a lot better with the modern screen sizes. Air Assault Task Force was designed for exactly the kind of mission that began the Battle of Mogadishu and, in fact, ships with four scenarios depicting various phases of the battle. I therefore felt compelled to give it a try as I was wrapping up the book.

I want to give this package a chance. I try to give this package a chance. I feel my love is unrequited. While I am trying my best to make it work, it is trying its best to make me hate it.

In my previous game, the battle at Bir Gifgafa, I had all all-armor force at my command. Therefore, interacting with the scenario was mostly about getting move orders to the units to execute and then letting them engage enemies as they find them. That was trouble enough, but I seemed to finally get it figured out. For this battle, my force is all infantry to be transported by helicopter (the ground force, the extraction convoy, is modeled as an “allied force” in the first scenario). That means that the commands I need to be entering get considerably more complex. I need to load the helicopters, transport, unload at the target, and then maneuver all the little pieces into the right positions.

Sometimes it seems like someone was making an honest effort to program in Windows, and then just arbitrarily said “Aw, fuck it. Let’s just get it out the door.” Of course, this can’t be it. The program that is Air Assault Task Force has been nearly 20 years in the making. And in its defense, it does do much of the job expected from a 1998-era game; The AI seems to do what it is supposed to; The game doesn’t suffer crashes; And the modeling of the battlefield is taken seriously (again, relative to games of 1998).

mogu1

Yes, it may be ugly. But it is also a real pain in the ass to use. Black Hawks insert Rangers near the target house in Mogadishu. Maybe. Or not. Who the hell can tell?

Still, to get all of that, you have to get past the user interface.

I complained before, and I’ll say it again. The manual seems to add insult to injury. As I try to load up and deliver my assault force, nothing is working. Sometimes the helicopters fly their mission without the infantry, and sometimes the infantry tries to set off on foot. As before, units simply refuse to move despite repeated attempts to command them to get going. Referring to the manual, it gives a simple set of instructions, editorially explaining how easy it all is. “The commands you give are those that a real battle commander would be issuing!” I don’t want a marketing pitch, I want to be shown why when I follow the instructions, it doesn’t do what you say its going to do.

A little aside on this, because it was so annoying. A pair of critical commands, “Halt” and “Hold Fire” are set by toggle. So if you want to “not Halt” (i.e. get moving!), you need to select “Halt.” Same with “Hold Fire.” However, if the units have any mix of “Halt” and “not Halt” status, than “Halt” will actually do what it says. Halt. Which means to “not Halt”, you’ve got to select your halted units, tell them to halt (which they do) and then select them again, and tell them to “Halt” to get them moving. Problem is, pressing the command also deselects the units, so you have to remember to repeat the entire process. It also seems possible that somewhere in the path logic, some of your units are set automatically to halt, in which case the selected units will always be mixed and therefore can be commanded only to “Halt,” never “not Halt.”

Finally, I got a combination of commands that seemed to work. Several obvious items just don’t. The “Insertion Mission,” pretty much what I want to do, I just can’t get working. Commanding at different levels in the command hierarchy seems fraught with danger. It gets me wondering if I am alone in simply not being able to get this system. I was scanning the forums and found a user trying to deliver ammo resupply, and being unable to do so. Later he posts, “Never mind, I’ve got it figured out. I had to set the helicopters to defilade.”

What? Why!?! Where in the manual does it suggest that as a solution.

I think maybe the key here is that once you figure out enough of the quirks and have your own method to muddle through the interface, then the game can be played as it should be.

moga2

My soldiers are all delivered and the extraction force (the trucks with green circles) are nearly there. For some reason, its going to take several more hours to complete the mission. See the dead skinnies piling up all around me.

As I said, there are four scenario. The first of the four is the mission as it was planned. You take control of the objective with Rangers and Delta Force, and then hold until the extraction force arrive. And then hold some more (the victory condition is time based). My goal was simply to try to get the little digital men to do what the mission plan called for. The remaining 3 scenarios start a various places in the mission after the helicopters have crashed.

mogu3

Black Hawk down.

I will point out that the “little men” view in my first two screenshots is just one of the modes for displaying forces. In this third screen, I’m using NATO symbols to display unit positions, and that usually makes it a little easier to see what is going on. I’m not sure it is particularly less ugly, though.

Besides the interface problems, a couple of issues stood out to me. In my last try with this game engine, I was pleased because the scenario ended early when the system calculated that the computer player could no longer accomplish any of its missions. In this scenario, I have something like an hour of time remaining and apparently nothing going on. At the maximum time-compression for game play, that’s still almost 8 minutes of staring at a screen showing nothing.

Another problem, and this is one I’ve run into in other games, concerns the helicopters. It would seem to me that the chief advantage of the helicopter as a firing platform is that it can keep moving. In use, unless you’re actively pulverizing a target, you would never want to stop (and make yourself into a target). In this game (and others), actually giving orders to helicopters to execute some kind of “racetrack” station-keeping is a whole lot of effort. Not knowing how things are modeled, I wonder whether this would even buy me much in terms of the end result. I do feel pretty stupid having all the helicopters just hovering, non-moving, over an on-going battle.

As much as I complain, I find I just can’t quit this baby. Even 20 years on, it still is one of the few games that attempts to simulate modern, asymmetrical warfare with an emphasis on realistic results. While other options exist, I don’t know that any get it right at this scale.

B-Roll

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I watched Restrepo six years ago, almost to the day. I found it to be an excellent documentary.

That title follows, over a one-year period of filming, one airborne unit on a 15 month deployment in one of the more hazardous regions of Afghanistan. At the beginning of the deployment, medic Private First Class Juan Restrepo is killed in a firefight. As the mission continues, the unit is tasked to create a new outpost deeper into uncontrolled territory, and the soldiers name the outpost Restrepo, in honor of their fallen comrade. The film also focuses on a later battle in which three Americans were killed and seven wounded. But the film also shows the day-to-day routine of the unit, and their thoughts on their deployment.

Following the critical and financial success of that film and the death of one if its producer/directors, the remaining director began work on a follow-up piece. I hadn’t known of this effort until Netflix decided to pull it from its streaming lineup, prompting me to give it a watch while I had the chance.

It is impossible (for me, at least) to view the film Korengal independently of the first. It was always intended as a companion piece. Also, consisting of documentary footage, it relied on the same set of material recorded for the first go around. Right away, this gives me a sense of disappointment. I’ve already been presented much of this stuff in a chronological narrative, and now here it is again organized topically. Is this really a fresh movie? One Netflix reviewer stated that the footage used to compose the second documentary was all actually already available on the bonus features of the DVD release. That’s not something I’m inclined to verify, but it does sound plausible.

It makes it difficult to give a thumbs up to something that feels recycled.

As far as the new format (topical rather than chronological) goes, it hits and it misses. Each topic mixes in-country footage and post-deployment interviews to different aspects of modern army life. Heroism, the ups-and-downs of a soldiers life, and everyone’s favorite gun are all discussed. Individual scenes can be very powerful. A soldier is questions about the one thing he’ll missing most about Afghanistan. He answers, “shooting people.”

If Korengal were the first (or perhaps the only) of the two films, how would I feel about it? It’s hard to unknow what has predispositioned me against the film, but I think if I would have come across this blind, I would have considered it a decent, but not exceptional documentary.

It doesn’t pull it all together the way Restrepo did.

Reason for Incarceration: Failure to Fill Out Forms

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The movie Dinosaur 13 is coming off of Netflix, so I thought I had better watch it while I can.

This movie got put into my queue by my kids. They wanted to watch Dinosaur movies and were looking at anything that Netflix dredged up as related to their interests. I don’t think they watched much of this one, as there is a complete lack of animated Dinosaurs. However, when I was checking out their viewing history I managed to watch the first half-a-minute or so and I thought that this film sounded kind of interesting. I put in my streaming queue, but never managed to get around to it.

The opening titles explain that, in 1990, there were only 12 Tyrannosaurus Rex skeletons that had been unearthed around the world. None had more than 40% of the skeleton recoverable. The name of the film comes from the finding of the 13th.

The movie starts out with the locating and extracting of that 13th specimen. It was not only larger than any other known T-Rex fossil, but also roughly 90% complete. The story is told with a combination of present-day interviews with the participants and video camera footage taken by them during the dig.

It quickly becomes evident that this movie is less about dinosaurs than it is a story about the Federal Bureaucracy. Yes, terms like “dinosaur” and “fossil” may well still apply, but unfortunately they don’t refer to a species long extinct.

The real story of the film is the horror of having agents of the Federal government set their sights upon you and then proceed to utterly destroy you while backed by the full faith and credit of the People of the United States.

The narrative of what happened is convoluted and, mostly likely, unknowable down to every detail. I’ll try a short version. If you would rather watch the movie and have it delivered to you in a nice presentation, I’d say stop here. The film is well done, and worth watching – and it may be made better if you don’t know what is coming.

The basics are this – an organization (Black Hills Institute) of privately-organized (i.e. non-goverment, non-university) fossil hunters discover a ground-breaking example of a T-Rex fossil. After an agreement with the landowner, they remove the fossil and begin preparing it (most likely) to be displayed in their own museum, which they will build to house this and their other artifacts. Someone (unknown in the movie) notifies the Feds. It turns out that the fossil was located on an Indian Reservation, which would have made it the property of the Indian Tribe. The film suggests that perhaps the tribe brought the original complaint. However, the particular parcel of land is actual held in trust by the U.S. Government for an individual (Indian) landowner, the landowner who agreed to sell the fossil in the first place.  The film suggests also that perhaps the landowner brought the original complaint, as a way to get out of his original agreement to sell. The identity of the complainant is not known. In any case, because the parcel is held in trust, the selling of land (and a Federal judge, eventually, concludes that because fossils are really just “rock” they are, indeed, land) requires a permit (cost $100) be obtained the Bureau of Indian Affairs – to protect the Indian from himself one presumes. Furthermore, as U.S. Federal Land, the Antiquities Act of 1906 prevents unlicensed removal of any artifact without prior permission of the U.S. Government. Throw into all this, once the Federal action begins, the landowner claims he did not consent to the original sale of the fossil and says therefore that the Black Hills Institute folks should never have taken the fossil away in the first place. The fossil, the records of its discovery and collection, and many of the other records of the Black Hills Institute are seized and impounded by the Government who claims, because of all the improprieties, that it now owns the fossil.

Ultimately, the fossil is returned to the landowner. The original sale was for $5000, which was a record sum at the time. He sells again at auction, this time to the Chicago Museum of Natural History (backed by major corporate sponsors) for $7.6 million.

In the meantime, the tale takes another turn. The Federal Government brings charges against five individuals and the business entity itself for various violations under the Antiquities Act, charges totally some 150 counts. Many of these are felonies. If convicted, some individuals face incarceration for several hundred years. The Tyrannosaur fossil that started all of this, however, is absent from the indictment, likely because of the determination of the courts that it was privately owned. The crimes charged are not particularly serious from a layman’s standpoint. They mostly involve collecting fossils from the land borders where the diggers thought they were on one side of a border and the government asserts they are on the other. But, as it goes with Federal crimes, the government has built upon the charges. A fossil dug without a permit first crosses state lines (to give the Feds jurisdiction) and then is sold overseas. Charges can include then the transfer of money internationally (wire fraud and money laundering) and of course that old standby, conspiracy (because there is a team of fossil collectors involved).

At the end of the trial, all but a dozen of the charges are dismissed and there is only a single individual to whom a felony has stuck. In one of the examples, failing to declare the carrying of travelers checks upon returning from Japan results a felony customs violation. The defendant maintains that the form in which he had the travelers checks issued exempts them from declaration. While this detail made the transport of the travelers checks legal, the distinction between different check endorsement options was simply too complicated to convincingly explain to a jury. Note that it is not alleged that any impropriety occurred with the money. Once back in the United States, the money was deposited in the banking system, properly accounted for, and all taxes and fees were paid. For the convictions, the judge ordered double the maximum sentence – a total of two years in Federal prison for the improper completion of customs forms. The title quote is the governments entry on the prisoner’s intake forms.

The movie speculates that the judge was driven to punish these defendants (they tried several times to get him to recuse himself for bias) because he was swayed by a divide between the academic/governmental paleontologists and the amateur/for-profit fossil hunters. While for most of our history it was private interests that discovered the fossil record, since the late 1970s those in academia see those without as essentially pirates, stealing the heritage of humanity for their own nefarious purposes. One theory is that these individuals were punished so heavily as a warning to others to stay out of the federally-funded university system’s playground.

We are also treated to some interviews with the Bureau of Land Management’s agent who investigated and compiled the charges. He explains his righteous cause in protecting public assets from theft. It makes sense. It is only when one sees this taken to its logical, albeit absurd, conclusion that one starts to question whether this kind of power is really necessary. Particularly so in light of the modus operandi of Federal prosecutors to use maximum force (150 charges) to hammer anyone who strays outside the law.

Most of us understand that without recourse from the law, there are bad actors in our society that will take advantage of the rest of us. Indeed, they often will either way, but we enact laws to try to prevent, mitigate, and punish. When we see an obvious wrong (e.g. a commercial entity profiting by taking valuable minerals from public land), we fully support efforts to protect the public interest. Law enforcement likes broad and, perhaps, vague laws so that they have the “tools” to deal with such wrongdoing. If they recognize that something bad is happening, they want the law to be broad enough to cover them. This allows them some discretion to enforce or not enforce, depending on their take on the individual situation. Most will say that they use their discretion, and won’t pursue purely technical violations. And yet, I’ve read time and again about prosecutors coming up with creative interpretations of laws allowing them to punish individuals for doing things that on the face of it are not illegal. Particularly at the Federal level, there seems to be a goal of charging everyone who is targeted and convicting everyone is charged. With each of us committing 3 felonies per day, in practice that means the Federal government can pretty much jail anybody, for any reason, at any time.

This is not a good thing.

Thus many of us would rather see too few laws than too many. More left to individual action and reaction than clear guidance in the laws of this land, even if that leaves loopholes for the worst of society to exploit. For this, we are called extremists and worse. But I don’t think it is an extreme view to see the occasional horrible and unjust abuse of the law as an inevitable result of our current legal structure.

This very week, President Trump has set off what will probably be another protracted legal battle by undesignated significant fractions of two National Monuments within the state of Utah. Trump cited “abuses of the Antiquities Act,” giving excessive power over land use to “far-away bureaucrats.”

I neither knew this was in the news when I began watching Dinosaur 13, nor did I know the role that the Antiquities Act played within the film. Viewing Dinosaur 13 just became a lot more topical.

 

 

 

Less Pike, More Shot

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The Italian War of 1521 to 1526 is also referred to as the Four Years War, although you think that name would have been taken already. If you are keeping track at home, it is the 4th in the series of Renaissance Italian Wars. Although it is in many ways a continuation of the conflicts begun in 1494, this one starts in what is in many ways a new world.

Luther’s theses have already started to shake the foundations of the Christian West. Charles V has united the Kingdoms of Spain, the Duchy of Austria, the Duchy of the Netherlands, and the titles of the Holy Roman Empire under one rule. In the last, he has incurred the ire of Francis I, who very much wants to the Emperor himself. That’s on top of decades of political maneuvering in Italy. The influence of the Ottoman Empire is also beginning to encroach on the affairs of Italy, particularly as their capture of Belgrade foretold invasions from the Turks soon to come.

Pike and Shot has scenarios for two of the largest battles in this Italian War; The Battles of Bicocca (1522) and Pavia (1525). Both of the battles were French defeats with the latter resulting in the capture and imprisonment of Francis, thus leading to France seeking terms to ransom the king and end the war.

Bicocca

They are both scenarios with unique conditions, and both are played as the (presumably) underdog French. In the first battle, you take command as the Swiss Pike formations begin rushing headlong at the Imperial fortified defenses. In the actual battle, the Swiss mercenaries attacked first (rather on their own initiative – they refused to wait for coordination with the French artillery) and largely broke their formations against the enemy’s defenses. With the core of the French army in disarray, there was little left for Imperial army to do but wait for the French to flee the field.

At the outset, the notes suggest to the player that he (I) ought to make the best use possible of his (my) French forces to aid in the Swiss attack that is occurring with or without him (me). I have no control over the Swiss – they are a computer controlled ally. This strategy makes the battle winnable. Obviously so as I, in fact, won. I attribute much of my victory to the fact that the Germans counter-attacked, moving forward from the protection of their defenses and exposing themselves to my counter-counter-attack. Whether this could be considered “Bad AI” (playing the Imperials, I would have tried to stay behind my walls) or simply a realistic result of what happens once units engage, I won’t try to say. It is already very much a speculative battle.

The scenario also employs what I think was a bit of scripting to implement one historical aspect of the battle (and hopefully this isn’t a spoiler for anyone). As the Swiss approach the Imperial line, the arquebusiers hold the front position behind a wall and German pike backs them up. At some point they swapped positions (without actually maneuvering). This duplicates the actual battle where the Swiss ranks were first shredded by musket fire and then attacked with fresh pike formations. It is a nifty way to implement the scenario but again shows the weakness in expecting a game engine to be able to generically represent a period’s battles.

Pavia

In the several years following, the French suffered a series of disappointments. Although at several junctures they had superiority of force, they were never able bring that to bear by cornering and defeating the opposing army.

In late fall, 1524, Francis personally lead an army across the Alps and began re-seizing territory lost at the outset of the conflict.  Eventually, Francis laid siege to a much smaller force defending the city of Pavia. Through a series of factors, both strategic and diplomatic, the Imperial forces achieved a local superiority in numbers and began a pre-dawn attack and sally to break the French army.

The French army was bivouacked inside a walled park north of the city. Units actually involved in the siege were close in to the city and the remaining force was scattered within the protections of these walls. The battle began as Imperial engineers worked overnight, under cover of an artillery bombardment, to create a breach in the park walls which would allow their armies to enter the park and align against the French for a dawn assault.

Once again, the Pike and Shot scenario is designed to highlight some unique features of this battle. The map, as we will see in more detail later, recreates the fight in a linear fashion. The French forces are sandwiched between the defenders in Pavia’s fortifications and the relieving force to the North, which we are told have penetrated the wall. The notes suggest the player, as French commander, must make a decision about how to split his forces to defeat the attack from the North while protecting against the city’s defenders in the South.

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The initial clash with the enemy occurs in some very bad ground. The minimap shows the bulk of the Imperial army hanging back. I assumed this was an AI mistake until they moved forward and crushed me.

The scenario was harder than the previous in the campaign, so much so I’m not even sure what my mistake was. I over-withdrew from the siege lines and was, at game end, overwhelmed by attacks out from the city. At the same time, my forces in the north were insufficient to defeat the attackers. I pressed on with some hope of winning some localized battles, but I don’t think I even got close.

Of course, a similar fate awaited Francis on that day. Upon warning that a Imperial attack was in progress, Francis lead a counter attack. Having underestimated the size of the opposing force, the initial French attacking force were quickly separated from the remainder of the army and were rendered even less effective by the broken terrain. In the end, Francis himself was captured and the French army suffered huge losses. The besieging force was driven off and also suffered significant loss. The focus of the war moved from capture of territory to the ransom of Francis, ultimately drawing the Ottomans into the fight.

Non-Linear

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The Imperial army starts the day forming outside of the breach in the park wall. Note, especially, the nice pike and shot formation at the top-center (where it says Spanish arquebusiers). The AI is not going to be able to keep that together.

To compare, I played a user-made (created by the same user as many of previous games) scenario for Field of Glory. My immediate impression (which I tried to capture with the above screenshot) was of a more realistic battlefield layout. Unlike the previous battle, there seems to be an emphasis in accurately recreating the terrain (as far as historical documentation and the medium allow). Comparing it to a painting of the battlefield (shown below), you can see that the Field of Glory map captures many more of the key features in a visually-accurate way.

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Difficult from the limited scope of the above screenshot, but comparing the FoG map with a near-contemporary painting of the battle shows that this is a more accurate representation of the field. [Image from Wikipedia]

Another major difference, relative to Pike and Shot, is that Field of Glory does not represent the combined pike and shot formations that were coming to define the imperial armies of this time. Instead, the larger units must be constructed with pike formations in proximity to units of arquebusiers.  Indeed, the latter seems to be the industry norm as the HPS/Tiller functions the same way. I’ve had positive experiences with Field of Glory and well-made medieval battles, but I don’t think that extends into the pike and shot era. While there is something interesting about seeing the unit makeup of a colunella in the Field of Glory deployments, the engine and, more particularly, the AI don’t quite seem up to it.

As a head-to-head scenario this one might be quite a different experience, but as a player versus computer the initial good qualities are quickly overwhelmed by problems. As alluded to above, the AI doesn’t have any appreciation for the combined pike and shot formations that were so critical to the imperial army, and immediately begins separating them. Worse, it doesn’t quite understand the wall with a breach in it, and begins running its troops back and forth outside the eastern wall. The decision, in the Pike and Shot scenario, to start the game with the imperials already deployed inside the wall (and, indeed, to forgo the wall entirely) is validated in this scenario.

As I played it, the worst damage the AI dealt to me came from their cannon within the Pavia defenses – they would have been better off not attacking in the first place. Even more than my previous play, the Field of Glory scenario demonstrates how much of the battle gets tied up in the ugly terrain near the breach in the wall.  Given the confused AI, though, the wall itself protected me from the superior numbers available to the Imperial forces. I was able to slowly defeat enough units in detail to obtain a victory.

Remake

I’ve early played some attempts to remake the stock scenarios for Pike and Shot, and I’ve been disappointed. I was a little nervous about loading up a user-made Battle of Pavia scenario, but on viewing it I quickly changed my attitude.

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Atmosphere. From the dark and foggy beginning to the accurate depiction of the battlefield, this is a fine looking scenario. This screenshot shows the siege lines around the City of Pavia itself.

The user-made version of Pavia, much like the Field of Glory version, recreates a multi-dimensional version of the battlefield. In some cases, the square grid means the walls look a little funky as compared to FoG, but that is easily overlooked. Pike and Shot has much more attractive period graphics, and the the designer was able to mold a version of the battlefield that really feels right.

The scenario starts out, like the stock Pike and Shot version, just as Francis becomes aware that an Imperial army is inside of the park walls. The fog of war is modified to recreate the dark and foggy conditions that initially covered the battlefield. As the French player, I really have no idea where the enemy is and in what numbers and so my initial moves involve sending light cavalry around the map trying to figure out the situation. Without the linear simplification, the battlefield devolves into scattered, localized fighting. The chaos adds to the feel and the AI doesn’t get too baffled by the more complex situation. I have not tried to look at what scripting enhancements the scenario builder had to employ to get it all to work, but I would guess there is something.

As the battle begins its march towards the inevitable conclusion (I, France, lost again), I noticed how the key fights and locations of the battle played out very similarly both Pike and Shot versions. That is, the simplification of the battlefield in the stock scenario still preserved much of the battle’s action. This latter version was even more difficult, in terms of trying to win against the AI, than the original. Once again, I was overwhelmed in all places and had little sense of a “mistake” that I made to get things going all wrong.

As a historical exposition, I like this third scenario better. As a game-play “puzzle,” for the player to figure out how to reverse the historical course of the battle, the stock scenario might be a little better in its simplifications. And the Field of Glory scenario? That tells me that Field of Glory, originally focused on the Roman Republic, takes it an era too far to try to model pike and shot.

Both the Battles of Bicocca and Pavia, as well as some of the fighting not included in these engines (e.g. The Battle of the Sesia) were all part of the seismic shift in the technology of warfare. The Italian War of 1521-1526 was not only a victory of  Charles’ alliance over the French, but yet another victory for the gunpowder-armed infantry over the formations of pike.

Afghan Star

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Coming of Netflix at the end of December is the film Rock the Kasbah.

When this film came out, it got fairly negative reviews and did very poorly at the box office. So despite, generally, going for most Bill Murray vehicles, I pretty much gave this a pass.

Fairly recently, some Facebook posts caused me to realize I have this distant connection to one of the actors. A friend of a friend has a medium-sized role in the movie. So this one went back into my Netflix queue, as it was available for streaming at the time.

But all streaming, it seems, must come to an end. So I decided to watch it before the opportunity was gone.

I like it.

Would I like it so much such low expectations going in? It does seem to be a big mix of Lost In Translation, War Dogs, Almost Famous, and more, with the occasional Caddyshack reference tossed in. If I were really looking for freshness, maybe this would have bothered me.

On the other hand, I generally like musician-centric movies, which this is. I also think that Hollywood does a good job with its self-referential dark comedies (I’m thinking, recently, of the likes of Birdman). In this case, Murray’s character is a rock tour agent who travels to Afghanistan to earn some money via a USO tour. As things start to go wrong, hilarity ensues.

Category-wise, it is also a big mix of different genres. Towards the end, the “comedy” designation of the film is retained mostly because Bill Murray is on-screen and, admit it, he’s pretty funny no matter what he is doing or saying. A little bit of everything is tossed into pot and stirred, coming up with something not very deep but pleasantly entertaining.

I would have expected a little more love for just this number of big names on the screen. I understand a lack of Oscar nominations. But this was the 5th worst performing film of all time, and the only one that did worse (and that I’ve even heard of) was Jem and the Holograms. It couldn’t really be that bad. It wasn’t.

 

You Remember Him, Sir; the Actor from Mississippi?

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While I was poking around for an operational treatment of the Taiping Rebellion, I realized I had overlooked a game stashed away in one of the scenario directories for the Operational Art of War.

There is a scenario (actually two, the second supposes Stonewall Jackson to be still alive) called The Killer Angels. The scenario, however, does not take its name from the book. At least not directly. It is rather based on the board game The Killer Angles, released in 1984. I am not able to find a whole lot of information about that board game and, in fact, I’d never heard of it before finding this scenario. Comments on-line suggest that it was overly detailed and, while making for a mediocre playing experience, was actually a quite interesting rule-set to be studied, as opposed to being played.

Conversion to TOAW consisted of porting over the map and using a similar time scale and unit size. Obviously there are limitations here as the TOAW mechanics for (let’s say) fog of war or supply govern the game. Whatever detailed rules were developed for the board game must defer to the system built into TOAW. In particular, on-line comments mention the use of skirmishers in the board game and how those rules give insight into the difficulties of operational maneuver in the Civil War. For the computer version, the TOAW fog-of-war variable is what governs intelligence about the enemy. The scenario designer has it set to 0% – no intelligence information about enemy movements outside of the immediate range of your own units.

With one exception.

There is a particular feature of this scenario that allows a one-time use of the Confederate spy Harrison, the Mississippi actor featured in the book The Killer Angles and the Gettysburg film. For that turn in which it is used, and that turn only, the Confederates can get a picture of the Union positions and movements.

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I’ve begun the process of slipping across the Potomac. I’ve tried to keep in mind Lee’s actual movements while also making sure to advance into Pennsylvania well ahead of “those people.”

This scenario was what I was looking for when I was reading the book The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. The TOAW engine works well for this era and scale. The database contains appropriate armaments, assuming one trusts the game’s modelling of them. The time scale also fits. As per the TOAW system, the day-long turns can be broken down into multiple battles (and moves) per day. It seems to get the feel right for Civil War battles. That is, it is possible that a fight in the morning could open up the opportunity for exploitation and follow-up attacks later in the afternoon. However, in practice, any fight beyond the first of the day is unlikely to yield results as, even after a significant tactical victory, units were generally left exhausted and unable to continue fighting.

It all seems to be right at the level I’d want to play a Gettysburg operational scenario, as opposed to the ten day turns of the AgeOD engine. The one exception I’d make to this is for own-side command and control. In AgeOD, you give commands for the next 10 days and then rely on subordinates (i.e., AI) to execute them, or maybe not. A critical component in the Gettysburg campaign is how JEB Stuart’s cavalry became lost to Lee. With 1-day turns and direct control of each counter, it means that your army is at all times coordinated throughout the theater. Indeed, I ended up using this to my advantage by making Stuart’s cavalry a rapidly-deployable strike force, able to reverse the odds wherever most needed. I’m sure Lee would have loved that level of communication.

As I attempted to roughly implement Lee’s strategy, deviations from the historical record began to appear. Naturally they should – this is exactly what you want from a wargame (or, at least, what I would want from a wargame); the ability to explore the what ifs of history. I try to send JEB Stuart’s cavalry around the union lines to the east, but seem to be running into resistance that, in reality, he managed to avoid. I thus wind up with Stuart fighting his way north, albeit successfully.

Likewise, a battle of which I hadn’t really been aware before reading about the campaign, Winchester, takes on new significance. In reality, Ewell and Early rapidly deployed against the defenders in Winchester and, attacking from an unexpected (impossible?) direction, prevented a major battle from ever happening there. In my case, I discovered in my route an occupied Winchester at a time when my army was well spread out both north and south of the town. I had part of my army already in Pennsylvania, attempting to scare the locals by grabbing key cities. Another corps, with supporting artillery and cavalry, was trying to grab a fortified Harper’s Ferry in a operation goal I had set for myself that was bordering on obsession.

After some initial scraps around Winchester whereby I discovered that I was facing a superior force, I dug in for defense. At the same time I redirected my nearby units towards the farmland of the valley south of the town. It appeared that the Union was doing something similar. Some meaty looking units began stacking up to my north and east. Through the fog of war, I counted at least 3 corps facing me across the battlefield but neither of us had a decisive advantage. Of course I know that, given enough time to concentrate, the Union will have the numbers. I also know that a third-or-so of my force is already in Pennsylvania, in the vicinity of Harrisburg, and can’t possibly contribute to what is shaping up to the be main battle, not near Gettysburg, but near Winchester, VA.

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My campaign began to deviate severely from the historical when the blocking force at Winchester turned out to be a sizeable chunk of the Union army.

Just as I thought I was going to be crushed in detail, I realized that the Union had also divided their forces in reaction to my own spread-out deployment. I was able to make use of Harrison to validate my guesses about the union dispositions.

As is often the case, I think a human opponent would have seen just how close I was to being crushed and done so, whereas the programmed AI (being unable to fully grasp the situation) may have let me turn the tables on it against the odds.

I managed to concentrate in two places. At Winchester where I achieved local superiority and then eliminated or captured much of the Army of the Potomac. Near Harrisburg, I was able to bring JEB Stuart into play to isolate portions of the Union army. A few localized victories allowed me to capture the supply depot located in Harrisburg, before beating a fighting retreat back through Carlisle.

In the end, I achieve a significant “points” victory. When the board was revealed, it seemed apparent that I didn’t have much of a chance against the fortifications around Baltimore, not to mention Washington. But perhaps, having done some serious damage to the Army of the Potomac outside Winchester, that letter prepared by the Southern government; a letter than offers peace, might be looked upon by Abraham Lincoln with favor.

In My Hand I Wield the Universe

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Next in line to come off of my Netflix queue is the Hong Kong -made film from 2010, The Warlords. It also remains on Amazon Prime.

This is a big budget, Chinese language film which takes place during the Taiping Rebellion. The movie follows roughly the same story line as Blood Brothers, a 1973 “kung fu” movie which fictionalizes and dramatizes the 1870 assassination of Ma Xinyi, a Chinese general and ruling official of that time period. The Warlords was originally titled Blood Brothers, but the director of the former emphatically states that his is not a remake and so came up with the new name as a differentiator. The two stories are roughly the same, although The Warlords does seem to be a bit more anchored in realistic (if perhaps not real) events of the war – full-scale battles rather than the one-on-one fights which mark the martial arts genre. The new film changes the main characters names, notably renaming the Ma Xinyi character, perhaps because the story clearly deviates from the known facts of the real person’s life.

The film is bigger than its genre roots. While there is the occasional martial artistry evident in some hand to hand fighting, it is by no means a martial arts film. The battles are not exactly ultra-realistic, but neither is it pure fantasy. Features drawn from your typical “hero epic” keep this from being a docudrama. For example, in several battles the heroes fight their way through the faceless masses to square off with their counterpart on the opposing side – in fights which seem to feature extraordinarily high concentration of severed body parts hurtling through the air.

The story line is a fairly old fashioned one, probably more suited to the 1860s than the 2010s. Following a quick scuffle the main character and the narrator become instant “blood brothers,” and are tied to each other until the end. That may also be due to the 1973 film, of which this is not remake.

One odd thought I had watching it: The music score is a typical Western-classics -inspired orchestral piece. It’s not particularly notable for being either good or bad, and it would probably fit well into an second-tier historical war drama made in the U.S. When I realized that, it made me wonder why they didn’t chose to use period music? Not that one always does. Frequently, historical dramas either use anachronistic period music (18th century baroque for a 15th century drama) or simply throw in the most modern piece that seems befitting.

It also occurred to me how much the combat portrayed on the screen resembles, not the Victorian era when the story takes place, but the Pike and Shot era. The cannon and muskets used by the armies on screen are more modern than what graced the battlefields of the Italian Wars, but they were not using U.S. Civil War technology. Similarly, the weapon mix seems to favor bow and pike over gunpowder to even more of an extent than in 16th century Europe.

Of course, that’s all going by what I saw on screen. The Taiping Rebellion seems to be incredibly overlooked for a war that matched or exceeded most any that came before it in size and scope. From my own schooling, I remember nothing about it – the focus of that era seemed to be the Opium Wars and the conflict with the European powers rather than the internal affairs. As to wargames, there seems to be next to nothing covering it; neither as dedicated strategic/operation treatments, or as scenarios for suitable tactical engines.

In order to rectify this gap in my knowledge I’ve placed an order for the book Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom and eagerly await its arrival.

Le Roi Grand Nez

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Inspired by my recent play of The Battle of Flodden, I decided to also replay the Battle of Marignano. These pair of battles showcase the end of an era – the domination of European battlefields by the Swiss kiels, the massive pike formations perfected by the Swiss mercenaries.

I made mention of the Pike and Shot scenario and had played it while discussing the War of the League of Cambrai. I decided to give it a replay, and grab some screen shots while I was at it.

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The battle opens with the Swiss attacking in echelon. I harass the advancing formations with some success. No way I can break up those phalanxes, but I did run off the smaller support units.

Having some vague memories of my last attempt, I remember one misjudgement that almost got me that time. Despite the fact that the Swiss kiels and my own Landsknecht formations use the same graphics, the Swiss formations have considerably more men. Add to that the fact that the Swiss were top-of-the-line troops and have superior characteristics across the board, particularly as compared to my own, and one has to count on a head-to-head confrontation quickly going in favor of the Swiss.

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The Swiss are closing to contact on my left and center. Their right wing is still a tad behind, but not much. My cannon are doing damage, but are not going to turn the tide.

A lesson I have to relearn regularly in this game is how it is considerably more difficult to wheel a formation of cavalry around into the rear of an enemy than it is for that enemy to simply change facing in place. It would seem obvious that the way to defeat the Swiss pikes is to pin them down with infantry and then use the French Gendarmes to crash into their rear. However, given the brittleness of my own infantry, succeeding takes more than a little bit of finesse in the timing. Engage the infantry either too soon or too late and the Swiss defenders can defeat each attacker in detail.

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Having all but run out of shock troops, I try to use crossbows to break a remaining Swiss square.

The scenario was extremely tense, as many of the stock Pike and Shot scenarios often are. For several turns both armies wavered on the edge of breaking and the smallest of details took on huge significance. Yes, that formation is losing, but if it can hold on just one more turn, I’ll be able to make get that gendarme to charge… wait, now, the gendarme came under enemy crossbow fire and lost heart. Now I need two more turns.

If you can read the fine print (the screen shots are actually larger images, shrunk to fit the screen, but can’t figure an easy way to get them to expand out on click), you can see that the enemy has broken at exactly the 60% mark, but I am only 2% away myself.

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Once an army breaks, even a close battle will end up a clear victory in the final numbers.

The losses computed at the end of the battle are well within the estimated historical range.

That said, the real battle was far more dramatic then the simulation portrays it.

The Battle of Marignano was one that wasn’t to have taken place. Newly-crowned king, Francis I (he of the big nose), had just made a strategic masterstroke by bringing his army, including massive cannons, across the Alps and into the rear of the forces of the Holy League. The allies entered a discussion of terms with the French king and agreed to cede control of Milan to France. Unfortunately, Milan’s army consisted of Swiss mercenaries and their pay was dependent on victory in battle. Despite an agreement to make peace, Swiss units began individually debating the merits of returning home versus continuing the fight.

France had co-opted individuals such as Albrecht van Stein to persuade the Swiss to return home without further warfare. Substantial money was offered to the Swiss cantons in exchange. Cardinal Matthäus Schiner, a Swiss commander and personal enemy of Francis, urged the Swiss to fame and glory. In the end, although several units left, the majority of the Swiss army stayed to fight and launched a surprise attack on the dispersed French forces.

The ensuing battle lasted through the afternoon, through much of the night, and well into the day following; 28 hours all-told. A nicely-narrated depiction of the battle can be found here. The full details of the battle are lost to history, but it represents yet another clash that refuses to conform to the framework of your typical computer simulation.