The Art of Saying Nothing

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This weekend in the Wall Street Journal is a piece called Shall We Have Civil War or Second Thoughts? As I type this, the article appears to be available without a subscription, but that may well change before you manage to click on it.

Briefly, it leads in with some commentary on our fragmented politics today and, in particular, the racial component of identity politics. From there, the author brings up the career of his great-Grandfather, a cavalryman in the Civil War and in the Indian Wars across the Great Plains that followed. It then stumbles into the reference in the subtitle of the piece (“Some of my relatives joined the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. But they soon thought better of it.”) before wrapping it all up with the assertion that our current civil strife is but a continuation of the civil strife of generations past.

I read through it to the end because I found some of the historical references enlightening*. Getting all the way to the end, however, I had to wonder what the point of this was.

The opinion piece is a guest author filling in for Peggy Noonan’s column while she is on her summer vacation. My first thought was perhaps they couldn’t find any decent talent and they picked someone with what sounded like a solid idea, but without the writing skills to make good on it. A little later I went back and checked the bio of the author. It says, “Mr. [Lance] Morrow, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a former essayist for Time.” In other words, an man who made his living through his writing.

It now occurs to me is that what I am seeing is one of the more pernicious effects of the current culture wars and the political correctness that surrounds them. We are now used to seeing writing that is overly, sometimes absurdly adherent to political correctness, as well as the counterpieces which take things to the other extreme. What this may be is the unseen effect of this warfare. The writer attempts to take his thoughts towards certain conclusions, but then backs off, knowing that finishing his thought – indeed actually drawing a conclusion – is bound to offend somebody and therefore could potentially damage or even end the career of a writer.

The article starts off with a reference to an old Lone Ranger joke, whose punch line is has Tonto responding to the Lone Ranger with “What do you mean ‘we?'” But the author can’t bring himself to repeat the joke, or even directly state what he thinks the joke means, either then (during the time of the Lone Ranger radio broadcasts) or now (when even using the name “Tonto” seems to risk accusations of racial bigotry).

As he meanders through his family tree, he seems to be on the verge of making various points about culture and racism, then versus now, but never quite makes them. Perhaps he felt if he stated outright what was hidden away in his head, it would bring upon him the racist epithet. Nobody wants that. So we all keep our inner thoughts to ourselves, just in case.

On the other hand, maybe he is just a terrible writer. I don’t know.

* The author makes reference to some of the problems his great-Grandfather had with duties and authority and contrasts this with another story: “On the other hand, I admired the style of his wife, my great-grandmother Ella Mollen Morrow. One night at the fort, when the colonel was away scouring the plains for Native Americans, she shot a would-be rapist dead with a Colt .44. The Army didn’t even bother to investigate the incident.”

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One Giant Leap

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On July 18th, 1969, during a party on Chappaquiddick Island, Senator Edward Kennedy drove his car off a bridge. His passenger in that card, Mary Jo Kopechne, was unable to get free of the crash and died.

At that time, Ted Kennedy was the only living son of Joseph Kennedy. Ted’s elder brother Joe was killed in World War II. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was shot and killed while campaigning. It was widely assumed that Ted would pick up the mantle of his brothers and become President in the next election.

That all came to an end with the death of Mary Jo. Against the odds, Kennedy’s career in the Senate survived and thrived, but when he did eventually put his name up for President, challenging the sitting President Carter, he lost miserably. The influence of the Chappaquiddick incident was never overt in this failure (his campaign was not well managed, to say the least) nor in subsequent elections where he decided not to put his name forward, but as a subtext it was ever-present.

For those of us of a certain age, roughly corresponding to that of Kennedy’s own children, the name of the island is more likely to seem political than geographical. I recall that in the 1980s, when it was clear that Teddy could advance no further in politics, jokes about “a bridge” could easily register with any pub crowd in Boston. For the generation closer to Kennedy’s own, one remembers the actual incident, blotted out as it was by the Apollo 11 moon landings.

As one reviewer explained, for those who are under 40 today, this meaning of “Chappaquiddick” would not register. For those under, say, 70, the details are probably scant – the whole incident being remembered for its political fallout, not the personal and only indirectly.

The movie Chappaquiddick might well impact that middle cohort the most. Those of us who know the broad strokes but have never really known the details can use this film to put it all into context. I have to wonder, for those too young to understand the reference, would one ever be tempted to even put in the time to watch a movie about a bunch of dead people and an event that happened even before your parents were born?

The film walks a number of fine lines. The production is subdued, presumably to respect the memory of Kopechne while nevertheless telling the story of the perpetrator rather than the victim. The truth is also a slippery business here. To this day, the dwindling number of people with direct knowledge of the events of that night are unlikely to tell all. The only whole truth that ever existed was taken to the respective graves with Kopechne and Kennedy. For myself, as I watch it, the knowledge is always there that this is a dramatization, not an exposé, and I digest it accordingly.

A little shocking to me was the involvement, not just of Joseph Kennedy, but of the up-until-recently Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The level of influence that the Kennedys could bring to bear probably shouldn’t be surprising, but it still is.

There are several huge questions left in the official record that, absent an unrevealed confession from Ted Kennedy, will always remain unanswerable. The film simply leaves them ambigous. For example, why did Kennedy and Kopechne disappear into the night alone if they weren’t up to something untoward? How is it possible that two people go together in a car into a pond and one comes out completely unscathed while the other remains trapped for hours?

The movie was released on September 17th of 2017. The distributor of the film has hinted that there was pressure to suppress the movie. I recall that when it was coming out, it seemed to be difficult to find out information about the release. Whether that is because it was an independent film and not expected to be a big money maker or whether politics was involved, I am not qualified to say. It’s release was only weeks before the stories about Harvey Weinstein were published in the New York Times and the New Yorker. While the movie did not overtly accuse Ted Kennedy of harassment or abuse of power with respect to Kopechne, I would still call the timing rather apropos.

Back in 2018, at least one State Democratic Party has renamed their big summer fundraising dinner from the “Kennedy/Clinton Dinner” to the “Eleanor Roosevelt Dinner.”

You Find that the Friends You Had Are Gone Forever

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On January 18th of 2018, Dr. James Cobb passed away.

He’s been one of the fixtures as far as writings about computer wargaming since as long as I can remember. His articles were always the serious ones, discussing games in terms of the details of the battles. I’m not sure I necessarily looked to his reviews for the recommendations, but one could always expect to be informed.

I write about this so many months after the fact (for that matter, many months after I read his passing) because I just came across a review he wrote for the Wargamer website. Had I read the review at the time, I almost certainly would have picked up DEFCON-2 The Missiles of October as a counterpoint to my fooling around with 13 Days. I may yet, but at this point I doubt I could say any more he already has.

At the same time, I stumbled across a couple of other Wargamer articles that would have fit well among my own recent writings. As a result of this, I’ve decided I’m going to haphazardly link some Wargamer articles into my History of Games timelines where those links seem appropriate.

I hope you approve.

But We’ll Die for Good Pay

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When I watched the movie about the Siege at Jadotville, I lamented the fact that were no games to accompany my viewing. Move history forward a few years, though, and coverage for the events in what had become the formerly-Belgian Congo was solved by scenario creator Tom DeShetler and his work with Steel Panthers. It is Scenario 172, “DRAGON ROUGE (Red Dragon).”

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One of the ways to get around the fiddliness of off-board artillery is to have it all pre-configured. The scenario opens with a bombing attack of the town.

Throughout 1964, a communist rebellion raged against the government of Joseph Kasa-Vubu. The Simba rebels had coalesced around exiled political supporters of the murdered Patrice Lumumba and were backed by the communist governments of Russia, Cuba, and China. They quickly took control of roughly half of the Republic of Congo. With the national army of Congo letting the rebels capture territory largely without a fight, the government turned to mercenaries to combat the insurgents.

As the rebels captured territories, they took as hostages white Europeans. By late fall, the number was in the thousands with at least a thousand being held in Stanleyville. The government worked with the West to come up with a solution, one that ultimately consisted of a joint operation between Belgian troops, mercenary forces, and U.S. air support.

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This is the first air drop scenario that I’ve played in Steel Panthers.

This scenario makes for a unique experience. Not only does it provide a look at a conflict that otherwise probably won’t see much game-wise (I don’t expect John Tiller to put out a $40 scenario package on the Congo Crisis), but it also has some unique features. It has a combined operation of mercenaries and the Belgians and a combination of para-dropped forces and some heavier vehicles. The objectives are interesting, both seizing territory and rescuing civilians (who are also represented on the map and controlled by the player). A few surprises also wait for the player as the scenario plays out.

 

Punctuated by Moments of Terror

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One of the scenarios in Steel Panthers is a fairly obscure battle which took place in December of 1964. It is a portrayal of a Viet Cong (VC) attack on an Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) base during the period where the communists were moving towards a more direct military engagement on the battlefield. It is suggested that, against the AI, the player take the side of the ARVN.

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My ARVN troops are well entrenched as the take on the communist human wave assaults.

The source material is a little thin on this assault, which took place near Tam Ky. However, the size and scale of the Steel Panthers implementation seems about right to fully and accurately portray the battle. The game lasts for an hour and a half of real time, a reasonable duration to depict a sudden and overwhelming attack. The ARVN, at least (I don’t think the VC order of battle is in anyway documented), is represented fully in a one-to-one ratio.

Being on the defensive, the player’s decisions are greatly simplified. Mostly, whenever it is your turn, you just have to designate targets for each unit on your side. Occasionally it is necessary to pull a unit back out of an untenable defensive position, but for the most part remaining dug in is preferable to maneuvering around. As I’ve said before when it comes to Steel Panthers, managing the individual weapons and vehicles can be fun, but it gets tedious to visit every unit on every turn for, in this case, up to 31 turns in a row. To add to the tedium, the computer turns are incredibly long as well.  As each VC attacker advances, they come under fire from multiple defenders. For all of the clicking and shooting, though, not much is really happening. Most of the time the VC units are halted and pinned down by our defenders.

This got me to thinking how this should be done right, given the capabilities of modern games. I think we see this is a very good scale for Vietnam engagements. However, a game that simply brought the Steel Panthers graphics and UI into the current era would still suffer the tedium of all that micromanagement. Putting this scenario into an RTS would certainly move things along, but then you lose most of the fun (actually getting involved with the individual weapons) and create a click-fest hell for the player. There is a reason almost every RTS has a unrealistically small unit count.

I think the key here may be to simulate command, communications, and control in a realistic manner for the time and technology.

One example that might work with a turn-based game otherwise mostly similar to Steel Panthers is what is used in Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm. That system uses a special form of “WeGo.” That is, orders are entered, and then the resolution of those order are resolved for both side simultaneously. The catch in Flashpoint Campaigns is that the two players don’t enter their commands simultaneously. There is variability on how long between “turns” each player has, as well as a limit (not known upfront) as to how many units can be commanded.

In Flashpoint Campaigns, it is ostensibly modelling curtailed communications due to the jamming of signals on the World War III battlefield. Of course, this isn’t an effect that has actually happened, so we aren’t trying to accurately simulate the resulting communication issues. Rather, it is a matter of what makes for kind of a nifty game mechanic meshing pretty well with something that may well have been a major factor on the battlefield, had such a battle actually occurred in that time and place.

But what if we looked at the actual communications issues during the Vietnam era. For this case, let’s rely on the the LZ-XRay battle, because we are familiar with the issues of command having read the book. In that fight, Hal Moore had limited ability to command his platoons. He knew where he had sent them, but the details of his intentions were left to his captains and lieutenants to carry out. In the case of the “Lost Platoon,” the execution of the command was quite a bit different then the formulation of it. Further, once the chaos of battle hit, communications were dependent on radios and their operators. The radios could fail, sustain damage, or just not work properly. Operators could be injured or killed and then replaced, or not.

I can only begin to imagine what the details might look like, but there seems that a good system, based on commanders and communications, could simulate the tenuous ability to control across an entire battle of the size in these Vietnam fights. The added bonus is that the micromanagement goes way down and the amount of thinking and planning goes way up. If you are unsure whether you’ll be be able to command your units in the next round, or even when that “next round” will come, you have be be judicious about what commands you give.

Another possibility is the First Person Shooter (FPS). At the time Steel Panthers was fresh, the height of FPS technology was Doom II. Fast-forward 10-20 years and the FPS genre now encompasses commanding squads in a way that rivals an RTS treament of small-unit actions.

While there is FPS coverage of Vietnam, it is a little sparse. A 2004 release, Men of Valor, attempts to port the Medal of Honor style of gameplay from WWII to Vietnam. This is a treatment where a the player follows a scripted story; it is not means of reproducing battles. Several of the open-ended FPS games do have Vietnam mods for them. Notable to me is the project in ARMA, a user-created mod called Vietnam: The Experience. Notable because I’ve played ARMA. Red Orchestra has also been modded and released as the product Rising Storm 2: Vietnam. I note this one because it is a current and popular game. Unlike ARMA (in any of its versions), Rising Storm 2 is meant only to be an on-line multiplayer game. There is no single player.

While the sandbox style of ARMA provides a fair basis for a Vietnam mod, the issue of command and communication probably cannot be properly addressed without changes in the way ARMA does things. In ARMA 2 and 3, we are dealing with approximations of current or near-future wars. It makes sense that the ability to track and chat with your fellow players is an approximation of the technology available on the modern battlefield. In a Vietnam setting, would the same level of omniscience detract from the simulation aspects? Would it ruin a game if we had a heads-up display of how many of the “lost platoon” were still alive at any given point? Or is it still a decent approximation of how, via radio communication, information on battlefield communications was already coming into the modern age?

I’ll make an analogy with CMANO and its use for air and sea battles shortly after the end of the Second World War. The interface can still work provided that it is used only to show the lesser amount of information available to, for example, the Korean War commander. In this way, the game’s UI still approximates the level of information and control that that a real commander might have, using radio and a team of controllers. However, unlike the in a modern battle, where the CMANO interface closely approximates the computer display which a commander might be watching, the graphical UI in the context of the Korean War is simply that – a convenient interface. It detracts, rather than adds, to immersion.

So is it possible to create an immersive “commander” interface using a first-person display? What if you modeled the existing communications and the limitations that the radio place upon them. What if you were able to approximate the information flowing to and from you, as the commander. One might imagine an experience similar to the Scourge of War series. In the Civil War, you are commanding a Division or even a Corps, and the interface is more RTS than FPS. But in a small unit action, the first person interface might make sense. A Captain or a Major might even, if necessary, pick up an M-16 and fire some shots. Given a choice between the command interfaces of Scourge of War versions ARMA, I think I’d prefer the latter. This assumes, of course, that an era-appropriate method of simulating the difficulties of command and communication can be inserted. Dispatches are no longer sent around by riders on horseback, but there was still a reliance on “running” orders that should not be ignored.

The other part of the battlefield that I just don’t think ARMA simulates correctly is close artillery support. In We Were Soldiers Once…, Moore attributes his victory to his ability to direct artillery fire and air support. Doing this right would be a major step in moving away from a “Shooter” and towards a simulator of small unit actions. Doing it right might even trump what is the norm for tacitical-level strategy games currently. Steel Panthers (and Squad Battles, too, for that matter) uses the system that exists in most World War II board game. There are spotter units on the board who, with line of sight to a target hex, can order in indirect fire. That fire comes with uncertainties in both timing and accuracy. Against a moving enemy, indirect fire is often ineffective. Contrast that to the descriptions in We Were Soldiers Once… of the use of Forward Air Controllers to bring support fire accurately and efficiently onto enemies with which the ground forces are directly engaged.

So while nothing out there is right on the money, it wouldn’t take that much to make an ARMA (or Rising Storm 2 perhaps*) into something that would allow the player to command small unit actions. Would that be a better interface than a traditional RTS (with which ARMA has some overlap, I might add)? Would it beat the traditional hex-and-counter implementation?

There must be a way to do this that is more fun than slogging it through, bullet by bullet, in a Steel Panthers scenario.

*The focus on ARMA, in part, are examples of custom scenario designs made for that engine. The continued relevance of Steel Panthers stems from the ability of users to create scenarios for an unlimited variety of situations. The key to a better future would be retaining that important aspect of the past.

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One might consider the irony. One of the complaints against the rule of Edward II was his ineffectualness in fighting the Scots on the battlefield and quashing their quest of independence. Yet when Thomas of Lancaster lead a Baron’s revolt against Edward, he turned to the Scots for their support. In January, Scottish raids in Northern England were intended to distract Edward from his fight with the rebels. Unfortunately for Lancaster, Edward chose to ignore the Scots and focus on the rebellion, defeating them at the Battle of Boroughbridge.

That completed, Edward turned his attentions to Scotland. But as Edward prepared his invasion north, Robert the Bruce was preparing to receive him. Bruce retreated before the English advance, destroying crops and livestock and leaving the English army unable to provision themselves. While the English wreaked some minor havoc, they were ultimately forced to retreat their starving army back to England in what was seen as a humiliation. Bruce capitalized upon the drop in morale by striking south with his own attack.

Unlike Edward’s excursion, Roberts raid was a success. English property was destroyed and prizes and provisions were taken back to Scotland. On October 14th, the Scots approached the abbey at Rievaulx, where Edward and Isabella were residing. The English fielded an army under John of Brittany, Earl of Richmond and placed it in a strong defensive position between the Scots and Reivaulx Abbey. The ensuing fight, the Battle of Old Byland, has been reproduced as a user-made scenario in Field of Glory.

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This is much more the kind of fight preferred by Field of Glory. The Scots and English face each other over open (albeit pretty rough) terrain. I take command of the Scots to repeat their great victory.

Compared to the Boroughbridge fight earlier in the year, this battle fits much better with what Field of Glory‘s rules and programmed opponent can handle. The armies are deployed in line against each other and while the terrain between them is a bit rugged, there are no artificial choke points to befuddle the AI.

The “twist” in this fight is that the Scots had advanced a force of highlanders, under command of Black Douglas, scaling cliffs so as to fall on the rear of the English lines while the main body of Scotland attacked the English position atop a steep slope. It would seem that it was this operational decision that won the battle, making the tactical fight a foregone conclusion. A more conventional plan would have had Bruce attempt to maneuver around the English on the heights, but Robert hoped to capture Edward himself and this required that victory come quickly.

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An interesting artifact of the Unity AI. I brought Edward, initially not present in the English lines, forward to try to help save the battle. AI Bruce rushed forward to meet him.

The default setup has the player as the Scots and the AI taking the English. This seems completely unwinnable for the AI, although there were no notes in the scenario setup about its one-sidedness.

Switching sides, I started up a second run, this time as the English. I also tried to pretend I didn’t know about the highlanders approaching my rear until I actually saw them present via the fog of war settings. This is probably impossible as a) it is the key feature of the battle, if you’ve read anything about it all and b) the scenario preview shows the initial disposition of the troops, even though they are hidden when the scenario starts. The resulting challenge for the player is genuine. You must find a way to fend of the main Scottish attack from the front and defeat a second attack from the rear at the same time. In my playthrough (above screenshot), I was unable to accomplish both and lost.

In this case, the new and more aggressive AI of the FoG(U) version probably helps. The Scots attack vigorously and so the player doesn’t have the luxury of simply holding back and defeating the Scottish attacks in detail as the come on.

As you can see in my screenshot, I brought Edward forward onto the battlefield in the hopes that his personal guard could push my army across the finish line. It was too little, too late. Even as Edward began a successful charge against Bruce’s entourage, the English lines were collapsing all around the field.

In reality, Edward fled the abbey just as the English forces were fleeing the field. His departure was so rapid that he was forced to leave behind all that he traveled with, including his personal armor and his privy seal. Sir Walter Steward’s cavalry attempted to pursue the fleeing king, but chose the wrong route. For several more weeks, the Scottish raids continued with Edward essentially on the run nearby, but he was never captured by the Scots. The added humiliation of this episode surely would not help his reputation in his trials to come.

Of Pikes and Hot Pokers

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I continue on with my reading of The Accursed Kings series by Maurice Druon with The She-Wolf (La Louve de France in the original). I a little surprised when the author not only suddenly moved the narrative from France to Britain (OK, I could figure that much from the title),but also skipped over entirely the reign of Philip V (Philippe le Long), whose coronation ended the preceding book in the series. This is about a five year gap.

The introductory chapter starts with Baron Roger Mortimer in prison, thinking of escape. Philip is dead and has been succeeded by his younger brother, Charles IV (le Bel). In England, the Despenser wars have been fought and won by Edward II.

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A scenario with signature land bridge and cliff maze. My rebels are going to try to force the crossing.

Feeling a little put out at missing out on half a decade, I got out a user-made scenario covering the Battle of Boroughbridge, the loss of which ended the rebellion and the life of Thomas of Lancaster, leader of the Baronial faction. Alas, it did not quite satisfy.

The actual battle had Lancaster’s army trapped and outnumbered. Bad intelligence meant that Lancaster was caught between Edward’s army, pursuing him, and a force blocking his only path of escape, the bridge over the river Ure. Lancaster had no choice but to force a crossing against a defender who had his own force outnumbered.

From the listing of the noblemen who were at the battle, it seems likely that while Lancaster had an inferiority in overall numbers, he held a superiority when it came to the heavy horse. It is therefore quite possible that had he met the force under Andrew Harclay, 1st Earl of Carlisle on an open battlefield, his knights would have won the day. Instead, he was forced to dismount his knights and attempt to take control of the bridge in a tactical act of desperation. Simultaneously, his cavalry attempted to cross at a nearby ford.

I have complained before about the inability of Field of Glory to represent a bridge and about the lack of modeling, in pretty much any game, of the fighting across a bridge. Once again we have a battle whose entire focus is on “the bridge,” and we have to fudge that feature of the battle. We also have that feature where the scenario author has created a set of impassible cliffs to overcome the inability of units to enter over the course  of the scenario. Like Lancaster, I think the Field of Glory engine would have preferred to make this engagement as a stand-up fight across an open field.

Fundamentally, the game’s AI does not understand the choke points in the terrain. Furthermore, the more aggressive AI in FoG(U) makes for an extra-lopsided battle in favor of the player. The smart move, and the historical move, for the Royalist player is to hold back behind the bridge and the ford and wait for the numerically inferior Rebel player to attempt the crossing. This is made further evident by some house rules that declare any kind of draw to be a Royalist win. The Rebels must cross the bridge and they must defeat the Royalists on their defended ground. In FoG(U) the AI will not only contest the crossings, but if the player’s fortunes lag, they will charge back across the river and attempt to bring the fight to the opposite shore. As a result, Royalist losses pile up, marching inevitably toward the win.

I replayed the game in the original Field of Glory, and it did turn out slightly better. The AI sticks to the defense and the battle looks considerably more like the historical record. I still won, but toward the end  I was a tad nervous whether I would rout the enemy from the field in time. The key (in fact in both versions) was to successfully force the crossing over the ford. In FoG(U), having done so also resulted in enough Royalist losses that it was essentially game over. In the original Field of Glory, once I crossed, the battle still had yet to be won. My knights were now moving into open ground facing a largely disorganized and demoralized enemy. Winning required a maneuver which swung them into the enemy flank (the portion of the enemy defending the bridge itself) and therefore rout the remainder of the enemy.

Even while the defensive AI of the original Field of Glory plays a better game, it still can’t quite understand the choke points in the terrain. Success for the Royalist player in this scenario would likely come from minimizing the number of units defending the bridge crossing to only those needed, and using the rest of the foot soldiers to hold the ford. The AI, on the other hand, stacks up reserves behind the bridge in anticipation of engagement the Rebel force, waiting across the river.

In the actual battle, the Royalist used Scottish-style Schiltron formations to defend the ford from the Knights on horseback crossing it. That and longbow support was enough to hold. In the bridge itself, the narrow pathway was easy to defend with pikemen blocking the way. There is one story of the battle that tells of a lone pikeman who crept beneath the bridge. From there, he was able to stuff his spear through the planking of the bridge and into the asshole of Humphrey de Bohun, 4th Earl of Hereford, killing him in a particularly gruesome and painful fashion. It may well not have happened this way at all. The graphic death of Hereford would seem to portend the end of the Edward II and his encounter with a hot poker, another story whose authenticity is in doubt. Did history seem so boring to the English that they had to liven it up with the insertion of anal defilers into otherwise sparse narratives? Can this help to explain the plight of England today? I’ll leave this as an exercise for the reader.

 

So Let’s Set the World on Fire

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Prior to November 14th, 1965, the military of the government of the United States had never fought a battle against the Army of North Vietnam.

The first U.S. combat troops, in the form of 3,500 marines, had landed in Vietnam on March 8th of the same year. Tens of thousands more followed through the summer. In the run-up to the fall of 1965, the war could be described as the South Vietnamese government attempting to subdue a communist uprising within its borders. Despite failures, both political and military, within the South Vietnamese government, the U.S. was confident that the government would ultimately prevail and was providing financial and military aid to assure that outcome. Kennedy had placed as many as 16,000 advisors in Vietnam and Johnson increased this number to 26,000.

For years, however, the government of North Vietnam had been sending aid to the guerillas in the South. This was both in the form of materiel and direct combatants. While the U.S. believed that the South Vietnamese would regain control over their nation, the North had to be dissuaded from participating in that war.

During the 1964 presidential election, Johnson campaigned as the less warlike of the two candidates. Candidate Barry Goldwater was critical (and somewhat prescient) of the policy in Vietnam and where it would lead, but his emphasis on stronger options (tactical nukes, for example) and the Democrats’ portrayal of him as a belligerent warmonger was contrasted with Johnson’s calls for peace. Even in the face of Johnson’s reaction to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, he remained the Peace candidate in the election. Goldwater lost in a landslide.

Johnson’s concerns were about his domestic policy and, for him, Vietnam was a distraction. That distraction could become a disaster, though, and he vowed he would not be the president who “lost Vietnam” in the same way Truman was accused of abandoning China to the communists.

In February of 1965, several Viet Cong attacks had resulted in American casualties and Johnson’s response was to initiate Operation Rolling Thunder. This was a bombing campaign by U.S. aircraft against North Vietnamese targets that would continue for the duration of Johnson’s presidency.  At the same time, Johnson urged greater use of ground forces and expressed willingness to increase their deployment. Those 3,500 Marines were landed with the mission of protecting U.S. bases from further Viet Cong attacks.

Fairly quickly, it was clear that the North Vietnamese were not backing down in the face of the American air campaign. The South Vietnamese army had been defeated in the field, in the battles of Bình Giã and Đồng Xoài, and the North was increasing their aid to the communist insurgents. Add to that the increasing political turmoil in the South’s government, and the U.S. seemingly reached a point where they had to fish or cut bait.

In a secret memo from April 6th, Johnson authorized additional troop deployments as well as a change in mission to allow “more active use” of ground troops. By this he meant the authority to use U.S. forces on the offensive.

In August, the Marines launched their first large-scale offensive operation against the Viet Cong, Operation Starlight. This was planned to be a preemptive defensive measure, hitting the Viet Cong at their base to prevent raids on U.S. installations. By the fall, the Army was involved as well. At this point, however, the U.S. was operating against the Viet Cong, a force of irregulars that were no real match for the Americans in either equipment or training.

That changed with the Pleiku Campaign. After the South Vietnamese forces drove off an North Vietnamese Army (NVA) attack on the Pleime camp (with the aid of U.S. Air Power) in late October they requested that U.S. forces, in the form of the 1st Air Cavalry Division, pursue the retreating NVA. November 14th saw the Air Cav. move in and finally meet and then engage the North Vietnamese in two major battles, at Landing Zone X-Ray and a few days later at Landing Zone Albany. When these battles were over, the war in Vietnam had taken on a completely new character.

As Hal Moore and Joe Galloway put in in their book We Were Soldiers Once… and Young,

Washington was now thoroughly awakened to the ferocity of the fighting at X-Ray and Albany and to the large numbers of American dead and wounded beginning to arrive from the battlefields. The war was entering a new and much more deadly phase; President Johnson wanted to know what that meant and what it would cost.

It was a year or two before I started reading Black Hawk Down that I started reading We Were Soldiers Once… under the same circumstances. Another Thanksgiving visit had me take down my father’s copy of the book and read it between bouts of turkey. When I got back home, I bought my own copy of the book. At the time, however, I was reading some other stuff and decided to hold off with the Vietnam War until I was in the mood for such. As I am now.

I had watched the movie based on the book, so it was not a new story for me. But despite always meaning to, I’d never got around to the source material. I guess I saw the presence of the book on my father’s shelf as enough of an endorsement to push me over the edge.

I Can Hear the Choir

There are a number of ways to write a narrative of a battle. With The Killer Angels, the story is made smooth by filling in circumstance and dialog as needed. The “made-up parts” still have their basis in fact, but nobody is expected to believe that the words spoken by Shaara’s Lee, alone in his tent, are 100% accurate. Black Hawk Down was another excellent example, sticking to the facts as they were available, but forming them into an easy-to-read narrative. As I saw when reading that book, part of the advantage the author had in this case is that the battle was very well documented. It allowed a best seller to also become a scholarly source for information on the battle.

Usually, however, one writes potential-best-sellers in a different style than one would a scholarly presentation. With We Were Soldiers Once…, we see that very different style. Rather than saying something like, “Meanwhile, while the men of the 7th Cavalry were moving in to position, unbeknownst to them the enemy was…” the author breaks the narrative. Forgoing a smooth transition, we are switched between points of view. General Moore’s voice is interrupted to identify a North Vietnamese commander and quote him directly. If that commander, in his interview, repeated information that was just used a few paragraphs back, well, we read it again. As a primary-source, it is more important that the words of the interviewees get preserved correctly than to be concerned about the readability of the prose or whether the story retains its grip on the reader.

This is not to say that We Were Soldiers Once… is a tough read. It is not. It’s a very readable book and, indeed, a best seller in its own right. However, the style is heavily influenced by the multiple goals of the book. It is meant to be an accurate representation of source interviews and an original source for the battle. The authors also wanted to, perhaps above all, memorialize those killed in the battle. Again doing so interrupts the flow of the narrative. All things considered I agree with them that this is how it should be.

The book’s chapters are divided into three major sections. After some introduction, there is a section about the fight at Landing Zone X-Ray. The next section covers the second major fight, a few days later, at Landing Zone Albany. A final section considers the aftermath of the battles.

The first section, about LZ X-Ray, reads the best. First of all, given the way the battle played out, it is simply a more compelling story. It is no wonder that the movie adaptation limits itself to X-Ray. The battle is well planned and then the uncertainties and FUBARs that arise they are dealt with, ultimately reflecting well on the U.S. forces and its leaders. We are taken through some harrowing moments, but ultimately a combination of excellent leadership and a bit of luck allow the Americans to pull through. With heavy casualties, yes, but giving far more than they got. It also helps that it is Hal Moore’s voice that ties the narrative together. He was there. He was aware of the big picture, as best he could be, and he was successfully orchestrating the battle. When the story jumps to another participant, in another part of the command chain, it is to augment Moore’s own recollection of events.

LZ Albany was very different. Moore still tells the story, but as a non-participant, assembling the story after the fact. The plan, have the forces at X-Ray march out, split, and arrive at two other landing zones, does not seem (particularly in retrospect) to be well thought out. Once engaged, Moore’s counterpart, Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDade, was cut off from much of his command and was not cognizant of what was going on in the larger battle. For a time, for the worst part of the fight, nobody was. The story, then, is less of the “battle” than of individual cases of perseverance and heroism. The Americans again survived and again made a decent showing for themselves, but it lacks the direction of X-Ray.

The third section pulls together various aspects outside of the view on the ground on those long November days. Moore discusses political and strategic aspects of the battle. He also focus on the families of the fallen back at home. In one chapter, the narrative is turned over to various survivors, loved ones of those killed in battle. They are allowed to speak of their own experience in their own words. Moore, as narrator, makes no attempt to pull it all together.

All of these pieces may not come together as a unified whole in the way (for example) Black Hawk Down did. But they do all play their part. It is an informative book. It is also a moving book. Near the end Moore comments on a part of our culture that has drifted away. Once upon a time, he remembers, we had schoolchildren memorize the names and dates of the great battles of history. Writing in 1992, he sees that we no longer do that.

[P]erhaps that is the first step on the road to a world where wars are no longer necessary. Perhaps.

In a culture where the wars of our past are no longer accepted as part of our present, books like this one – good books which remember how things really were – become ever more important to connect us with where we have been.

At long last, I can compare the movie to the the source material. As a whole, I still think it was a decent adaptation. Critically, the film was changed from the testimonial style of the book to a story-telling narrative. The film is not meant to be a documentary. It is meant to be entertainment. As a result, there were some obvious deviations from the book. Certain elements were taken from the LZ Albany engagement and dropped into the movie during the LZ-XRay fight. Elsewhere, soldiers’ wives who were actually spread around the country were all, for the purposes of the film, placed at the Fort Bragg army base during the battle. While obviously deviating from “the truth,” I can understand the need to both streamline and “spice up” the story so that the movie flows well.

The change that I have a hard time getting on board with is the way the film ends the battle. In the film, Lt. Col. Moore anticipates an impending NVA attack at dawn and decides to defeat it with a counter charge of his own. He instructs his troopers to “fix bayonets” and leads them (literally leads them, mind you) in a charge that sweeps away the enemy attack and overruns a command post. The scene is not only entirely untrue but entirely implausible.

I understand the screenwriter’s problem here. The tension in the battle was highest on the first night, when the American’s struggled to maintain their lines with shortages in manpower, supplies, and proper defensive preparation. Our protagonists triumph on the second day when they receive ammunition, medical supplies, and reinforcements from other commands. By the time they are ready to be exfiltrated*, the enemy has largely retreated from the battlefield. Moore’s 1st Battalion is replaced on line with the 2nd Battalion. After Moore’s extraction, the 2nd Battalion marches away without any further engagements in preparation for a B-52 strike at the NVA base.

The true ending is triumphant, in its way, but does not follow the arc of film storytelling. We want the fighting to come to a desperate climax near the end of the movie, not somewhere in the first half. Again, I suppose I understand the need to have something like that bayonet charge, and I’m not sure I can come up with something better. Using a B-52 strike as the climax would just be kind of gruesome and, likely, also inaccurate. I don’t think we know whether the bombing was successful. Alternatively, simply showing that the NVA ultimately made it back into Cambodia to fight another day would end on a downer – not good for ticket sales.

One of the scenes that was in neither the book nor the movie (shown above, it is in the deleted scenes section of the DVD) has Moore giving a postmortem commentary on the battle to Robert McNamara and General Westmoreland. It appears to be an informal (perhaps off the record) meeting, maybe on an army base somewhere in Asia. On one hand, cutting this scene from the movie removes what is an excellent wrap-up, putting the battle into the context of the next 10 years in Vietnam. Problem is, again, it is entirely made up. Such a meeting did not take place and probably could not take place. Moore did brief McNamara and “the brass,” but it was in a formal context. The thinking that Moore expresses in the scene is close to what he attributes to McNamara in his book – that what the battle demonstrated was the true cost that victory in Vietnam would demand. It was a price that the U.S., in the end, was unwilling to pay.

Moore’s greatest criticisms, echoed by his fellow battlefield commanders, are for two areas of policy. The first is the unwillingness to pursue the North Vietnamese into Cambodia. It was a fairly open secret that the North Vietnamese were using the Cambodia to transport and shelter troops, yet the U.S. insisted on maintaining the facade of Cambodian neutrality. This meant that retreating NVA units had an invisible line which they could cross into safety and, like Moore’s enemies in this battle, would be allowed to rest and refit until they were ready to fight again. The other policy Moore felt was costly was the policy to limit terms of selective service to 12 months. Shortly after the events depicted in the book, the experienced soldiers who had won the battle rotated home. For the remainder of the war, just at the point where American soldiers had learned to master the terrain and fight against an unconventional enemy, they were withdrawn to be replaced with a new crop of draftees with zero experience.

There is one more area that neither Moore nor any other of the interviewees criticized directly but a pattern come out of what they did say. Throughout the book, repeated, are stories of failures of the M-16. Soldiers describe sifting through several damaged or failed rifles, trying to find one that’s working. Others talk about defending themselves with a 1911 when they found themselves without a working rifle. Some of the problems seem to be functional – jammed actions and the like. Others have to do with plastic parts being destroyed by enemy fire. Just how bad, or not, the M-16 was when initially deployed in Vietnam, is the subject of many heated on-line discussions. One wonders if the decision to replace the M-14 was a factor in America’s troubles in Vietnam. And if so, what does that say about the military today, where derivatives of the M-16 remain the main rifle of our armed forces?

*The term “exfiltration,” used to describe a military operation that is the opposite of an “infiltration,” seems to have first been used during the timeframe of the events of this book. Previous uses of the term, going back another hundred years, refer to something being “filtered out.” Modern usage often has it in reference to IT, playing on the military term, likely because it entered the common parlance via computer gaming.

Gulf War

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The Gulf of Tonkin incident is more likely to be invoked these days in reference to accusations of some sort of modern conspiracy or “false flag” incident than referencing the historical facts. It was the impetus for the escalation of the Vietnam war but with our modern eye we probably doubt the wisdom of that decision.

It is generally agreed that the “multiple attacks” cited by Johnson in obtaining the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was not an accurate representation of what truly happened. Evidence available now would seem to prove that the intelligence which caused the USS Maddox and the USS Turner Joy to respond to an attack. The Government of Vietnam’s position, well after the end of the war, was that the August 2nd battle did occur, but there was no attack on August 4th. Even still, this remains uncertain. The battle occurred at night and combat was directed by radar. However, there were witnesses on the Turner Joy who have sworn to have seen, with their own eyes, evidence of U.S. hits on North Vietnamese torpedo boats.

Taking for granted that the August 4th fight never occurred, there are more questions that arise. At this point, while there may be people out their who know the actual truth, it is unlikely that it will ever become settled in the public record. We know that, even at the time, Johnson was aware of uncertainties in the information as he made his announcement to the nation. There were several Senators, during the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, who had grave doubts about the accuracy of the information they were acting upon. In the end, though, the Resolution passed the House unanimously and the Senate with only two dissenting votes. It is likely, however, that decisions to brush aside the uncertainty were made in a good-faith belief that we were responding correctly and waffling would only get in the way of the necessary decisive action.

We know, however, that even as Johnson ordered retaliation, analysts had become convinced that the electronic evidence of an attack were in error. So how far up the chain of command did this knowledge go? While the positive evidence of the attack was acted on immediately, evidence to the contrary was held for further analysis. Was this merely a Cover-Your-Ass move from the intelligence community? Or was it a political decision somewhere in the chain of command to commit to an escalation, whether the facts warranted it or not?

If you believe the government, in this case, was not just wrong, but evil, the conspiracies go on from there. Think about it. The second incident occurred two days after U.S. warships were fired upon and then withdrawn. Then those same ships were sent back into the now-hostile waters. After that, we are told that another shooting incident has occur (when it clearly didn’t) and that announcement leads to major policy changes. Might it not be possible that the plan all along was to fake the second incident for political reasons?

We can go on. With the original, August 2nd, incident, the North Vietnamese stuck to two claims. First of all, that the Maddox was on a hostile mission, supporting South Vietnamese black ops on Northern territory and was therefore the aggressor from the beginning. Second, that the torpedo boats did not initiate the attack. Set aside the conflicting logic of the two claims (“I did not kill my wife, sir, but If I had, it would have been in self defense”), their claims are not so far fetched. Contrary to the Johnson administration’s position at the time, we now know the Maddox was on a mission of electronics surveillance (DESOTO). The North Vietnamese General Giap believed the DESOTO patrols were initiated with the intent of provoking a military response and there were, indeed, people within the U.S. administration had considered doing just that. The timing suggests that Maddox was probably not directly supporting the commando raid on a North Vietnamese island, to which a North Vietnamese military response was occurring. But even this is not certain and it would be impossible for the North to tell the difference either way.

As to the second claim, about who actually shot first – that also remains forever controversial. The Maddox responded to approaching torpedo boats by firing warning shots. So could the torpedo have interpreted warning shots as an attack, from which they merely tried to defend themselves? Again, if you’re all the way down the rabbit hole, maybe one of those warning shots struck home before the North Vietnamese started shooting. Maybe it was never meant to be a warning shot in the first place?

Less is More

When looking at the Cuban Missile Crisis I expressed surprise that nobody modeled an escalation between the U.S. quarantine warships and a Soviet vessel (perhaps with support) trying to pass through the blockade. While maybe not making for the best “game,” it seems like the kind of historical what-if many would love to explore with CMANO. With the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, someone did just that.

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Communist torpedo boats have been shadowing Maddox for a day now. Intercepted communications indicate that they are preparing to attack. And there they are.

This scenario is about as simple as you can get. The player commands a single ship (although other friendly assets are nearby) and has enough firepower to annihilate the enemy with one punch of the F1 key. The instructions for conduct of the scenario require that the player return to station, south of the Gulf of Tonkin. The player is reminded that he may engage the North Vietnamese only in self-defense.

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The orders say that I may engage only in defense. But what level of provocation can actually be considered aggression? How close is too close?

What is left for a game is a few brief minutes of tension. If you intend to experience that for yourself, go play the game before you read about it, because I’m going to give away the punch line (if I haven’t already).

The torpedo boats are faster than the Maddox, so any kind of reaction or evasive action won’t change the course of history. I watched as the torpedo boats approached within a few hundred meters wondering if such provocation should be considered an attack or not. In the screenshot above, I paused the game and mulled over knocking the enemy back a bit.

This exposes a shortcoming of this game engine for this scenario and, in fact, nearly any game engine for any similar situation. The real-life skipper ordered warning shots at this point. I really wanted to do the same but “shots over the bow” are not supported in CMANO. In fact, I can’t imagine anything outside of the Roll Playing Game genre (or an occasional one-off RPG-like element within a strategy game) where a non-lethal show of force might make a difference in the outcome. Computer AIs don’t respond to psychological motivators and can’t really consider the politics and implications of their actions upon the global stage.

In the end, I did not shoot. Especially knowing what really happened, I wasn’t going to be blamed personally for starting the Vietnam War for the U.S. because a boat motored too close to me. I unpaused the game and within a minute or so the commies fired something (I only saw the damage, not what did it) at me. I ordered my crew to take on all three approaching torpedo boats, which were sunk within another minute or two. The victory screen gave me a major victory.

Again, not a fun game per se, but I’m really glad someone out there takes the time to model these little bits of history. Maybe I learned something today.