You Can’t Change Human Nature

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It surprises me, but I have now written fifty posts about the Vietnam War. See here for the previous post in the series and here to go back to the master post.

While I have started reading Road to Disaster, which came out in 2018, I did not read the book author Brian VanDeMark co-wrote with Robert McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, published in 1995. In between the two, the film The Fog of War was made. While not a film version of McNamara’s book, it did have the background material of McNamara’s own auto-biography as a starting point. It also followed a structure of Lessons of Vietnam, building the narrative around 11 lessons from McNamara’s life. It is a different 11 lessons that those 11 in the book, but there is obviously an intended parallel.

To make things a little more convoluted, there is actually a book version of The Fog of War (now, apparently, out of print) that was written based upon the film shortly after it came out. Writing a biographical book based on a documentary film seems an odd way to go about things. Yet, there we have it. I don’t plan to read it.

The structure of the film is that McNamara is interviewed, allowing him to talk about the things that he has learned over his life and his career. That career took him through academia (teaching at Harvard), the Army Air Corps, to Ford Motor Company. There he was the first non-Ford family member to be company President, a position he held for 5 days. He left Ford when he was asked by newly-elected President John Kennedy to hold a cabinet position and became first Kennedy’s, then Johnson’s, Secretary of Defense. After his cabinet tenure he was appointed President of the World Bank and headed that organization for 13 years.

Perhaps typically for a political interview documentary, part of the intent of the filmmakers seems to be to get McNamara to say things that he didn’t want to say. It was filmed using a device the filmmaker calls an Interrotron. This is essentially a Teleprompter. However, instead of projecting words to be read, the filmmaker projects his own face. The result is a close-up shot of the interviewee from the perspective of the interviewer. McNamara is looking into the projected eyes of the interviewer as he talks and so appears to be making direct and human eye contact with the audience. It has particular impact when McNamara recalls emotional events, such as the death of President Kennedy.

The 11 lessons are a bit at odds with the narrative of Road to Disaster. This shouldn’t be surprising. The idea behind Road to Disaster was that there was a failure of both the intentions and methods of the Kennedy/Johnson crew, a failure that led to unintended consequences. So, for example, McNamara’s lesson about the power of data analysis (#6: Get the data) is countered by VanDeMark’s assertion that reliance on data (e.g. body counts and population under government control) fed McNamara’s inability to appreciate the truth. Similarly, the filmmaker, in some cases, is using McNamara’s “lesson” as a hook to try to get him to admit where he went wrong.

One of the more interesting revelations (to me, I’m sure it has been printed elsewhere) is McNamara’s description of a 1995 trip to Vietnam where he analyzed the war with his counterparts from his time advising Johnson. He said that, on the first day of their meeting, they nearly came to blows (some quarter of a century after the fact!) over differing beliefs in what were the basic, inarguable facts of the time.

The U.S. involvement hinged on the domino theory and the fear from both Kennedy and Johnson that losing Vietnam to the Soviet/Chinese international revolution would have destroyed them politically. The political impact probably was true, particularly in the mid-1960s. The domino theory, at least in the modern consensus, has been disproven by, not least, the fact that South Vietnam was ultimately taken over by the communists without the subsequent collapse of Southeast Asia.

The (formerly North) Vietnamese officials found that whole idea implausible and therefore disingenuous. To them, while the fight against the U.S. dominated their recent history, the fight against China had been ongoing for thousands of years. So while they were receiving assistance from China against the U.S., if indeed China decided to move into Vietnam as a result, Vietnam would have just as vigorously fought the Chinese. Similarly the Soviet Union would have been considered a colonial power just like the French and U.S. were. Given those basic facts, they refused to believe any of the reasons that the U.S. said they were involved in Vietnam and thus refused to believe that the paths to peace offered by the U.S. were genuine. The secret motives of the U.S., they felt, were to replace the French as colonial overlords of South Vietnam, exploiting the country and its people for resources.

From this, McNamara took away that there was a mutually-agreeable solution to avoid war involving democratic elections and self-rule. Of course, we know (also in hindsight) that the North Vietnamese made the determination that they would eventually win the war outright and placed little value in compromise. McNamara specifically challenged the officials on the human cost (in Vietnamese lives) of the war relative to the costs of compromise. He was frustrated by the low value that this communist regime, and historically communist governments in general, place on human life versus political/revolutionary victory. We can also wonder how much of the absoluteness of the current Vietnamese position is based on political propaganda of the time and since. From the Western perspective, it is difficult to believe that the U.S. could have possibly had designs on Vietnamese resources and, more particularly, that Kennedy and Johnson would want to embroil the U.S. in a war to maintain control of them. It also ignores the fact that North and South Vietnam were separate countries; the U.S. wasn’t threatening domination of the North but rather asking the North to cease military assistance to the insurgency in the South. While the image of Vietnamese nationalism sweeping through all the people of the country sounds good, it is unlikely that the “small folk” of North Vietnam would have any interest in which politician ran South Vietnam if their government weren’t feeding them what to think.

This film won multiple awards and was pushed on me by Netflix as a highly recommended view. I’m not sure it quite lives up to all that hype. In particular, some of the pacing was pretty slow filling up time with stock footage and generalized commentary. One the whole, however, the film is worth seeing as the closest McNamara ever came to revealing his heart to the nation that he tried to serve. I’m glad I took the time to watch.

Remember, Walk without Rhythm

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In time for another attempt at a Dune movie version as the 1984 version has appeared on streaming.

Sometime, those things that are remembered fondly from childhood don’t stand the test of time. When I was wee tyke, I loved Speed Racer. My parents wouldn’t let me watch it (pinko-commie propaganda*, my Dad called it) so I had to sneak over to my friend’s house after school to view the episodes. -This is all very traumatic, so excuse me if I don’t go into the details.- Sometime circa 1990, I found a load of VHS tapes on deep discount at the local Blockbuster** and one was a set of Speed Racer episodes. I bought it and watched it. It was awful. Horrifyingly awful. I’m sorry I watched it and wish I would have let my romantic memories of the excitement and beauty of Speed Racer live on. To this day, I have not watched a single episode in YouTube.

So what happens when something is remembered not-so-fondly? Does one dare to revisit the dark times?

If I had to guess, I’d say I read the original Dune novel in the late 1970s (the book was published in 1965, less than year before the Speed Racer comic was first published and a little more than a year before the Speed Racer TV show). In retrospect, the film would have looked like a dream project. Frank Herbert’s book is one of the classics of the science fiction world. The film, being written and directed by David Lynch, would have been a must-see, particularly after the appearance of Blue Velvet (1986). Likewise, the cast was a wild assembly of actors that should have been a real draw. Kyle MacLachlan was unknown at the time. Cast as MacLachlan’s nemesis, Sting was not. So how did it go so wrong?

David Lynch was offered the opportunity to direct The Return of the Jedi, which was released in 1983. Lynch wanted artistic control over his own project, not to be working under the shadow of George Lucas. Thus, Dune was to be Lynch’s own Star Wars. Recently, actress Virginia Madsen (who played Alia, the daughter of the Emperor, and, in a post-filming edit, narrated much of the movie) said she was signed on for a trilogy. Oddly enough, at the time Lynch was brought on board, he hadn’t read Dune nor was he a fan of science fiction.

Star Wars itself was, by Lucas’ own statements, influenced by Dune. The similarities may seem superficial and, as a matter of fact, I hadn’t noticed them before now. From the desert planet that becomes the focus of an empire to Princess Leia/Princess Alia, the comparisons jump out once you are looking for them. Apparently, they become more and more obvious if you read early versions of the Star Wars script, where the Star Wars universe was more filled out and bore a resemblance to Herbert’s future-feudalism. A serious take on Star Wars using the giant of science fiction literature seemed just what the doctor ordered.

When the film came out, it was savaged by critics. As bad as the film may have been, I always felt many critics went a bit overboard. I remember reading a criticism of the way half the dialog is made up of characters inner-thoughts. At the time I thought this was merely the script-writer having been a true fan of the book***, as this dialog pattern (and many of the details) are moved directly from book to movie. Other criticisms were dead-on. Viewed in 2019, the visual effects are god-awful, but they were bad even for 1984. How this happened is a mystery. Dune had the budget of Return of the Jedi as well as the Star Wars trilogy as a bar for what space-epic special effects should be. The battle scenes are wretched, often showing groups of a few dozen extras rushing from one side of a soundstage to another, popping off pretend shots at an unseen enemy. The screen-time blown on these pointless action scenes has to be made up by jarring cuts in the narrative part of the story, glued together by voice-over narration.

As the film was developed, the running time was one major bone of contention between Lynch and the studio. Lynch’s rough cut ran nearly four hours and his intended cut was project to be more than three. This was in line with earlier attempts. Director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s work in the early 1970s was looking like it would come out in the 10-14 hour range. Herbert’s own script was estimated to be about a three-hour version. Studios, however, wanted a 2-hour-or-so length that would fit neatly into their distribution models. The result was the two-hour and 17 minute version that went to theaters. This is also the version I just watched. An additional 50 minutes was added when the film was brought to the television, but this was a studio edit and not some kind of “director’s cut.” Lynch himself has said that the whole experience of this film is too painful to revisit and he has never had any urge to restore it to something closer to his vision. In any case, he says, he knew that he would not get the final crack at editing and so he says his compromises are part of even the raw footage.

There is a good chance that the first time I watched it, I watched in on TV and saw the longer version, though I don’t remember. This may even be one reason why rewatching has shown me a film that is worse than my memories of it; the cramming of the story into too short of a running time may actually have been absent from my own original version. The special effects are also worse than I remember, but that’s to be expected.

Going back again to 1984, the studio was geared up for a merchandising bonanza to rival Star Wars. Based on the talent of Lynch (The Elephant Man, written and directed by Lynch, released in 1980) and the success of the novel, previews were positive and plans were big. Toy stores were populated with action figures, toys for boys, and even a new strategy game. All for nothing. Ironically, despite the film being such an obvious and well-known financial failure, of all David Lynch’s films, this was the biggest initial-run earner and was the number two film (Beverly Hills Cop was #1) in its opening weekend.

But let’s go back to that game. A new game was developed and released through Parker Brothers specifically to tie in the with movie. Surprisingly, given its origins, it doesn’t look like a terrible game. The game pieces are the major characters from the movie featuring the actors’ likenesses. You move around one of two tracks; one to build character strength and one to accumulate resources, both in service of fights-to-the-finish that will occur when two opposing pieces land on the same space. There is some strategy involved and the components appear to look pretty nice. On BoardGameGeek, it clearly outranks (for example) another 1984 game of similar look, The A-Team. Even with such praise, however, it can never hope to be more than “the other Dune game.”

This is because in 1979, Avalon Hill released a Dune game that, surprisingly, retains a very high player rating (again, using BoardGameGeek) to this day. In fact, it is essentially tied for the 5th best Avalon Hill game of all time – with a nearly identical rank to Advanced Squad Leader and Civilization. It may even be possible that I bought the Dune game first and then bought the book as a follow on to the game, as opposed to the other way around. That makes the very high score even more surprising personally – I’ve actually played the game. Recalling impressions from as much as 40 years, as difficult as that may be, I didn’t think of it as one of the best Avalon Hill games ever made. As I remember, I wasn’t entirely impressed with the game’s ability to immerse one in the feeling of reliving the novel. Compared to my other Avalon Hill games, it didn’t seem to have much going for it as a wargame. What I had never done then, nor have I done it since, was to play a large, multiplayer game. One would imagine that the best Dune session would have one player for every faction present in the game, six in total. Back in the day, I was lucky to get a second who wasn’t a younger sibling.

Now that a new version of the movie is coming out next year, there is bound to be a resurgence in all things Dune. Like several tries before, the proposed cast for the movie looks excellent and director Denis Villeneuve certainly has some success under his belt (Sicaro) as well as some warning signs (e.g. the fine-sounding but unfulfilling Blade Runner 2049). Naturally, some enterprising concern grabbed the boardgame license and has re-implemented version of the classic due to come out before the movie hits or misses. Computer titles will almost certainly be in the offing, particularly considering the importance of Dune II in the development of the RTS genre.

There are a range of other Dune spinoff products, although I’d say considerably fewer than one would expect given the popularity of the source material. I watched the mini-series when it was live on TV. At the time, I thought it wasn’t bad for a Sci Fi channel production and perhaps a little better than the Lynch film. There were a few games besides the Avalon Hill and the Parker Brothers versions. There was an RPG that got crushed during licensing machinations. There was a collectible card game (1997) and a more recent print-and-play dice-based game (2015). For the computer, there was Dune 2000, a graphical remake of the classic Dune 2 – perhaps a little to much “re” and not enough “make.” There was a disaster of an computer adventure/action game based off of the mini-series. Last bu not least, as I just found out, there was a total conversion mod for Civilization IV.

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Nice looking cinematics.

The Dune mode is based on the Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword version, which itself seems to have gone mostly by the wayside, despite still having some of the most interesting mods and scenarios yet done. I downloaded the Dune Wars: Revival version of the mod, a 2015 rework of the original (called Dune Wars). The setting is that you find yourself on Arakkis post-apocalypse (of some sort). Each of the major entities (including a few beyond the standard houses) has the Settlers unit, poised to found a new colony. In other words, it’s a Civilization game.

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Waiting to see who will soften up the bandits.

The standard features of a Civilization worlds are converted over to the Dune universe. So there is the desert, impassible to many of the ground forces, rather than ocean. Water replaces food as the critical resource to sustain life. In addition to barbarians (the black flagged force in the above screenshot) the landscape is crisscrossed by sandstorms and marauding worms. The backstory is that, in addition to all Arrakis development being destroyed, connectivity to the greater universe has also been cut off. Domination in this game means reestablishing control over Arrakis and reconnecting to the intergalactic trade or transforming the planet into the water-filled paradise of the prophecies.

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The Spice must flow.

Workers upgrade the land but, substituting for the usual developments, you must use technology to harvest water and (of course) Spice. Shown in the above screenshot, workers have ventured out into the impassible desert to construct spice harvesters. They look better on a live screen, as they scuttle around picking up spice and spewing clouds of sand. It is a cool upgrade visually and some of the specific substitutions are inspired. As a means of reliving the book, again not so powerful. Of course, is this really any worse than Dune II and trying to portray the novel as an RTS?

I fished around a little bit in the Mod’s menus. I guess I really didn’t expect to find it, but it seems like an interesting direction to go with this would have been to build a world set up for the book’s opening. The fact that it isn’t done suggests it probably isn’t doable. I can imagine quite a bit of work (both map design and scripting of events) going into a project but producing something that isn’t any more engaging than the random-map/start-from-zero version that already exists in the mod.

We’ll get to see the newest try at the movies next year. It is possible that the book and the greatness within it simply cannot be translated to another medium, no matter what kind of resources and determination you have available to you. It seems like there is a movie, or a game, or a TV series waiting in here somewhere, but I sure can’t say what those magical missing features are that would make it all work. Or maybe…

Until I started writing this article, the connection between Star Wars and Dune was not at all obvious to me. Now, it is the most obvious thing in the world. Star Wars didn’t exactly bring Dune to the big screen but maybe it took what could be taken and came close. Had Star Wars been more serious and a little darker, it may well the version of this story we credit with getting it right.

*To be honest, when I watch some of the 70s cartoons today, I think he may have been on to something.

**How old do you have to be so that last sentence doesn’t sound like complete gibberish?

***Thus my surprise, again very recently, to learn that David Lynch was not a fan of the book. One must assume that this was simply his take, upon reading the book, of how to put it onto the screen. Herbert, himself, was pleased to hear much of his dialog survive the move to film intact. In fact, Herbert has speculated that a major problem is the cutting of the films running time, leaving necessary scenes out of the final product.

Definitely not Ashdown

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When I started a campaign around the Great Heathen Army, I knew I was bound to depart from history. Even still, Wessex and the invading Vikings were certain to clash in one way or another. Let us imagine one of those ways.

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In this timeline, Ivar did not fare as well as his historical counterpart.

As the campaign played on, Ivar the Boneless was unable to keep his army together and conquer England. Instead of dying at the hands of the heathens, King Ælla not only survived but managed to fend off Ivar’s Great Heathen Army. Of course, one defeat is not going to send the Vikings back to their homelands. We are bound to see continued attempts to pluck the ripe fruit that is England, but perhaps in a less organized form.

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With the King’s army away, Wessex fell victim to plundering.

A major turning point in the real history, Spring of 871, finds Wessex in trouble. With King Æthelred having sent troops northward to help defeat a Viking incursion there, another raiding army has besieged Wessex. In the above screenshot, we see the Lesser Heathen Army (but still huge by historical standards) moving northward to defeat a smaller force under Æthelred in the field near modern Gloucester.

Alfred, Earl of Dorset (and that’s me, remember) has been designated as his brother’s Marshal. Unfortunately, he is also a bit sickly, so the present crisis finds him, not leading the troops in the field, but back at the barracks administering the training of replacement troops. Sensing a great battle in the making, he orders his own vassals’ forces assembled to march to the aid of Wessex. Unlike at Ashdown, no members of the royal family will be leading the armies to victory (or perhaps to defeat.)

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After a bit of maneuvering, the forces meet at the Battle of Cirencester.

Fortunately for the future of Wessex, my armies were assembling and on their way to Gloucester even as the Viking armies were. The arrival of the reinforcements was only a few days behind the Vikings. Upon joining together, it was Dorset’s commanders, presumably in a rare triumph of meritocracy over politics, who were put in command of the combined armies. That is there is no indication that the King’s soldiers are in one wing and Alfred’s in another. The armies look to be intermixed.

To delve further into the outcome of this imaginary battle, I will return to what might be simulated by the battle tactics in Crusader Kings. As the game’s calendar advances, the tactical battles also are displayed in real time with various battlefield maneuvers calculated for both the AI and the player. Obviously, though, the strategic clock and the battle clock can’t quite align and, just as obviously, the use of a single clock in both cases has to be some kind of abstraction – one can’t believe that a Medieval infantry battle is lasting a week or more. Instead, I think the interpretation is two-fold. First of all, the display should be seen as a window on a battle that might take the better part of a day, but it is displayed for the player over (let’s say) a week of real time. Secondly, the maneuvering of two armies in close proximity to each other might take days or even weeks. The forces have to concentrate and jockey for favorable ground. During that time, small engagements, attrition, and other losses are surely taking place.

In other words, I would interpret the real time battle screen as some combination of real time and artificially-expanded time. In the above screenshot, as an example, the battle view shows the armies engaged in skirmishing, as they have been for a number of days. We could interpret this as the skirmishing taking place over perhaps an hour, during a battle that happens at some point around this date. However, another way to look at it is that the armies haven’t really met yet. Portions of the army might meet and engage as the two main forces attempt to locate each other. Or maybe they are facing each other from fortified camps and periodically there are minor losses due to raiding.

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A vanguard spots a portion of the Viking army across a stream.

Although one can simply imagine and project what numbers on the screen might mean in terms of a more detailed encounter, we also dream of being able to actually play those details. To indulge myself, I got out Field of Glory II‘s recently released Wolves at the Gate DLC. I decided, to make it easier on myself, that (roughly) matching the total numbers was sufficient to reproduce the Crusader Kings battle. While CK gives a detailed breakdown of the armies’ troop mix, reproducing that while also maintaining a historical balance in the unit makeup of the armies was beyond what I wanted to do. As it turned out (after some trial and much error), the Quick Battles function created the best result I could come up with, numbers-wise. The Anglo-Saxon side may be a little high (by perhaps a unit or two) but I can justify that as a “home field” advantage. From the standpoint of Field of Glory points, the Vikings have the advantage, as is the norm for any Quick Battles.

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I assemble my forces to meet the enemy. Unfortunately, to face his shield wall, I’ve got some Poorly Armed Rabble.

I used the “Potluck” choice for the type of battle which resulted in a scenario I’ve not seen before (see below for in-game description). The map has designated areas for each side, basically you must own the center of your side of the map. Points are awarded for getting your forces in the enemy’s territory and keeping them out of yours. As it says below, it is supposed to simulate the meeting of small portions of the two armies as the remainder of each side slowly drifts while night approaches. The goal is to hold territory as those reinforcements come up. I found this interesting in light of the fact I was just musing whether the skirmish results shown on the Crusader Kings screen, just before I exited, should be interpreted as a pre-battle meeting engagement.

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The battle type was randomly selected. In the end, I don’t think either I or the computer AI fully understood the rules of the game.

At the scenario start I found myself with an inexplicably small number of units facing what appeared to be a slightly larger force across the stream. You see, I hadn’t really been paying attention when the scenario description popped up. Obviously my army was split and I’d be getting reinforcements, but I didn’t know when and how and I really didn’t know what those extra flags were on the battlefield.

Once I figured out what I was supposed to be doing, I took on an “I meant to do that” attitude. My original plan was to hold back with my inferior forces until I had brought up enough reinforcements to present a decent line of battle. The problem with that is that while I held back the Vikings were racking up points for holding my side of the battlefield. The way I figured it, though, was that charging impetuously forward when I didn’t have the force to do it was just going to get me wiped out piecemeal. On the other hand, if I formed a solid line and then advanced, I could probably make up the points in the end part of the scenario when the large number of units at my disposal would let me accumulate points faster than the Vikings were at the beginning.

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Reinforcements are arriving in waves. With them, I hope to turn the battle to my advantage.

When the reinforcements came, they came in successive waves. Three or perhaps even four of them. Once they appear on the back edge of the board, they then take a number of turns to advance towards the front lines. The early disadvantage may prove to be an advantage at this point – with the battle lines closer to my side of the “board,” my reinforcements should come on line before the enemy’s.

Relating this back to the narrative I hold in my head, how well does this fit? If my army was being summoned from around the country side, would they likely all come into play from a single direction? Also, Field of Glory does not model column march versus line of battle movement. So while it seems strange that forces summoned to rush forward into battle would enter already deployed in battle line, there may not be a better way to model it.

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My plan has come together, but has it come together too late?

The battle played out pretty much as I intended it, but considerably slower. As the Vikings came forward, I was able to reinforce my lines in time to meet them. Eventually, the fact that my lines were holding and turning back the attacking Norsemen more than made up for the fact that he, too, had reinforcements streaming into his rear. In the screenshot above, you can see I’ve got him just where I wanted him. My line is strong and intact while his units are crumbling and falling away. I am now able to push forward in a single front and use my entire army to pick up points. Problem is – well, look at the turns remaining. It took me far longer to stabilize the situation than I had intended and even against a wavering army its going to take a few more turns to advance my line into point-earning territory. Yet, I don’t have a few more turns.

Oh well, I might as well finish out the scenario and see how I do.

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For all those points the Vikings are sitting on the game still declared them the loser. On top of that, their forces were massacred.

Turns out, the game gave me a win. The Vikings held the line and scored a lot of points, particularly in the first two-thirds of the game. However, doing so meant a massive loss in units – nearly four times my own casualties. When that got tallied up, that counted as a victory for me. The problem is, if you thought that it was going to be those “VP”s shown in the upper left of some of my screenshots, the sacrifice of your forces should have proven to be well worth it when you “held the good ground,” or however you might choose to interpret it. I’m sure the AI would have fought differently had it “known” that, in the end, the victory would go to the the player with his army left intact.

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Back in Crusader Kings, similar results.

Maybe I’m missing something. Perhaps there is a victory condition that requires that you meet the victory requirements as stated but also control your losses. I should read the manual but, whether it is or isn’t there, it isn’t a bad idea. It would prevent deliberately gamey sacrifices to score points – maybe. There is also the obvious point that I’m playing the AI on a mid-level difficulty, meaning any victory that I achieve means that I may only have won because I didn’t let the machine try harder. Whatever the takeaway, the results were similar enough to those that Crusader Kings produced to assume equivalent results. Not that it means much, but it was the point of this whole exercise – to fight the similar battle in both games.

This leads me back to an earlier point I made, that the Last Kingdom mod for Total War: Medieval II might well portray these tactical battles. In the Battle of Cirencester, I had combined my armies of Dorset with Æthelred’s main force making the size of the battle at least double (maybe triple) of what Total War would handle. To find a more suitable battle, I continued on waiting for another encounter, but of a smaller size.

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Crushed.

That turned out to be easier said than done. After defeating the Vikings, Alfred’s army took off after the fleeing enemy but without the support from his brother. When the Viking force finally turned and fought me, their advantage in numbers plus their advantage from fighting on the ground of their choosing led to a crushing defeat on my part. It would then take a year for my army to recover enough to again find itself at an advantage over the Viking attackers.

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Putting an end to the invasion.

I ultimately managed to corner the Vikings with a restored army approximately equal to their own. In addition, however, I was joined by an Irish lord leading a group of his troops. Apparently it was a lord who outranks Prince Alfred, meaning that the battle is actually displayed as an Irish army against the Vikings, despite Saxon generals being in command.

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Wrong time, wrong place, and wrong generals in command.

I did not use the Medieval II Battle Generator to recreate this battle. What I’ve done instead is to use the armies created for the Last Kingdom campaign game and shuffle those units around to get the right force size. Interestingly, based on the commanders of this battle, it appears I’m actually fighting the Battle of Cynwit, the action where Ubba Lothbrokson died. I’m using the campaign wrapper to create the battle for a couple of reasons. First, it saves me the mental exertion of trying to create a historically-balanced army from all of the possibilities available to each nation; the campaign has already created the armies and I just need to adjust for size. The savings is particularly noticeable when you consider that each of these units has different experience levels which is nearly impossible to “figure out” in any meaningful way. Second, it removes the issue of “saving” the results. After the battle, the surviving units will still be there, allowing rebuilding or reuse or even just additional analysis.

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Armies are now fully engaged.

Initially, my experience went very well. As the battle started, the numerically inferior Vikings retreated to high ground to their rear to await my assault. I approached and then attempted to outflank their lines, but was unable to do so. The armies engaged just below the hilltop’s crest and began the long process of shield wall combat. Employing one the Medieval UI buttons, the screenshot shows a sense of the two armies’ positions (I’m green). In addition to seizing the high ground, the AI in these scenarios also has a habit of holding units in reserve. This is a strategy I do not recall seeing in stock Medieval II battles, although I don’t know how a mod would introduce entirely new AI strategies. It is more likely that the computer has always been programmed to do such things, but it isn’t until the pace of the battle is slowed down that one can actually see it in action.

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Vikings have horses

Although I have numerical superiority, that is offset by the fact that the Viking forces have mounted troops where I do not*. This is an artifact of using the campaign game armies as the basis for individual battles. Counter-intuitively, the Vikings are the only ones with horses at the beginning of the campaign and can easily transport them from Denmark to England. The West Saxons do not have any initially and would have to rely on building up their cities to obtain the equivalent. While it looks a little weird, the result is that it made the battle very even when taking on the computer’s AI.

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Reserves in reserve

This screenshot illustrates that enemy strategy of holding units in reserve. Initially it gave them an advantage but later it seemed like their reluctance to commit them might have cost them the fight. I perceived moments where a wing of the battle was about to tip either way and yet the enemy still held back their strategic reserves. Of course, I had long since thrown everything I had into the battle, and probably too early at that. Once again, what may be at play is the stock AI dealing with modified unit capabilities. The tenacity of the soldiers in Last Kingdom, both in terms of resistance to losses and morale (particularly for the veteran troops), may wind up “surprising” the AI every time with unexpected results.

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Butchery.

On the subject of unexpected results, see the above screenshots for the battle’s end. The slaughter was on an extraordinary scale. Critically, in terms of my experiment, it does not reproduce what I would expect to see; low casualties while morale remains intact and high casualties to the army who breaks. Instead, the loser (Ubba is the Viking) managed to kill even more men of Wessex than the victors took from his own force. Comparing to the first two results, this one isn’t even close.

So whereas Field of Glory II is capable, and indeed designed for, producing historically-plausible results, Last Kingdom does not seem to be. This is particularly disheartening considering the things that Last Kingdom actually does get right, such as the resilience of the shield wall formation.

*This counter-intuitive setup may be a nod to the Battle of Edington, particularly as portrayed by Bernard Cornwell (The Pale Horseman). In the decisive battle between Guthrum’s viking army and Alex the Great, the vikings have seized all of the Saxon horses through their occupation and pillaging across much of Wessex. Cornwell describes the viking army as mounted while the Saxon’s have very few horses which they mostly employ as pack animals.

Alexander the Short-lived

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

I reminded myself of what I don’t like about the Campaign Game in Squad Battles: Tour of Duty by playing the first of them, a U.S. Marine campaign. The campaign strings together a series of hypothetical scenarios where you have a few goals in addition to winning each scenario. You also have actions that will earn you “Leader Action Points,” bonus points that come about by using your persona to accomplish actions in the scenario (rallying, leading attacks, and coming under fire are examples). This is intended to discourage you from leaving your marker safely behind the front lines. The other requirement is that you must survive each battle; if you die, the game is over.

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Alexander is a company commander stationed in the vicinity of Hue City.

Conceptually, it doesn’t sound so bad. Players always want more depth than their games provide, and this is one way to do it. If the game is played at the strategic level, the players want to fight out the battles in detail. If they have detailed battles, they long to put those individual battles into a greater context. In can be a difficult itch to scratch, however, especially when a game is aiming towards realism and authenticity.

The standard campaign wrapper for detailed battles might be the old Panzer General -style campaigns. You are given a “core” army that moves from battle to battle. Keep your units alive and they gain experience as they go. Unfortunately, this may be particularly unsuited for Vietnam in general and for Squad Battles in particular. As tenuous as Panzer General‘s grip on reality may be, the Second World War did have units advancing from battle to battle as the tide of the war pushed forward. In Vietnam, there were no lines nor would there be an obvious connection between subsequent battles. After a battle, a unit might be airlifted out, or reinforced, or provided with air and artillery support. While there is obvious feedback between the tactical performance and the operational reactions, it wouldn’t necessarily be “progressive” in that you would easily connect a success to a campaign-level reward. Perhaps more importantly, the units in Squad Battles don’t “upgrade” or “gain experience.” If a rifle squad suffers a casualty, it might be pulled offline for the next mission or it might receive a replacement. Any “veteran” status of the squads or the men within them, even if tracked (and in contrast to Panzer General), have no meaning within the game. Similarly, there is no concept of “upgrades.” You wouldn’t supply a veteran squad with better weapons (at least not from the American side) than it’s green equivalent. You don’t get your M113s upgraded to Pattons because your armored company won a few battles.

What that does leave is Squad Battle‘s modeling of the leaders as separate “pieces”. As the player, you are essentially taking on the role force commander and therefore have a representation on the map, the most senior officer in the scenario. Although the player’s ability to control isn’t limited by what the leader counter is doing, the campaign game ties the two together more tightly by making the player mortal; if your leader is killed, you also “die.”

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My career was a short one.

Here is my problem: I started my campaign game and won the first scenario, an attack on a generic village. However, in my second scenario my “character” was killed. Having been killed, the only way to attempt to advance further is to restart the campaign over. Now,there may be a way around it by managing your save files, to try something right before you die, but by default the loss wipes out any progress made so far. It appears to be set up to “punish” the player for having gotten himself killed. Certainly there is a realism factor in that when “you” die, you lose everything. That’s fair enough, but it doesn’t necessarily make the game more fun.

In this case, you can even say the loss was my fault and I deserved to be punished. The second scenario is, as you might have surmised from the title in the above screenshot, an ambush. My captain was marching with his middle platoon on the trail and, when the company was hit, decided to charge up the trail by himself to hunker down with the forward-most platoon. While he was racing down the trail alone, he was shot and taken out of play by some hidden VC. I probably shouldn’t have made that run. However, leaders must lead, so you’re bound to come under fire no mater what you do. Even if you cower behind the trees, there are always stray mortar rounds that might subject you to a roll of the dice and a potential early death. Point being, any campaign can be brought to an abrupt end by a bad roll of the dice.

Now, there is a mitigating factor. When you begin your campaign, you get to chose which battle to start with. What that means is, having lost once, you don’t have to actually go back and replay the battles you’ve already won to get to the one you lost. You could start your new campaign at the battle which defeated you. You could also choose to play only the battles you haven’t tried yet. In this way, you can attempt to beat the more challenging structure of the campaign without feeling like any loss forces you to suffer all the way through the campaign you’ve tried so far. Still, there are, in this campaign, five battles in a set order. So if you lose one of the middle battles you can play a foreshortened campaign consisting of the “second half” of those battles. Or even a campaign of one battle, the final one, if that’s all you’ve got left. This might work much better if there were more potential battles (say 15 possible, but you don’t know which five you’ll get). Even better if there was a well-made random battle generator so that each campaign was a unique experience. However, Squad Battles requires that each scenario be hand-crafted so we have what we have.

More recent experience and more information has not soothed the bad opinion I had of the Tour of Duty campaign option. It doesn’t really satisfy that contextual problem in that the campaign is mostly hypothetical and, except for the survival of your officer, there is no feedback to a larger campaign or the war in general. Rather than a campaign game as I was usually understand it, I look at this as more of a higher difficultly level. If you’ve grown bored beating the individual scenarios, this requires that you beat five in a row and accumulate “Leader Action Points” while also keeping yourself alive. Incidentally, this is one of the other universal complaints of players relative to single-player games – playing the AI is too easy and they want more of a challenge. I suppose that, in that regard at least, the campaign game does its job.

You can return to the master post for more Vietnam War articles. The next article in the series is what I thought after watching the documentary The Fog of War.

All This Fussin’ and Fightin’ Man, You Know I Sure Can’t Stay

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One of the basic texts assigned to a student of Ancient Greek is Xenophon’s Anabasis. Like Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico, it is a third person account of military campaigning. Also like Caesar’s work, it is written in simple and clear language and so makes for a good exercise for the student.

Xenophon wrote Anabasis in around 370 BC, some thirty years after he helped lead an army out of the lands of the Persian Empire and back to Greece. Originally he did not claim authorship of the work, instead explaining that it was a book that he simply had in his collection. Plutarch would elaborate that Xenophon wanted to avoid the suggestion of bias that might be perceived as being implicit in an autobiographical work.

The first of the seven chapters in Anabasis details the fighting at Cunaxa. The remainder of the book talks about the journey of the Greek cohort, the Ten Thousand, through Turkey and back to Greece. This makes the gamer in me very happy. We have, more than 2,400 years after the fact, a detailed description of a historical battle that we can play with. While Field of Glory II isn’t the first game to feature Cunaxa as one of the scenarios, it is the first one that I, myself, have played.

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Initial deployment has the Greek right anchored against the river.

My first thought upon loading the scenario was “there is the river.” The Greek commander at the battle, a Spartan named Clearchus, was asked by Cyrus if he would take the center, opposite Artaxerxes and the best imperial troops. Clearchus demurred, concerned that he would be unable to protect his right flank. Isn’t such a scenario as this useful for exploring just this kind of what-if? Particularly given the success of the Greeks contrasted with the utter failure of Cyrus, was Cyrus right? Or was Clearchus right that the Greeks would have been flanked and defeated making the loss even greater?

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Time to commit my reserve, I think.

As the battle progresses, it follows more-or-less the historical arc. On my right, the Greeks have a clear advantage and are steadily pushing back the Persian forces. On my left, my cavalry is outnumbered and outclassed and the whole left flank threatens to crumble. The center doesn’t look great, but I’ve held back an infantry reserve plus an elite cavalry troop under my personal command. I hold the upper hand ever so slightly, but I feel like time is against me on this one. Unless the Persian left breaks and I can flank the center with my Greeks, the rest of my line is likely to collapse.

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Flank maneuver executed, the enemy is about to break.

In the end, it didn’t exactly seem close. While at times my left seemed to be crumbling faster than my right was holding it together, I maintained a decent lead as my army slid into the victory. That might just mean I should be playing on a higher difficulty level, or it could have been dumb luck. Near the end I noticed what I thought was a weak move on the AI’s part, not something I usually say about this game system’s programed opponent. While my cavalry was in the process of  utter collapse, the enemy used his mounted forces (outnumbering me something like eight-to-one)all to take down that last unit. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw it happen as that was a whole pile of enemy cavalry that wasn’t about to end up hitting my left-most infantry in the rear. I don’t think a smarter opponent would have gone for the overkill like that.

More importantly than judging my own performance, I wanted to compare this battle with the historical record, such as it is. There is always a danger of relying the one and only source of information for an event such as this, especially when it was written by one of the participants. Nevertheless, we go with what we have. Unfortunately, given my win and my ability to engage the Greek right wing with the Persian center, I don’t have any insight into the wisdom, or lack thereof, of placing the Greeks along the river. Still, I have two major thoughts after playing.

The first takeaway is that the actual battle seemed to be indecisive but for the death of Cyrus in personal combat. In this imaginary battle, by contrast, when Cyrus’ retinue met Artaxerxes’, Cyrus not only didn’t die but he routed Artaxerxes from the field. Given the high impact of the death of a general, this one departure could easily have made the difference between success and failure by the Field of Glory numbers.

The second comparison, however, doesn’t jive. Anabasis puts the Greek losses at single soldier having been wounded. This may be an exaggeration of the Greek “victory” on their wing of the battlefield, but it is also a believable outcome. An infantry line that remained in good order might suffer remarkably little in terms of casualties. From the book, the Persian line facing the Greeks seems to have broken and run even before fully engaging the Greek heavy infantry. Whether this was actually an army in fear, being faced with a formidable foe, or part of a cleaver gambit to draw the Greek line into a pursuit of weaker forces (rather than leaving them free to face Artaxerxes’ center), I don’t know. But neither outcome seems to be possible using the game’s modeling of casualties, engagement, and pursuit.

This is not meant to be a criticism of Field of Glory II, which does no worse that any other game in this regard. What it does call into question is the premise of the auto-generation of tactical battles for feeding results into a campaign (see the to-be-released-momentarily Field of Glory: Empires as well as many of my recent posts.) A game capable of reproducing the Greek experience at Cunaxa would have to had that explicitly modeled for it to even be possible. Having it explicit would mean that it can’t arise “organically” from the engine and/or it would be easily identified and countered when it gets used.

Yet, whereas I say Field of Glory is no worse, it may in fact be better. Recall with me the surprise I felt when the programmed opponent at Cannae reacted historically to the “trap” that my (Hannibal’s) forces presented. I’ve begun to look a little deeper at the scenario configuration and the scripting within the game and, while I don’t understand how it was done, I can imagine how it might be done. Likewise, it would be possible to create a version of Cunaxa where the Greeks have a choice between routing an unimportant wing and loosing the battle or anticipating such and outcome and moving to engage Artaxerxes’ best forces.

It would be a lot of work and probably wouldn’t add much “fun” to this scenario.

Æ is for Æthelred, Ælfrǣd, and Æscesdūn

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When I bought my copy of The Last Kingdom, the “series” consisted of only two books. That must have made it, roughly, 2006. At the time, the second book in the series, The Pale Horseman, was only out in hardcover so I kind of lost track of it all before I was ready to buy it. Fast forward a number of years when I picked up Sword Song from a bookstore. Not realizing The Saxon Chronicals was now a series, I didn’t imagine that Sword Song was part of that series and, worse yet, Book #4 in that series. I read a bit into the book before it dawned on me I had skipped over two books. At that point, I bought The Pale Horseman and tried to get into the series in proper order. At some point, as I told you earlier, I put the whole series on hold to wait until I was in the mood to immerse myself in the Viking era.

I’ve always been a pretty big fan of Cornwell in general. In particular, I loved the King Arthur trilogy (also known as the Warlord Chronicles). The Last Kingdom is similar in many ways to the Arthur stories and while I still think the former did it better, I’m pretty pleased with the latter as well. Naturally, I was pretty excited when the TV series The Last Kingdom came out. It was at a time when I was pretty ambivalent about the Vikings series. I had stopped watching Vikings, mostly because I had lost track of the episodes as they were coming out. I was less an outright rejection and more of being overcome by apathy. Nonetheless, it seemed like an adaptation of Cornwell’s work would stand a real chance to get it right. I managed to find BBC America in my cable subscription and watched the opening episode. Unfortunately, the opening show wasn’t enthralling enough to overcome the difficulty of trying to get to the TV as the show came on. I lost track of The Last Kingdom too.

Now that I’m revisiting this all, I’ve decided the right way to do it, rather than figure out how to pick up where I’ve left off, is to go back and re-read The Saxon Chronicles from the beginning. Then, when I get far enough that I’m well ahead of where the TV series sits, I can give the show another chance. Rereading an old book can be an interesting experience. I’ve mostly forgotten what I read some 13 years ago. However, reading it again means it all comes back to me; the story is neither new nor old. I think this is a necessary exercise to successfully “get back into the groove,” as it were.

My older copy of The Last Kingdom (the book, this time) has a blurb from George R. R. Martin about how “Bernard Cornwell does the best battles scenes of any writer I’ve ever read…” That may even be true. His descriptions are illustrative as to historical details of the era’s fighting. For one example, in the book he describes the movement of an “army” through England, eventually revealing that it was three-ships’ worth of soldiers or about 100 warriors. To our main character, 100 warriors is a sizeable army. To a Renaissance scholar, who imagines the armies of classical literature, it is easy to get the impression that there are a lot more people fighting than there actually were. Cornwell is instructive without being instructional.

The book also features the Battle of Ashdown and the first failure of the Great Army to subdue and English kingdom (hence the title of the book). In this, Cornwell is light on the battle’s details. Perhaps this is because this is one event where he could contradict accounts of others. Other who think they’d know better what happened. For example, Cornwell (speaking through the main character) discounts the narrative where Æthelred is late to the battle because of his prayer. Instead, he attributes the splitting of the forces to a Viking plan,born from hubris about the Danish invincibility when fighting the English. Facing a split force, the Wessex army responds by splitting their own force.

Of special note to me, the Battle of Ashdown is one Heathen Army battle which I can find represented in games.

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Alfred’s forces are first on the field and meet the Viking lines.

I’ve told you how disappointed I was when Field of Glory released its Wolves from the Sea package and it did not have any scenarios for the Great Heathen Army. Fortunately, this is not the case with Field of Glory II. An “Epic Battle” of Wolves from the Sea is the victory over the Vikings at Ashdown by Prince Alfred and King Æthelred in 871. The design of the scenario is structured around Æthelred’s hesitance to fight before he had finished his prayer. The game begins with Alfred’s wing, on the English left, several turns closer to engagement than Æthelred’s, on the right.

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Better late than never. The shield walls begin chipping away at each other and the forces begin to waiver.

Eventually Æthelred’s forces do come in to support Alfred’s right flank, and just in the nick of time too. As it was, the Viking left was poised to turn Alfred’s line and it is a struggle to get Æthelred’s wing into position to stop that. Having successfully engaged it becomes something of a race against the point tally. Simply leaving two armies fighting like this means a steady attrition of forces. With the Wessex army now fully engaged and having some luxury to extend its line beyond that of the Vikings, the advantage in that attrition goes to Wessex. However, Wessex started the race at a (11%, using the snapshot above) disadvantage. The question becomes, can Wessex catch up and overcome its deficit before the magical 60% number is hit?

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As close as it gets. Both sides were at their breaking point, but only Wessex held.

As it turned out in my game, the drama continued right until the very end. Both armies first reached and then crossed over the game-ending 60% mark and, in both cases, pulled back from the brink with a timely rally of various routing units.

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The actual losses at Ashdown were not recorded. This is my version.

Except for Cornwell’s book itself, it doesn’t look like I have any comparisons handy using other games. Even the book’s version doesn’t talk of the battle in terms of casualties; dead and wounded. More important, to the story and to history, is the aftermath. The Dane’s defeat on the battlefield prompted a negotiated truce and a lull in the Viking campaign.

I did scan around for other representations of the battle. It is a little too large for the Last Kingdom and, anyway, I wouldn’t want to take that on unless someone had already created the scenario. Likewise, I can’t find anything in the old Field of Glory. I did come across a reference that surprises me. A mod/expansion for the game Mount & Blade called Viking Conquest culminates at the battle. Apparently, the story-based campaign mode has your character seek revenge against a notorious Viking raider who, all things coming together as they should, you can meet on the field of battle at Ashdown. Presumably, you would endeavor to defeat your nemesis while winning the day for the Saxons.

I’ll not go into Mount & Blade, although I will probably want to do that another time. I haven’t played the game in a number of years and, while I actually had picked up the Viking Conquest expansion, I had never even installed it. If memory serves, I was after the Napoleonic Wars expansion and picked them up as a combo. Obviously since I haven’t even started, I’m not going to be fighting the “boss battle” any time soon. What I’ve read is that, fictional backstory aside, the representation of the historical battle is actually a pretty good one. It would be nice to be able to compare and contrast.

Maybe some day.

Back to The Last Kingdom, the book. If it doesn’t become obvious from reading, it is explicit in the afterward notes; the book is about the life and historical influence of Alfred the Great. As he has done in his other series, Cornwell uses an unknown and fictional main character to be a witness to the actions of the historical figure. Also, as before, that unknown and fictional character occasionally takes part in some key moments so as to change the course of history. The star of The Last Kingdom, a Saxon noble named Uhtred of Bebbanburg, throws us one more twist. Uhtred is named for the real Uhtred of Bebbanburg, who lived some 500 years later. Furthermore, according to Cornwell, the author himself is descended from this real Uhtred. While it may be obvious that Cornwell, in many ways, identifies with his heroes, this genealogical connection likely makes that more explicit. And even though the gap between the barely literate men of action that narrate Cornwell’s stories and the scholar, teacher, and writer of Cornwell’s reality looms large, the likes of Uhtred somehow seem less ridiculous adopted personae than what some other authors do.

We Are Your Overlords

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The other day, the Wall St. Journal reprinted a policy statement from Ravelry.com, a “free site for knitters and crocheters.” The new policy, as reprinted, lead with, “We are banning support of Donald Trump and his administration on Ravelry.” Explaining their reasoning, they said that “Support of the Trump administration is undeniably support for white supremacy.”

Undeniably. As in, it is not even a subject that can allow reasoned debate.

I’ll simply leave that alone as a thing that speaks for itself. In terms of a pattern, I don’t know how widespread it is to ban content* because it leans conservative. It is probably more common than I would imagine, particularly when it comes to on-line communities that are naturally left-leaning. What is more visible and more trackable is the banning of bigger name conservatives, the celebrities of social media, a pattern that seems to me to have been accelerating through May and June of this year.

I was going to try to create a list of the notable deplatforming and demonetization that has occurred until I found someone else who was doing that. I don’t know how comprehensive this list is, but it is almost certainly more so that what I would come up with on my own. Here is the link**. In addition to listing those who have had content or earning capability removed, there are links to their Alt- websites.

Having had my ban-hammer thunder stolen, I’ll comment on one more Wall St. Journal piece that appeared this morning. Peggy Noonan, who loves to hate Trump and loves the inspiration it brings to her, this day wrote about the Democrats’ debate and the portents of its apparent message for the 2020 presidential election.

What drew me into the article was the highlighted quote*** saying “They [the Democrat candidates for President] march in locksetp with the left. What are they offering voters who backed Trump in 2016?” The answer, to me, is obvious. Nothing. Not… A… Thing. Why? Because they don’t need “those people.” They have a majority and that majority will prevail. They neither need, nor want, the support of those who are out of step with that majority. That said, I read the article itself to see what Peggy’s take on it was.

As near as I can tell, the actual quote didn’t make it into the published version of the editorial. That itself might be an interesting topic for discussion but it has little to do with what I’m about today. So while she neither asked nor answered the question as printed, in a round about way, she actually answers much as I have. She recalls a letter sent to her by one-half of a liberal leaning couple. While similar in politics, they are of different backgrounds; the husband raised in the upper-middle class and the wife poor. The wife told the husband, from the moment of Trump’s entry into the presidential fray, that Trump would win. He didn’t believe her, but she stuck to her guns. Much later (but when Hillary was still “certain” to beat nominee Trump), he asked her to explain. She replied, “He speaks my language, and there’s a lot more of me than there is of you.”

This is, of course, a key to our current political situation. Both “sides” feel that they are the majority and so they and their right-thinking fellow travelers are bound to triumph in the end. There is no need to compromise or even deviate from one’s course. Eventually, our “silent majority” will rise up and the lunatic fringe will become a minor chapter in the history books.

Noonan, of course, sees herself as above this fight and a member of neither tribe. She is a Republican, but advocates for a shift of Republicanism away from the post-Reagan, small-government base to more of a conservative take on America’s status quo. She seems to suggest that, by picking up some of the left’s more popular causes, Republicans can become the party of the vast middle and, thus, restore sanity to the political world. Similarly, though, with Trump at the helm of the Republican ship, she would like to see the Democrats move toward that middle and restore order and the old ways. With an opponent like Trump, this would be easy pickings for a Democrat in the mold of their previous generations. Perhaps literally, as she seems to have a preference for Joe Biden.

For most of us, we have become surrounded by those who think like us. That may be literal, in that we live in an area overwhelmingly populated by our own political tribesmen. It also may be figurative. I’ve read many a blog (some of them on the above ban list) where a writer will come home from his office to write about the trials and tribulations of being surrounded by liberals all day. The comments section will assure him that he is on the side of the angels and, anyway, if he could leave his urban enclave and travel the “real” America, he would find that most of us think like he does.

What is the real answer? Is there a real answer? Despite Peggy’s assurances that we are on the trajectory to repeat 2016, I tend to believe that the left is more grounded in their analysis (of course, I also thought so in 2016 and was wrong). I think that, at least in terms of the math behind elections, they really do have the votes are inevitably sliding towards a permanent majority. They do need to stop themselves overplaying their hand; temper their policies a little for the election; but they probably can ignore the traditional moderates and win by energizing their new base.

What does that mean for the 49%? What happens when it is clear we have no chance of winning elections? What happens when we are unable to speak our minority opinion, because our views are “undeniably support for white supremacy?” What happens when we can’t even read the views of the anti-establishment thinkers because they’ve all been banned from the publishing platforms that matter in our near future? I shudder to think.

*It is one thing to decide that political arguments don’t belong on a non-political discussion site. It is a little worse to decide that pro-conservative or pro-Trump political arguments don’t belong on a site, but all others a fine. In this case, the ban appears to apply to the artistic content itself. In otherwords, creating a knitting pattern that says “Resist” is fine. Creating one that says “Make America Great Again” would get tossed.

**I’ve taken a screenshot of the website as it looked as I wrote this. Given the subject, it would not surprise me if the list itself were to disappear before long.

***In the journalism biz, I don’t know what this is called. Where the publisher pulls quotes out of the main text and duplicates them in large, bold font somewhere in the middle of the article (usually not where the original quote appears). I’m sure it has a name, if only I knew what it was.

Winchester Steel

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As unlikely as it may have seemed a decade or two ago, AMC network is among the top producers of new dramatic content for Television. The Walking Dead tops many charts in terms of successful TV series. Similarly, Breaking Bad and Mad Men received highest critical acclaim as well as commercial success and cultural influence (even those who don’t watch these series probably recognize the “memes” based upon them). Other notable series, at least for me, include The Killing (an American adaptation of the Danish series), Halt and Catch Fire, Hell on Wheels, and (now) The Son.

The story is set in West Texas in 1915 amid the turbulence along the Mexican border. Patriarch Eli McCullough (Pierce Brosnan) is attempting to shepherd his family into the modern age by converting his vast ranch into an oil-producing property. The show flashes back to 1850 and Eli’s teenage years, when he was captured and mentored by a Comanche tribe. The show is based on a 2013 novel of the same name by Philipp Meyer.

The novel was meant to be an exploration of the foundational mythology of Texas; from its taming of the frontier to its vast wealth derived from oil. As such, is this story meant to be strictly historical or subtly fantastical? Likewise the TV show is a nice-looking period piece but inevitably is stylized for dramatic effect. As far as I can tell, there is no historical basis for the characters and their particular story. However, the themes of border, cross-border migration, racism, violence, and the corrupting influence of wealth are all clearly meant to be a reflection of the problems we have today on the southern border. A little less clear is what the show is trying to tell us about those issues. That’s a good thing. It can get tedious being told what to think.

Part of that style is the mixing of eras. In 1850, we are treated to a reprise of the Dances with Wolves story. There is even a nearly identical scene were the Indian elder (Zahn McClarnon) asks the “White” character how many whites are coming – and I think he might just give the same answer. Somehow, though, the Indian tribe in The Son seems a little bit more modern (although Dances with Wolves took places some 15 years later). The Comanche speak Spanish while McClarnon’s character also speaks English. Despite their lack of understanding of the full impact of the impending American settlement of Texas, they do seem fairly well acquainted with the ways of the European-Americans. Similarly, in 1915, we have the ranchers riding horses wearing gunbelts and holsters. However, Eli (for example) carries a 1911 as his sidearm and a Winchester 1907 semi-automatic rifle on his horse. His 1915 contemporaries will also hop into cars or trucks as easily as on horseback.

That style is obviously one of the key features of this show. It’s also no accident that the language of the times matches some of the political banter of our own, particularly regarding the language of Reconquista and its resurgence today. There are also multiple wars on the horizon; the Civil War in young Eli’s time and U.S. incursion into Mexico to capture Pancho Villa in old Eli’s. Similarly, the First World War is ongoing and waiting for America’s participation. Like Hell on Wheels, the violence, the detailed use of firearms, and the Western genre trappings are all appealing to a certain audience. Finally, The Son is a vehicle for Brosnan, who does does dominate the small screen. I also am very impressed with McClarnon’s character. I liked him in Longmire and here he impresses me further still. Some might point out that he’s playing a very similar role in both shows, but his ethnic suitability for certain roles isn’t his fault.

Like a few other shows I’ve watched (The Shooter and Punisher come immediately to mind), The Son does seem to be targeting the gun culture specifically. Eli’s son Pete demonstrates expert handling of his Winchester 1984 (the classic 30-30 lever gun that is still popular today). Other characters still use Civil War technology and are shown loading their cap-and-ball revolvers as danger approaches. The show features a range of historical, but also historically-remarkable, guns. As discussed, certain characters have, essentially, cutting edge technology for 1915; Eli’s pistol and rifle as an example. We even have an employee of Eli, a black man who is also a war veteran, produce a Lewis machine gun for several heavier engagements. That gun, another 1911 design, didn’t start to see deployment to the Second World War until 1914. It seems a little gratuitous to feature it in the hands of some “cowboys” in 1915, but it is not entirely possible. Particular if Eli was both well-connected and a collector of modern guns, he might well have got his mitts on a early production version.

Ironically, Brosnan has been outspoken with some of his anti-gun pronouncements. This doesn’t fit well with this show’s audience and, perhaps, the same could be said for most of his roles from James Bond to Matador (a favorite of mine). To add to the irony, he had a run-in with the law regarding an attempt to carry a 10-inch hunting knife onto an airplane in Burlington, Vermont. He said it wasn’t 10-inches and was, anyway, a part of the “art supplies” he carried – he used it to sharpen his pencils. It doesn’t sound like he got into any real trouble over the incident, so I’d be surprised if it has changed him much regarding the unintended consequences of banning “tools.”

Some days, I’d like to reserve my custom to those who aren’t actively opposing things I believe in. Doing so would narrow my entertainment options in the extreme. In this case, when Season 2 of The Son comes to DVD, I think will simply continue watch and enjoy.

Riverines!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return to the master post or go on for more game playing.

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

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

The Sons of Ragnar Lothbrok

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No One Else Can Take My Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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