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I had originally intended to comment, to whatever extent necessary, within the context of one big Operation Starlite post. The more I thought about my experiences with Steel Panthers and Men of Valor, the more I wanted to address these games individually. (See also the Master Post for Vietnam).

Operation Starlite was the first major engagement of U.S. troops in Vietnam. Yet, as a subject of popular culture, it receives short shrift relative to Ia Drang, Tet, and even the non-specific chaos of the period of maximum U.S. commitment. Perhaps the quick and one-sided U.S. victory lacks the requisite drama. Still, this operation was no walk in the park. U.S. casualties were within an order of magnitude of those at, for example, Landing Zone X-Ray.

While I’ve looked at it before as the operational level – a turn or two within a full-Vietnam game, I though I’d take a look at some details. Starlite is included in both the Steel Pathers and Men of Valor selections as a scenario and an operation respectively.

First to Steel Panthers.

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A Hot LZ, and a fictional one to boot.

A quick summary of the fight on the Van Tuong Peninsula might be that the U.S. Marines used a combination of amphibious landings, helicopter insertions, and good, old-fashioned infantry marches to surround the VC position on all sides and then squeezed in upon them until the enemy was defeated. The Steel Panthers Starlite scenario incorporates all of that, but on a map that is roughly an order-of-magnitude too small. In shrinking the the battlefield, we can (and do) also compress the timescale. The bulk of the nearly-week-long operation is expected to be completed in about two hours by the game’s clock.

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The battleground in perspective. The actual battle was scaled down by an order of magnitude to fit the game engine.

Steel Panthers remains a fun game engine to play with and what is nice about this scenario is you get to fiddle with the range of assets used for the operation. Amphibious units, tanks, close air support, and off-board artillery all play a role in helping your backbone of infantry capture a series of villages. However, I feel like a major opportunity to do better was squandered here.

It seems like there should have been ample opportunity to find battles within the operation that fit the scale of Steel Panthers. Should someone have taken the time to model that, playing the games would have been instructive as a unique view on the challenges of various, specific pieces of the battle. The problem, of course, is that a realistically-sized battle won’t have all the nifty pieces. The helicopter insertions weren’t “assaults,” in that that the landing zones were heavily defended. At its worst, debarking troops were subject to longish-range fire while they began moving forward. Certainly, this wasn’t a case of having to take and hold landing zones as would happen later in the Ia Drang valley. While fighting did occur on near the amphibious landing locations, in that battlefield sector, night came before significant number of the enemy were engaged.

The point of the “insertion” part of the operation was to get the units are in the right place to make infantry and combined-arms attacks against the VC positions. The primary reason the Steel Panthers treatment fails to reproduce the historical situation is, again, due to the compressed scales. The order of battle seems to be fairly accurate as is the placement of defenses. Just for one example, Landing Zone White was under fire from machine gun and small arms fire from a position over a kilometer away. While this caused some casualties, the Marines still spent nearly the next two hours completing their landings and organizing for an assault. In Steel Panthers, the main objectives are barely over a kilometer away from the landing sites and two hours would be the end of the game.

First (Person) to Fight

From Men of War, I don’t expect any kind of realism or much of a reproduction of history. But if Steel Panthers was bad, the opening sequence in the Starlite operation may be worse. We kick off our scenario conducting a helicopter assault on a defended beach.

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RPG got one of my helicopters.

At least, that’s what they tell me in the mission briefing. While the terrain looks fairly beachy, I can’t spot any actual ocean, so I’ll have to take their word for it. Immediately upon exiting the helicopter, my squadmates start getting hit and I see that the beach defenders are using rocket-propelled grenade launchers (RPGs) to clear the skies of the inbound Marines. This sets up the first part of the mission. The player is to wipe out all RPGs so as to allow the follow-up helicopters to land intact.

The connection to the actual operation is made with a narrated video sequence which precedes the actual gameplay. This does provide an accurate summary of Starlite as well as some (presumably) footage from the battle. Back in the game itself, we rapidly depart from reality. The missions are tenuously related to the operation, but only tenuously. After scrambling off the beach, the player is required to capture several hill-top bunkers, which sounds like something Starlite-related, but the time and geography is all too compressed to imagine this fitting into the historical fight.

It is a far cry from Medal of Honor (and I’m thinking of the D-Day sequences) where the missions were so evocative of the their historical counterparts it became possible to forget that you were running through a linear mission. Then again, it is a linear mission that consists of gather “power-ups” from the ground as you run through the jungle, so any failure of expectations is probably more my problem than the game’s.

It also tosses in the “good lieutenant, bad lieutenant” story that it cribbed from the movies, augmenting the racial angle introduced in earlier parts. It’s an attempt to add a high-production value type of “drama” using a medium that no longer supports it. It’s easy enough to ignore. If only there were a way to skip over the cut scenes after you’ve seen them, it would be even easier. On the plus side, the game introduces the bunkers and tunnel systems that we realized were part of the Viet Cong’s operation, probably for the first time in the war.

True Accounting

I’ve dwelt on this before but I’ll use it again here – the mid-sixties represent an inflection point of sorts in transitioning from the post-World War II weapons system development to the institution of the modern weapon systems. I can also see an introduction of modern management thinking into the operation of the army. Going back to the Second World War and earlier, details of battles can sometimes be hard to come by. In reconstructing a battle for gaming purposes, one generally has to rely on the research of professional historians and published history books to get the details. For the battles of Vietnam, we have much better access to detailed after-action reports. Is this qualitatively different that Korea? Or earlier? I don’t have the expertise to judge, and some of it may be the way records were preserved as opposed to the way they were created. In any event, the War in Vietnam has been well-documented.

Furthermore, the military has made an effort to turn the data the it has on Vietnam into history-book style narratives for the purposes of training and memorialization. Perhaps, here, we are also seeing an effort to preserve the perspective of aging veterans before their knowledge passes on from our society along with the individuals who remember. The military may also be reacting against the contemporary narrative of the Vietnam War which, as often as not, was written from an anti-Government, anti-Military perspective.

Whatever the case, I was able to accompany my gameplay with a reading of the U.S. Marine Corps’ pamphlet The First Fight: US Marines in Operation Starlite, August 1965. It’s a solidly written summary of the battle, absent any obvious moralizing or slant. In addition to helping me make sense of the distortions in the several game treatments of this battle, I learned a thing to two more.

According to this book, the concept that has the basis for explaining this entire battle is apparently not true. I’ve seen in source after source that the U.S. stole a march on the VC, pulling off a rapid attack on them just as they were preparing to hit the U.S. base. In here we read that the VC were nowhere near ready to assault Chu Lai. In fact, it is questionable whether they were intending to do so at all. The concentration of the 1st Viet Cong Regiment was for the purpose of resting, recovering from earlier losses, and recruiting new troops. We now know that the unit had no specific or immediate plans to attack the American base.

There is no indication that the intelligence was deliberately twisted nor willfully, selectively misinterpreted to create the “need” to launch an offensive by U.S. Marines directly against the VC. Intelligence was simply incomplete and, in this one key aspect, inaccurate.

Another enlightening tidbit, given the mission structure in Men of Valor, was within the section analyzing how well the different pieces worked or didn’t. One area of weakness was in the directing of indirect fire support, especially naval guns. The fire support, when it arrived, was generally accurate and effective. The biggest problem, the book explains, was in the communication which resulted in delays between when fire was ordered and when it landed. Artillery support that is delayed 15 minutes against a moving enemy is not going to be effective.

There were a number of instances where friendly fire casualties were narrowly avoided. Many of these close calls were likely due to the multitude of simultaneous moving parts present on the battlefield. Throughout it all, again, we are seeing a consequence of the communication difficulties and the delays. It can be easy for an area recently occupied by enemy forces to, 15 minutes later, have friendly forces in it. There was also a theory, which has not been positively confirmed, that the VC had access to American communication networks and were directing naval fire and airstrikes onto American positions. It is also possible that communication errors were responsible, but the book makes a strong cases that there were a few too many coincidences to not point the finger at VC penetration of U.S. communication systems.

It is said that one learns more from one’s failures than from success. The difficulties the U.S. faced in an overall-successful operation made for some solid learning opportunities that improved the effectiveness of American warfighting power going forward. It is fortunately that lessons regarding close artillery support were learned without tragic friendly-fire casualties. This aspect of the battle adds a little more meaning to the plot point in Men of Valor where the player’s unit is unable to move artillery bombardments off of friendly positions. It did actually happen (although probably nothing like in the game) and was, truly, a defining feature of the Operation Starlite fight.

I take a look at another Operation Starlite scenario in this post, if you want to skip ahead to that. You may also want to return to the master post for Vietnam War articles or go on to the next article, which moves the action to the Central Highlands.