Thursday, March 27, 2008

Patton's Best -- personalizing war

Wargaming is a hobby. It's meant to be fun and educational It's not a profound investigation into the morality, effectiveness and politics of war, although it can give some insight in such study as well.

So I don't think it's inappropriate that wargaming concentrates on the more intellectually stimulating and emotionally satisfying aspects of military combat. Wargaming focuses on generals and strategy. It highlights honor, bravery and cleverness. It explores technology and tactics. It's about matching wits with wily opponents.

Wargaming pays relatively little attention to the death, suffering and tragedy that is such a large part of real-life war. There's nothing wrong with that.

In his groundbreaking Little Wars, H.G. Wells said:

"How much better is this amiable miniature then the Real Thing! Here is a homeopathic remedy for the imaginative strategist. Here is the premeditation, the thrill, the strain of accumulating victory or disaster -- and so smashed nor sanguinary bodies, no shattered fine buildings nor devastated country sides, no petty cruelties, none of that awful universal boredom and embitterment, that tiresome delay or stoppage or embarrassment of every gracious, bold, sweet and charming thing, that we who are old enough to remember a real modern war know to be the reality of belligerence."

So wargaming need make no apology for concentrating on the more attractive elements of military contests while de-emphasizing the ugly.

But there's also some value in being gently reminded that real war has real costs to actual human beings. We can be lectured thus, but the lesson derives more impact from being lived.

One interesting, if little-remarked aspect of solitaire games such as Patton's Best, B-17 and Ambush!, games that focus on the fates of individual soldiers is that they can remind us that those little cardboard counters, wooden blocks or plastic soldiers we maneuver represent real lives that were lived and lost once.

I think that, being a solitaire game, Patton's Best emphasizes that loss more than even a similarly focused two-player game such as Up Front!, Shell Shock! or Ace of Aces. As soon as you introduce a live opponent, the game's focus switches to the competitive aspect and the soldier's fates become secondary to the need to win. Even if you lose a character you have developed some affection for, it's in the cause of something bigger -- victory! In that sense the individual soldier is not all that different than the more faceless counter, block or generic figure in the larger scale wargames.

But with a solitaire wargame you're struggling against the "system." You're trying to defeat a faceless, soulless enemy. In that way it's actually rather more like actual modern combat than anything else. In modern war one rarely sees the enemy at all, let alone as an individual opponent.

Under these conditions I think losing your own guys in a game like Patton's Best, (or B-17 and Ambush) is more emotionally affecting than otherwise. Even if you "win" against the system, it's a somewhat empty-feeling if you lost ace gunner Bob "Deadeye" Smith that's been with M4 Sherman "Battle Baby" since the breakout at Avranches in July.

It's a small thing, really, almost trivial. But it does pull those who chose to reflect on it back from getting too carried away with the more glamorous aspects of military conflict.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

From In Flanders Fields by John McCrae

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