Thursday, April 24, 2008

Arabian Nightmare remembered

It's really a sign of how old I'm getting that it occurred to me today that our newest eligible voters this fall were born after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 that was the first act in the first Gulf War.

It seems like just yesterday that the Berlin Wall fell, communism collapsed and Saddam Hussein displayed his trademark appalling sense of timing by invading oil-rich Kuwait just as the U.S. was looking for someplace to use its Reagan-buildup-honed Cold War army before paying it off as part of the "Peace Dividend." But it wasn't yesterday, of course, it was 18 years ago this summer.

There are a lot of remarkable aspects to that episode of history, but among them it was the "golden era" of paper wargaming's public influence. Frank Chadwick's Desert Shield Fact Book was on the New York Times' best seller list. Wargame designer and military analyst Jim Dunnigan was a regular on CNN. Other game designers/analysts also appeared on TV and on op ed pages of major newspapers. Wargame publishers rushed a number of games into print to take advantage of the moment, among them Avalon Hill/Victory Games with their updates to Gulf Strike, Omega Games' Desert Victory and TSR's A Line in the Sand.

Perhaps the most notable, however, was Strategy & Tactics and its Arabian Nightmare in issue No. 139. It was literally thrown together on the fly, under the direction of Dunnigan (in his second go-around as S&T editor) and designed by Austin Bay with assists from a nationwide circle of playtesters and experts. The whole thing was coordinated by emails, which might seem rather unremarkable now, but this was quite ground-breaking in 1990.

The end result was not a polished commercial product and competitive wargame, but more like a wargame kit that allowed the general public to get a first-hand look at the military possibilities. This was no small achievement, given the garbage that passed for commentary in newspapers, news magazines and, especially, television. There were plenty of alarmist voices grinding their various political axes with scant regard for the military realities. Pundits predicted tens of thousands of American casualties in a bloodbath against the "battle-hardened" and well-fortified Iraqi army. Indeed, Saddam himself seemed to believe the hype. Had he understood the actual balance of forces he might have saved himself from starting the long sequence of events that led to today's situation in Iraq by arranging for a face-saving exit.

Arabian Nightmare did a very credible job of presenting the likely course of events. A friend and I played out the first few days of the war and according to the game an air campaign would reduce the Iraqi army to impotence in short order and even if it didn't, the Coalition ground forces would run right over them.

It's mostly of interest now as a historical artifact, although it could be used to explore what-ifs about the campaign easily enough. It probably could even be used to look at the 2003 war, although I haven't tried that.

Unfortunately the run-up for the 2003 war didn't enjoy as much attention from wargame designers as it probably should have, although there were some efforts such as Back to Iraq in Command and S&T and Millennium Wars: Iraq. Maybe this was because the war seemed like another forgone conclusion. Certainly the public debate over the war didn't seem well-informed. In particular, there was very little attention given to the question of "what next?" Both Back to Iraq and MW: Iraq only concerned themselves with the first few weeks of fighting, although they did correctly predict the historical outcome.

Ironically, the earlier Gulf War games like Arabian Nightmare, A Line in the Sand and Gulf Strike paid more attention to the political ramifications of that war than any of the more recent games did.

Indeed, despite more than a year of speculation about a possible war with Iran, no wargame designer has tackled that topic in the detail it deserves. An updated Gulf Strike-like treatment of the issue would be quite illuminating. I know that my own wariness about launching a war against Iran is based in part on my memories of how challenging invading that country was for the much more numerous Soviets in the original Gulf Strike. I simply can't see it as doable with the force levels the U.S. could apply.

It would be a public service if one of our knowledgable modern specialists like Joe Miranda or Joe Balkoski would take a swing at the topic.

1 comment:

  1. Check out Battle for Baghdad by Modern Conflict Studies Group LLC.