Tuesday, March 3, 2009

My wars

One of the driving forces behind my interest in wargames was World War II. As a kid growing up in the 1960s that war was ever-present in the media. Veterans of the war were men in the prime of their lives.

Quite a few Twilight Zone episodes were set in World War II, which is no surprise considering that Rod Serling was a combat vet himself. The war was also a popular theme for other TV shows. Some were action-oriented like Combat, Rat Patrol and 12-O'Clock High. Others were even comedies like McHale's Navy and, amazingly, Hogan's Heroes set in a prison camp.

And World War II movies were omnipresent on afternoon TV movie shows.

While my dad was a Korean War vet (the forgotten war) my best friend's dad was a veteran of Guadalcanal and we were therefore really excited when we found out there was an Avalon Hill game on the topic.

My own kids seem far less interested in such things, I guess because my own wars lack the drama of World War II, but I did get to serve in at least two wars in my own military career.

The least dramatic, although perhaps more important,was the Cold War. I served, like so many others, in the struggle between the democratic West and the Reds. Although it was a shooting war in some places and times, notably Korea and Vietnam, most of it involved little shooting but a of of training, boredom and "being there." In addition to my stateside service, I also got to spend a little over three years on the "front" in Germany with this unit (as depicted in the game TAC AIR):

The 1st Battalion, 80th Field Artillery was equipped with the Lance, a tactical ballistic missile that could be armed with a conventional warhead, but was primarily meant as a nuclear delivery system.

The counter depicts the missile on its portable launcher as deployed for airmobile use, but that was a rarely used capability that, frankly, seemed untenable on a battlefield. While the launcher had wheels, you couldn't safely tow the missile that way.

Instead the missile was almost invariably deployed on its fully tracked carrier, as example of which is shown here on display at the Field Artillery Museum at Fort Sill, Okla.:

Ironically, by going to Germany I may have missed out on being deployed to the shooting war that DID occur during my active duty stint, the Invasion of Grenada. I was on active duty in the first place because I had done well at the Field Artillery Officer Basic Course at Fort Sill. At the time they offered the top-performing reserve component officer the chance to go on active duty and I had the choice of going to Germany or going to Fort Bragg to be in the 82nd Airborne.
I had long wanted to go to Germany (I even took German in high school) so it was an easy choice, but in retrospect it's easy to se how things could have been different. Whether or not I would have happened to be part of the 82d that deployed to Grenada is impossible to say, but it was a possibility.

I likewise missed the First Gulf War, being at the time in the 26th Yankee Infantry Division. At the time the National Guard insisted that only whole units should be deployed. This meant that, given that no infantry divisions were needed, that the only Mass. National Guard units that saw combat were some non-divisional MP and truck units. The Guard changed their mind about that rule.

As my military career seemed about to wind down without seeing any action whatsoever, I was quite surprised to get a summons to active duty in 2003! I was in the Individual Ready Reserve by then, the non-drilling reserve component. Apparently the Army was short on field grade officers to man all the headquarters units it was creating to manage the second war in the Gulf and I ended up serving in Iraq with the Joint Special Operations Task Force North. This was an unusual unit. Basically it created a Corps-level headquarters around the core of the regimental-sized 10th Special Forces Group headquarters. Naturally, as a special forces group headquarters there were vast areas of expertise required for conventional operations and corps-sized responsibilities that the unit didn't have. So it was beefed up with all sorts of folks, from Navy SEALS, to National Guardsman, Air Force personnel, Marines, OGA (other govt' agency -- i.e. CIA) and, yes, IRRs like me.

The counter above, from the game Operation Iraqi Freedom, depicts some of the Special Forces troops that were part of JSOTF-N.

As it turned out, the refusal of the Turkish government to allow the 4th Mech Division to invade Iraq from the north meant I didn't personally have a very active war, as I was assigned to the "ground fires" section that was responsible for coordinating artillery fire. In the actual event there was just one 6-gun battery of 105m howitzers in our area that the 173rd Airborne Brigade brought along and all the fire support that the special forces teams received was in the form of air strikes coordinated by the Air Force folks instead of us.

I did get to serve, and although it wasn't a time of high drama personally, I've been around long enough to recognize that every small bit part does play its role in the larger story. War and politics being unpredictable, it's hard to say that things might not have played out differently. Or even that the way events did unfold was not in part because of our presence. Certainly the JSOTF-N did occupy the attention of a dozen Iraqi divisions using little more than three battalions-worth of green berets, some Kurds and about four battalions worth of Marines, paratroopers and mountain light infantry. There's little glory in an Economy of Force mission, but it's a Principle of War for good reason.

Here's me in Iraq:

That's one of the special ops helicopters used to support the green berets and other special operators.


  1. That was one of your best posts. Thanks.

  2. Great post! Good to see another war gamer who spent some time coordinating fire support (on the Army side!). I'm sure you've work with some of my co-workers who did the CAS side of the fires...

    I believe our society is slowly turning around to come to respect the profession of arms a lot more, especially more so since the end of Vietnam. We come home from Iraq and get welcomed by people who spend hours waiting just to greet us. Good changes!

    Its sad to see the hobby of war gaming fade however. I believe technology has forever changed the hobby, and computers have taken over. Fewer and fewer people take the time to find other like minded folks to play a good hex and counter or historical table top game and instead play the latest RTS or Turn Based civilization game on the PC.

    I'm sure within a few years, we might see some quality games about Iraq and Afghanistan sometime. Right now, I'm not holding my breath...

  3. Great post. Thank you for serving.