It's an anniversary season surprisingly little remarked upon in the mass media, but this summer 10 years ago the Pentagon was drawing up plans for the invasion of Iraq. I suppose the presidential campaign season is sucking most of the air of of the room, but can anyone doubt that ,had the war turned out as the Bush administration hoped and expected, the 10th anniversary of the war would be a big deal and this summer's anniversary of the fateful decision to invade would have been noteworthy?
Of course, things didn't turn out as expected, and from the point of view of a wargamer there's an interesting point of view to be had on that.
While the vast majority of wargames depict battles and campaigns that actually happened, there has always been a significant portion based on what-could-be, not just what was. Indeed. the very first wargames were military training tools and were largely geared towards helping train officers to conduct future operations. A secondary purpose was to evaluate plans and tactics. Hobby wargames based on history were a much later development, with H.G. Wells Little Wars in the early 1900s and Roverts Gettysburg in the 1960s.
Once they went there, wargame designers found that there was a much bigger market for refighting the battles of the past than speculative or training style wargames. But wargames based on possible future wars or battles have never been completely absent and were quite popular during the Cold War ear, especially.
In particular, just about every aspect of the Cold war turning hot was explored in a vast number of NATO vs. Warsaw Pact games. But various other potential wars have featured in sundry games over the years -- from rather likely ones such as renewed Arab-Israeli and Indo-Pakisatni wars to some highly unlikely one such as fighting between Flemings and Walloons in Belgium or invasions of the United States by foeign coalitions.
But remarkably, very few of the actual major wars that have been fought since the rise of modern wargaming have been anticipated. There was no wargame predicting the Iraq-Iran war, the Falklands War or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. During the Gulf War the previously published Gulf Strike was repurposed to cover the developing situation and S&T under Jim Dunnigan did a fairly credible job of throwing together Arabian Nightmare, also reflecting imminent operations, but this was a rather different case of prognostication than the typical what-if game.
So there's very little evidence available for evaluating whether what-if games about potential wars are really worth anything at all, as far as providing any insights, aside from games at a very tactical level, which often mix actual and hypothetical scenarios.
Which brings me to the unique case of Back to Iraq, Ty Bomba's examination of a potential second war between Iraq and the United Startes which went through three editions between the end of the first Gulf War and the second Iraq War. Historians in the future sufficiently detached from the passions and partisanship of today may, I think legitimately look at Back to Iraq as part of the groundwork that prepared the way for that war's occurance.
And I don't mean to pick on Bomba at all. When he wrote so matter-of-factly that "(Saddam) regained the freedom necessary to carry on his various chemical, biological and nuclear weapons research programs" he was expressing a sentiment shared by many, myself included, at the time.
Rather, the lesson to be drawn is how unimaginable the future is, especially the further into it you go and the more of it you include. Back to Iraq, third edition, which appeared early in 2002 (evidence in the magazine suggests that it was largely designed in Oct. 2001), does a credible job of predicting the general course of events and even some of the order of battle. It's a relatively straightforward job to adjust it to match the historical events, which I did in this "historical scenario,"
But subsequent events showed that the game fundamentally missed the point of the war, which that it was not about defeating Saddam's rickety rump conventional forces, but was about creating the conditions on the ground that would win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people and give the United States the stable ally it wanted in the region. To be fair, Bomba was hardly alone in missing this point. President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld, Gen. Franks and viceroy Bremer were among those who also misread the fundamental nature of Iraq and led the United States down the wrong path. But to the extent that Back to Iraq didn't attempt to ask the question of "what next?" let alone attempt an answer, it illustrates the biggest limitation of any what-if wargame that attempts to provide an insight into a potential war.
A contemporary example of this is the Clash of Arms game Persian Incursion. based on the excellent Harpoon 4 system, I don't think there's a better or more exhaustive open source examination of what an Israeli war with Iran would look like, and, frankly, I suspect there isn't a classified examination that's better, either.
The strength of Persian Incursion, however, lies in its technical and tactical evaluation of how the Israelis could target Iran's nuclear capabilities and what the Iranians can do about it. Militarily the answer ends up being clear. The biggest challenge for Israel is the logistics of mounting the raid and delivering the ordnance. And there's very little that Iran can do about it and nothing they do has a significant effect on the outcome. So does this make the whole thing a forgone conclusion?
Not really, because Larry Bond, as the game designer, is compelled to address the other ramifications of such a raid and the war by adding a subset of rules, styled "political" to deal with the larger context of the war. Now I think he does a pretty good job and its highly entertaining. Indeed, because of the manifest military impotence of the Iranian side it's the only thing that makes this a "game" at all. But this illustrates starkly the predictive limitation of the game as a whole. There's really no question that Israel has the physical means to destroy any target in Iran it chooses to destroy. But what that ends up meaning and whether the end result even counts as a "victory" is less clear. In the game it's possible for Iran to win a political victory regardless of the fate of its nuclear program. Where the player would be wrong is in assuming this is just an artificiality to make Persian Incursion a "game." In fact, it's the main insight of Persian Incursion as opposed to Back to Iraq and what makes PI a better tool than Back to Iraq was. Indeed, properly understood, PI is the cautionary tale that Back to Iraq never was, because PI makes it clear that the key battleground of an Israeli-Iran war is not between the two military establishments but the political context in which the war occurs. This is a truth that flew right over the head of Back to Iraq.
A commercial wargame is just one small voice in the wilderness of the mass media, but to the extent that it provides a little insight to the citizen weighing the costs of war something like PI provides a much more solid contribution than Back to Iraq by at least asking the right question -- even if it can't provide an answer.