Tactical narratives are not games

 

LT Backsight Forethought. Why does every subaltern try to grow a mustache?

Over at Rex Brynen’s great blog Paxsims is his reaction to a recent post on The Strategy Bridge website, about the first of a series of “tactical decision games” – the first is Kaliningrad Fires, about a hypothetical American force deployed in Lithuania to thwart an advance by Aggressor Fantasian Soviet Russian forces.

https://paxsims.wordpress.com/2017/05/10/kaliningrad-fires-is-war-but-no-game/

As he points out, the piece is called a game, but it isn’t really… because it’s not adversarial, nor does it have any real cycles to it. It could be called a wargame only in the narrow sense that the US Army uses the term: when a commander is deciding on a Course of Action (COA), he is said to “wargame” out how each COA might unfold, just to see how logical and feasible it is.

There is a long tradition to these pieces. They form part of a junior officer’s training and have been called any number of names – DIs, tactical problems, TEWTs – and their purpose is not to play out a game with rules, conflict and an outcome, but to see how well the student can formulate a logical plan of action in the time allotted, with due consideration for the problem’s parameters and its likely implications. “Creativity” (or more often, buggering about with what the text of the problem didn’t say in order to try and pull a Kobayashi Maru on the Directing Staff), comes later… first show us you’re smart.

There is an equally long tradition of presentations of worked-out tactical problems with solutions and discussion, presented in books in fictional form. They are called tactical narratives (or at least that is what I will call them, for purposes of this post).

The first of these to get wide circulation was The Defence of Duffer’s Drift written in 1904 by Ernest Swinton, then a Captain but who went on to develop the concept of tanks in battle, trained the first British tank units and finished his career in 1938 as a Major General and Commandant of the Royal Tank Corps. This is a classic and has been reprinted and reproduced many times, by all English-speaking armies (and was also translated into Urdu, for the Indian Army). It describes the experience of young Lieutenant Backsight Forethought, in command of a platoon of 50 riflemen and tasked with defending a “drift” or river crossing site during the Boer War. Forethought has no prior experience, so the book is a series of six “dreams” or visions where his first attempt is a disaster, then each subsequent dream explains a different principle or set of lessons as the scenario is played through again and again and he does better each time.  (link at the bottom, for this and other pieces)

This book was probably not on the required reading list for junior British officers then, insofar as a professional officer before the First World War was encouraged to read at all. But it was widely read, and its “serial dream” structure inspired several imitators:

  • The Battle of Booby’s Bluffs, written 1921 by Brigadier General William A. Mitchell (no, not the “Billy” Mitchell of Air Force iconoclasm);
  • The Defence of Bowler Bridge (about 1930);
  • The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Emma Gees (1979 by LCol Ken Nette, PPCLI – this one is on the history and tactical employment of machine guns, and I still have a reprint of the article from when I went on my Machine Gunner’s course in 1982);
  • The Defense of Hill 781: An Allegory of Modern Mechanized Combat  (1988)
  • The Defenseof Jisr al-Doreaa (2009, placed in Iraq)

The first three are all available as a collection of tactical primers at http://regimentalrogue.com/primers.htm ; the fourth is available for preview at https://books.google.ca/books/about/The_Defense_of_Hill_781.html?id=zGDZ43PhWEIC&redir_esc=y and the fifth is available on the Net at http://www.benning.army.mil/mssp/security%20topics/Global%20and%20Regional%20Security/content/pdf/Defense_of_Jisr_Al_Doreaa(2008).pdf but it was and is also available for sale on Amazon, bound with Duffer’s Drift.

It’s interesting that all of these tactical narratives deal with the defensive phase of operations.

One of the older items on my bookshelf is “The Solution of Tactical Problems”, by LCOL Joseph Needham, from 1907. Subtitled “A Logical and Easy Way of Working Out the Tactical Schemes Set at Examinations”, that is exactly what it is: a series of little vignettes placing the student who wants to pass the exams to enter RMA Sandhurst or some other military school in the position of a junior officer, tasked with commanding a flank guard or setting out pickets or something… the student thinks about his disposition and the author tells him the correct answer, as set forth in whatever Field Service Regulations there were for the infantry in 1906-07. Needham would rewrite and update the book each year, adding and changing the problems, up to the end of the First World War.

https://books.google.ca/books/about/Solution_of_Tactical_Problems.html?id=XEkenQAACAAJ&redir_esc=y

There are also examples of interactive tactical primers, written in the “choose your own adventure” style. Three examples are by John F. Antal: Infantry Combat: the Rifle Platoon (1995); Armor Attacks: the Tank Platoon (1991); and Combat Team: The Captain’s War (1998). Again, this is an interesting way to present the information, and it does verge on being a game, in that progress through the lessons is influenced by decisions made by the reader and the text is somewhat adversarial.

Then there are the extended narratives that read like novels but started life as manuals. There is Kenneth Macksey’s book, First Clash, written in 1985 and which takes an operational look at how things might have played out for the 4th Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group in southern Germany – it was also sold commercially as a book.

In 2005, a Canadian science fiction writer named Karl Schroeder was hired by the Canadian military to write Crisis at Zefra, a conceptual book about how Canadian soldiers would deal with asymmetrical threats in a generic African city of the near future (2025). A bit too goshwow with respect to the technology for me – nano-this and nano-that – but these things are valuable just by having been written down. The whole work is available at http://www.kschroeder.com/foresight-consulting/crisis-in-zefra/Crisis-in-Zefra-e.pdf . Annex B of the work is a survey by then-Major Andrew Godefroy of fictional narratives used by and for the Canadian military, beginning with Duffer’s Drift, which kind of brings things full circle.

This post has gone on longer than I planned to make it, and my original intention was to write about two other interesting items I found recently, on the uses of wargaming as tools for professional development. That will have to wait for another day, but I put the URLs here as a reminder for me, and a curiosity for you:

https://www.cove.org.au/wargaming/article-thespian-officers-narratives-and-planning/

http://cimsec.org/interwar-period-gaming-today-conflicts-tomorrow-press-start-play-pt-2/31712

 

 

 

 

 

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About brtrain
This blog is mostly devoted to posts, work and resources on "serious" conflict simulation games.

5 Responses to Tactical narratives are not games

  1. Nice repurposing of the Gordon’s Gin line art. 🙂

  2. Rex Brynen says:

    Also to be noted is the incredible racism of the original Duffer’s Drift (hardly surprising in the context of the time).

    Specifically, lesson #7: “It is not business to allow lazy black men (even though they be brothers and neutrals) to sit and pick their teeth outside their kraals whilst tired white men are breaking their hearts trying to do heavy labor in short time. It is more the duty of a Christian soldier to teach the dusky neutral the dignity of labor, and to keep him under guard, to prevent his going away to talk about it.”

    • brtrain says:

      Yeah, there is that.
      And it is hardly surprising.
      I used to collect old weird phrasebooks in unusual languages.
      One was an English-Zulu phrasebook from 1899, and it contained a whole section on “scolding language”:
      “Your kraal is filthy, pick up that garbage.”
      “You are lazy and stupid.”
      “You forgot to (close) (open) the gate again.”
      And so on…
      The middle pages of the book were stained by what appeared to be blood.
      I wish I’d kept it, but it didn’t survive one of my infrequent library purges.

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