Leadership: Managing Time And History


July 22, 2018: The U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College (CGSC) recently announced it was dropping much of its military history courses and replacing them with more wargaming. Many graduates of the CGSC object to the changes because there are few places you can get college level instruction on military history and the degree of ignorance about military history has become epic among college graduates. It’s not just military history but history in general. For military leaders knowledge of military history is important, something often appreciated only in hindsight. For the army this is a major issue at the two primary schools for officers seen as promising and likely to be more effective as they get promoted. The first of these is the CGSC, whose students are mid-level officers (captains and majors). Each year about a thousand of these officers take the basic ten month course. Five or ten years later about a third of those CGSC grads can get into the Army War College (AWC), a two-year course that is more of a graduate school in format and graduates tend to end up as senior commanders in the army. Drastic changes in the curriculum are rare and the de-emphasis of military history at CGSC to make more time for wargames is not as drastic as it sounds as it is part of a movement that began in the 1970s as the army went through a metamorphosis in terms of using military history and several recent (World War II) developments (Operations Research and its use in the form of wargames) that had an impact on the understanding of history.

It is now largely forgotten that after World War II the relevance of military history (and older forms of history based wargames) was replaced for over two decades by a more analytic and scientific approach the was seen as ignoring the lessons of the past. It took a while but eventually the army leadership realized what a mistake had been made and in the 1970s the study of military history again became crucial subjects at the CGSC, AWC and army as a whole. Just for the record the navy never disowned military history and wargaming after World War II but that’s another story.

The Vietnam and Korean Wars became easier to understand when history and wargaming were used. The army found that the junior officers, and a lot of enlisted troops, were enthusiastic about the military history and wargaming. What the army also learned back then was that there was not enough time in the curriculum of the CGSC and AWC for a lot of military history much less the even more time consuming wargames. What was recognized and addressed in the 1970s was the need for more emphasis on military history and wargaming. But it was never enough as CGSC and AWC grads, especially those with combat experience. Throughout the 1970s, as conscription was discarded, military history and wargaming became more popular.

Around that time commercial wargame published learned (via surveys, focus groups and just chatting) that history was most quickly learned, understood and committed to memory when done via a historical game. This made sense and later academic research confirmed that film (or live lectures) was the least effective transmitter of historical knowledge followed by reading and both these were far behind interactive learning. Traditionally interactive meant seminars or tutorials with a teacher. But the commercial wargames, which were designed as “historical games” (and an emphasis on accuracy and reproducible results) or “conflict simulations” were accepted by most users as an excellent way to learn history. Another interesting item the commercial wargame companies learned was that while their audience had more military and related (CIA, State Department) people (including veterans and retired) among their customers than were represented in the general public. The 15 percent of customers in “military related” occupations was also over represented by younger wargamers. While there were many military veterans among the wargaming population it also turned out that in addition to an intense interest in military history wargamers had to be comfortable with using strategic thinking and quantifying problems and solutions. You also needed free time to trying something new. That accounted for the overrepresentation of younger wargamers. Overall only a few percent of the population met those criteria, which was unfortunate for wargame published (no mass market). But once you computerized wargames and made it easy to find the mathematical internals of the game system (scenario builders or level editors) you had wargames that were very effective at teaching history, especially military history and could be used by a larger audience. These became known as “strategy games” in the computer games world, even though many of them were tactical or operational level games. What the “strategy games” label meant was that these games were meant for a niche (but still quite large) audience that demanded accuracy rather than mayhem that was popular rather than accurate.

What did happen from the 1970s to the present was that more fast-track army officers received a better understanding of military history and wargaming and, as it was understood, this would pay off in a decade or two when the CGSC and AWC grads of the history/wargame heavy curriculum moved into the senior leadership positions. That did pay off and is still doing so.

The impact this could have was noted early on. For example in late 1972 a commercial historical game ("Year of the Rat") was published covering the recent (earlier in the year) North Vietnamese invasion of South Vietnam and why that offensive failed while the 1975 one did. This game didn't predict the outcome a war that had recently ended, but it got the attention of people in the intelligence community, especially those who knew something about wargames. Year of the Rat was a convincing demonstration of what a manual wargame, using unclassified data, could do in representing a very recently fought campaign. There was even talk that these games could actually predict the outcome, and details, of a future war. The next year, another wargame did just that, accurately portraying the outcome of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The game ("Sinai") was about to be published when the war broke out, but some people in the intelligence community knew about it. A member of the Israeli UN delegation had watched the game in development (he was a wargamer), and was assigned to camp out at the publisher's offices, while the war raged, and report what the game was predicting and why.

There weren't many wars to practice these predictive techniques on after that, until 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. As soon as the invasion too place in mid-1990 the senior American political leaders wanted to know, from their military commanders, what was possible and what could be done to deal with the situation. Because commercial historical games were still a big thing there was a recently published wargame that, like the “Sinai” game in 1973, covered the Iraq/Kuwait situation.

The army has some more extensive computerized simulations but it would take weeks to get these behemoths going. Many senior officers in the Pentagon knew that a recently published commercial game called Gulf Strike was accurate enough and that there were experienced wargamers available (contractors and active duty officers) who could have the game in action and able to deliver a reliable assessment of what could be done and do it in 24 hours. That’s what happened. The use of a commercial game for this analysis, which predicted the course of the 1990-91 war in detail and its outcome was kept classified for years although in commercial wargaming circles it was known to have happened and it was not considered surprising. A lot of officers who had attended the AWC in the 1970s and 80s were generals now and it was already accepted that military history and the commercial wargames were valuable.

In addition to Gulf Strike another commercial wargame appeared months before the Coalition counterattacked in 1991. This game ("Arabian Nightmare"), predicted everything that happened in greater detail, including the low Coalition casualties. Like Gulf Strike this later game used unclassified sources but concentrated on a real battle that was about to be fought. Because of that the media got wind of it, and the game was featured on "Nightline" in October, 1990 and other news shows after that. This didn't cause much excitement with the general public, it was just some more weird stuff on the tube. But for the CGSC and AWC grads it showed that the shift to more study of military in the 1970s had paid off and would continue doing so.

Then came 2001 and war on terror. From a wargamers perspective, it was not a difficult conflict to simulate. International terrorists are nothing new, and if you know how to work out the media impact on this, you've got yourself a wargame. Actually, you can do most of this stuff on a spreadsheet (which is a good vehicle for many types of predictive analysis). Same with the war in Iraq, or Afghanistan. Both countries are behaving as they have for centuries. Anyone familiar with the history of these two places, won't be surprised with what's going on there now, or how it's all going to turn out. Forget the media, they haven't a clue, and don't need one to stay in business.

The key point here is that the wargamers are also historians and most wargames are history bases. The designers and users of these games look at things from a historical perspective, and immediately apply an analytical breakdown to any event they are studying. First thing they think of is; who has what, what can they do with it and what are the goals of the different factions? The Afghan tribes have issues, always have, always will until the tribal system fades away. In Iraq, the Sunni Arab minority wants to be in charge, and some of them are willing to fight on to avoid war crimes trials and confiscation of the oil money they stole. Al Qaeda is yet another attempt by Islamic conservatives to conquer the world. The Turks kept them in check for centuries, but thousand year old dreams die hard, especially in a culture that has found so many ways to fail.

Wargames and the predictive analysis that Sinai, Gulf Strike and Arabian Nightmare they successfully demonstrated convinced even more commanders to use this tool. Some of these officers had attended classes in the 1970s and 1980s where civilian wargame designers showed how quickly a wargame could be created to fit any situation. By the 1980s students and staff at the CGSC were doing this themselves, creating wargames, especially computer based ones, that became part of the curriculum. Some recent AWS grads even used locally designed by troops who volunteered when the brigade commander called for experienced wargamers to work on a wargame to assist training and planning. One of the more notable examples of this occurred in 1995 when the CINC (commander in chief, a four star general) of SOUTHCOM (the military headquarters that monitored military events in Latin America) was faced with a potential war between Peru and Ecuador. The Pentagon and the White House were looking to this CINC for a quick analysis of the situation. Fortunately for him, the guy who designed Arabian Nightmare (a reserve officer mobilized to debrief former Cuban soldiers among the Cuban refugees being moved through Panama), was in the area. This reserve officer came to the attention of a colonel on the CENTCOM staff, who remembered seeing some of his wargaming work at the AWC, and asked the reserve lieutenant colonel if he could whip up a Peru-Ecuador wargame overnight, so they could put together an analysis for the CINC. It was done, and, when the CINC briefed the Joint Chiefs, he used the hastily created wargame, and its analysis. It was noted that the CINCs resources wargaming resources were more effective than anything the CGSC, AWC or Pentagon analysts were able to come up with and much faster as well. The CINC gave his wargame designer a commendation medal and subsequently told all the other senior officers how it was done and a lot more senior generals realized that there were a lot more of these capable wargame designers in the military and it was just a matter of being aware of that and putting that resource to work when needed.

In the 1990s the army institutional wargame and analysis was still dominated by older ideas and technologies the cheaper, faster and often more accurate history based wargames and analysis were slowly taking over, especially when lives were at stake. The commercial games, most of them involving conflict, did not appeal to a large commercial audience (about five percent of the general population) but in the military and related agencies (CIA, State Department) the percentages were much higher. And until the 1990s most of these wargames were manual (“glorified chess”) and easy to create and put to work. When computers became the main medium for these games (in commercial markets) the manual games continued to find a niche audience, especially in the military where it was essential that effective wargames be created and put to work quickly. As was demonstrated many times in the 1990s and later, military and intelligence professionals continued to use manual wargaming techniques to get results quickly.

The CIA used wargames to get a better sense of the big picture, but found that this pointed the way towards developing computerized predictive analysis tools that led to obvious (in hindsight) techniques for effectively dealing with terrorist networks. The Israelis refined and applied these techniques first, in 2000, when the Palestinians rejected a peace deal and declared war. The Palestinian terrorism campaign was defeated and contained within five years and similar techniques were used in Iraq. Historical games provided less popular solutions for the endemic unrest and bad government in the Middle East that caused the outbreaks of Islamic terrorism. The historical games showed that effective solutions would, at best, take several generations, not several years. This was a hard sell to Western governments. Fast and cheap solutions are always more popular but they are not always available.

Meanwhile the study of military history and applying it via historical games and more powerful forms of analysis, like Operations Research, caught on in the CGSC and AWC. The younger officers at the CGSC were particularly enthusiastic, and they came to be known as the "Jedi Knights," mainly because the analytic skills obtained from playing lots of wargames, gave them a seemingly magical ability to find flaws in war plans. That led to the creation and use of Red Teams staffed by these CGSC hotshots. Ideally the Red Teams were composed of combat experienced officers who knew how the enemy operated and were told to come up with ways to get around the new security devices (sensors and associated equipment) as well as new tactics, or even mew tactics that the enemy had not thought of, or tried out, yet. The Red Teams did just that. In 2008 the Red Teams were given a new task. Senior commanders sent Red Teams down to brigade headquarter to test the war plans at that level. Often the Red Teams found that these war plans were pretty solid, mainly because the commanders and staffs had used wargaming to develop their own plans, and to work out the flaws that an adroit enemy would exploit once it was too late to do anything about it. The Red Teams all reported to the head of the army, which insured that none of the commanders they were working with tried to pull rank. The Red Teams gave the Chief of Staff of the army regular reports on how effective the many war plans developed in the army combat units were holding up to scrutiny, which is a unique capability in the military world. Since then the Staff School at Leavenworth has established courses for training Red Team members, some of the courses are 18 weeks long.

The wargame developers could also use these tools to predict developments in the design and use of wargames. Just such an occasion occurred in 1977 when the Department of Defense held a conference on the state (not good) of Department of Defense wargaming that was attended by traditional (government contractor) and commercial wargame developers. It was the first of many efforts to find some solutions. A senor Department of Defense expert in the area of predictive analysis and “net assessments” kicked off the proceedings by telling the traditional wargame developers that “you people have never given me anything I could use.” He then called on one of the commercial wargame designers and publishers for some ideas because the commercial games had already demonstrated their worth.

One commercial wargame designer, who was one of the few people there that did not work for the government, delivered a combination of good news and future news. Having published two commercial games that did prove useful (Year of the Rat and Sinai) and designer of one of them he pointed out that the manual games obviously had uses but those uses were limited. Left unsaid was the fact that most government contractors were not interested in manual wargames because they were too inexpensive to develop and too easy for the users (Pentagon analysts or military commanders) to test. But then the commercial publisher pointed out that it was inevitable that the current wargames would eventually be available on inexpensive computers. One aspect of commercial wargaming in the 1970s was that many of the users and designers were techies (engineers, doctors, computer engineers and programmers) who were already discussing how to get wargames working on the newly available personal computers. This would make such games available to a larger audience but what was needed was a wargame that a senior commander could quickly learn and use on his own. The commercial publisher explained that such a device was decades away but when available it would be capable to not only using historical data and experience to accurately portray warfare (from ancient to modern and future) but of demonstrating “how” to the user. By allowing senior commanders to experiment, and “make mistakes in private” (without a lot of staff officers and subordinates looking on) the most effective solutions could be found more quickly. Not just by the commanding general but by staff officers and subordinates who could pass the data file onto the boss for his private perusal. What this future development implied was a merger of historical data and a simulation system. As time went on it became common for computerized wargames to include “help” capabilities that cited historical examples and further references. No one was talking about the World Wide Web yet (although work on the basic Internet was already underway).

The point here is that the CGSC decision to spend less of their limited instructional time on history instruction and more on wargames is a natural development of the use of military history in the military. It was all foretold, more 40 years ago. Sometimes you just have to listen and be patient. It all comes together eventually.


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