On Point: Playing the Bad Guy is Fun and Infomative!


by Austin Bay

It's fun playing the bad guy. Wear a black hat in a Western and you're unburdened by little things like laws against cattle-rustling and saloon-brawling. If you're a mean little medieval sorceress, like Malificent in "Sleeping Beauty," your Vogue model looks and malevolence kick-start an otherwise yawn of a plot.

For a week in April, I played the bad guy, a member of a "high command" running the Red Global Team in the U.S. Army chief of staff's spring strategic wargame at Carlisle Barracks, Pa.

The game was non-classified -- I was there as a columnist, not a colonel. To skirt political sensitivities, the scenario was "highly fictionalized." The year was 2015. The fake Red state gave the United States and its Blue allies a sophisticated "near peer" regional opponent. Still, classical historians chuckled. Red's turf looked suspiciously like the Persian Empire minus Central Asia, circa 331 B.C., as Alexander the Great prepared to finish off Emperor Darius III.

The Army game focused on employing advanced technologies and "transformed" combat organizations. Would the U.S. "Blue Team" gain decisive combat advantages if the Department of Defense invested in fast sea shipping and advanced air transports capable of quickly moving hi-tech, "lighter" armored forces from the United States directly into battle on another continent? The game allowed senior officers from all services to consider logistics, communications, intelligence and the other complex arcana of military operations.

As the nefarious bad guys, we tried to intimidate fragile U.S. allies. We hacked U.S. computers and decoyed smart weapons. We attacked U.S. military facilities around the globe. We deployed submarines to stifle sea commerce. We tried to trap U.S. forces in "defensive webs," where U.S. troops would die live on global television.

The 1970s saw a revival of analytic wargaming, particularly at the military's war colleges. Andrew Marshall, director of the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessments, began promoting "wargame techniques" as a means of analyzing strategic and operational issues, testing new technologies and helping strategists formulate policy options for U.S. decision-makers.

But this was a renaissance for wargaming, leveraging new game techniques and computers, not a whole-cloth invention.

In early April, participating on a panel with five other former national security advisers (a forum co-sponsored by Rice University's Baker Institute and Washington's Woodrow Wilson International Center), Eisenhower administration National Security Adviser Andrew Goodpaster mentioned the "Solarium" wargame. Heads began to nod.

Conducted in 1953, "Solarium" analyzed the "containment of the Soviet Union" strategy devised by the Truman administration. Teams proposed alternative strategies, including "roll back" ("rolling back" Soviet gains). The players considered long-term economic and political consequences, as well as military risks. Eisenhower was thoroughly involved in the process of challenging assumptions and developing innovative policy alternatives, which is the goal of successful wargames.

Insights from Solarium refined "containment." Ike and his advisers concluded that creating a conventional military force as large as the USSR's risked beggaring the U.S. economy. "Roll back" risked war. However, if containment was to work, forward basing and nuclear weapons were necessary to deter Moscow. In a long haul "cold war," U.S. cultural, social and economic strengths would be key "weapons."

Solarium sounds like a heads-up on future history. Good wargames, however, don't predict the future. The competition a game atmosphere produces encourages creativity, and creativity can sharpen insight.

"Role playing" games also help sharpen leaders. In the mid-1980s, I participated in a wargame where former Carter administration official (and future CIA director) James Woolsey played the U.S. president. Woolsey handled the complex Cold War crisis well. However, a British officer observing the game told me, with a sniff, "In our games the Prime Minister plays herself." He didn't elaborate, though rumor had the Brits conducting a series of terrorist crisis exercises with "high-level players." Margaret Thatcher was (and still is) one of the globe's pre-eminent strategic thinkers. Apparently, the very best recognize the need to practice.

As a former Pentagon staffer, Bush National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice certainly understands the usefulness of analytic games and crisis exercises. No doubt, foolish pundits will heehaw if they learn that President Bush "played himself" in an exercise, but serious students of foreign affairs would be impressed.

Did my Red team win the war of 2015?

The Red raison d'etre wasn't to "win" so much as to frustrate Blue politically and militarily. Red did that in spades-- and in the process, the generals gained a sobering appreciation of the possible consequence of impending, real-world policy decisions.

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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