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How to Win a War

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Churchill in Italy, August 1944.  

Up until now, the best my sons and I could do when it came to replaying World War II was in fact an old-fashioned board game, Axis & Allies. Similar in its mode of operation to the earlier strategy game Risk, Axis & Allies offers a reasonable approximation to the strategic position in 1942. But I stress approximation. The game vastly understates the economic power of the United States, for example. The best thing about Axis & Allies is that battles are decided by a combination of firepower and luck. Dice are thrown, but the odds are weighted in favor of the player with the most men and hardware. (Each time I play, I’m impressed by the calibration of these weightings.) Luck did matter in the war; Pearl Harbor would have been a much bigger disaster if the American aircraft carriers had not been absent on maneuvers; the success of D-day was heavily dependent on the weather. But luck mattered only within limits set by what Stalin liked to call the constellation of forces. In Axis & Allies, it is clearly possible for the Axis powers to win, provided they strike quickly against badly led Allies. I know this because I watched my elder son, in the role of Hitler, trounce me the first time we played the game. But did this convince me that the real Hitler could have won the war? Or did it just mean that my son got lucky? Good though it is as a board game, Axis & Allies is still a very long way from historical reality. Which is why I’m so glad I discovered Making History: The Calm & the Storm, a pioneering computer game devised by Muzzy Lane, a software company in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Based on a combination of system dynamics, a technology designed to generate simulated scenarios from real-world data, The Calm & the Storm has a completely different feel from any other war game I’ve played. To begin with, it is based on a quite astonishing quantity of factual information about the war.

Like Axis & Allies or Civilization III, the graphic interface is a map. But the level of detail is quite unique. Not just national borders but provincial borders are visible. And all the world’s countries are depicted; players can choose from up to eleven governments, including China’s.

And the balance between military capability and economic resources is represented in a far more sophisticated way than I’ve ever seen. Play the part of Britain in September 1938—during the crisis over Czechoslovakia—and you quickly discover (as historians have long maintained) that Britain’s pace of rearmament cannot be accelerated.

Other games reduce war to a crapshoot. This game makes it clear that strategy is about diplomacy as well as pitched battles. If you use the first of the currently available scenarios in The Calm & the Storm, “The Politics of Appeasement,” you have the option of trying to avoid war altogether, seeing if you can do better than Neville Chamberlain. Alternatively, you can do what I did: implement a Churchillian strategy aimed at fighting Germany sooner rather than later. We call this preemption nowadays.

I argue in my new history that confronting Hitler in 1938 would have paid handsome dividends. Even if it had come to war over Czechoslovakia, Germany would not have won. Germany’s defenses were not yet ready for a two-front war. So how did my preemptive strategy stand up to a computer stress test? Not as well as I had hoped, I have to confess. The Calm & the Storm made it clear that lining up an anti-German coalition in 1938 might have been harder than I’d assumed. To my horror, the French turned down the alliance I proposed to them. It also turned out that, when I did go to war with Germany, my own position was pretty weak. The nadir was a successful German invasion of England, a scenario my book rules out as militarily too risky.

That’s not to imply that the game is weighted in Germany’s favor. When I switched roles and became the German dictator for a day, things went even worse. In my book, I consider various ways in which Hitler might conceivably have won the war. One obvious scenario imagines Hitler not attacking Western Europe but taking on the Soviet Union straight after Poland. I tried this, aiming to defeat Poland and then launch an early Operation Barbarossa in 1940. But I made a fatal mistake. I decided to dispense with the Nazi-Soviet pact and defeat Poland single-handed. It didn’t work. And as soon as things began to go wrong, I found myself entirely alone. By the end of the game, Berlin had fallen and the whole of Eastern Europe was in Stalin’s hands. I had discovered, in short, that unilateral action can lead to disastrous isolation.


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