Weird Wargaming: The UN Standing Army

An underappreciated and underutilized force for wargaming (particularly as it can be made with existing surplus equipment), the UN standing army as discussed in books like A UN Legion. Unlike some other entries in Weird Wargaming, the nature of this force makes describing it in any exact detail much harder.

On one end, there’s light peacekeepers with nothing but small arms or vaguer proposals. On the other, there’s the incredibly detailed “Vital Force” proposal. The bigger “world army” proposals also tended to be the most vague in terms of equipment. Yet it’s easy to find analogous historical units. Either the entire force or a large chunk of it could easily be structured like existing high-deployability forces. Airborne and amphibious units provide an excellent, well-documented guide.

For “world armies” with more conventional units, there’s plenty of national and/or theoretical inspiration to be drawn, possibly with some inferences (for instance, a priority may be on allowing smaller units to operate as independently as possible). The heavy divisions in the rapid-response units may get prioritization for upgraded equipment. As for that equipment, it can be anything from purpose-built (especially if it’s intended to be airdroppable/amphibious) to surplus.

The proficiency levels of a “small force” should be high, as creating a handpicked, well-trained force over clunkier ad-hoc formations is the entire point of their existence. Bigger “world armies” are going to be inevitably diluted, but should still err on the side of greater skill.

The Nature Of It All

This is the 300th post on Fuldapocalypse, and it’s fitting that it comes now, because well, I’m in what feels like a blog midlife crisis. I don’t want to overstate this, because the diversification of the blog, which I’ve talked about many times, means there’s no problem with supplying actual content. But there’s still a strange feeling in me.

See, there’s an increasing feeling in me that the well is running dry. I’ve said many, many times that there’s a lot fewer World War III books than I thought. And that’s only a little less true for “big war thrillers” in general. It’s a little weird knowing your views were distorted by a combination of one field where those tropes were common (wargaming) and an internet trend that, in hindsight, was no more significant or influential than a long-ago boomlet on Spacebattles of who-would-win matches involving lions (yes, this actually happened).

And yet, for the fiction of that type that actually exists, my initial wariness still often holds true. It’s still often a cross between conference rooms and paper-thin Steel Panthers Characters. Sturgeon’s Law still applies, and in any exposition-heavy format, I consider the “floor” to be lower than in a lowbrow action thriller. So I’m in the strange position of, regarding the supposed subject matter of this very blog, either having already read or having little desire to read a lot of the of “Icelandic” books I set it up to review. Not all-I still have some I want to read, and genres should never be discounted altogether. But a lot.

And what else that’s come to me is the sense that this kind of “big-war thriller” is just harder to write well than a conventional cheap thriller (I’m not saying it’s impossible, only harder). I’ve felt this way about alternate history, and think it’s also true here. You have to balance a good and reasonably accurate picture of the conflict/divergent setting with a good story and characters, and sometimes those are at cross purposes. It’s why, with my annoyance at there seemingly being too many “conventional WWIII” stories having long-subsided, I feel that there aren’t enough, and that there especially isn’t enough cross-pollination (which is understandable, but that’s a subject for another post).

So what I’ve been experiencing is something very much like the bittersweet feeling someone gets when they finally finish a long series that they enjoyed. I felt this way with the Survivalist. I felt this way with Blaine McCracken. I felt this way with video games and movies and TV shows that I liked. In all those cases I found later replacements (for the Survivalist, it’s responsible for getting me into an entire genre) but the feeling still remains.

And so it feels this way for here. I’ve reviewed, judging by tags and discounting essay posts, about 28 “World War III” books. They range from good to bad, from rote to pulpy to clunky to outright bizarre. I’ve experienced a huge range. In many ways I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do. And while that sort of thing can bring about justifiable pride, it can also bring about a sense of understandable emptiness.

My feeling isn’t “what do I do now?”, since the answer (read and write about either other types of fiction or history/theory in general) is what I’ve been doing. Rather, it’s a simpler “So, that’s it? That’s all there was?”

Short Baseball

I discovered a sport called “short hockey” existed. That is hockey played with four skaters and a goalie per team with 10 minute periods across the width of a half-rink. As it’s much less exerting, teams can play a lot of games in just one day. As the ownership/sponsorship of all the Russian short hockey leagues I’ve seen by sportsbooks shows, it’s aimed more at gamblers than actual fans.

So I figured, what would “short baseball” look like? As is, baseball already has many more games feasibly scheduled than many other sports. Yet I decided to amplify it more with two tiers.

  • Semi-short baseball, which is like conventional baseball only with six innings, games ending in ties after two extra ones, a designated hitter, and some pace of play rules. Semi-short leagues, despite their betting-friendly nature, are treated as serious competitions with ceremony, champions, and the same rigorous record-keeping.
  • Mega-short baseball, which is just a means to an end of making as many gambling-friendly matches. Games are five two-out innings which automatically end in ties after the bottom of the fifth, there are rapid pitch clocks, and, most crucially, pitchers have to throw the ball in the least stressful way possible. This both saves on the need for countless pitchers and encourages scoring by having pitches be easier to hit. There are also no formal standings and essentially no official record-keeping.

If I can find an appropriate place for it in my fiction, I’ll gladly put “short baseball” in, with an alternate history background as to how it got started and developed (which almost certainly means earlier and more widespread legal sports betting in baseball-friendly countries).

On Larry Bond

One of my personal in-jokes is how few Larry Bond books I’ve actually read and reviewed on Fuldapocalypse, which is either two or three as of this post. The books are Cauldron, Red Phoenix, and Red Storm Rising if you count it. This combined with the increasing diversification of the blog makes me sometimes go “Boy I’ve reviewed more [insert genre or author that’s nothing like him] books than I have Larry Bond’s”.

Bond, along with Hackett himself, is the most “Icelandic” of the authors I’ve read on Fuldapocalypse. The most tied to wargaming. The most determined to have a “broad-front”, top-to-bottom perspective with a bunch of viewpoint characters.

And well, I have to say he’s not the most impressive, at least judging from the sample size I’ve seen. Not the worst by any means, but you’ll notice how “meh” I sound in my review of Red Phoenix. I’ll be fair and say that I think a big part of it isn’t his fault. In short, I know too much about the subject matter to be impressed the way a “normal” reader might be.

And yet, from the broader perspective I’ve experienced, my respect for him has actually grown. For Bond’s work remains distinct. There are lots and lots and lots of more “normal” cheap thrillers, and it’s, to be frank, not the hardest genre to succeed in. There are much fewer “big-war thrillers”, and it is a harder genre to do right.

Larry Bond can’t be faulted for trying. And there’s certainly room in the literary sphere for books in his style alongside the spacesuit commandos and terrorist-shooters.

Alternate History World War IIIs

That there are significantly fewer “conventional World War III” books than I thought when I started this blog is something I’ve repeatedly said. But I recently decided to take a look and see just how many (or, to be honest, how few) World War IIIs fit the “tail of the elephant” category of what I first saw online. The criteria were as follows.

  • They obviously had to be mostly conventional World War IIIs.
  • They had to be commercialized, even if only in self-published form.
  • They’re listed by series and not author to prevent long individual series from skewing the results.
  • They had to be unambiguous alternate history. So the 1980s classics wouldn’t count because those are set in a then-contemporary time.
  • They had to take place after 1980. The “just after World War II” WW3s are a different kind of fiction in my eyes.

With that, I got the following rough list.

  • -Harvey Black’s “Effect” series
  • -William Stroock’s World War 1990 series
  • -The Bear’s Claws by Russell Phillips
  • -Northern Fury H Hour
  • -John Agnew’s Operation Zhukov
  • -Brad Smith’s World War III 1985
  • -Martin Archer’s War Breaks Out
  • -James Burke’s The Weekend Warriors
  • -John Schettler’s Kirov series.
  • -Mark Walker’s Dark War series

There’s obviously ones I missed, but still, only ten entries. Ten. For comparison, there’s easily more different authors on the “action hero” tag here (I counted around 17.) It feels both satisfying to see even a general number and a little weird to know that what you saw was something as narrow in scope as Worm fanfiction (even if understandably so).

Weird Wargaming: Beat Em Ups

Ah, the “beat ’em up”, a type of video game that achieved its first popularity with Double Dragon, and may be known best from Final Fight and Streets of Rage. Should one wish to simulate it using tabletop rules, the following should be adhered to:

  • Given the genre, the system must have robust melee rules. This is an obvious requirement that needs no further explanation.
  • The enemies will resemble, by and large, stereotypical 1980s “punks”. Bosses will be bigger and stronger versions of them and/or exotic in some way.
  • If they have weapons, it will be stuff like pipes, bricks, and knives. Because…
  • The amount of guns used, especially any bigger than a pistol, can be counted on one hand. Double Dragon set the precedent that only the final boss is allowed to have a gun. While the degree to which this adhered to varies, it’s still generally enforced.
  • The final stage will be this opulent area that contrasts massively with the tone and theme of the rest of the game. Double Dragon had an ancient temple complete with mechanical traps. Final Fight and the first two Streets of Rage games have giant mansions. The latest Streets of Rage has an island supervillains lair complete with a castle.

 

The Three World War IIIs

After long since realizing how few conventional World War III stories there actually are out there, I nonetheless have a classification system for the very small genre, perhaps because there’s very few. They fall, perhaps fittingly, into three main categories.

Literary

“Literary” World War III includes Red Storm Rising, Team Yankee, Red Army, Northern Fury H-Hour, and even some more uneven ones like Chieftains and Arc Light. What these have in common is:

  • A “big picture” writing style featuring lots of viewpoint characters.
  • A sincere attempt at both narrative and at least nominal accuracy.

Not surprisingly, these are the rarest and hardest to do right. In fact, I think those above examples are most of the books that fall into that category.

Pulpy

“Pulpy” World War III is basically stuff like Ian Slater, Martin Archer and Joel Fulgham, as well as the shameless Wingman and Zone novels. These are distinguished by a lower-brow form of writing and/or not knowing/caring about accuracy. Some books may have aimed at being “literary” but ended up as pulpy in practice, while others (like anything by Mack Maloney) were knowingly that from the start.

“Wargamed”

“Wargamed” World War III, for lack of a better word, is the kind of story that, by virtue of me being exposed both with wargames themselves (which can over-represent WWIII, as I show in this Sea Lion Press post.) and internet alternate history (which lends itself to dry “TLs”) I thought was present much more than it actually was.

This is the stuff that follows in Hackett’s footprints. If characters exist at all, they’re either human cameras to illustrate aspects of the conflict or conference room speakers. Every order of battle is spelled out in exact detail.

Obviously there’s going to be edge cases of all sorts, but those are the three big categories.

The Flying Aircraft Carrier: Not Just For Comic Books

Yes, there was a serious study on the possibility of equipping 747s with trapeze catches and stuffing them full of “microfighters” to serve as flying aircraft carriers that could reach any hot spot soon.

aacdesign

Besides the expense and equally obvious safety issues, these microfighters were only benchmarked against the MiG-21 and their small size would make them harder to upgrade (although this could be mitigated by increasingly miniaturized electronics and giving them smart weapons that didn’t need to be carried en masse). Still, this is a similar gimmick to what the absolutely crazy (in a good way) Black Eagle Force series did with its fighters, and it’s great for fiction.

The Iceland Scale And The Origins of Fuldapocalypse

Back in the day when I was convinced that everywhere was being overrun by bad World War III stories, I made the Iceland Scale as part of my backlash. Now with a sense that I got too angry about it, I figure I should post both the scale itself and commentary on how it did and didn’t hold up.

This is probably going to be the longest post yet on Fuldapocalypse, and it’s been a long time in coming. This is something that I wanted to look back on. Now, with a lot of time on my hands and the last review of a “World War III” book being months old, I think it’s as good a time as any.

I’ve been worrying about how to say what I want to. Regardless, I still think this should be told, for it influenced the formation of this blog.

Here’s the scale itself:

BACKGROUND

-If the Soviets start the war: 1 Iceland
-If the Soviets do so in a way that, to the average reader, makes little sense: 3 Icelands.
-If there’s at least one chapter of “intrigue” leading to the shocking result that yes, in a WW3 book, WW3 starts: 5 Icelands per chapter/update.
-If NATO starts the war: -10000 Icelands

-If the third-person narrator delivers an infodump about forces deployed: 50 Icelands per infodump.
-If there’s a scene where a bunch of generals and leaders stand in a conference room and deliver a joint infodump about forces deployed: 600 Icelands per infodump.
-If the central and obvious protagonist is introduced prior to the fighting started: -20 Icelands

-If the war takes place in the 1970s or earlier: -100 Icelands
-If the war takes place in the 1980s: 1 Iceland
-If the war takes place in the 1990s or beyond, with a surviving/restored USSR: -5 Icelands

CONDUCT OF THE WAR

-If NATO wins: 1 Iceland
-If the USSR wins: -500 Icelands
-If the war ends in a nuclear apocalypse: -200 Icelands

-If the war remains conventional throughout: 1 Iceland
-If nuclear weapons are occasionally used in anger, but the war stays largely conventional: 150 Icelands

-If the Soviets invade Iceland: 1000 Icelands
-If the Soviets invade any part of the United States proper: 15000 Icelands

-If the battles focus around tanks or aircraft: 1 Iceland per battle
-If the battles focus around ships or submarines: 1 Iceland per battle
-if the battles involve gritty, close infantry firefights: -10 Icelands per battle

-If any part of the story takes place in Germany: 100 Icelands
-If any part of the story takes place in the Atlantic Ocean: 200 Icelands
-If any part of the story takes place in a theater other than the two mentioned above: -50 Icelands

CHARACTERIZATION

-If there is one central, total viewpoint character: -25 Icelands.
-Likewise, if the number of viewpoint characters numbers:
-2-5: 10 Icelands
-5-10: 50 Icelands
->10: 1000 Icelands
-If there are no “characters” in a traditional literary sense at all: 500 Icelands.

-If a character’s physical appearance is described: -10 Icelands
-If a character is given an infodump to serve as their sole form of development: 100 Icelands

-If a weapons system is described in more detail than the basic terms (ie, M1A1, T-80BV rather than M1/Abrams or T-80): 15 Icelands
-If a weapons system is given more description or development than a character: 100 Icelands

-If any characters are in a position of utter powerlessness-(civilians, routed soldiers): -25 Icelands
-If any Soviet characters exist as mustache-twirling puppy kickers: 10 Icelands
-If any NATO characters exist as mustache-twirling puppy kickers: -100 Icelands

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

So how did this come into being?

At the time I had read far fewer “cheap thrillers” in general and my exposure came in three places:

  • Wargames, where World War IIIs are over-represented compared to other types of fiction. (A study of scenario locations in Steel Panthers MBT had about 27% of them being “World War III” in some form, a ratio that is definitely not true of fiction in general).
  • Red Storm Rising itself and a few of the knockoffs, particularly Harvey Black and Brad Smith.
  • A boomlet of conventional World War III TLs/stories on alternatehistory.com.

In hindsight, the knockoff triple-xeroxed fanfiction of Hackett (or Clancy/Bond, or Coyle, or Peters, or Red Dawn) that appeared on AH really wasn’t that good, bad, or representative. It’s like trying to see what crime fiction is like by reading the entries in the Law and Order section of fanfiction.net.

But it’s what I was reading at the time.

What holds up?

I’d say the supervillain Soviets and longer weapons descriptions. That’s pretty much it for just cheap thrillers in general. For technothrillers, the conference room scenes are probably the biggest.

And there are “Icelandic” stories out there. There just aren’t that many. Instead of looking at overbearing cliches, I was accidentally focusing on a very small, very niche type of writing. I was the blind man touching one part of the elephant.

And what doesn’t?

A lot. First, the invasion of Iceland itself isn’t a staple even in World War III stories. It appeared in wargaming and Red Storm Rising. And really not that much else, even in that narrow niche.

A few instances had stories that were “Icelandic” but not necessarily bad. Team Yankee checks most of the Iceland boxes on paper, but is a smoothly flowing story that’s the exact opposite of the cumbersome “boom boom goes the tank” I’d seen on the internet.

But most of it was simply not “Icelandic” at all. And this includes almost all of the cheap thrillers that were actually written. Nukes aren’t handwaved away, they’re incorporated into the story in some fashion. As a look at the number of “Action Hero” and “Special Forces” tags on this blog shows, shooter fiction with an unambiguous main character leaves “big war thrillers” in its dust. By a gigantic margin.

Why is the “They invade the US” score so high?

This is probably the most personally biased score of them all. It’s not overly representative or even prominent in a few specific pieces the way Iceland was (the exception being Red Dawn). Rather, seeing rote rivet-counting descriptions of Soviet invasions of the continental US flared up one of my frustrations with internet alternate history.

I should note that this is one of the least connected to actual commercial fiction. It could not be further from the special forces raid in Northern Fury (a more workable scenario) or the invasion in the early Survivalist (something that didn’t involve rivet counting).

So why this? Well, internet alternate history has, as it’s grown, sort of shifted in a questionable way. The idea behind simply writing in ways that aren’t conventional narratives was so that writers, unencumbered by the need for plots/characterizations, could fill in a lot of details.

As the community diluted, this became a way to avoid detail, done by people who cared less about “plausibility”. The analogy I’d use is, of all things, car racing. A race car is not a practical car for everyday driving, and the people involved know it. But then people start building race cars. They have one seat and no amenities, but the focus is on that one seat and the shape and not how fast they can go. But at the same time there’s just enough residual race car focus to dull the edges. The cars aren’t in goofy novelty shapes, they’re just race cars that look like race cars but with engines that a stock 1992 Camry could outpace.

As AH’s own wiki states about fictional election results lists, “No offense, but very few people are impressed by your ability to make up fake percentages. For extra cliché points, present them through Wikiboxes. “

Likewise, seeing lists and lists of orders of battle and recitations for something I knew was both implausible and unsuitable for its genre prompted an overreaction in me. I say overreaction because it’s like treating fanfiction that ignores the genre of its base work in favor of sleaze and/or sloppiness as something unique or distinctly bad. Once you know the context, it’s unsurprising and arguably uninteresting.

I guess another analogy is like vs. debates tiering, where it’s something nominally “crunchy”, a field that can bring often unjustified aggravation quickly, and where studying the context of how something that should be technical became lowbrow is a lot more interesting than seeing the end result of questionable infodumps.

Does the Iceland Scale have any retroactive value?

It’s basically one of those fanfic “litmus tests” you see floating around on the internet. After all, the place that motivated it was essentially a fanfiction board, only with “history” as the setting .

And well, especially after writing creative fiction, and especially after seeing much more, I don’t really think so. I’ve been a litmus test skeptic because this kind of fiction tends to have the execution be important. It’s entirely possible to have what should be a rote “shoot the terrorist” premise but succeed with good execution. Likewise, take a “Clive Cussler’s” book that has on paper a goofy premise but is just dull.

Team Yankee has a lot of “Icelandic” elements on paper but is well-done. Even Red Army has a parade of viewpoint characters-and it’s also done well. Northern Fury H-Hour would probably rank very high given that it’s an explicit homage, and its execution was also done effectively.

I mean, this has been a little unpleasant for me to think about, which is why I’ve been holding off on writing this post or something like it for a long time. I got too caught up in board drama (which is a staple of AH.com), and it’s kind of a sign of how narrow-minded I was. As I’ve repeatedly said, the diversification of Fuldapocalypse was something genuinely good in a lot of ways.

Some time ago, I made this silly graphic to show how much my horizons were broadened. It’s true.

fuldapocalypseexpectation

What lessons do you think there are from the Iceland Scale?

These are kind of truisms, but…

  • Don’t get too caught up in any one fandom. While I think alternate history has some unique hangups, fandom drama is definitely not unique to it.
  • Don’t get caught up in something with small sample size, and always look for more perspective.
  • Broaden your literary horizons, even in the same basic genre.

When I wrote the Iceland Scale, I was convinced there were too many conventional WW3 stories out there. Now I feel there arguably aren’t enough. There’s certainly very few. A single very long series can outnumber the “conventional WWIII” genre, and a single prolific author can easily outpace the entire “big war thriller” type of book.  So upon seeing an “Icelandic” story, my thought is now less “Argh, another WWIII” and more “oh, it’s a niche story that probably isn’t for me”. So this horizon-broadening has been very positive. Not just for enjoyment, but for understanding.

How did this help lead to Fuldapocalypse?

Here’s how. Part of the reason for starting Fuldapocalypse was because I didn’t want to crowd out the Creative Corner. Of course, this ended up doing just that as my interests shifted, but that’s another story.

But another part of starting Fuldapocalypse came from me wanting to give these stories a more fair and critical shake. And I’ll say this flat out-I at first went about it the wrong way. My initial goal was “move past the board drama, look at ‘real’ published World War III books, and use a rigorous scale to see how they differed and what cliches they did and didn’t follow, so that your own emotion and opinions can mostly stay out of it”. It was trying to move towards a narrower slice of fiction, towards a more robotic litmus test.

Thankfully, it worked out. I soon grew tired with my self-imposed limitations and began, slowly at first, reading and reviewing stuff that wasn’t “Icelandic” at all. While it took a little while for me to throw off the shackles entirely, I did. And this is the reason why I made the post-instead of constantly obsessing over something, whatever its (lack of) quality, shouldn’t be obsessed over, this post can stand between whatever non-Icelandic works of fiction strike my fancy.

Front Defensive Operations

frontdefense

From the Heavy OPFOR Operational, here is a picture of a front-sized defensive operation. My first thought upon seeing it and counting the divisions, besides any political concerns, is – “Does NATO even have enough forces to break through it without a huge amount of technological superiority”?

This particular diagram is something of an idealized best case, as the front has both a second-echelon tank army to counterattack and several independent divisions as “combined arms reserves”. But still. I’d have to ask…

  • How much of a force multiplier are the initial belts (which were expected to be overrun?)
  • How much of the artillery and missile forces can survive and fire effectively on the attackers as they approach?
  • Most importantly, what’s the overall context?