Weird Wargaming: From The Periphery to the Centfront

The force deployments of the Cold War Central Front have been one of the most obsessively studied and analyzed of all time. Yet some surprising curveballs can still emerge. One of them I recently found was unadopted suggestions to move either Turkish or Italian forces to permanent bases in West Germany. The Turkish force I heard was two divisions. The Italian one was undefined.

The biggest (purely military and not political) risk I felt was that a significant portion of these nation’s heavy formations (the only viable ones for a conventional Fuldapocalypse) would have to be moved. Thus they would need to be either reequiped with cheaper and less capable superpower surplus, beefed up expensively, or have fewer mechanized units on their own territory.

As for where to put them, there were a few options. One was the obvious use of them to shore up the always vital and always vulnerable NORTHAG. Another was to put them in Southern Germany and/or other areas with good defensible terrain (such as the Harz Mountains) to free up Bundeswehr troops to go elsewhere.

However they were equipped and wherever they went, having these alternate deployments seems like it would make for an interesting wargame scenario.

Review: Sword of the Caliphate

Sword of the Caliphate

Reading Dodgebomb, I was faced with the very un-Fuldapocalyptic sight of a somber, sedate, historically accurate historical war novel. With Clay Martin’s Sword of the Caliphate, I return to the same place in a much trashier tale. And it’s a self-proclaimed World War III to boot. How could I resist?

The protagonist is an ex-soldier turned contractor guarding a fuel site in Iraq when a super-bioweapon that only affects non-Arabs is released on the world by a terror caliphate. With nuclear retaliation inevitable, he and his compatriots have to try and escape. A premise that’s basically “The Anabasis after an event triggered by Hideo Kojima levels of biology understanding” is not exactly the worst a cheap thriller could do.

This book has everything that I normally dislike about cheap thrillers. It’s written in first person, and the narrator is snooty to boot). It has the “have your cake and eat it too” where the protagonist does awesome things in a nominally “realistic” manner (basically, it’s the equivalent of immediately following Saburo Sakai’s long flight back after being shot in the head with Vesna Vuckovic’s long parachute-less fall, and following that with Jack Burke and Andy Bowen’s seven hour boxing match). It has the frequent “look how much I know” infodumps. The writing prose is very blocky.

And yet all this was present in such great quantities that it actually came full circle from “annoying” to “fun”. When I saw the first instance of my normally loathed “this isn’t the movies, now watch me do this amazing thing”, I actually went “YES!” and did a small fist pump. It’s been a while since I read a book that just teetered on the edge of “amazingly stupid” and “stupidly amazing”.

This novel is tasteless, crass, contrived, ridiculous, bizarre. It’s also fun. And it’s so much more audacious than just a run of the mill “shoot the terrorist” book. I enjoyed it, and that’s what counts.

Looking Back At The World War III Timelines

So there were a few World War III timelines on alternatehistory.com , with my first one being Lions Will Fight Bears. Now, my story about them has already been told-at the time I hated them, now I think they’re uninteresting. As for their actual quality, well. They’re better than the likes of Stroock and Dragon’s Fury, and more nominally accurate than soft-WW3s like Ian Slater.

Trying to review them, as opposed to their triple-copycat New Deal Coalition Retained, proved to be tricky. I think it’s because, well, I’ll put it this way. Seeing something adopted into a totally different paradigm than its normal setting is inherently interesting. Just seeing double-xeroxed knockoffs of Hackett/Bond is not.

What I think I can say about them is this. First, they were written in a pseudo-textbook style that exacerbated any technical flaws and wasn’t really that interesting otherwise. This is an issue with almost all internet AH, and it’s what I’ve compared to a race car. If you’re going to have a kitbashed spaceframe chassis, a single cramped seat and no amenities, it’d better be fast. But regardless of its speed, that type of car is just easier to build.

The second part is that they were written in what was, with hindsight, an awkward transitional period between the “eagle” and “sparrow” styles. This I think led to the worst of both. You had authors with comparably little direct knowledge making slip-ups iffily. For instance, one contemporary Iran war TL had the IRIAF putting up a much bigger fight and being much more capable than it likely would have been but didn’t have forcing Hormuz as that big a deal-the opposite of the general consensus.

[Aside: Proper wargaming is great for avoiding these. I’m actually a little iffy mentioning Command because I’ve worked on it, but it’s worked. You can see how tough it is to push through a strait full of mines and smartly used anti-shipping defenses, and you can also see the Phantoms falling en masse while only getting the occasional lucky win. In my opinion, one of the best uses for wargaming/simulation is getting the general feel of the conflict, and avoiding stuff like that]

However, you also had these less knowledgeable authors being often co-opted by those who were more knowledgeable but also more biased (not just nationalist bias but stuff like HEAT Age veterans treating RPGs as superweapons in ways that more recent veterans have never done so) The result frequently felt awkward. Leaving aside any personal bias on my part and just looking at the works in their own terms still feels awkward.

The third was that well, the TLs constantly seemed like they were to maintain the formula, never really trying to step outside the lines. This is what inspired the Iceland Scale, and one can understand why reading the same thing with only minor technical tweaks and contrivances could make one frustrated. One example I can give is a Gorbachev heel turn, which to me felt “coming up with reasons for the Soviets to start the war instead of actually branching out and having NATO start it”. Or piling into Red Dawn knockoffs and treating them in an inappropriate rivet-counting way without seeing the literary issues this causes.

Still, they just feel, for lack of a better word, small. Small, and, in the words of the great Alexander Wallace, “sterile”. Thankfully, most of the works reviewed on Fuldapocalypse after its scope widening are not. It does feel a little disappointing to have something to influential be so middling and hard to review in hindsight, but that’s just the way it is. Not the best, not the worst, and not the most representative, but among the first I read.

Weird Wargaming: The Ambitious Special Operations of WWIII

This Weird Wargaming has the original intent of Fuldapocalypse meeting what the blog has gained a focus on-largely conventional World War IIIs mixed with elite small unit actions. I got the inspiration for this from a question of “what would the Army Rangers be doing in a conventional WW3?” Whatever the skill, level, troops like them are just far too light for the Centfront and would get bulldozed and/or bypassed. My initial thought was that they’d just get sent over to Norway with all of the other light infantry.

This was a very timid use of them (and other special forces), and the responses got my eyes lighting up. One was “Delta hunting the rail-mobile command center of GSFG, with the Rangers adding extra muscle.” To me it would be a ultra high-risk operation with an iffy reward, but hey, what else would you use them for?

Something like that would be a blast to sim, even if it’d have to use a different ruleset than the usual large-unit Fuldapocalyptic reenactments. While I have the same apprehension that it would turn into another Kidnapped with a scenario the mechanics aren’t meant to handle if you used a “hard” system, good design on either end would make it excellent. And if you used a “soft” system, well, stuff like this is what action heroes are made for.

Making a WW3 contemporary

So, Walt Gragg’s The Red Line is a book whose influence on this blog and my understanding of conventional World War IIIs in general was underappreciated. In fact, at the time I didn’t even know it. I just saw a World War III thriller that was clearly set in a Cold War gone hot but had its setting clumsily and obviously pushed into being “contemporary”.

Over two years and countless books later, I saw just how rare (to the point of being essentially nonexistent) mainstream World War III novels were that:

  • Took place after the Vietnam War.
  • Took place a significant time before the publication date of the book.
  • Were mostly conventional.

This also extends to Larry Bond-style “big war thrillers” in general. To appeal to more than a niche, they have to either piggyback on a well-known historical conflict (ie World War II), or be contemporary in some form. And after looking at and studying the issue, I’ve found that it really isn’t that hard to adapt any kind of missile-age war to a contemporary setting. And the beginning of the “missile age” can be roughly put as around the time of the…. Vietnam War. How about that?!?

For a start, the same geopolitical rivals have been more or less there for some time, and the absolute most you have to do is some kind of post-1991 technothriller enemy gimmick. Second, if it’s known that the audience won’t know/care about the technical details and/or inaccuracies, swapping names and using the same basic “feel” can be done with relative ease. It doesn’t hurt that a lot of military platforms have served for a very long period of time (just look at the B-52) in a way that the ones of the World Wars mostly didn’t.

Review: Third World War: The Untold Story

Third World War: The Untold Story

It’s very hard for lightning to strike twice. And in Third World War: The Untold Story, John Hackett tried. He did not really succeed. The problem was that much of the appeal of the original came from being the first out of the gate, whereas by 1982 the zeitgeist had clearly shifted. (An obscure and amusing example comes from the line “World War III is drawing near” in the XTC song Generals and Majors, released in 1980).

While possibly unfair to list the earliest instance of a genre as not having held up well over time, I do believe that Hackett’s work has aged the worst of all the few “big-name” conventional WW3 books. It’s earliest, and it’s clearly meant as an explicit lobbying document in a way that the (still-slanted) other works of that nature did not. And this applies far more to a modestly repackaged version released four years after the original. Because that’s what it is.

This is the book equivalent of one of those “remastered special edition” movie DVD releases. There’s a reason why those, even if the underlying film is sound, do not generate nearly as much enthusiasm as the first, novel release.

Differing Fandoms, And What That Means For Alternate History

Seeing a post on the different “Eagle” and “Sparrow” fandoms made me think of this blog. After all, it started off trying to be small and selective to a small and selective group of literature. And then it ended up reviewing lots and lots of fiction in genres anything but those. Now, that post has its issues, but the general trends hold up.

Wargaming is an ideal “Eagle” fandom, small, selective, and often focused on exact details and quality. In contrast, cheap thrillers are a perfect “sparrow” fandom, where many are simply interchangeable and quite a few readers aren’t picky at all. Neither of these are bad things in the slightest. One can enjoy a deep simulator and a shallow mobile game just as much. But they are clearly different.

In conventional World War III fiction, it’s very easy to see the spectrum from “Eagles” (War That Never Was, wargames, especially advanced ones, etc…) to “Sparrows” (Ian Slater, other trend-hopping fiction). For all my criticism of Larry Bond, an underappreciated advantage of his books is an ability to balance between the extremes, making, or at least sincerely trying to make, something that’s technically adept enough for the “eagles” and relatable enough for the “sparrows”.

But where I’ve seen the biggest dichotomy is in alternate history. Like any other genre/type of fiction, it has its “eagles” and “sparrows”, and it’s made worse in my eyes from inherent divisions. IE, the same person is unlikely to consume Brad Smith’s World War 1985, Bridgerton, and Hotline Miami just because they’re all “alternate history”.

And internet alternate history, starting off as a pretty obvious “eagle”, has gradually changed. If I had to describe a lot of it, I’d use the term “a sparrow with the trappings of an eagle”, a sort of Mimikyu. There’s exposition, stock photos, and wikiboxes with exact details and little/no effort to make a broadly appealing narratives. Yet a lot of these events are contrived, ill-researched-and accepted.

The reason why I found New Deal Coalition Retained‘s conventional World War III so legitimately fascinating and not just bad was because it embodied this trend and (negatively) stood out so much from the Fuldapocalypses I knew so much about. Military alternate history (especially the American Civil War and World War II) has this reputation for being more “eagle-y” than a coordinated F-15 flyover of Lincoln Financial Field.

Here comes this war with absolutely no thought put into its logic beyond the absolute basic trappings of Clancy/Bond (which I think might have been copies of copies), a knockoff of World War II, and a desire for BIG CASUALTY NUMBERS. Yet it’s broad-scope told in a pseudo-Hackett way of pure exposition mixed with a handful of vignettes. While the most extreme example, it illustrates the strange evolution of internet alternate history through its blatant and noticeable issues.

Review: Whirlwind

Whirlwind

The 56th book in the Kirov series and the conclusion of its third World War III arc is Whirlwind. By this point, the same issues present in any other installment are there. The prose is what it is, and the “time travel soap opera mixed with wargame AARs” is familiar as well. A large chunk of this book doesn’t even pretend to be a conventional narrative and just recaps the war in detail.

While this (supposedly) second-to-last arc in the series doesn’t just nuke everything and overwrite the timeline like its predecessor, it leaves an uncomfortable feeling. The talk about how weapons and doctrine in-universe evolved gave me the impression that Schettler would pull the football yet again and have yet another four-books-too-long wargame sim. Especially because the main ship plot does have a lot of genuine promise.

The concept of the titular ship’s crew going back in time to stop delightful supervillain Ivan Volkov from destroying the timeline is a great one, and I know very well that you could merge such a plot with wargame scenarios. But even my patience is wearing down with the formula. The circle could be squared if the ship and its crew got a good final conclusion while allowing the toy box lets plays to continue, but I’m not really confident in that happening.

Hanover The Key

One thing I’ve noticed in the admittedly small number of conventional/mostly conventional World War III stories is that the decisive make-or-break battle is fought in the vicinity of Hanover, West Germany. And I have to ponder how much of it is realistic, how much of it is a coincidence (since there’s only so much room and it is in the northern sector) and how much of it is literary license.

Review: Holy Ground

Holy Ground

As readers of this blog undoubtedly know, I’ve dipped pretty deep into the small field known as [mostly] conventional World War III fiction. So when I saw an actual new release of one, Evan Currie’s Holy Ground, I felt obligated to check it out. The book is a prequel to an extensive science fiction series, and it shows. It centers around the defense of the island of Iwo Jima, on land, sea, and air.

Honestly, the setting image that came to my mind was “Command and Conquer Generals”. Not in the exact form or in it being an exact ripoff of that game-it definitely is not. But in the general (no pun intended) sense of a combination of sci-fi technology and stuff that’s visible in the obvious headlines/popular culture. Despite nominally taking place several decades in the future, there’s a lot of contemporary fighter aircraft designations. There’s also a lot of “cinematic” stuff, like missile-age aircraft using guns far more often than they realistically should.

Because of these limitations, it doesn’t succeed in being a technothriller. At the same time it’s too comparably grounded to be a Wingman-style pulpy thriller. And even judged purely on its own terms, the action isn’t the best. I want to emphasize it’s not the worst either, but I’ve definitely read better. For me it was a little fascinating to see what a technothriller in the style of a popular science fiction book looked like, but that can’t raise the novel above average on its own.