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.

The Beginning of Conventional WW3 Plans

I’ve talked sometimes about the “you’ve seen so many imitators that the original doesn’t seem so original” effect with regards to fiction. When reading this translated, declassified 1969 Soviet lecture on conventional operations after the monomanical focus on nuclear weapons earlier that decade, I’ve found it applied to history as well. Because a lot of it just seems like later pieces on how a large force would fight conventionally. And there’s more interesting things to it as well.

  • “A future world war is first and foremost a nuclear war.” Similar pieces illustrate that while the Soviets had made plans under the assumption that a World War III would start conventionally, they did not believe that it would end conventionally.
  • This is for front and army level operations, with one frequently replacing the other. This I’ve seen a lot of in translated Soviet field regulations, to include two unit names being used interchangeably, one an echelon below the other. The assumption I’ve always had is that it’s a concession to heavy casualties because your “front” will quickly be worn down to the size of a paper-strength army, your army worn to a paper-strength division, and so on. I could be wrong.
  • The stated rate of advance is 35-40 kilometers a day, a slightly lower one than their later 40-60.
  • Airborne forces are to be used.
  • The “going over to nuclear weapons” section specifically brings up the opponent pushing the button as soon as they start losing badly.
  • With typical Soviet precision, the article estimates “A fighter bomber division is capable, in one day of combat with two to three sorties, of inflicting destruction (up to 20 percent losses) on one to two enemy brigades.”
  • As always, there’s the boilerplate necessary propaganda statements and the obligatory (if quite understandable) reference to World War II.

Review: Pale Horse 3

Pale Horse 3

Russell Greer’s Pale Horse 3 is the story of a B-52 in a 1980s World War III-published in 2020. So it’s another entry in the “alternate history World War III after Vietnam” genre which, as I’ve said many times, thought was too big but ended up being too small. Except this is in an even smaller field because it has nuclear weapons involved. But wait, unlike the apocalyptic For Alert Force, this falls back into limited plotnukes.

That quibble as to what tinier chuck of a tiny segment of fiction it falls into aside, how is the actual book?

The answer, I’m sad to say, is “not the best”. Given that this is only the author’s second novel, I’m not holding it against him, but the prose is still very clunky, the plot is kind of jumbled and a little slow with the backstory, and even the action gets a little too Herman Melville-y. Dale Brown at his finest this is not.

Besides the review of the book itself, this has a very bittersweet “closing the frontier” feeling for me. It’s one thing to know the “AHWW3AV” (how’s that for an acronym?) genre inside and outside, but quite another to literally read the literal last one on the current list. One reason I actually like having backlogs of books is because of the empty feeling when they’re finished, even if in a satisfying way.

Once the magic of figuring out the genre is gone, you’re left with a field that, like any other, has good, bad, and in this case middling entries. Conventional (or mostly conventional) World War III felt like something to explore. Something to help me mature when I saw how little it actually resembled the “Icelandic” picture I had in mind before. Something to start a whole blog about. Now it’s just another tag in this blog, and I’m really not sure how I feel about that.

Review: Battle of the Three Seas

World War 1990: Battle of The Three Seas

It’s time to return to William Stroock, an author who I’ve previously slammed as the worst World War III writer ever. Has this been fair? And has his new Battle of the Three Seas improved on his previous entries?

For the first question, it’s a weird answer. It’s like talking about the New York Knicks or Jets. They’re still pro-level teams, and even a “bad” pro player is still among the greatest in the world. Being the 32nd-best team in the world is still an accomplishment. Similiarly, to write a long novel at all in a niche genre is a talent many don’t have, and Stroock has still gotten more basics right in the field than non-specialized authors have. (Research on military equipment, especially above small arms, is something frequently in very, very short supply). So yes, it has been unfair to simply denounce in fire-breathing terms.

Yet it’s still fair to consider the Knicks and Jets not the 32nd-best teams in the world, but the worst compared to their colleagues. They’re still bad by those (incredibly high) standards. And they’re not going against college/international teams-you judge them by who they’re up against. So, with a heavier heart, I still have to say that Stroock is one of the worse World War III specialist writers, and while this book has improved somewhat compared to the earlier ones, it’s not enough to shift the rankings that much.

The book is less one-sided in absolute terms than some of his previous books. It’s undeniably improved in prose quality. But it still has a jumbled structure with way too many viewpoint changes for its own good and writing that’s still too flat to really work. There are still bizarre subplots that don’t really add anything.

It’s ultimately just still too hard to find something in this book, or Stroock’s series as a whole, that does what another “conventional World War III” book doesn’t do better, be it characterization, tone, or technical plausibility. It might be better than a historical “sports nadir” team. But it’s still, in a now-obsolete baseball term, very much a “second-division” series.