Given its prominence in wargaming, it’s a little surprising that it’s taken as long as it has to bring an official 198X World War III DLC to Command. But now it’s here. The Red Tide battleset is out.
I’m doing it. I’m breaking all my rules. I’m reviewing an in-progress internet online alternate history piece by an author I overreacted to in the past, at one point calling his TLs the “worst ever”, something which is not true and which I apologize for. I speculated as to why I felt as negative as I did in the very review itself, and with years of hindsight I can say that, sadly, it was just personal stress mixed with tunnel vision. The actual view I have of them is what I said I’d have felt in isolation before-middling Hackett-fics, no better or worse than say, Operation Zhukov and not really the most able to build a long review around.
But I think this new TL is worthy. I feel I’m calm enough to look at it more objectively, unlike my past axe-grinding. Like with New Deal Coalition Retained, I feel that this isn’t an obsession and that one post on an internet timeline won’t overwhelm dozens of those on other topics far less controversial to me. And I feel it does have something to say about the genre. I don’t want to come across as gatekeeping or saying someone shouldn’t do anything that they and others enjoy. I’m just giving my personal opinion. And of course, if my opinion on it changes as new updates emerge, I will gladly make an update post.
The timeline is called People’s War, and it’s about a surviving East Germany.
What I consider People’s War to show actually has a parallel in sports betting. What William Leiss calls “manual research”.
Now obviously literature is not a zero-sum game like sports gambling is. Everyone has to start off with the surface level details, and not everyone can or wants to do Kirov-level simulations. But this kind of ultimately surface research applied to a pseudo-Hackett pure exposition style has made me see the strengths and weaknesses of it.
The biggest strength is that there is a lot more verisimilitude. This is something that Young Grognard Me took for granted because I started with nonfiction books and wargames and went backwards from there. Now I know how rare even nominally accurate military fiction is in a world of “machine gun pistols”, “Flamethrower M60 Abrams”, and “A-130 helicopter gunships”. More to the point, this and the WW3 TLs that preceded it and which I got far too angry about are far more sensible than the clearly just tossed carelessly out “stock photo and a wikibox” stuff like the infamous New Deal Coalition Retained Part II. It’s one thing to arguably lean too heavily on Hackett, Bond, and primary sources as Lions Will Fight Bears and its successors did. It’s quite another to avoid them completely in favor of BIG NUMBERS, as NDCR Part II did.
But Hackett, Bond, and the WW3 TLs were dealing with a hypothetical conflict that had decades and decades of simulations, analyses, and sources dedicated to it. Said documentation is a big reason why it’s up there with the American Civil War and World Wars for wargaming and “hard” alternate history. But what happens when you’re dealing with something that doesn’t have that paper trail?
Trying to Hackett-ify a 1980s technothriller scenario is one thing. But this TL is trying to Hackett-ify what’s essentially a 1990s technothriller, where a surviving East Germany ruled by Honecker’s widow comes into conflict with the western world. Now looking at the reams of studies of a theoretical conventional Fuldapocalypse is one thing. But where are the think tank papers for “Fighting a somehow surviving ex-Warsaw Pact state post-USSR, especially with the hint of threat balancers you’d find in a Larry Bond novel?” They aren’t there. The closest are clear surface details like the names and amounts of weapons that end up feeling close to the more shallow “here’s the exact designation of a Scud TEL” than what effect barrages of those missiles would have in practice.
And this is my objection. Because there’s less opportunity to look, this sort of thing just feels kind of shallow to me without either simulation/deep analysis or just setting up the basics and running with a conventional story. And the TL format prevents the latter.
It’s still far superior to the outright Calvinball of NDCR’s Neo-Timurid Empire or postwar AANW’s “Eastern Siberia as an American state.” The military details are still far greater and more plausible than 3 million Soviet troops sloooooooooooowly advancing against 2 million NATO ones. Compared to “historical fanfiction” AH, it is better.
But there still doesn’t like a real solid base is there. And by the standards of either wargaming or literary fiction, I feel it doesn’t reach its potential.
Especially because this is a redo of a previous concept for a surviving East Germany war that was ultimately abandoned in part because, unsurprisingly, its base was too one-sided strategically. This is what I think goes full circle back to the “Manual Research” video, because Leiss specifically talks about the follies of using manual research for an obvious mismatch. Manual research can tell you what common sense and the odds show-that the powerhouse team against a paid-to-lose punching bag will easily win. But it can’t tell you how likely the opponent is to cover the inevitably massive point spread.
The force regarded as the best non-Soviet Warsaw Pact military can definitely still threaten the characters in a normal narrative and can definitely still do more damage than Saddam’s army did. It’s just that this and other works like it sit in an awkward middle ground between hard and soft. I wouldn’t call it a trinket, but it still feels less than whole.
It’s finally time to review the third major archetype of World War III fiction. Ian Slater’s WW III embodies the “what realism?” school of fiction. In fact, he may be the least technically astute technothriller author out there-and you know I don’t say this lightly. Slater embodies frequently going into huge technical detail on some kind of weapon or vehicle-and getting said details wrong.
Anyway, the plot itself is a simple “Second Korean War and Fuldapocalypse big war thriller”, only with a ton of jumbles. Besides his technical inaccuracy, Slater’s work is also defined by its incoherence. In longer series this translates to absolutely no sense of continuity. Here it’s just sloppiness.
And yet this book is oddly fun in a Tommy Wiseau/Ed Wood style way. It’s a good game to see when Slater actually gets a technical comment right. Seeing the adventures of Mary Sue lead-from-the-front general Douglas Freeman is amusing, even if Slater fills the rest of the NATO cast with drooling doofuses to make him look better. Every fan of these kinds of World War III should really read this, if only to appreciate the virtues of the books that, whatever else, got most of the basic details right.
Silent Night: The Defeat of NATO
I thought that the well of classic Fuldapocalypses had run too low. Then I found out about and read Silent Night, a 1980 story about a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Written by WWII tank veteran Cyril Joly, it, as the title suggests, tells the story of NATO’s loss. There’s a reason why this book is not mentioned alongside Red Army in the list of “bad guys win” novels. Or talked about much at all.
That’s because it’s a terrible book. First the prose is clunky and none of the characters sound natural. Then there’s a ton of conference rooms, hopping viewpoints around everywhere and a tone of forced “solemn darkness”. It honestly reminded me of the online TLs/fanfics I’d read and gotten too angry about-but this was published in 1980. Of course, one thing about it is incredibly different and that is the nature of the war’s conduct.
Basically, 99.9999% of the work is done by infiltrated-in irregular forces, ranging from external operators to local collaborators. They smash bases, kill or capture commanders, and generally break NATO completely. By the time the Soviet conventional forces cross the Inter-German border, they’re facing only a tiny amount of scattered, light resistance. I’d compare it to the Iraqis in 2003 or the final stages of World War II in the west-but that would be an insult to the Fedayeen Saddam and Volkssturm.
After the cakewalk conquest, the later portion of the book involves a clear author rant where he suggests that NATO dramatically reduce its conventional forces in favor of fortifications with “micronuclear” launchers. Then it ends with an OOB dump to add “character.”
There’s a thing called survivorship bias, where you get nostalgia because you remember the good and not the bad. People remember Red Storm Rising, Team Yankee, Red Army, Chieftains, and Hackett for good reasons. They do not remember this, and it’s also for good reason.
World War III 1946: Stalin Strikes First
I’ve said before that I don’t really consider 1940s World War IIIs to really be in the same genre as post-Vietnam ones. However, they still meet the very basic definition. One such work was World War III 1946, which was involved in internet controversy about its quality and plausibility before it got commercialized. The first printed installment is Stalin Strikes First.
This is not the most ideal story. The first issue is that its writing system just isn’t that good. It’s a mixture of snippets, conference rooms, and vignettes that never really rise beyond exposition. The second and more fascinating issue is how the war develops, with the Soviets skill on the ground being downplayed while they pull one superweapon in an area of historical weakness after another out of their hats. There’s also a bit of taking primary sources too literally, especially dated ones. Imagine a 1980s World War III where the Warsaw Pact armies could consistently move at their maximum on-paper speeds at the same time that NATO air power was inflicting its maximum on-paper attrition and you’ll get the idea.
This particular book has the Soviets winning the initial advance. And not through their existing strengths or through Red Army-style showing how they can be more than the sum of their parts. No, it’s through author fiat handing them one victory after another on a silver platter. There is obvious enthusiasm put into this book, but I still cannot recommend it. There are just so many better World War IIIs out there.
Air Battle Central Europe
Alfred Price’s Air Battle Central Europe is a magisterial study of aviation plans for a hypothetical conventional World War III. What makes it different from other technical studies? The answer is simple-it looks at the whole and not just the sum of the parts.
In the interviews and discussions, every piece of the NATO air power puzzle is studied, and each role of each aircraft is talked about. The result is a lot of detail, and an important look at how combined arms works in the air. It’s both accessible and comprehensive.
There are a few sour parts. Some aren’t it’s fault, like the book being dated compared to a post-Gulf War understanding. The biggest issue I thought that was its fault was a willingness to talk more about the ideals of what air power would do than a stress-tested analysis that involved a worse case. But the book is still excellent and a must-read for anyone studying a conventional Fuldapocalypse.
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.
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.
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.
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.