The View From the Bunker – Wargamers Aren’t Doomed to Repeat History’s Mistakes

By Jeff Ward 18 Mar 2015 0


Last week, in the process of tackling the efficacy (or lack thereof) of Operation Husky, we wound up discussing how our beloved hobby often provides the kind of historical perspective that you just can’t get from a college classroom. After all, doesn’t the human story consist primarily of the annals of endless military campaigns? 

But just like the two-faced Roman god for whom our first month is named, and much like physicists posit that the arrow of time can tick in either direction, that kind of historical insight works both ways too. Put more simply, wargamers can predict the future with frightening accuracy. 

I’m sure I could be accused of being more than a bit overzealous in extolling the virtue of playing wargames, but who better to understand and validate my point than this audience? The only alternative is, when recently attempting to explain the benefit of this pastime to a political friend, having to contend with the predictable response, “You play what?” 

And surprisingly, the inspiration for this particular piece came in the form of a three-word reply to a Facebook post noting that ISIS, or the Islamic State that stretches from Syria to northern Iraq, was falling apart from within. And that response was “It was inevitable.” 

But we all knew that, didn’t we? 

Nobody understands the myth of the “invincible soldier” better than wargamers do. First, it was the Spartans, then the Romans, and the Visigoths. Napoleon was unbeatable, the Confederates couldn’t be stopped, the Wehrmacht was insurmountable, and the Imperial Japanese Army was invincible. 

Until they weren’t. 

Unless you’re Superman – and even the DC comic book folks have toned him down a bit – there is no such thing as an invincible soldier – especially if those soldiers are mercenaries. 

And unlike the average American conservative who fervently believes that Islam is the root of all planetary evil, we military enthusiasts knew that ISIS was nothing more than mercenary force all along. Please don’t get me wrong, those Swiss pikemen always acquitted themselves well, but in general, when the going gets tough, most mercenaries start going – away from the battlefield that is. 

What’s held ISIS together, so far, is they’re paying ground troops between $400 and $800 a month which is three to six times what the average Middle Eastern Arab typically makes. Now, add the chaos in Syria to the vacuum in Iraq created by a dismal U. S. foreign policy, and you have a string of easy victories and a steady inflow of cash which kept everyone in that group reasonably happy. 

Oh! Much as Saddam Hussein did in his waning days, ISIS will use religion as a cover and rallying point, but make no mistake, as the great Randy Newman once said, “It’s money that matters.” 

We also knew that, when a bloodthirsty group like Al Qaeda proclaimed ISIS to be too militant, some sort of coalition would inevitably rise up to confront them. And even though it’s a motley crew at best, when that coalition can maintain air superiority over a desert battlefield, $400 a month suddenly loses its appeal. What good is all that cash if you’re not going to be around to spend it? 

Worse yet, most military gamers implicitly understood that ISIS’ basic premise of bringing all Arabs together under one flag is a fatally flawed concept. C’mon! Attacking with multiple Allied divisions in the Mr. Tiller’s Panzer Campaigns series necessitates a steep penalty! Given the enmity between so many Arab factions, $8,000 a month wouldn’t be nearly enough to mitigate those centuries of distrust. 

Despite what conservatives might think, we know that, unless the local folks have an iron in the fire, the best you can do is stave off a looming disaster. The U.S. involvement in Vietnam is the perfect example. Without hearts and minds, you’re finished before you start. 

And whenever any upstart mercenary military faction starts feeling the kind of pressure that’s being applied in Iraq, unless they have a Robert E. Lee at the helm, they start making stupid mistakes. When ISIS burned that unfortunate Jordanian pilot alive, they sealed their fate. 

The Jordanians can fight, as they proved in the Six Day War and President Obama was smart enough to understand that all he had to do was to provide that county with the time and space to take ownership in what was, up till then, a generally a U. S. led conflict. 

So unless there’s some sort of unforeseen sea change, the end result is assured. ISIS factions are already battling each other in the street, they’re facing mass desertions, they’re slaughtering soldiers caught attempting to desert, and they’re recruiting children to fight on the front lines – all clear signs that the end is near. 

Ah! But we wargamers also know that, until the situation in Syria stabilizes, the Iraqi’s have a stake in their fledgling government, and there is real economic opportunity in those Arab countries, entities like ISIS will never completely fade away. They’ll simply hang back and wait for the next opportunity to present itself. 

So, while we talked about hindsight last week, I’m sure you’ll agree that foresight is a far more formidable attribute. And that’s the cool thing about those of us who enjoy military simulations – we aren’t doomed to repeat the past because we’ve “lived” every last inch of it! 

We all knew what was going to happen to ISIS. Perhaps we should work harder to get elected!


Jeff Ward is a free-lance writer, radio show host, and former opinion columnist for the Sun-Times Media Group. He got hooked on wargames immediately after he picked up a copy of Avalon Hill’s Midway from Hobbymodels in Evanston, Illinois in 1972. You can reach Jeff at



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