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Improving The Fine Art Of Writing History In Advance

Some years ago, in the introduction to an edited volume on the military profession's use of (more often failure to use) history, my co-editor Williamson Murray attempted to fathom why it is that military history reveals such perverse repetition in the pattern of its failures.

"Perhaps the most compelling explanation," he wrote, "is simply generational transition, the conviction of each new crop of leaders assuming power that they are different from their predecessors and immune from their errors."

As Aldous Huxley famously declared, "That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach."

That comment came to mind recently after reading an article reporting on the Army's latest "futures" war game, an annual exercise called "Unified Quest" involving hundreds of players. 

The Army began futures wargaming in the mid-1990's in the wake of the first Gulf War, and while both the title of the annual game and the way it has been conducted have changed over the years, its nominal objective persists: to examine more distant military challenges with a view to shaping future Army operating concepts and technology investments.

It was and is a sound and affordable investment. As a highly-regarded Army general and educator once declared, wargaming is nothing more than "writing history in advance." But, for that very reason, Mark Twain's caution that "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme" applies equally to wargaming.

Specifically, the value of wargaming in general, and of "futures" wargaming in particular, lies not in any single game, but rather in the cumulative results of a series of games, allowing rhyme to be discerned and both successes and failures to be replicated.

So it's a bit disturbing that there seems to be little such cumulation in current Army gaming. This year's game, conducted last month at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, is a case in point. 

According to the article mentioned earlier, its central focus was on combat in 'megacities' ó huge urban agglomerations in which, the Army projects, more than half the world's population will live by 2030. Combat in such a city, wargamers concluded, would be "complex, dangerous, and intense," magnifying the difficulty confronting the force seeking to invest it.

That would come as no surprise to the Germans who attempted to seize Stalingrad or the Russians who subsequently did reduce Berlin. For that matter, it would have come as no surprise to the Roman conquerors of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

More to the point, it should have come as no surprise to the Army's current wargamers, since just such a scenario was the centerpiece of a futures wargame some 10 years ago, in which problems such as "the megacity magnifies the power of the defender and diminishes the attacker's advantages in firepower and mobility" were already clearly in evidence.

The point is not that reexamining combat in megacities is a waste of time, although the arguments against lightly committing military forces to such an enterprise are no less powerful than they always have been. As one reader asked rhetorically of the same article, "What greater strategic purpose would draw the US into stability operations in foreign megacities?"

Instead, the question is whether that challenge has changed significantly since the last time that the Army examined it, and if so, how. But there is little indication to date that anyone responsible for this year's game troubled to review that earlier case and compare the two.

If that's true, it isn't a new oversight. Throughout the first decade of Army gaming, wargame sponsors repeatedly ignored recommendations to establish some systematic process for collating and cumulating game insights and issues. As a result, Blue ó friendly ó teams repeatedly committed the same operational errors and suffered the same consequences. Unsurprisingly, the reliability of the concepts derived from the gaming experience proved commensurately suspect.

 Writing in ARMY Magazine in October, 2011, retired Brigadier Gen. Huba Wass de Czege, still one of the Army's preeminent thinkers and a long time participant in Army futures wargaming, noted that "A healthy 'learning institution' is constantly creating better theories by destroying old ones," adding that "[Currently], we do not invest heavily enough to insure that we ask the right questions well."

Doing that, he points out, has to begin from "what is already known [from] valid past studies or experiments." But wargaming results relegated to a contractor's file cabinet or digital archive once the game that generated them ends can't contribute to that developmental history.

The Army should be praised for its effort to get out ahead of today's fights to try to anticipate tomorrow's. But it's past time for those charged with Army wargaming ó with writing history in advance ó to make sure that it's grounded in a systematic effort to examine and apply the history already written. 

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