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I was recently asked by the Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) to speak at their annual Military Affairs Symposium in North Texas. The topic was “Training Marines and the Joint Force: The Value of Simulations and Games.” It was pretty exciting stuff. We had a Marine four-star there, GEN Joseph F. Dunford, Jr. Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps; RADM Ken Carodine, U.S. Navy, Deputy Commander of the Navy Warfare Development Command and IT wizard; COL Mike Flanagan, Project Manager for Training Devices (TRADE) in the U.S. Army; a pair of West Point officers who take their cadets through some amazing military simulations; experts from civilian industry, and more. Having had my mind blown for the better part of a day, I can say one thing with assurance: most of you would not BELIEVE (as I didn’t) what the military is up to these days in terms of battlefield simulation as a training tool for their warriors. Virtual reality. Pods. And in the future—wait for it—pain simulation.

Yeah. That’s exactly what I said.

The holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation once seemed far-fetched to me. Now it simply seems—inevitable.

While I marveled at the present and the future, I was there to talk about the past. Story of my life. Specifically, my brief dealt with the U.S. Army’s first real foray into the world of “simulation”: the great Fall Maneuvers of 1941 in Louisiana, a practice run of sorts for World War II. Maneuvers, exercises, and wargames generally don’t get a lot of attention from military historians, and it’s easy to see why. Why spend a lot of time obsessing on pre–World War II maneuvers when you can go forward in time only a couple of years and analyze how all the various armies involved fought the real thing? Even serious military historians who analyze a peacetime army are usually more inclined to look to its theoretical and doctrinal writings, rather than analyzing what they often deride as a kind of “mock battle.” In my field, for example, there are a lot of German military histories that emphasize the classic thinkers and/or geniuses of the German tradition (the Clausewitzes, Moltkes, and Schlieffens), and a mountain of battle books that deal with the German army in action. Serious analyses of the way that the Germans—the folks who invented the modern military maneuver—handled them? About five, and I should know. I think I’ve written three of them. All of them sold in the double figures, as I like to say. Since then, I’ve wised up and written books on the battle of Stalingrad, and they are helping put my kids through college.

Still, it is a shame that maneuvers don’t get more respect. I think that we can learn a lot about a given army by a careful study of its wargames and field maneuvers. Military historians talk a lot today about “ways of war,” the unique methods by which individual armies tend to conceive, plan, and execute their wars. The point these scholars seek to make is that, no matter how often modern armies claim to be “changing” or “reforming” or “Transforming” (with a capital “T”), they seem to fight their wars in very similar ways every time out. Count the reorganizations that the U.S. Army has had in the course of its history. And then, think about the way it has fought its actual wars (I’m talking “Big Wars” here): the same massive firepower, the same heavy reliance upon technology, the same relatively straightforward operational approach of “broad front advance” and careful “battlefield management.” While not particularly exciting or sexy in the operational sphere, it was an approach that served the nation pretty well in the 20th century.

To give just one counterexample, German armies over the centuries have tended to fight in a very different manner. Here the approach has been Bewegungskrieg, the war of movement, a risky operational posture that emphasized separate armies maneuvering concentrically towards the enemy and trying to trap him in a battle of encirclement, a Kesselschlacht. With their country trapped in a relatively narrow space in Central Europe, ringed by enemies or potential ones, German planners believed that they had no choice but to win their wars rapidly, since they would always be outmanned and outproduced by their foes. In order to get the job in something approximating ASAP, the commanders of these separated German armies had to be given the widest possible latitude for decision-making on their own, not be hamstrung by overly rigid orders from the top. Despite our obsession with German warmaking, we should admit that this operational scheme had a very checkered career in the 20th century. It gained massive operational victories at the outset of both world wars, but not strategic victory. Both times, the Allies held on against the initial onslaught, fought the German army to a standstill, and eventually crushed it with superior resources. [continued on next page]

With that little intro in mind, let us get down to the micro-level. Let us look at the way that each army prepared to fight World War II. Let us look at the prewar maneuvers.

Tune in next week for “Preparing for Blitzkrieg—the Wehrmacht Maneuvers of 1937.”

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