Why War Games Fail

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Mon, Nov 17 - 9:00 am EST | 4 years ago by
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Lines of Departure - War Games

Yeah, you asked for it; another Lieutenant Reilly story. One more time: “NTINS.”

But first a little background.

On 3 June, 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy possessed six fleet carriers, those being the arm of decision in the greatest naval war in human history. A day later, she had two. The rest were smoking or burning, derelict or sunken, corpse-filled, in any case, wrecks.

Prior to launching the campaign that culminated in the disaster at Midway, the IJN tested the plan via tabletop war gaming, aboard the battleship Yamato. There’s an urban legend that the games were fixed to give the desired results. That doesn’t seem to be quite true, rather, it seems that the umpires decided that some results – major hits on maneuvering warships from high flying bombers, were simply too unlikely to permit to stand, and corrected them. At a bare minimum, though, we can say that the games showed the operation as risky, and the risks were pretty much ignored.1

I didn’t see that, of course, I also didn’t see, but heard from credible sources, that a retired colonel, at the War College in 2004, using unconventional methods (like, oh, say, the kind of stuff the Iraqi insurgents were soon to start pulling on us), inflicted vast humiliation on some flag officers and brought into serious question any number of military and naval sacred cows, until the war game was reset, with his unconventional approached disallowed.

On the other hand, twenty-one years before that, I saw young Reilly do much the same thing, though to precisely the same result.


It started innocently enough, in the course of playing the old 193rd Infantry Brigade’s (Canal Zone) Command Post War Game, in what had once been a jet engine testing and repair facility, concrete and deeply set into the ground. The CPW was credibly alleged to be the most complex non-computerized war game in the world at the time. Reilly was one half of the OPFOR (Opposing Force) team, for the Pacific side of the Canal Zone2 and Panama. The other half of the team was on the other half of the clock, so it was, for twelve hours or so a day, Reilly almost unsupervised.

I’m not sure anyone but myself understood just how dangerous a prospect that could turn out to be.

In perusing the map, Reilly noticed that a) as was their wont, insofar as limited intelligence was portrayed on the OPFOR map, the US forces were mostly taking the fight to the enemy, deep in the jungle; they had also dragged the Panamanian forces along with them, and b) there was a pin representing a US military unit, stuck in the open courtyard of a building on the map3 that he knew was the Palacio de las Garzas, the Palace of the Herons, Panama’s presidential palace. This was at a time when the United States and Panama were pretending to be best buddies, so it was a combined exercise, with Panamanian players on the US side.

Reilly pulled the pin out of the map and read it: “79th US Army Band.” He twirled the pin between his finger and thumb for a while, apparently musing on the implications. Then he replaced it and went to find the Observer Controller, in effect the Umpire, for the game on the Pacific side. I am pretty sure he was already thinking, 1964, the year of the deadly4 Panama Canal riots.

“When’s the concert, sir?” asked Reilly, of the brigade staff major.


“The 79th Army Band is at the presidential palace. When’s the concert?”

“Dunno. Concert, huh? I’ll get back with you.”

About four hours later, the major came back and gave Reilly the time for the concert.

“Any idea about the attendees, sir?”

“Sadly not, Lieutenant.”

“Oh, well, we all have these little crosses to bear. Thanks, sir. Now let me go find my battalion commander.”

Reilly then wandered off, looking for the chief of OPFOR for both sides of Panama, Atlantic and Pacific, who was also his battalion commander in real life.

“I want to attack the presidential palace, sir. Here’s why…” and he explained the significance of the pin in the palace.

“Okay,” agreed the chief of the OPFOR. “What are you going to use and how are you going to get there?”

“Two sections of 120s, two infantry platoons, and I’ll block a road or two and seize Chiva Chiva5 buses until I have enough to carry everyone and the ammo for the mortars… starting in, oh, maybe an hour.”

“Go for it.”


The subsequent attack, a serious mortar barrage followed by a ground assault to finish off the wounded, killed… mmm… I want to say about one hundred and twenty-five innocent women and children, all from well-connected families, the commander and XO of the Panama Defense Force, along with the G1, G2, G3, G4, and G5, the mayor of Panama City, both vice presidents, and seriously wounded the president. Most of the legislature was killed, too. Why did the president – Espriella – live?

“Look, Lieutenant Reilly, this is real world political. We simply cannot let you off the head of an allied state. We. Can’t. Do. It.”

“Bu’… bu’… buu’… Oh, all &^%ing right. I’ll make do.”

Thereupon, Reilly went to his battalion commander, passing on the way several Panamanian officers just tickled pink – we are talking rolling on the floor, laughing, here – at the destruction of a whole bunch of corrupt bastards they didn’t like anyway. To his battalion commander, Reilly said, “Rioting is, in Panama, a cultural mandate, a sacred calling, a duty… and a matter of rest and recreation.”

With raised eyebrow and no little exasperation, the chief of OPFOR said, “Out with it, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, sir. The government of the Republic of Panama and Panama Defense Force, both, are decapitated. US forces – operating outside the Canal Zone – are spread out over several thousand miles of mostly trackless jungle, as are the infantry companies of the PDF. It took days to deploy them. There are not enough helicopters in country to return the troops anything like quickly.”

“Yeah, and so?”

“So I want to start a riot.”

“It’s not in the rule book.”

“Yes, sir. So?”

“Good point. Tell me how it’s going to work.”

Reilly produced several hundred flagged pins, yellow in color, I seem to recall, that no one had ever used in the game. No one seemed even to know what they were supposed to be used for.

“These, sir. I’ll start with one in Arraijan” – that being a largish town a couple of miles west of Howard Air Force Base and Fort Kobbe, about five miles by road – “and one in Chorillo and Curundu” – those being poor areas; I mean really poor – “in Panama City, plus maybe a demonstration that can get out of hand at Panama Viejo” – which was the ruins left by the attack of Henry Morgan’s pirates in 1671 – “and increase them geometrically, say, oh, on the half hour. The Atlantic side players can do the same thing for Colon. Let’s say each pin is one hundred “peaceful demonstrators.” When they reach critical mass, defined as either I can’t find a place to stick any more pins, or the pins times one hundred is twenty-five percent of the male population of the place of origination between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five, plus some women, at least, I’ll use my ‘troops’ as rabble rousers to lead them into the Canal Zone and trash the place. I mean, you know, I’ve still got the Chiva Chiva buses so why not? And once I get the fuel facilities and motor pools, there’ll be no helicopters, or trucks for that matter, moving any troops anywhere. The war will be over. Viva la Revolución!”

Viva! Do it.”

Next week: Why War Games Fail, Part II (AKA: How a first lieutenant can annoy at least one general, twenty-eight colonels, a like number of lieutenant colonels, one Air Force major, and foreigners beyond counting… without really trying.)


1 Someone once observed that history is a set of lies mutually agreed on. That would be fine, I suppose, except that, with so many people needing subjects for their Doctoral Theses, none of the lies can be agreed on anymore and every truth has come open for question or has been lied about. Me, I dunno. I know there was a war game, that the results were disastrous, that those were overridden, and that the real battle was a disaster. Beyond that… ???

2 Note, at the time it was already the “Canal Operating Area,” just as the 193d has changed from “Canal Zone” to “Panama.” But I’m going to pretend that Jiminy Peanut, the nation’s worst ex-president, never happened, for the nonce. Indulge me.

3 These were highly detailed maps. I want to say the scale was 1/6250. Might have been 1/3125.

4 They were bad and the Army was badly unprepared. There were four US troops killed, and something between twenty-one a couple of hundred Panamanians. No one really knows.

5 The term seems to originate outside of Panama. It means goat, and probably refers to the buses going up steep and wretched mountain roads to service rural areas.

Don’t miss last week’s column: Why Us? The Military and Humanitarian Assistance.

Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.

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