The other night I sat at my dining room table examining wit both fascination and revulsion a copy of "Desert Shield," a new board game that gives two people a chance to fight the Persian Gulf war that has not yet taken place.
A mere detail. "Desert Shield," hot off the presses from Baltimore's Victory Games company, allows an Iraqi player the option of using chemical weapons right there on the dining room table. It gives the United States player the chance to retaliate with a nuclear attack, presuming the dice roll is favorable.
The U.S. player also has the option of launching one of those famed decapitation strikes, the very mention of which recently got the Air Force's chief of staff fired. In this game, decapitation strikes are no secret. The U.S. player may direct cardboard jet counters to the Baghdad palace where Saddam Hussein may be hiding.
The objective, by the way, is not to kill Mr. Hussein. The preferred euphemism is "hits."
An opponent takes X number of hits and removes the appropriate number of cardboard counters. Thus, if you use chemical weapons in this game, the opponent suffers one "hit." If you drop a nuclear bomb, the enemy suffers 10 hits. If you are lucky in your decapitation strike, you will "hit" Saddam's palace and, according to the rules, the game is over and the United States wins.
To play "Desert Shield" you need the maps and instruction booklets that come with an earlier Victory game called "Gulf Strike." It dealt with the Iran-Iraq war and was updated only two years ago so players could deal with the attacks on tankers in the gulf at the time.
As I sat at my table sorting through the maps, charts and 8 pages of complicated rule books that come with these two games, I found myself wondering who in his right mind would be willing to sit down and say "Yeah, I want to be Iraq
and shoot mustard gas at you."
But floating above all of that initial distaste, there was something more. While I have dutifully followed news accounts of the Persian Gulf situation, read my Newsweek each week and tuned in the TV shows devoted to the crisis, the danger and folly of the situation had never seemed as real to me as at that mo
ment. Looking at the multicolored maps, measuring the distance between Baghdad and the Saudi Arabian desert where American forces are now stationed, it became obvious that no matter how lopsided this game was in favor of the United States, our side was going to have to take a good number of hits before it was over.
And it didn't seem vague anymore. Those cheerful stories about troops weathering the hot desert and the alarming stories of Saddam rattling his saber suddenly gave way to a clear picture of what it was really all about. You could look at the maps and see who had what and where everybody was and just how long and tortuous this war was going to be. You could play it out right there on your dining room table, neat, antiseptic, bigger than death.
Death, of course, is an objective that war and war games have in common, whether that death is real or merely of the cardboard variety. And I suppose it was somewhat ironic that my own long association with war games began on a day of peace, Christmas of 1960, when I received a board game called "Gettysburg."
One of the first productions of Baltimore's Avalon Hill company -- now a sister firm to Victory Games -- "Gettysburg" introduced thousands of boys to a new hobby which, 30 years later, has become a slick, sophisticated business.
For me the game was more. From my days of playing "Gettysburg" I went on to study history with a passion, both as a college student and later as a postgraduate. I read everything about the Civil War and other wars that I could get my hands on. I studied sociology and psychology of warfare while on a fellowship and even took a course on the theory of game playing and game design.
Over the years of amateur study, I've come to believe that war is perhaps the most stupid and tragic endeavor man has ever invented. I have marveled at how history has seldom been without the clash of arms, that men have seldom felt purged of their need to prove themselves by trying to kill each other in vast numbers. I have been appalled at how national leaders and field commanders alike continue to make the same incredibly bad decisions, century after century, concerning the commitment of troops or the de
cision even to wage war in the first place.
And playing war games has helped shape this belief.
"Gettysburg" and games like it are more accurately called simulations, tools that attempt to replicate the actual decisions a leader faces in a given situation. The idea is that if you were Lee and could have seen on a map the disastrous consequence of attacking Cemetery Ridge against a superior, dug-in Union force, you most likely wouldn't have attacked.