Best Defense

Remembering war (XII): Simulations make us understand how hard war is

Written military history unfolds in a linear manner. It is an exposition of what actually happened coupled, one hopes, with insightful analysis. This manner of recording the facts of past wars and ruminating on their significance is important, but it can lead to an oversimplified understanding of the lessons of these conflicts.


Series editor’s introduction: We often accuse ourselves of fighting the last war. To prevent that from happening again, our effort goes towards anticipating the character of the next war, envisioning the army after next, pursuing a third offset strategy, etc. A good example of this is the Future of War Conference, which addresses “key issues and challenges arising from the changing nature of conflict and war.” At last year’s conference, one fifty-minute session was dedicated to discussing the relationship between past war and future war. No doubt many other sessions drew upon history, too. But you see the point. Are we easily enamored by the discourse of future war? Too quick to shed the stigma of old wars, the ones those other people messed up? Despite our intent, will our approach cause us to reel into the next one? Ian Hopper offers a counterintuitive solution to learning about the character of future war. Instead of simulating the next war, his students simulate the old ones. — Paul Edgar 

By Ian D. T. Hopper
Best Defense guest columnist

Written military history unfolds in a linear manner. It is an exposition of what actually happened coupled, one hopes, with insightful analysis. This manner of recording the facts of past wars and ruminating on their significance is important, but it can lead to an oversimplified understanding of the lessons of these conflicts. The emphasis on what actually did happen can create the illusion of a past without uncertainty or contingency; written analysis of what actually happened is theoretical and to a large degree unverifiable. Though historians themselves tend to be more circumspect, students, officers, and policy makers often allow simplistic assumptions derived from military history to frame their understanding of the present.

I am entering my fourth year teaching military history and I have found that my students have no problem learning about the fog of war and the friction of war, but they understand them only as abstract concepts. They struggle to appreciate how uncertainty, misinformation, and miscommunication played a crucial role in a given historical war or battle. Likewise, they fail to grasp how the immense logistical challenges of warfare can derail even the simplest operations in the present. It is for this reason that each of my military history courses includes a substantial war simulation: when my students take on the role of actors in an historical conflict it transforms their understanding not only of the specific war we are simulating but of warfare in general.

Last semester I taught a course on the Second World War. After a month long review of the actual events and themes of WWII, my students began a six-week long simulation of the conflict. I quickly realized that my students were refighting that “last war” — that is, each team was responding to the real WWII and were trying to duplicate historical successes and avoid historical failures. The Germans, for example, avoided the costly Battle of Britain and instead seized Middle Eastern oil fields. The British, meanwhile, had built up their air force to counter a German aerial onslaught that never materialized. Each was fighting the last war against an imaginary, static opponent, rather than a dynamic human adversary.

The decisions of the U.S. team were particularly instructive. They knew that the United States had won the war decisively, that it enjoyed overwhelming material superiority, that the U.S. mainland was never threatened, and that the dropping of the atom bomb immediately preceded Japanese surrender. The Japanese were clearly inferior, they thought, and the United States seemed to have no real trouble beating them in history, so they acted as if victory was a foregone conclusion.This led to numerous naval disasters, the loss of Hawaii, and allowed the Japanese to raid the American Pacific coast multiple times. Ultimately, the United States had to make a strategic withdrawal from the Pacific theater for two years. When they returned to the Pacific years later, this time armed with the atomic bomb, the Japanese shot down the attacking American bombers; the Americans had to settle with dropping the first atomic bomb on the island of Iwo Jima, an act that failed to elicit Japanese surrender.

Why did the United States struggle so mightily against the Japanese in the simulation? It was because the U.S. team had failed to appreciate that they were fighting against an actively intelligent and capable enemy. They assumed that the Japanese were a passive enemy, locked into historical decisions. But unlike the Japanese high command of history, the Japanese team in the simulation was aggressive, concentrating their forces, and focusing their energy on pursuing and destroying the American fleet wherever it emerged.

The simulation revealed that WWII in the Pacific could have turned out differently. It also revealed less well-remembered aspects of the conflict: though the brutality of fighting the Japanese looms large in historical memory, the immense logistical and operational challenges usually fade into the background. The simulation also put the significance of salient historical facts in a different perspective. In the simulation the U.S. team had fixated on acquiring the atomic bomb without considering how carefully historical American planners had worked to make the use of the atomic bomb effective. Only an enormous conventional war effort had made the relevance of atomic weapons in the Pacific possible.

The military and academics interested in international relations often simulate future conflicts. Such simulations require highly speculative assumptions. These assumptions are extrapolated from what we think we know about past conflicts. There is little military and academic interest in simulating past conflicts, however. Refighting past wars is generally left to the enthusiasts, not serious-minded professionals.

But recreating and refighting historical wars has real usefulness. We know a great deal more about the reality of past wars and therefore can craft far more credible simulations for them than we can for the future; this factor alone makes them more realistic than any future simulator could be. Simulating past wars also allows us to reinterpret them and thereby challenge what lessons the actual past can teach us about what to expect in future conflicts. It is better to recreate and re-remember the last war than to refight it in reality.

Ian Hopper is Visiting Assistant Professor of British History at Claremont McKenna College.

Image credit: George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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