The Bomb and the Computer: The History of Professional Wargaming, 1780-1968

by Andrew Wilson

Rating: ★★★

A fun topic for a microhistory -- wargames touch on everything from real-world politics and military history to technological developments (computers can automate a lot of tedious unit-level combat rules) and academic theory (particularly game theory, which may or may not have a sanctioned place according to Wilson). Sadly, I think Wilson didn't bring the historical depth to a lot of his coverage, and we ended up with a book that is quite obviously limited in its perspective.

To start with, while Wilson gives his dates as starting in 1780, there is extremely cursory discussion of anything before about 1900. Ancient war-games like Go are mentioned for colour, but that is it -- if you were hoping for any kind of analysis of how Go or chess were developed, or how they related (in fact or thought) to real war, you'll be quite disappointed. The deeper context only starts to appear with the 1905 exercise and the two world wars, and even here it can at times be quite vague about the methods being employed. Much more detail is presented on contemporary and near-contemporary wargaming methods (which, contrastingly, often lacks application context -- very well that such-and-such a game exists, but what has or might it influence?).

Wilson seems throughout the book to not be so interested in how wargaming developed historically -- what pressures influenced it, how it affected the world -- as in the question of whether wargaming is at all sensible as an activity. The later portions of the book clarify his angle here, as a writer in the middle of the Cold War, when military strategy was focused on the question of nuclear war. See him also as a liberal-minded man in an era when the Vietnam War still raged. With that in mind, his conclusions are quite even-handed. There are obvious shortcomings with using any abstract simulations of conventional warfare as a means to predict what will happen on the battlefield -- the simulation is necessarily a highly simplified version of reality, and the game processes can distort even the abstract picture quite severely -- and while the official line acknowledges this and insists wargames are not used for prediction, there are hints that it may be, unofficially, fuelling a lot of expert advice. Where wargaming does seem useful is in training -- how better to get experience of command and international relations, outside of the field? -- and as a hypothetical exercise to identify possibilities (particularly, reasons why something may not work which hadn't previously been considered).

There is still a warning in here. Wilson reflects, from personal experience, on how difficult it can be to remember that lessons from wargames do not carry to real political situations. He gives an amusing example of having wargamed a scenario as Israel shortly before a real-life parallel of his scenario took place. Even though he identified several dissimilarities between the scenario he played and reality, he found it hard not to think that the play he made in the game would be necessary, and even harder to retain his cool about the relevance of wargaming as a predictor after Israel in fact took his prognosticated option. The temptation to set policy based on singular successes of methods like this must be overwhelming.