Friday, November 2, 2007

Space Wars: The First Six Hours of World War III - A Wargame Scenario

I really wanted to like this book.

An ex-Air Force wargamer, the editor-and-chief of Aviation Week, and a published author of techno-thrillers teamed up to produce Space Wars: The First Six Hours of World War III - A Wargame Scenario. Their goal was to publicize the threat of space attack in an unusual format, drawing from actual wargame scenarios that have been played out over the years by the Air Force. By publishing this book as a novel, I imagine they were hoping to reach a broader audience.

Unfortunately, the choice of format more or less dooms the book from the outset. They seem to have had a laundry list of points to make, and arranged the story, such as it is, to cover the list, nothing more. Admittedly, I am not the normal target audience for techno-thrillers. I haven't read one in years, though I did enjoy the first five or six Tom Clancy books back in the day. Even given that characterization is not the strong suit of the techno-thriller, in Space Wars the characters are such ridiculous stereotypes that it's hard to see them as anything but mouthpieces for the points the authors want to make.

Perhaps this material would have been better suited for a movie of some sort. Dirty War was an HBO/BBC production about a dirty bomb attack in London that quite successfully presented a number of very real issues in the context of a gripping story. For the most part, the policy issues are integrated into the broader story quite well. I was at a screening at the Kennedy School of Government, with Graham Allison and Richard Clarke (and possibly Rand Beers?) in attendance, and when asked after the movie what they thought of the portrayal of the issues involved, the consensus seemed to be that it was pretty much on target. No one would make that comment after reading Space Wars. Space Wars would have been a lot harder to film than Dirty War, but maybe decent acting could have stood in for characterization, and maybe the film medium would have made it easier for the creators to show their main points rather than have their characters deliver them in stilted dialog ("show, don't tell" is a cliche, but a useful one) . A movie format would also have forced them to edit out whatever didn't fit in a fairly compact script.

There is a lot of information packed into the book, but it could have been expressed in a nonfiction book in a more engaging manner. The potential events the authors describe are scary, but they should have resisted the urge to pile them all into a single storyline that becomes progressively more strained as the book goes on. It was difficult to finish.

The most frustrating aspect for me was the treatment of wargaming. The authors clearly have a great deal of respect for the practice of wargaming. So much so that they set up a wargaming group within the story that produces most of the important insights and decisions that take place. The lead wargamer character even convinces his superiors to integrate the battle staff of USAF Space Command into the wargame he is running, to use the game as a real-time decision support tool. It looks like a case is being made to use wargames in this fashion in reality, but there is so little information in the book about what actually goes on in the game (besides having characters pop up every so often with another idea or insight gained from the exercise) that it is impossible to see how this vision of wargame-centric planning would work. Somehow it's related to Taoism, apparently, but what that means is never explained. Without more explanation of just how the wargame is supposed to be operating, and given the book's highly unrealistic account of higher-level decision-makers essentially abdicating their responsibilities to independently consider choices by accepting virtually every recommendation that comes out of the game, it's hard to see what the value of this depiction is from the standpoint of advancing the stature of gaming as a tool.

Regardless, I'm sure I would enjoy sitting down and talking with the authors about these issues and about the role of wargaming in particular. Maybe they have ideas that could be extremely valid and useful. You just wouldn't know it from this book. Read this article instead for a brief summary of one of the wargames they apparently drew from.

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