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When Wargaming Turns from Alternate To Actual History

By Colin Salt

Even by the standards of a series that was never the best at conventional storytelling (to put it mildly) to begin with, the sixth major arc of the Kirov series stood out to me for being the nadir of the whole thing. It's a contemporary World War III with the most realistic orders of battle seen yet. With realism taking precedence over balance or novelty, it means a lot of the battles are predictably lopsided. To top it all off, it's concluded with nuclear launches and the timeline being erased and overwritten, rendering it "cosmically retconned" in a way that the giant alternate World War II was not.

Even it had some redeeming qualities. Volkov was there and as great a villain as always. The war was started by a time traveler born in the past who went forward in time and misinterpreted a possible future vision that showed he could win as a prophecy that he would win (not something you see in every technothriller, that's for sure). And then Eagle Rising, the 47th book in the series, featured.... a large Russian invasion of Ukraine, simmed out in the Operational Art of War video game.

Like Hector Bywater's 1925 novel The Great Pacific War, reality sadly created a means of comparison. And like Bywater, there was a substantial amount of accuracy in the final result. Of course, also like Bywater, it wasn't exactly the same. The most obvious difference is that the invasion in the novel is better planned and expecting substantial resistance. It's also confined to east of the Dniepr instead of the historical attempt to break Kyiv.

There's also more than a few instances of Schettler choosing the most dramatic course of action instead of the most believable. The city of Dnipro is seized at the outset in a mammoth paradrop at the start. After pushing the Russians away from Kharkiv (sound familiar?), the Ukrainians continue to charge across the border towards Belgorod, and so on. But geography is geography and military technique is military technique. This combined with the detailed, hi-fidelity record of TOAW (it's not a light or accessible game), means the two invasions are a lot more similar than they are different.

The Russians grab more territory in the initial dynamic phase than they did in the actual one. Yet, in the words of their own leader in the book, they end up with merely "a third of the Ukraine, and a long stalemate that will occupy the army there indefinitely." Replace a third with a fifth and you have 2022.

Wargaming overall is not a crystal ball. Like every model or simulation, it's ultimately only as good as its inputs. There are always factors where one has to guess, and those can frequently be wrong. But it nonetheless can be invaluable for seeing what the general trend is-and naval plans in World War II relied very heavily on the gaming/simulation systems available at the time. In this case, the general trend revealed was "The Russians can gain ground, but can't finish Ukraine off before it becomes a stabilized-front grinder". And that turned out to be more or less what happened (obvious disclaimer: as of this post).


Colin Salt reviews other genres at his blog: Fuldapocalypse Fiction and has written The Smithtown Unit and its sequel for Sea Lion Press


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