Brief History: War Games

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An-My Lê / Murray Guy, New York

"Offload, LCACs and Tank, California, 2006” of US Marines doing a war game on a California beach.

If war is a political instrument, then it stands to reason that the simulation of war can also be used to influence nations. On July 20, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the aircraft carrier U.S.S. George Washington would join the South Korean navy for a four-day war-game exercise in the Yellow Sea. Dubbed Invincible Spirit and comprising 8,000 troops, 20 warships and more than 100 planes, the drills are "designed to send a clear message" against North Korean aggression following the March sinking of a South Korean warship.

While militaries have long conducted practice exercises, modern-day war games, with their focus on strategy and counterstrategy, are only a few centuries old. In the early 1800s, the Prussians moved away from chesslike board games and began to use topographical maps to test potential war tactics. The Americans picked up the concept later that century, and war games became part of the U.S. Naval War College curriculum in 1894. In the 20th century, war became more complex. As cavalry units gave way to tank brigades and fighter squadrons, war games moved into the actual field, with the military conducting live exercises. Since World War II, the U.S.--on its own and with allies--has simulated hundreds of aerial dogfights, beach invasions and parachute assaults.

In today's war games, computer simulations do much of the heavy lifting. As commanders maneuver in the field, programs much more complex than the rogue computer in the film War Games calculate casualty rates, adjust for weather factors and render a score, allowing the games to come as close to war as possible without inflicting real violence. Yet for all the effort, war games can sometimes be about simply sending a message: "Don't even think about it." Occasionally, as Secretary Gates seems to be saying, you have to fake a fight to prevent one.