Friday, January 27, 2006

A rather sad commentary

The past week has been very, very busy (when I haven't been flailing around with a stomach bug), but not so busy that I didn't notice this rather sad commentary on what our country has been up to lately.

An indictment of America

International Herald Tribune, JANUARY 27, 2006

When Human Rights Watch, a respected organization that has been monitoring the world's behavior since 1978, focuses its annual review on America's use of torture and inhumane treatment, every American should feel a sense of shame. And everyone who has believed in the United States as the staunchest protector of human rights in history should be worried.

Many nations - Belarus, Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Cuba, Sudan and China to name only some of the worst - routinely trample on human rights in a way that neither the United States nor any of its allies would ever countenance. But the United States wrote the book on human rights; it defined the alternative to tyranny and injustice. So when the vice president of the United States actually lobbies against a bill that bans "cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment," Human Rights Watch is justified in delivering harsh criticism.

The report does not let anyone else off the hook. The massacre of hundreds of demonstrators in Uzbekistan, the ethnic cleansing in Darfur, the restrictions on civil society in Saudi Arabia, the atrocities in Chechnya and all the other familiar episodes of human-rights abuse are reported and condemned.

But in the introduction by the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, the United States is singled out not only because it has raised the heinous practice of torture to a "serious policy option," but also because in so doing it is sacrificing its ability to champion human rights in other countries. America is not the worst violator, Roth writes, but it is the most influential. Now, when Americans accuse Iraqi Shiites of torturing Sunni prisoners, the messenger's reputation taints the message.

The report says that 2005 made clear that abuse of detainees has become a "deliberate, central part of the Bush administration's strategy for interrogating terrorist suspects," and it accuses Britain of complicity in the practice. We have no illusion that the administration will pay any more heed to Human Rights Watch than they have to anyone else on this issue. But the report is also an indictment of the rest of the United States for failing to stop the destruction of its most cherished values.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

PanzerGrenadier: Under the hood

By way of continuing my intermittent look at PanzerGrenadier (pardon all the interruptions, but there you have it), today I’d like to wax all eloquent on a discussion of the game system in general.

One of the keys to grasping the PG game system – and thus to enjoying the game – is understanding what it is and what it isn’t. As simple as that might sound, it can actually be a subject of great confusion to many veteran wargamers. They approach what is perceived as a ‘tactical level’ game with a mix of preconceptions that can screw things up if given half a chance.

Speed, or more accurately pace, is the first preconception ‘wall’ many veteran players can hit. Most of the familiar tactical level games – Squad Leader, Advanced Squad Leader, Advanced Tobruk, Lock n Load – engage in some serious time compression. All of those systems have ‘scale’ turns that represent anywhere from 1 to 2 minutes. Scenarios generally range from 6 to 15 turns in length, with the average probably in the 8-12 turn range. Now, anyone with even a passing familiarity with ‘real’ military operations should probably recognize that events in those game proceed at an unrealistically fast pace. I’ll grant it often makes for a tense, enjoyable game. But asking an infantry company to clear 400 or 500 meters of urban terrain of enemy forces in 10 minutes is hardly a ‘realistic’ mission. World War II artillery fire missions that are called and resolved in 90 seconds exceed any forward observer’s wildest fantasies. You only need to look at a few slices of those games (many of which I enjoy) to understand that they tremendously compress the scale of time represented.

Similar time compression is absent from the PanzerGrenadier system. One of the first things you should note when flipping through one of the PG scenario books is the length of the scenarios. They frequently appear quite long – and some of them are very long indeed. The Fontana Alba scenario I’ll be discussing is 30 turns, for example. That’s 7.5 hours of ‘scale’ time, which is a fairly typical game length in the PG system.

I’ve known a few gamers who’ve had a rough go at wrapping their heads around the ‘tactical’ concept that patience is a virtue. You don’t necessarily have all day to fiddle around in PG, but you generally have the time you need to execute a fairly realistically-paced battle plan. Time enough to do some maneuver. Time enough to let your supporting arms (if you have them) do some softening-up work.

PG is not a game system that generally rewards a rushed style of play. Players who charge toward the enemy, pause to fire off maybe one or two turns of direct fire and then try to close for assault combat will, more often than not, get handed their heads.

Take a look at the Direct Fire CRT and you’ll notice that casualty rates are going to be pretty low as long as your taking shots on the ‘11’ column and anything lower. If you’re accustomed to playing tactical games where troops tend to evaporate rapidly under fire, direct fire in PG can come as a bit of a shock. Sometimes, you can stand off and blast away all day and generate hardly any casualties.

The game’s direct fire model is morale-based, not casualty-based. To my mind, for the most part it’s intended to reflect the disorganizing effects of fire on a unit’s capabilities. Direct Fire (and Bombardment, for that matter) is best used to disorder an enemy position (inflict Disrupted and Demoralized results) before you send your guys in for assault combat.

Assault combat is what takes the ground and generates the higher casualty rates. In most PG scenarios, you have to figure out how to make assault work for you if you’re going to capture contested victory locations and win the game. The Assault CRT is shorter and bloodier.

But there’s another catch that can trip up the unwary gamer with expectations carried over from different game systems. In PG, assault is not a one-turn, win or run away knife fight. Be prepared to conduct and support your assaults over a span of several turns. Frequently, assault combats don’t resolve to a conclusion in a single activation. So keep key leaders handy to support critical assaults, and keep reserve platoons handy (if you have them) to reinforce assaults and keep the pressure on when you have to pull out reduced, disrupted and demoralized platoons.

Getting your attacking units into assault combat with an enemy force is one of the grognard skills you have to develop to win at PG. As I mentioned above, running into direct fire range of the enemy, popping off a few shots and then trying to get stuck into an assault hex seldom succeeds.

If you haven’t softened up the enemy position by inflicting some disruptions and demoralizations before you go charging in, your guys can get cut to ribbons by defending fire. Assault is a ‘Fire’ action that (except in the case of cavalry) can only be initiated from an adjacent hex. Which means 1) your assault force can get hit by opportunity fire on the turn they move adjacent and 2) on the following turn, if you lose the initiative you’ll get hit by the defenders’ direct fire before you activate for the assault.

In both cases, you’re taking fire with some very nasty column shifts on the CRT. Opportunity fire is +1 column, and you’ll suffer a +2 additional shift for being adjacent to the firing unit. Even a single, lowly rifle platoon can inflict formidable punishment with a +3 column shift in its favor. It gets even worse if the position you want to assault contains multiple enemy units, or heavier assets like machinegun platoons. If it’s a multi-hex defending position with a good leader at hand, you may also be facing the coordinated opportunity fire of multiple stacks of units.

For a quick example of this, try the opening turns of Fontana Alba with the Romanians in ‘impatient mode’. They’re cavalry, right? Just charge right on in there. Pause a few hexes short of the city to spend a couple of turns dropping those ‘12’ strength artillery attacks on them. Then just sweep on into the town for some assault combat. If you can.

Chances are, the Romanian assault won’t do so well. Below is a photo of my Soviet defense of the town. The two western-most hexes each contain a rifle platoon (4-2) and a machinegun platoon (7-4). The northern hex is two rifle platoons. The remaining hex is the leader (in this case, a rather good Captain) and a reserve of 3 rifle platoons.

Aside from having a bit of patience, the proper placement and use of leaders is another big key to enjoying your games of PanzerGrenadier. In this case, the Captain is situated to provide useful support to every hex in the defense. His +1 morale bonus can be used by every unit in town. He could activate all of the units in town at once if he desired. And any Romanians daffy enough to attack from the south face the likelihood of the Captain acting to combine the fire of four rifle platoons and a machinegun platoon.

In this particular setup, the Soviets absolutely benefit from the luck of the draw. The randomly-selected Captain commanding the defense is one of the best leaders in the EFD countermix. The Soviets’ inferior morale (7 vs. 8 for the Romanians) will stand against them in assault combat – but with the ‘10’ morale Captain coordinating activations and providing morale support with his bonus, they stand a much better chance of inflicting some pain on the Romanians as they attempt to close for assault.

The Romanian task in this scenario is very difficult. They have to capture the town and hold it against a late-game counter-attack to win the game. In order to do that, they have to exploit a couple of razor-thin advantages.

First, they receive two ‘12’ strength off-board artillery attacks each turn. They must show a little bit of patience and use their OBA – along with their smattering of on-board heavy weapons (two machinegun platoons and a 60mm mortar platoon) – to hit the defenders with some disruptions (and maybe even demoralizations) before they assault the town.

The excellent Soviet leader hunkered down in the town makes disorganizing the defense a tough chore. All Soviet morale checks get a +1 boost, as do all recovery attempts. In fact, I’m wondering if having such a good leader in charge of things might just make the Romanians’ mission close to impossible.

Monday, January 16, 2006

It takes more than one to FUBAR

It takes more than one person to screw up an entire war. So I think we can safely spread some of the blame to Ol’ Scratch’s Left Hand Man, known affectionately to so many people as “Rummy.”

One of these days, maybe I’ll run a poll. Which Secretary of Defense was a bigger screw up – Rummy or Robert McNamara?

Here’s a vote for Rummy, I think, from The Sunday Times of London:

Blame Rummy for a war plan that went wrong
Andrew Sullivan

The great conundrum in understanding the conduct of the war in Iraq is a relatively simple one. How on earth did a noble and necessary decision to remove the Saddam Hussein regime result in such a chaotic occupation? The initial campaign to seize the country was brilliant, but almost immediately it was clear that something was awry.

The looting and mayhem in the wake of the collapse of a totalitarian state were eminently predictable. So why did the US and coalition armies simply let it happen? Why did they allow whole swathes of Iraq to descend into near-anarchy or control by Ba’athists and jihadist insurgents, make no attempt to seal the borders and dither for more than a year about the constitutional way forward?

Or to put it another way: if this project was as important as the Bush administration said it was, why did it seem unprepared and at times even indifferent to the consequences of invasion?
Well, we are beginning to get some answers — drip by drip, as former officials begin to leak or write memoirs. Two new books help a little. The first, My Year in Iraq, is by Paul Bremer, the former de facto pro-consul in Iraq in the critical early period. The second is a new biography of George W Bush, Rebel-In-Chief by Fred Barnes, published this week. Barnes, a former colleague and friend, has great White House access. If you piece together both books, you get a glimpse into how the most secretive presidency in years operated.

The picture is not pretty. Back in the spring of 2003 it had seemed obvious to most rational observers that we had too few troops to maintain order in Iraq. A mere 170,000 to control a country of 25m in a power vacuum was a joke. Towns and cities could be cleared of insurgents but never retained, because we had too few troops to stay put.

The borders were porous. We didn’t have enough troops to secure the weapons sites that the war had been designed to eradicate. General (Eric K) Shinseki famously argued before the war that we needed 500,000 troops to do the job. He was fired. Many pro-Bush military analysts, besotted with Donald Rumsfeld’s vision of a lean, mean fighting machine, told us we knew nothing about military strategy. They planned on about 40,000 troops remaining a few months after the fall of Saddam.

Well, it turns out that Bush’s right-hand man in Iraq agreed completely with the critics — or so he claims now. And Bremer is no Michael Moore. He believed in this war. And reading his book, you are struck by one thing. His appointment was rushed; he had mere days to assemble a team to govern Iraq (he largely had to find his own staff); and yet the administration had had years to prepare for this scenario.

As his plane circled into Iraq for the first time, an aide pointed out pillars of smoke everywhere. “Industrial-strength looting” was the assessment. Bremer almost immediately came to the obvious conclusion that Shinseki had been right and wanted to triple the force numbers. Triple. That is not a mild policy disagreement. It’s an indictment of the whole plan.

Bremer sent a top-level analysis by the Rand Corporation advocating far more troops to Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld never even bothered to acknowledge it. Later, when Rumsfeld was in Iraq, Bremer tried to make the case again. But Rummy was more interested in reducing troop levels because of domestic political pressure.

Back in Washington, according to Barnes’s pro-Bush book, the president found his weekly teleconferences with the generals irritatingly long. According to Barnes, “Bush liked crisp sessions without whining or complaints. Once he had to interrupt a discussion of troop rotation to say, ‘Stop the hand-wringing!’ ” This is not a management style designed to expose problems and solve them. It’s a style designed to squelch dissent.

As security deteriorated, Bremer tried again to wake Rumsfeld up: “On May 18 (2004), I gave (Condoleezza) Rice a heads-up that I intended to send Secretary Rumsfeld a very private message suggesting that the coalition needed more troops . . . That afternoon I sent my message. I noted the deterioration . . . since April had made it clear, to me at least, that we were trying to cover too many fronts with too few resources.” Again, Rumsfeld never bothered to respond.

All Bremer and (coalition commander General Ricardo) Sanchez wanted were enough troops to control Baghdad. Rummy couldn’t care less. When Bremer told him at a dinner in September 2003 that security was the No 1 priority, Rumsfeld replied, “That means moving as fast as possible on getting Iraq’s security forces stood up.” Bremer’s response: “Here we go again, I thought.”

Rumsfeld had a fixed idea that a smaller military could accomplish anything, and had absolutely no sense of responsibility for the chaos his war plan had unleashed.

His famous “stuff happens” remark in response to the early looting in Baghdad stands as the leitmotif for his entire view of the war. While Colin Powell had insisted that once you invaded Iraq you were responsible for its security, Rumsfeld thought that the Iraqis should fend for themselves.

This policy of neglect has something to do with the 30,000 innocent Iraqi civilians killed (largely by insurgents) since the US invasion. While Powell wanted to kill Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shi’ite radical, Rumsfeld balked. By May 2004, Bremer told Rice the coalition had become “the worst of all things — an ineffective occupier”.

What deeper conclusions can we draw? The post-invasion plan was all but non-existent, an act of recklessness. The reason, however, was not just incompetence; it was a deliberate decision by Rumsfeld and Bush not to commit sufficient resources for nation-building.

Rumsfeld, after all, had never been a neocon. He loathed the idea of using large numbers of American forces to reconstruct a broken society. So he deflected responsibility and ordered the crudest tactics against the insurgency: torturing large numbers of innocent Iraqis in Abu Ghraib, sending troops into combat with insufficient armour, engaging in a cat-and-mouse game with Iraqi and jihadist terrorists who knew the terrain intimately.

And Bush? There’s a very revealing statement in the Barnes book, reminding us of something that Bush said back in 1999. Bush’s main political interest “is not in the means, it is the results”. Once he had declared war, his decision was done. It was up to others to implement it. And he was bored and irritated by the follow-up details.

In Barnes’s book, Bush said during the Iraq occupation, “If Bremer’s happy, I’m happy. If Bremer’s nervous, I’m nervous.” But if Bremer is to be believed, he was deeply unhappy and Bush either dismissed his concerns or had no idea that they existed.

In an earlier statement, Bush had spoken of his faith. It is ludicrous to think, as some Europeans do, that this president invaded Iraq on instructions from the Almighty. But Bush’s kind of faith may help to explain the shambles of the occupation. He once wrote, “(My faith) frees me to enjoy life and not worry what comes next.”

His mindset is focused on grand decisions followed by results. There is no toleration for mess, whining, criticism or second- guessing. The nitty gritty — which can mean the difference between success and failure in wartime — was not his concern. He delegated the whole thing to commanders completely intimidated by Rumsfeld and institutionally trained not to challenge their bosses. You want to know why we are where we are in Iraq? We’re beginning to piece it together.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Back to the gaming table

Finally. A chance to get back to some PanzerGrenadier.

Today I’ll take a quick look at the game preliminaries – map, OOB and what’s going on in general.

Here’s the map setup for Scenario Three: Fontana Alba.

It uses two map sections, which is a fairly compact battlefield. The Romanians deploy on board 4 (the left-hand section). The Soviets set up on board 7, east of the river. Additionally, all Soviet units can begin the game in “Dug In” status, which provides a defensive bonus and gives them the advantage of “first fire” in assault combat.

The town on the eastern board (Fontana Alba) is one of the keys to the victory conditions. To win, the Romanians must occupy all town hexes on board 7. For the Russians to win, they must inflict at least 5 steps of casualties on the Romanians AND clear all territory east of the river of Romanian units.

The game length is 30 turns.

By looking at the relative forces and the victory conditions, the basic situation becomes clear. The Romanian cavalry force has to cross the river and capture the town from the Soviets. In the later stages of the game, they must then be prepared to fend off a Soviet counter-attack.

Here are the forces involved. First the Romanians:

The total force amounts to 10 platoons of cavalry, two heavy machine-gun platoons, a mortar platoon and two units of wagons. The leaders were selected randomly from the ranks designated in the OOB: a Major, a Captain and three Lieutenants. The Romanian leadership draw turns out a mixed bag, so their leadership is going to be nothing particularly great. None of the leaders carry a combat modifier. The Romanians also have the support of several off-board artillery sections (two 12-point concentrations each turn).

The Romanian force must capture Fontana Alba from this Soviet force:

That’s eight infantry platoons, two machinegun platoons, a mortar platoon and a section of 45mm anti-tank guns, along with a couple of wagon units. The Soviet leadership draw is better, but they have considerably fewer leaders in their initial setup.

Soviet reinforcements appear on a successful die roll by the Soviet side, with their first possible appearance on turn 13 (0900 in ‘game time’).

The counter-attacking force is formidable: 12 infantry platoons, 3 machinegun platoons, two mortar platoons and a platoon of T-26 tanks. They get four leaders for this force, with the addition of a kommissar (who can use rather heavy-handed methods to help Demoralized troops recover improved morale). When the reinforcements arrive, the Soviets also receive some support from off-board artillery (three 10-point concentrations each turn).

The Soviets also seem to benefit a bit from slightly better leadership draws. A couple of high-ranking '10' morale leaders (one with both combat and morale bonuses) will probably come in very handy at some point.

A stiff challenge for the Romanians indeed, although the Soviet victory requirement of eliminating all Romanians east of the river is also a bit of challenge.

Next entry: To battle!

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

We interrupt this program

Contrary to some rumors flying around my house, our 9-month-old Baby of Mass Destruction is not the crawling-around-the-floor incarnation of Shiva the Destroyer of Worlds.

But there was this email I received from the Missus yesterday afternoon:

“You know those wine bottles we talked about moving? You have one less to move tonight.”

At first I thought perhaps, after a tough morning before the big baby hand-off to Grandma for the day, she had decided to gulp down a bottle of Chateau Vanniere 1992.


The small wine rack we keep (rather, kept, as of about 9 p.m. last night) in the kitchen had suffered a casualty at the tiny but persistent hands of BMD. Only a week ago, he was quite content to sit in the family room and play with his Gymtastic Play Wall while Mom stood in the kitchen a few feet away and prepared his fresh-fruity breakfast. Something about the New Year has motivated him, though, to begin crawling after her when she puts him down and steams off in some other direction.

As we have discovered, he is now capable of High-Speed Crawling. And he has a Stealth Mode, too (which, however, he does not use when in pursuit of Sam the Cat).

Mom had no sooner stuffed the first piece of fruit into the Baby Food Musher, when she looked up to see our 19-pound marauder – having completed his hot pursuit into the kitchen area - reaching up to accost one of the lower-racked bottles.

The crash followed quickly, it appears. Broken bottle, scared baby, messy tile floor. No permanent damage – although Dad will spend the next 3 to 7 days receiving an occasional Glare of Death from Mom because, of course, it’s All My Fault.

Except for a few cheap stinkers that we shouldn’t have kept around to begin with, the surviving bottles have been placed in a secret location. We will probably convert the small rack into a climbing wall, or bib hanger or something appropriate to our new life’s mission.

And the Baby of Mass Destruction will have to move along to his next target.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Let's play! PanzerGrenadier:
Eastern Front Deluxe

I’m going to start the New Year waxing eloquent about one of the ‘other’ big sandboxes my brain likes to play in: Gaming – in particular wargaming.

Since nearly the Dawn of Time, I have been an avid wargamer. I was somewhere in the neighborhood of 14 or 15 when I picked up my first ‘real’ wargame, “Tank” in the old flat-box format from Simulation Publications, Inc. (aka: SPI). That particular archaeological artifact inhabits my ‘game closet’ still – something of a collector’s mentality being rather common in the gaming hobby.

The subject for the next few days is Avalanche Press’ recently-released game “PanzerGrenadier: East Front Deluxe” (or “EFD,” for brevity’s sake).

EFD is a considerably up-gunned remake of Avalanche’s original PanzerGrenadier game. In addition to some tweaks here and there to the Soviet and German forces, the game includes an all-new order of battle for the Romanian forces that fought in the south. This allows for numerous interesting additions to the scenario book and, indeed, EFD includes (I believe) 112 scenarios.

The enormous increase in scenario count over the original is abetted by EFD’s use of Avalanche’s new-style card stock game maps, of which there are 8 ‘geomorphic’ sections in the box. The original PG included 4 hard-mounted map boards. IMHO the new cardstock maps are a massive improvement, both in economy and in playability.

The ‘negative’ in the package is that some of the unit counters are printed on the thinner die-cut stock found in the series’ immediately previous release, Beyond Normandy. The thinner counters aren’t by any stretch unplayable, but I much prefer heavier counter stock – especially when it comes to considering how well the pieces will take a pounding over time.

I’ll admit that my assortment of PanzerGrenadier titles had been idling in the closet for some time before the release of EFD. I didn’t particularly care for either Afrika Korps or Desert Rats for some reason, although I did rather enjoy the few games of Semper Fi: Guadalcanal that I managed to play. But the two desert games sort of led my attention adrift and, what with my gaming time considerably reduced by the Baby of Mass Destruction, my wargaming focus went elsewhere.

But I am an East Front junkie, and the arrival of EFD (along with the receipt of Beyond Normandy as a Christmas gift) has re-kindled my interest.

A brief aside: My apologies, but time constraints prevent me from going into great deal detail about the hobby of wargaming or the specific mechanics of “hex-and-counter” war games. If you’re interested in them, you can gain a broader understanding of the topic by perusing websites like Boardgamegeek or Consimworld (see my links section).

For those more familiar with board wargaming, EFD portrays combat from roughly the battalion or regimental point of view. Individual playing pieces typically represent individual command elements (“leaders”), infantry or vehicle platoons or sections of heavier weapons like field artillery or anti-tank guns. Each hexagon on the map represents a scale distance of 200m from side to side, and each game turn represents 15 minutes of ‘real’ time. The 112 scenarios in the EFD scenario book cover a broad range of situations from small games using a single map and perhaps a half-dozen units per side, to very large games played on four maps sections with each player controlling several battalion-sized formations.

For the first test drive of the new game, what could be a better choice than one of the new scenarios, featuring the new Romanian order of battle? The initial scenario that I’ll be scribbling about here is Scenario Three, “Fontana Alba.” A roughly battalion-sized force of Romanian cavalry must cross a minor river, seize and hold a small town. They are faced by a smaller initial force of Russian infantry, although at some point (triggered by a dice roll) the Romanians will face a counter-attack by additional Soviet troops supported by off-board artillery.

Baby of Mass Destruction permitting, in the next entry I’ll kick off the Battle of Fontana Alba.