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For anyone who finds this type of military puzzle solving interesting I'd recommend listening to Drachnifel's video's on these exact US Navy Fleet Problems. Great write up on the history and use of such programs.

I would also recommend the wikipedia entry on the history of professional wargaming. It goes back way further than I would have thought, back to the Prussians in the early 1800s. And it does seem to rely heavily on a human umpire who just uses his best judgement to decide what happens. That does seem a bit "unfair" to me as someone used to recreational games based on rules and dice, but I guess it makes sense if the purpose is to explore new scenarios and not to "win." It also sounds like a real slog:

Commercial wargames are under more pressure to deliver an enjoyable experience for the players, who expect a user-friendly interface, a reasonable learning curve, exciting gameplay, and so forth. By contrast, military organizations tend to see wargaming as a tool and a chore, and players are often bluntly obliged to use whatever is provided to them.

I've also actually played some old school commercial wargames before! Historicon is a great convention with some incredible set ups.

And yeah when you find out about real life wargames you see that they fill that important niches of teasing out just how one might ought to respond under unstable circumstances. Kaiser Wilhelms insistence on winning the wargames he partook in was a gross violation of the Prussian traditional of the Professional General Staff.

Speaking from memory without a direct source I recall an anecdote that Field Marshall Paulus of 6th Army/Stalingrad fame wargamed how Operation Barbarossa would play out and concluded that after a few weeks of initial breakthrough the supply situation would become a shitshow, and then the entire offensive would grind to a halt near Moscow. I imagine he felt positively Cassandra-esque.

But for those proper military games implemented on a grand scale in real life - any war nerd worth his salt ought also to check out the Louisiana Maneuvers pre-ww2.

400k men moving around with umpires determining exactly what happened at each step. All done with 1940's technology. They had charts to figure out who beat who! Imagine maneuvoring around and then going "wait. I've got 20 dudes. You've got 10. But you have a machine gun and I have one mortar team. okay get a ref." and then waiting 30 minutes, getting a resolution, and then doing it all over again on the next hill. Mindnumbingly tedious but incredibly important for teaching US Generals what modern war might look like.

Ha, that's a cool story about 1940s wargaming. Sounds excruciating. 400k men with an umpire... I can't even imagine.

You've probably heard the one the Japanese wargame before Midway, right? Supposedly the first simulation showed the americans sinking all their carriers, but they decided "there's no way that could happen," and just restarted the wargame with that move not allowed.

For Paulus, yeah. I was just reading And it paints a picture of him as the one German general with a realistic sense of just how hard that war would be. The others were all high on their own supply of propaganda. Ironic that he was the one who ended up in the most aggresive, exposed positon. Halder and the other top generals thought they could drive straight into Moscow (how you do even get there with a massive army on tiny dirt roads in the rainy season?) while Hitler was focused on taking out armies and the Ukraine (but what if they just keep making armies?). None of them seemed to think the war would be anything but trivial.

I'd forgotten about the Japanese wargame carrier issue! Thank you for reminding me. I've never given the Pacific Theater the attention it deserves. Navies just don't click in my head the way they seem to hold a spell on some people. But yeah I'd heard about the carrier anecdote. Mind-numbing stuff. I've read enough books on the European Theater that I can sometimes see how the Germans would see things the way they did. But it's really difficult for me to get into the mindset of the Japanese regarding attacking America.

Actually I've been using your exact book as an audiobook to fall asleep to! (i already listened to it once properly. don't worry) I should probably read it as an actual physical book. The details stick better that way. If you like Stahel then you should definitely check out Robert Citino's trilogy. His accounts are fairly mainstream but he summarizes the mainstream take on things very well.

Got any other recommended books? If you havn't read/listened to Adam Tooze's "Wages of Destruction" then I can't recommend it highly enough.

The author of the linked post also did a series of posts about how Japanese commanders' mindset and failures of imagination lost Midway, it offers some insight as to why they thought the way they thought.

I'm not a fan of bloggers writing such a long series of posts just based on someone else's book. Book reviews should be short, otherwise we might as well just read the book ourselves. And if it's all based on one book... Homo unius libri

I don't think I ever said it was a review of the book. I summarized and paraphrased from it to focus on the big picture while retaining the elements which would be understandable and of interest to any casual readers. I greatly encourage anyone to read the book if they have time, there's more in-depth coverage regarding the doomed efforts to save Kido Butai and technical details of Japanese planes as well.

Secondly, while I agree that basing so much off of only one source is suspect, I don't think that suspicion is validated when it comes to Shattered Sword. The authors worked with other historians recognized for writing excellent books on related topics, such as Mark Peattie and John Lundstrom. They also spoke with Japanese counterparts to get their side of the history. Not to mention that the citation list is available for anyone to pick apart if they wish, but even looking at that would reveal that they're relying on works which are considered accurate and worth reading even today.

That's fair. I agree the Pacific Theater is hard to understand. It's a tough combination of

  • really remote tiny island in the vast Pacific Ocean, no fixed front lines
  • complicated technology that was constantly changing, and mostly only ever used in that one specific conflict
  • very strange mindset from the Japanese leaders, with all the primary sources in old-fashioned Japanese

In my opinion there's still a lack of good books about the Japanese side of the Pacific war, for all those reasons. I know a lot of people like "Shattered Sword," but I found it limited. It's purely focused on just the one battle of Midway, which wasn't even the biggest battle of the war, and the authors can't read the Japanese primary sources. Still good at explaining the American carriers ops though.

I know David Glantz made a huge contribution to the study of the Eastern front by actually going to Russia, learning Russian, and digging into the Russian military archives that had never been studied by non-Russians before (and now closed off again). I found his books just too long and boring to get through as a casual reader, but I think a lot of other military historians now use him as a source. Stahel did the same thing, going to Germany and learning German so that he could actually read the primary sources. And not just the generals, who often lied or wrote propaganda, but the diaries of regular soldiers. Huge plus for him, in my opinion, where most of the older books just regurgitate the same limited information that was available in English. I never read Robert Citino but I'll check it out.

I did read "Wages of Destruction." I agree, fantastic book. Really helped me understand the various economic factors of the war, and how it's a lot more complicated than just adding up GDP or any other simple number. Because of that book, I now picture WW2 Germany as being much more low tech, closer to what we'd call a 3rd world country now- a country where most people lived in small farming villages relying on horses, with a very limited number of cars. Maybe not that different from the USSR. And then what a struggle it was for them to just keep basic things functional in their sprawling, rinky-dink empire.

Not a book but I liked this interview: She manages to put together a whole lot of different concepts together into a clear view of the past and how it effects current events.

Maybe controversial but I liked Richard Overy's books. "Blood and Ruins" shows how this didn't just start in 1940, it really was a global conflict that started in the 30s. "Why the Allies Won" argues convincingly that it wasn't simple determinism from the Allies GDP, but the result of a lot of hard and skillful effort from the Allies that won it.