Spring 2012

War & Peace Games

H. G. Wells’s battle against kriegspiel

Joshua Glenn

At War Control’s offices in Paris, “a series of big-scale relief maps were laid out upon tables to display the whole seat of war, and the staff-officers of the control were continually busy shifting the little blocks which represented the contending troops,” recounts H. G. Wells in his 1914 future-war novel The World Set Free. Upon these maps, Western Europe’s allied commanders intend “to play the great game for world supremacy” against their enemies. Fatally ignorant of the latest strategies of aerial warfare, not to mention the newly invented atomic bomb, supreme allied commander Marshal Dubois is scheming about entrenchments, invasions, and skirmishes when an A-bomb is dropped on War Control’s HQ.

BANG! It would not be unreasonable to interpret this darkly bathetic scenario as Wells’s criticism of the key role that kriegspieler—tabletop war-games—played in those days as a part of military strategy and training. First developed in the mid-1600s, the modern German kriegspiel, with its topographic maps of Europe, its red and blue pieces, and its dice and statistical tables, didn’t grow popular among the Germany military until Napoleon demonstrated how much more effective than aristocrats at waging war is a professionalized elite well versed in military science. Major German victories in 1866 and 1871 then persuaded other European nations (including Great Britain) to adopt kriegspieler as part of their own elite military training. However, when position warfare’s potential to result in slaughter on an epic scale was fully realized in the early twentieth century, it came under severe criticism from pacifists, as did the board games that had turned position warfare into an abstract contest.

For very different reasons, some in the military were also beginning to doubt war-games and their emphasis on position warfare. In a 1917 Harvard lecture series titled “The Warfare of To-Day,” Lieutenant Colonel Paul Azan of the French army accused kriegspieler of having prevented military strategists from seeing the way new technologies, particularly the airplane, were about to change warfare: “It thus came about that, instead of seeing things as they are, the majority of professional soldiers wandered about in a land of fancies and theories.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, while serving in an Austro-Hungarian army artillery workshop during World War I, was also disturbed by the war-game/reality disconnect; it was his superior officers’ use of kriegspieler, in fact, that inspired his famous philosophical insight that “the picture is a model of reality.”

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