Sunday, 8 November 2015

War in The Time of Kennedy

For much of my adult life I have had an abiding interest in the Post-WWII Era, particularly with regard to the U.S.A. Possibly it is due to my generation experiencing the first wave of 'cultural imperialism' from the Sixties onwards, which for me largely manifested itself in terms of the television programmes and movies I watched as a child. Certainly the first 'toy soldiers' I possessed were Airfix U.S. Marines and my favourite toy was Palitoy's licenced copy of Hasbro's G.I. Joe, which back when I first had them only came with U.S. uniforms and accessories, including a really cool 'Field Manual' telling you how to dig fox-holes and machine gun nests.

Those were the days. There are probably still Action Men 'lost' in the garden, despite the war being over for many years. 

I built my fair share of Airfix Spitfires and Messerschmitts, Churchill and Tiger Tanks, but it was the silver American jets which were my favourites. The Vietnam War made the nightly news, despite there being no UK involvement and one of my all-time memories was seeing the American flag planted on the Moon back in 1969. There were of course also numerous U.S. TV programmes and movies on the TV too and American music on the radio. If there was such a thing as 'American Cultural Imperialism', I was certainly a victim of it.

That interest has stayed with me and to a point and while my real world studies diversified into into Medieval and Early Modern English History, as well as the Spanish Civil War and the 'Hitler Era', Post-WWII U.S.A. remained my personal guilty pleasure. 'The Fifties' (which is actually more like the period 1945 to 1965), whether in terms of music, TV, movies, or even just the pop-culture of the time, grabs my interest. The Vietnam War garners most interest in wargaming terms in the main, but for me it is the 'Peace' before it that has me hooked, particularly the Kennedy Era 1958 to 1963.  

Kennedy's Wars

While there were no actual wars as such, the period saw the deployment of U.S. Forces across the globe in a more active role than previously. U.S. Marines were deployed to the Lebanon in 1958, the Berlin Crisis of 1961 saw U.S. and Soviet tanks face-off against each other at Checkpoint Charlie. The Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961 saw limited U.S. involvement and had it been successful would have seen U.S. forces invited in to assist the new regime in fighting the revolutionaries that had seized power the previous year. 

My own favourite scenario revolves around the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. America prepared for invasion and had even begun loading up the vessels and staging the troops to execute the operation, before wiser heads prevailed. A U.S. intelligence failure gravely under-estimated the Soviet commitment of men and material on the island, as well as the popularity of the Castro regime. Presuming it had not ended in a nuclear conflict, a short conventional war, followed by several years of guerrilla warfare, may have resulted. Had this happened it is entirely possible that Vietnam would not have. The public mood for 'another Cuba' might have pre-empted President Johnson's escalation of the war there.

In South East Asia itself Laos was the hot-spot which threatened to create a domino effect, although South Vietnam was the principal focus point. U.S. troops had been in South Vietnam since 1955 and the U.S. military presence had been increasing steadily from that point. In 1962 an upsurge in Viet Cong activity resulted in the deployment of additional personnel, helicopters and aircraft, with a downhill slope to the events of 1965 and beyond. In 1965 U.S. Marines and Army Airborne units were also sent into the Dominican Republic to prevent 'another Cuba'.

Playing At War

While training programmes for military forces involving 'Opposition Forces' or OPFORs is very common today, it was pioneered in the U.S. in the immediate Post-WWII period. Back then the perennial enemy of the United States was 'Circle Trigon' or 'Aggressor'. Political sensibilities of the time precluded calling the OPFOR 'Soviets' and it was not until the Late Seventies that 'Krasnovia', a Soviet client-state replaced Aggressor, who had for some time been very much organised on the Soviet model in any case. Back in the Fifties and Sixties however things were a little less clear-cut and Aggressor Forces were more usually modelled on the lines of a totalitarian European bloc of states, as much as they were the Soviets.  

With 'jungle green' dyed uniforms and wooden crests on helmets, Aggressor officers confer (1963). 

A whole history and a series of field manuals were based on Circle Trigon Forces (FM30-101 to 105), which took on a life of its own. From their invasion and occupation of New England and Florida in the Forties, to their attempted invasion of California and Texas in the Fifties and Sixties, generations of U.S. servicemen fought for or against the Aggressor forces. Those that took part as the 'enemy' did so with a great deal of enthusiasm, some even going so far as to learn Esperanto, the language of that multi-nation state. Their forces had modified helmets, a rank structure and in fact a whole reason for being, possibly the most extensive of any OPFOR created since.

Mars Attacks!

The final enemy faced by the U.S. Military in the era was not even from this world. The boom in science-fiction movies during the Fifties often saw the Army or the Marines called out to deal with a menace form another world. Whether Martians in almost impregnable tripods, or flying saucers armed with heat rays, the military faced them all. On top of that there were the abominations created when science went bad, such as in the movie Them! (1954). Whatever the threat, the U.S. Military took it in its stride.
We have it surrounded.
Despite the technological advantage enjoyed by these alien invaders, or the nightmarish mutations of science gone wrong, typically humanity came out on top. Even the infamous 'Mars Attacks!' collectable card series depicted mankind pulling back from the brink of destruction and going on to destroy Mars and its inhabitants.

War in Peace

Apart from the very real conflicts and scares of the era, in the general 'wargaming history' sense of things, this was the era of 'Army Men' and for my generation a couple of bags of soft plastic U.S. soldiers was our introduction to war that subsequently led to real wargaming. While eventually there were other nations added to the mix, those first packs only featured U.S. soldiers in different colours, much like the real world army manoeuvres.

I dreamed of sending off for these.

As sort of a homage to my wargaming roots, as well as my general interest in the era itself, I have harboured a desire to wargame in this period. While of course there are the serious historical aspects of South East Asia and Cuba to consider, I also want to bring the less realistic aspects of the era into my games too. I have to admit being somewhat disappointed that Mantic Games chose a modern day setting for its Mars Attacks! game, but at least the Martians themselves are timeless and can be used with period figures and equipment. There are huge gaps in terms of figures and vehicles, despite a recent resurgence in interest in the Cold War. While this makes creating historical forces difficult, for something like the forces deployed by Aggressor (who in reality were U.S. or allied formations 'dressing up'), pretty much anything goes and allows a somewhat eclectic collection to be built up and used.

I enjoy poring through old field manuals for details on organisation and tactics, which combined with my commitment to Too Fat Lardies' Chain of Command WWII platoon to company level rules, will likely result in a number of 'Army Lists' for the era being produced in addition.