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Wargaming D-Day With George Friedman

July 11, 2017

George Friedman and Jacob L. Shapiro talk about playing an old Avalon Hill board game of D-Day and what these types of games teach us about the nature of war in general. Click here to sign up for free updates on topics like this.


Jacob L. Shapiro: Hello everyone and welcome to another Geopolitical Futures podcast, I am Jacob Shapiro. George Friedman is joining us this week. Thanks for making the time George.

George Friedman: My pleasure.

JLS: And we’re broadcasting live from George’s dining room table where George just kicked my butt in a war game. We played a board version of D-Day made by the Avalon Hill game company. It’s copyrighted 1961 but we used some newfangled rules from 1977, which were a little different than you remembered them, weren’t they George?

GF: Well I spent my youth instead of doing drugs being totally stoned in war games and in those days, they used to have these wonderful war games that were historically real and realistic I should say and they came in boxes and I would play them endlessly. And the one I played incessantly was called D-Day. It was a recreation of the invasion of France and the war in France and I just played it over and over again. And the young Jedi next to me tried to take me on for the first time and I played the Germans and I must say that I kicked his butt deservedly.

JLS: Yes, I don’t think I can claim to be a Jedi. I am still in the Padawan stage based on how I did and even that I might not be worthy of the title. So the way you start the game is the Germans of course deploy first so why don’t you go through a little bit about what you did when you were deploying before you went off and left me to my own devices to try and figure out how to break through.

GF: Well the German problem is strategically they don’t have enough troops by 1944. They’re fighting the Soviets, they’re fighting in Italy, they’ve been defeated in North Africa, now they have to defend France. They have enough troops defending part of the front, not all of it because the way they really have to defend the front is to smother the Allied landing as early as humanly possible. Because the one thing that can’t afford is a battle of attrition. They can’t trade man for man or even two to one on the battlefield.

So in order to do this, they have to ideally from their point of view create a layer defense, which they didn’t do because Hitler decided the attack was coming from Pas-de-Calais and he concentrated troops there and Rommel really wanted to engage them on the beaches which was a bad idea because what this game showed was they needed to have a broad defense. Now that defense ends, they can’t keep that kind of depth going and somewhere around Normandy, as history showed, they get thin enough. Jacob chose for reasons of his own not to attack at Normandy but to attack at Pas-de-Calais, which meant that his air drop was completely annihilated. Most of the forces that landed were knocked out and he was stuck inside of two fortress cities where he was safe but he wasn’t going to launch an attack.

The reason why you don’t want to attack at Normandy is it’s so far from where you want to go, which is to Germany. It’s hundreds of miles farther away and yet, as Eisenhower understood, that was the place to go. But not only because it was a place where they can still get to France but it was the place they could force the Germans into a battle of attrition. Many people talk about the hedgerows of Normandy and how it caught the Americans up and not only laid them up and imposed heavy casualties. What they forget was it really wrecked the German armies. It caused tremendous casualties until finally they were so weak that Patton could break out with the third army and rescue Germany.

Now that’s kind of too much information. It’s the kind of information you get out of careful modeling, and modeling is a critical part of geopolitics. Military modeling is one kind, economic modeling and so on. But you have to build a model of the world. And when you do that, you lose your friends, your wife considers leaving you and so on. Because you keep mumbling about battles and things that I think never happened, happened long ago or are supposed to happen, and at that point you don’t really become the most friendly and pleasant person.

JLS: Or you’re lucky enough to find somebody who likes playing these things with you and will go to Normandy with you and walk around, yeah?

GF: Well it is true that Meredith did stand here in the dining room watching this happen and enjoyed watching my rare victories.

JLS: Well just to justify my position a little bit. One of the things you had pointed out as we were going is that you had played this game literally hundreds of times and this was my first time. And even though I visited Normandy myself a couple months ago and even though I’ve thought about this battle a fair amount and I’ve had the opportunity to study the rules for the past couple months, it was very different actually sitting there trying to figure out what odds were best for me.

And I was looking at every single possible situation that I could go with and I honestly threw up my hands and said, “You know what? I’m just going to be very American about this and I am going to punch through with as much force as I can right in the center of things and see how it goes.” And at first, I thought I was kind of doing okay because I had some lucky roles of the dice and as you said I got to my fortresses. But you were very easily able to surround me afterwards.

GF: Well the whole point of modeling is it allows you to test out various strategies and various theories, to think things through. And you do that over and over and over again. And a good general, after he’s done these games in all sorts of circumstances, it becomes intuitive for him. I just was reading a book that I mentioned today in the booklist where I talk about what is intuition. Intuition is not what it appears to be some – sort of great subconscious leap. Intuition is the human accumulated experience.

And how do you gain accumulated experience? If you’re a general and there aren’t wars, the answer is to model it. To build a false image of what that looks like and get it better and better and better until you understand it, and amazingly I won’t tell you how many years later, I haven’t played this game in a long time and my son gave it to me for a Father’s Day present and I am just having the chance to use it. And it’s amazing; it all comes back. So what is this intuition? What is this knowledge? What is expertise? It is the constant repetition and re-examination of events.

JLS: Well one thing you might even want to talk about with people because I know that this has been important for you is the fact that for those of you who don’t have this board, I mean imagine a map of France and imagine that France has been divided up into a bunch of different tiny hexagons and you’re having to position your forces around different cities and different rivers and stuff like that, that everything is moving on the hexagon level and you have to move across these hexagons to move across the terrain. I know for you, the hexagon is a big thing, right?

GF: Well I was involved in developing an early computerized war game for DOD. It was called IDA Hex and it was developed by the Institute for Defense Analysis. I played a minor role but I will claim to have suggested to the designers that we ought to use a hexagonal mapping system, you know divide the country into hexes because you need some sort of polygon for the computer to be able to model it. And I pointed to the Avalon Hill games as the example to be used. Now there are many other people who will claim responsibility for that and will deny that I had anything to do with it. But I can assure you they’re wrong; that was mine.

JLS: Well I guess one of the other things to point out though is you set up the German side of the board and then went into the living room to read your iPad for a while. And I got to try and plan my attack knowing exactly where all the German forces were. So Eisenhower when he was sitting there trying to figure out what he was doing – I failed miserably even knowing every single piece of information I would have needed to know to successfully plan a battle, right? Like Eisenhower didn’t really have a sense really of all the intelligence that he needed to make his decisions, right?

GF: Well he had a pretty good sense. He didn’t have a perfect sense but because of the intercepts, Enigma intercepts, they had a pretty a good idea of where the Germans were and the Americans had air superiority over France and they had reconnaissance flights. Even so, I mean there were important tactical mistakes made. We assumed that there were guns at Pas-de-Calais; they weren’t there. We assumed that a German division that showed up at Omaha Beach wasn’t there.

But in war, mistakes are inevitable. You’re constantly adjusting for errors in intelligence and judgement and so on. War is the ultimate imperfection. And what Eisenhower was able to do is trust his subordinate commanders to deal with the tactical imperfections, trust that the plan that had been laid out and war gamed and analyzed over and over again for a year was not just going to work but there was no other choice. You couldn’t really freelance this and if you’re going to freelance it, it had to be at a much more junior level.

So one of the ways to look at it was that the lesser generals really won the battle. I’ll say the sergeants did, the sergeants that held together their units or regrouped their units and who were able to think through the tactical situation protecting their men as much as possible, fighting the enemy. For me, the power of the American military is never rested in the staffs or the generals; it is always rested in the sergeants who from the Civil War and before were the ones who held it together. There’s a story about Normandy about not being able to break through the Hedgerows. These Hedgerows where hedges that grew taller than a human being in the ground underneath them. And a sergeant took a look at this and he apparently had been a plumber at home and he took two pipes, stuck them in the front of the tank and they were able to plow through.

Now this is an amazing story and I think one of the great virtues of the American military. Not merely sergeants but the fact that at any level you can innovate. Sometimes the U.S. military has lost that. They’ve created such a complex process for everything that innovation is lost within it. Process is great until it strangles you. But in World War II at least, that process – and Eisenhower is partly responsible for that. That sergeant, his good idea went viral so to speak. It became the way we broke through. And there are some militaries in which that was the case. The German military during World War II, whatever else you say about them, they had that innovative capability. The Russians didn’t. They supplemented it with overwhelming manpower to fight their battles.

Each country has its own military culture but it’s interesting to bear in mind that military culture always spins over into civilian life. The guys at Pas-de-Calais, at Omaha, at Utah, the Americans – came home, took the G.I. bill, became the first professional middle class and transformed America. It was a period in the 1950s and ’60s with magnificent transformation of the United States from the depression that had been before the war to what it was after. And one of the things that you have to understand about what was called the Silent Generation is these were the guys who’d been to war. They weren’t silent; they just wanted to live their lives.

But the definition of living their lives was constant innovation and constant change. And we owe a tremendous amount to the military. There is an unpleasant paradox I think for human beings which I’ve written about, which is that war is an opportunity for tremendous innovation. And many of the things that we have today had their origins in the military and warfare. But certainly, it was the mindset of these things that in retrospect I was totally amazed by. I am not sure we still have that. I’m not sure we have in the way they had it. We think today that we’re very innovative because we come up with Tinder or some insane application. These guys changed the face of America. They transformed it and they didn’t make speeches about it. These are the sergeants.

JLS: How much of that has to do with the fact that they were faced with what they were faced with, right? I mean certainly not me and I don’t think you have ever been faced with the task that the men who were charged with taking Omaha Beach and Utah Beach and all those things, we’ve never faced anything like that in our lives.

GF: I think you’re absolutely right and the thing that I am trying to point out is we see war as pathological and it’s a horrible thing. Yet it’s ubiquitous. For something pathological, it is so commonplace that after earning a living, it seems to be the second most common thing and forges things out of it. You know, the Roman War had forged not just an empire but a road system that exists today. It’s extraordinary. Whether we like it or not, being for or against war is kind of a meaningless thing. It is. And we have to understand what it does. It creates a level of discipline in those who survive it, both civilian and military, that when translated to everyday life can – not always is, but can – be transformative.

JLS: When you think about the land at Normandy in particular, I mean you’ve written a little bit, you’ve been writing these weeklies lately about different battles in World War II and I am sure you will have turned your attention to this one at some point, but the last one you wrote was about the Battle of Midway and about how it sort of all hung in the balance in there and there was a certain amount of fate and chance.

And yet the board that we’re looking at right now and the game we just played, you were making the point to me that at the same time, it’s really mathematical. This was a mathematical problem and you had to figure out the mathematical problem and it only left you with one real choice if you were the American commander. So how do you think about Normandy in terms of predictability and things like fate. I mean, if they had gotten the weather forecast wrong for instance, it might’ve been completely different.

GF: Geopolitics suffers from a basic disease. It can forecast and forecast well. And somehow embedded in the forecast is something it didn’t understand. It was easy to predict the Japanese were going to be defeated by the Americans. In a Midway, it wasn’t obvious. Some reader sent in saying that it really was, but from my point of view, it’s not clear that the war in the Pacific would’ve been won if we’d lost our three carriers in that battle.

When I look at D-Day, the answer is the Germans are spread so thin that even if the invasion at Normandy would’ve failed, the Soviets would’ve been able to break the Wehrmacht’s back and that may be true. But the heart of war is an eccentric resistance to mathematics. Much of the way I approached war was mathematical. Some of the math was good, some was questionable but in all the ways that I did it, there always turned out, in the battle I looked at, to be a moment where it could’ve gone either way, where the outcome was unpredictable, and that makes me very uncomfortable because I like predictability.

You just wrote something on the Civil War where you spoke about Pickett’s Charge. See to me, that battle was lost well before Pickett’s Charge. Because it wasn’t a battle that should have been fought. This was the opportunity to go east to swing between Baltimore and Washington to isolate Washington and bring it down. Now from an analytic point of view, I think I’m right. The key to this was Washington. The Army of Virginia was in a position to isolate Washington. Lee discarded that chance in favor of an engagement of unfavorable circumstances with the Union.

Now the question in that battle is to me, from my point of view, is Lee simply didn’t listen to Longstreet, which he should have. And he didn’t listen to Longstreet because he was caught up in a Napoleonic vision of war, of grand attacks, of open ground and didn’t understand the strategic foundation. Okay, if Lee had listened to Longstreet and had swung to the east, would the Union have been dissolved? Would the North American geopolitical situation have been wildly different? Would all of history been changed? I hate those moments, I hate those moments that depend on judgement.

And on the other hand, reconciling the geopolitical concept of necessity with the strangest events. And then saying well don’t worry about the strange, this will happen anyway. It’s one of the things that at this point in my life, I am struggling with. There is too much eccentricity to the world. And yet there’s an order and I don’t understand how these two fit together.

JLS: Yeah the one thing I would respond with is that you’re right that by the time it’s Pickett’s Charge, the battle is over and that was the wrong mistake. And for some, that’s one of the reasons I think Pickett’s Charge is interesting because I rate Lee’s ability as a strategic thinker rather high and it was obviously the wrong decision. I mean it was, you could almost compare it to me trying to punch a hole through your German defense here on the board right where you were strongest rather than thinking about it for a second and trying to do something.

But you know the point at which you’re saying that Longstreet told Lee to move towards Washington, there were two main problems there or at least two main reasons that I can think of that Lee was thinking. The first was that he had come so close on the first day and it really was within his grasp. But the second and more important thing was that he still didn’t have his cavalry; he still didn’t have Jeb Stewart there to tell him how big the Union force was and how far they extended.

And if he had wanted to take Longstreet’s advice, he wasn’t sure exactly where the disposition of Union forces were. And that entire campaign was cursed from the beginning because Stewart went on his ride around the Union to try and make up for getting caught on the way up to the north and in so doing, Lee really lost all of his intelligence and Lee proved to not be flexible enough to shift his plans once he lost his access to what he thought was his perfect intelligence.

So I would say that in some ways, he was boxed in because he had to command the entire force and he looked at Longstreet and said, “Yeah that would all be well and good but I have no idea where they are and I am not going to try and make that kind of move if I don’t have the cavalry to skirmish along that side so we’re going to try and whip them here.” For me the bigger question is why not after you fail on day two, why don’t you pull back and why don’t you check about the fact that you’re low on ammunition now and that you can’t actually stand against the battle in the Union and they’ve reinforced themselves and that now is the time to get defensive and to crouch into your own defensive position rather than to make that attack.

GF: Because people have a tendency to double down. After they lost, if you ever sat with a bad poker player and just taken him apart and he doesn’t understand why, he’s going to go big. And that’s what Lee did. But I would put it this way. The South was at a strategic disadvantage. The North had all the advantages. Lee’s move into Pennsylvania was a Hail Mary. He desperately had to win the war.  Now the question they should ask is, if he’d won at Gettysburg, would the Union have collapsed? And I would argue that the Army would’ve dispersed, it would’ve regrouped and the North had resources. However, if he threatened Washington from the North, if Washington can no longer communicate effectively with the rest of the country, that would’ve mattered. So the Hail Mary was called for, he was throwing one but he didn’t go for the jugular.

Now, there’s a way to explain this, which is that Lee was trained at West Point in Napoleonic tactics. Grant later was also trained in Napoleonic tactics, he just didn’t buy it. Grant understood that the North’s advantage was resources and he was going to stand on that line all summer if he had to, grinding the enemy down. Kind of like we were talking about how Eisenhower did in the hedge country.

So partly, it’s the training that you receive and partly it’s your ability to overcome that training. To learn from it. And it’s interesting because I’ve never been able to find that explanation of how Grant learned what he did. And in some ways, Grant is more interesting than Lee. Lee’s a gentleman. He’s very much someone that you want an officer to be. Grant isn’t. He’s an alcoholic, he’s nasty, he’s brutal. Yet Grant managed out of the same school to leave with an understanding of contemporary warfare, where Lee never grasped it.

So for me, I keep coming lately back to the question of learning because if I am going to understand the role of accident in history, then I have to understand how people deal with accidents and in dealing with accidents, I keep coming back to learning and unlearning and it gets very complicated. So what I want is an elegant vision of how the world works. And it keeps becoming disorderly so I want to explain Lee’s mistake, and in trying to explain Lee’s mistake I have to reach back into his training at West Point but then I’ve got Grant, same training and not making the same mistake.

JLS: Almost all the officers in World War II on both sides were West Point graduates and stuff like that. And I mean Grant also had a superior advantage, right? I mean he had the numbers. You were talking about whether if the South had won at Gettysburg, would that have meant that the Union was going to fall apart. No, I don’t think so. You might’ve been able to get a pro-peace candidate in there in the next round of elections and stuff like that.

But I mean, remember that you know if the South would’ve won Gettysburg, it would’ve won on July 4, 1863. They lost Gettysburg but they also lost Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, and you’ve written before about how important the Mississippi River was and you couldn’t lose both of those things and even have a chance. You probably couldn’t even lose Vicksburg by itself; like you said it was a Hail Mary and probably the South was already done at that point.

GF: I think that if he had gone east to Taneytown and blocked the roads to Washington further east, it might have had a different end. Maybe not and that really is what I am talking about. But it’s interesting, you know we talk about Grant understanding it’s all mass. And really from the Civil War, which was in the world of military history the first modern war in which industrialism and mass played a critical role. Right down to World War II, the mass was everything and therefore destroying the means of producing, of mass production. Bombing cities, crushing the enemy in various ways. We seem to be back almost to an older time sort of warfare where the age of industrial warfare, of vast armies facing vast armies isn’t there. This is a war of sparse global forces arrayed against pretty sparse global forces.

When you compare what is going on in the jihadist wars, both sides are actually fighting a minimalist war. And also as terrible as terrorism is, it’s not the casualties of World War II but the stakes are just as high. For the jihadist, it is creating a caliphate. For the U.S. and Europe, it is preventing the rise of a radical Jihadist state entity. Everything’s at stake and yet given modern weaponry, drones and so on which people dislike, it’s actually vastly reduced the amount of casualties. Not the mistakes – the mistakes are still there – but I think one of the things that in watching and playing these war games, I am not sure I am ever going to see a war this massive where the math overrides everything. In the kinds of wars we see today, it is much more small forces against small forces, much more intelligence orientated, much less mathematical therefore.

JLS: The obvious question to you though then is to talk about what you’ve been writing a lot about recently, which is North Korea. Do you think that North Korea is also that kind of minimalist war or does North Korea look more like something that you’d have to model on a board like this with huge numbers of ground troops even.

GF: Well on the surface, this should be the ideal sort of war for the United States. We’re not very good at counterinsurgency. I don’t care how many manuals are written. We just don’t do it well. Occupying a country that’s hostile to you is very tough. What we are good at is technology on technology, and overmatching them. In this case we are facing the danger of a potential ICBM, nuclear tipped, coming to the United States. Secretary Mattis has said that can’t be permitted. So you have a problem. One, locating the nuclear sites. Two, eliminating the artillery deployment north of Seoul, knocking out the nuclear facilities. All this should be done from the air.

And yet how will you make certain that you’ve knocked out a hole in the ground? How do you know what was in it? And how do you avoid the air defense systems that the North Koreans have around their artillery. While you’re suppressing that air defense system, they’re shelling Seoul. So again, somewhat unlike World War II, it has a tremendous complexity. Now part of that is the North Koreans created that complexity over the past 15 years. While they have been looking to develop nuclear weapons, they’ve also clearly gamed out the crisis point over and over again to create a situation where, when there’s sufficient uncertainty, potential casualties, the Americans grow shy of it.

I’ve spoken to several extremely intelligent and experienced military officers who make the case we’re just going to have to accept North Korean nuclear weapons because we don’t have the means of eliminating them without devastation to Seoul. Now the counterargument is, if we don’t have devastation of Seoul, we may wind up with the devastation of other cities. So you pay now or pay later. But I understand the argument. But it still doesn’t have the feel of mass warfare. We’re talking about small quantities, small uncertainties, great predictabilities. It’s not like the German invasion of Russia, the Soviet Union, that was planned with meticulousness based on industrial-strength forces facing industrial-strength forces. This is highly technical but it also has so many unknowns built into it, that even people who normally would be vigorously in favor of an attack are shying away from it.

So I think we’ve reached a new kind of warfare among the jihadists but another new type of warfare in which the technology on both sides has become so complex that this vast range of uncertainty that political leaders really don’t want to engage in if they don’t have to. The counterargument to what I just said is every war has been uncertain and in every war the certainty of success has been followed by uncertainty, possibly failure. So war is something that we’d always imagine and is always imagined to be easier than it is.

But certainly the North Korean thing is turning from, okay this is what we know how to do and we’re going to do it well to, I don’t know if we can do this. And there’s no question but the president is going to have to make some decisions and it’s going to be important to bear in mind that whoever he listens to, only the president can make this decision.

JLS: And as you said no matter what he does, that in the end he won’t be able to be sure about exactly what’s going to go on because once you’ve make these decisions, everything is actually completely unpredictable as uncomfortable as that makes you feel.

GF: Well it depends what kind of bracket you put on it. Would World War II have been won without a Normandy invasion? I think yes. Would post-war Europe look the same? No. But the war itself I think on a broad bracket was predictable. I don’t know that a jihadist war is predictable. And although a couple months ago, I was pretty certain how that war would look, I now – I shouldn’t listen to people because they confuse me – I now reached a point where if these guys are nervous about it, why am I so confident? Naturally my son who’s in the Air Force would be very happy to say that the Air Force can take care of this entire matter without any help. The Air Force has said that in every war we had since World War II. It’s never been the case. I hope he’s listening.

JLS: I am sure he is and on that note, I think we’ll sign off here but thank you everyone for listening. As always you can send in comments to I am Jacob Shapiro, again this was George Friedman and if you guys enjoyed this episode, we might do this a little bit more, these types of war-gaming things and thinking about historical battles so we always welcome your feedback. Thanks George.

GF: Thank you. Thank you for listening.

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