Book Review – Zero Six Bravo by Damien Lewis

Zero Six Bravo: 60 Special Forces. 100,000 Enemy. The Explosive True StoryZero Six Bravo: 60 Special Forces. 100,000 Enemy. The Explosive True Story by Damien Lewis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I make a point of reading first hand accounts of special forces operations. I started with world war two tales of the SAS and have worked up to the present time. Since the Bravo Two Zero fiasco I don’t expect much from tales of recent events.

This particular book tells the tale of a Special Boat Service mission in Iraq in 2003. It suffers a bit from excessive hypebole, presumably to garner sales. However it is actually very readable, and although much of the outcome is telepgrahed in advance the way it’s done is through a good hook to keep you reading to find out the detail of how/what happens. Well before all the debates in Parliament in 2003 M Squadron SBS were training up for their mission, changing their role from maritime operations to being vehicle borne. They then went into Iraq just before the air war started in 2003 with an attempt to contact a major Iraqui army formation to persuade it to surrender.

You know when you start to read it that the mission isn’t going to go well. In fact without even knowing anything about it I picked up that it must have gone horribly wrong. However I also knew that it couldn’t have gone that far wrong, because otherwise I probably would have heard about it since I have an interest in current affairs and military operations.

The story follows the perspective of one SBS Sergeant who was the lead navigator for most of the mission. Mainly it focusses on what he sees, and the actions of his three man vehicle crew. On the whole it is an interesting narrative and it gripped me enough to read longer than I normally do.

There’s a clear thread running through it of the forebodings, that may well have been how the central character felt, but are laboured to the extent that it comes across as 20:20 hindsight. There are also some rather strained references to Bravo Two Zero and the similarities with that patrol (both seem to have been compromised because they refused to shoot a child goat herder). That doesn’t really wash with me because the goat incident in Bravo Two Zero wasn’t repeated in the other books about the patrol and The Real “Bravo Two Zero” gives another version of events (apparently two Iraqui veterans of the Iran-Iraq War spotted the patrol, not a child goat herder).

Despite this I still think it’s worth a read, especially if you get it for the knock down price of 99p as I did.

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The 200 Foot General

This is the third post on my Operational Research driven wargame rules (and it’s probably about time that I came up with a catchy name for them, ideas in the comments section most welcome).

One of the most unrealistic things I find in most commercial wargames that I have read or played is that it is very easy for players to change their plans and give new orders to their troops every turn. This is so common that there’s even a name for it, the 200ft General.

What is the Problem?

The concept being that the player is like a General with perfect perception and control of his troops, and he can react to things that they aren’t yet aware of because the player can see the models on the table.

Here are a couple of relevant quotes from the Operational Research that demonstrate why this is a problem.

“a detailed, well-rehearsed plan blocks acceptance of the quick orders rattled out over the radio ten minutes before an attack starts. This mix of friction and mental block can be seen to play a part in nearly half of all mission failures.” Murray in Brains & Bullets

“complicated plans were much more likely to fail.” Murray in Brains & Bullets

So this gives a constraint to the game design. A successful OR driven wargame will ensure that it isn’t easy to change orders and that the more complicated a plan is the more likely it will be to fail.

Potential Solutions

This isn’t a new problem, many wargame designers have grappled with it over the decades that wargaming has been popular. Lots of games have mechanisms of one sort or another to counteract this, ranging from hidden movement and deployment through to complex activation systems. All of these have problems, but at least they’re trying to solve the core problem of limiting player decisions to those that are reasonable for a commander on the ground.

  • Hidden movement & Deployment. This is a very good solution, and one that lots of games try to implement. It has difficulties in that you either need to trust the other player or have an umpire. Failing that some pre-game organisation to produce maps that can be annotated helps. It tends not to be used for competition wargames.
  • Written Orders. This is what real armies do, and so far as I’m aware only one commercial game has attempted this (Spearhead). It slows down the game, or increases setup time. Possibly producing a pro-forma might speed things up.
  • Unit activations. This seems to be common in popular rules. The actual mechanisms vary considerably, but the gist of it is that as a player you cannot be sure whether or not particular units will be activated. About all you can be sure of is that you cannot move your entire army. A good example of this is the DBA PIP system. A general gets 1d6 unit activations each turn.

I think that a good solution would be streamlined and easy to implement by players. Something like this is likely to have a major impact on gameplay speed, and we’re looking for ‘fast’ as a default setting. Each game turn needs to take 5-10 minutes to run through so that a whole game (including setup) can happen in about 2 hours.

Do you have any other potential solutions to this problem?

2D Morale Chart

Further to the previous post Faith in Morale I’ve tried to synthesize the varioius readings on military psychology into a set of morale rules that might give a realistic ebb and flow to an engagement. I’ve not had a chance to test these yet, but here’s what the chart looks like.

v01 of the 2D Morale Chart, (c) 2014 James Kemp
v01 of the 2D Morale Chart, (c) 2014 James Kemp

Reading through the various OR type publications it seems to me that morale is affected by proximity to both friends and the enemy. The closer solders get to the enemy the more they seem to do things other than follow orders. This is not really a surprise, but it’s nice to see the research back up the gut feel.

Where I can find hard numbers for things I have used them to construct the 2D morale chart. In some ways this is sort of arbitrary, the numbers aren’t comprehensive enough to complete it. I’ve taken distance from the enemy as one axis and propensity to fight as the other axis. Probability isn’t as straightforwards as counting the squares, as I’ve chosen to use a 2d6 roll on this chart. This tends the answer towards 7 and I have used the probabilty of a given result (or greater) as the method for putting the shading on the boxes. Where certain conditions make something more or less likely the difference from the probability of 7 or more is what I’ve used to decide whether the die modifier would be +/- 1, 2 or 3 (most end up as +/-1).

I’ll post up more of this, along with some ideas on how I expect it to work, in a later post. Broadly though each glob of troops will have a marker on the chart showing their current morale state. Each time morale is tested they will roll 2d6 and modify. Scores of 6-8 (about 45%) will remain unchanged. scores of 9-11 will improve morale and 12 will improve it and move the unit closer to the enemy (except for defenders in prepared positions). Scores of 4 or 5 will decrease morale, a 2 or 3 will decrease morale and cause the soldiers to give ground back to cover.


Faith in Morale

An Army Padre in Afghanistan with a CrossI’ve been reading operational research on the psychology of combat recently. It got me to thinking about the role of religious faith in morale of soldiers. I’m not personally religious and don’t have an axe to grind on this. What I am trying to do is build a game design model that properly accounts for relevant factors.

The thought that struck me was that combat is very stressful and that soldiers are called on to do unpleasant things to others. This isn’t an every day thing but it does happen. The after effects can be very severe, PTSD isn’t pleasant for anyone and can last for years after the traumatic events have finished. Psychological casualties are as real as the physical ones, they just have a delayed onset and are harder to spot.

Faith in Morale

Looking at rational human reactions in combat and life threatening situations you can see that the belief system of the individual plays a strong part. If you read first hand accounts enough you begin to understand this. Heroes often do what they do because they don’t see other options that they find acceptable.  People run into burning buildings or stay at a point of danger to help others. A selfish rational view would get you out of there. This often comes down to helping other members of the in group, not letting others down or not being able to live with themselves if they hadn’t tried to help. It is rare to hear patriotism cited, although often modestly you’ll hear ‘I was just doing my job’. That last is rarely true from a technical perspective but it reveals that the person that said it was driven by their belief system.

You’ll have noticed that I’ve been writing about a belief system here rather than faith. That’s deliberate. Faith is a kind of belief system but isn’t all of it. Everyone has a belief system, even atheists. Not everyone has faith.

So where do belief systems come from?

They are a product of our upbringing and life experiences.  Religious faith has a major part in shaping them, as does the dominant culture in the society that we live in. Even those that consciously reject those are shaped by it in their rejection.

Some examples. Homophobia is driven by belief systems. The dominant culture in the UK has taught us that it is a bad thing. Some religious groups disagree, and there is a high level of support far that point of view from the older members of society and those that have arrived from other cultures that don’t share the same belief as our dominant culture.  In the main the driver for homophobia is the classic out group of psychology.  Humans form groups of similar outlooks and turn against other groups. It’s animal instinct and manifests in many places and in many ways. Civilised humans learn to control the behaviour it drives and accept that other people (mostly) aren’t a threat. Being indoctrinated from birth into thinking about things makes this much easier.

Back to combat. The fundamental beliefs that go on here are about harming others and self preservation.  Religion tends to have a view on both of these. Typically it is don’t harm others and you need to make earthly sacrifices for a heavenly reward.

The combat calculus every combatant goes through is pretty much ‘does the risk to me outweigh the benefits of what I’m doing?’

If you are an atheist with no belief in an afterlife then you aren’t going to be as keen on checking out as someone expecting a massive reward for furthering the cause of their chosen religion (and it is the individual combatant’s interpretation that counts here, not the orthodox view).

So perhaps you get something like this:

Belief harm to others self-preservation Overall result
Atheist Only if its within the rules of engagement I don’t want to die Avoids taking risks where possible, but is ready to kill to do the job at hand. Unlikely to operate outside the rules of engagement lest there is an earthly punishment.
Humanist Do unto others as you would have done to yourself I don’t want to die Kills only when there iis no alternative. Will stay well within the rules of engagement as it is what their belief system demands. Won’t take unnecessary risks but will do what they can to help others.
Orthodox Christian/Muslim Killing is wrong, but God accepts that sometimes it is necessary. I don’t want to die yet, but there will a reward in the afterlife if I do good work. As with the Humanist avoids harm to others, but if it him or me will kill the enemy. Will self-sacrifice to save/help others but tries where possible to preserve their ability to continue to act.
Religious Fanatic God wants me to kill unbelievers If I do God’s work I will be rewarded in the after life. Disregards personal safety to achieve the mission objective (which implictly includes doing what God demands and converting or killing the unbelievers.

Let me know what you think in the comments thread.

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