Saturday, April 18, 2009

eBay, Nostalgia, and the Soviet Threat

As I've stated before, I was an avid wargamer back in the day, predating my introduction to, and subsequent love of, role-playing games. I and a few select friends would spend endless hours pushing little pieces of cardboard on hex-maps, re-creating the battles and wars of both past and supposed future. I cannot tell you how many times the Germans won World War II or the Soviet Union won World War III in my or Tom Fitzpatrick's basement...

Unfortunately, during my endless series of moves after leaving the Air Force (I once moved between Boston and New Jersey four times in the course of a year and a half), my once-vast collection of wargames from SPI, Avalon Hill, West End Games, and the like has dwindled to next-to-nothing. So, being the somewhat affluent fortysomething that I am, I have turned to eBay to attempt to reclaim at least a few jewels of the wargaming crown.

One that showed up on my doorstep today was Fifth Corps, which was actually a game included with the old SPI magazine Strategy & Tactics (I had a complete run of that magazine, and its sister magazine Moves, spanning many years). S&T would include a complete game in every issue, and these weren't piddling afterthoughts; they were complete and fully developed wargames, complete with maps and counters.

Fifth Corps was the first in a series of wargames called the Central Front Series, intended to game out the entirety of a Soviet invasion of West Germany on a very small scale. Only four games in the series were ever produced, out of a planned ten. Accompanying the game in the magazine was an in-depth analysis of Soviet military doctrine and how it would be applied in overrunning the NATO forces that stood poised to withstand the Warsaw Pact onslaught. What struck me in reading through the Fall 1980 magazine was just how different the world was back then.

This was a world in which the Soviet Union still existed, and was perceived as the single greatest threat to the United States and Western Europe. Soviet leaders were seen as biding their time until they could launch an assault to bring West Germany (there was a West Germany and an East Germany back then), the Low Countries, and possibly France under its domination. They might even be crazy enough to launch a strategic nuclear attack on the United States itself, with little or no provocation or warning. Many folks back in the 1970's and 1980's really believed that the Soviets were ideologically crazy enough to roll the dice and take the chance that Soviet-style communism would dominate the post-nuclear-holocaust world, or that the United States would not have the resolve to actually launch a retaliatory strike.

This was a world where a movie like Red Dawn or a miniseries such as Amerika was a plausible scenario.

But there was at least one voice of hope...

Apparently the Russians did love their children, too.

Today, of course, the threats to the United States are not as obvious, and most certainly don't lend themselves to being the subject of a wargame. Looking through this bit of nostalgia from 1980 certainly brought back some memories, not all of them good. But there was something comforting in knowing where the enemy lay, and looking back from thirty years later, it was paradoxically a safer time. I will be spending this weekend figuring out if NATO could indeed have fended off a Soviet offensive through the Fulda Gap. Maybe the good guys will win again.


jon said...

Having been a part of 1st AD and VII Corps towards the end of the "cold war" I can tell you that we might have slowed them down for 36 to 48 hours tops but Fulda Gap would be a highway after that. Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising gave a fairly accurate picture of NATO doctorine of the time but I'm sure you already know that :)
Good and bad memories of a clear cut "enemy force" brings out the nostalgia, lol.

Welleran said...

I just picked up NATO: The Next War in Europe off eBay and am going through the same Cold War nostalgia phase. Of course, I much prefer the current correlation of forces (to use a Soviet term) despite the inherent complexity of modern geopolitics (more Soviet terms!).

S'mon said...

IMO 'Red Dawn' type scenarios with Soviet invasion of the USA were never very plausible IRL; but until ca the mid-late '80s (when NATO finally began deploying superior tank designs like the US M1 and UK Challenger) a Soviet conquest of the rest of continental western Europe was certainly plausible, in the sense that Soviet tank armies were very capable of defeating NATO conventional forces. The desire of both sides to avoid a nuclear holocaust prevented this.

I guess Red Dawn type fiction served Reagan's purpose as presenting the Soviet threat as a direct threat to the USA; whereas the prospect of risking nuclear annihiliation to prevent communist takeover of western Europe would not have much appeal to many Americans.

S'mon said...

Weirdest thing was the Red Dawn plot; where the Russians (+ Mexicans and assorted Latins) occupy the US Midwest, but not the coasts (west of the Rockies, east of the Mississippi). Which seems like the exact backwards of any sensible invasion plan. Kind of made my brain hurt when I watched a few minutes of RD a few weeks ago and realised this!

Joseph said...

S'mon: They explain that in the movie by saying that the main bulk of the Soviet army came across the Bearing Straight, supplemented by airborne drops and troops moving up from Mexico. Makes a little more sense that way; the Rio Grande isn't exactly a gateway to the East coast.