The ninth episode of this year’s season of Revisionist History—“A Serious Game”—was about war games. In particular, it was about the small group of people in the national security world who spend a great deal of time staging and acting out imaginary scenarios. These are elaborate productions—months or years in the making. Commissioned by the Pentagon. Presented to decorated generals, diplomats, State Department alumni. Major stakes. Huge questions! What would it take to secure loose nuclear weapons in a failed North Korean state, for example? Or—how would NATO respond if Russia invaded the Baltics?
It was one of my favorite episodes of the year. (Although to be perfectly honest, I say that about every episode. I’m like the parent who’s asked to name their favorite child.) But the truth is that in the course of doing the episode I began to find wargamers fascinating. What I loved is their commitment to what seems to me to be a crucial idea: that one of the most important ways to prepare for the unexpected is to act out hypotheticals, as diligently and intricately as possible.
Suppose, for example, you are the United States military and you want to get a sense of what would happen if China invaded Taiwan. You call in your China experts, consult with the Asia desk at the State Department, have some outside consultants crunch some numbers and do some scenario-planning, then hold a big meeting at the Pentagon. That’s the standard prediction model. It’s a really useful exercise—except it is necessarily going to be limited to the possibilities that seem plausible to you before the fact.
But what if we sit down for a week and recruit teams of experts to play each country? That’s when we find out something unexpected. A group of China experts plays the Chinese government, five former Taiwanese diplomats play the top Taiwanese officials, and a retired four-star army general leads a team playing the U.S. Defense Department. At RAND, the war-game designers might take the teams through three or four different games, each designed to build on the one before. The first game or two is simple—a free-form negotiation, for example. Teams play out the conflict around a conference table, and a Control Team decides whether each move is reasonable and sound. Meanwhile, the game designers watch. Take note of all the moves and arguments. Then they go back and design the next game using what they learned.
Each time, the setup is a little more intricate. Maybe now there’s a gameboard, tighter rules. The play can develop further. If China takes over Taiwan, the U.S. reacts with sanctions, two-thirds of the Taiwanese people take to the streets, and a faction of the occupying Chinese army defects—what happens five, six, seven moves down the line? Now we’ve started putting reasonable expectations to the test. We’ve added into our prediction model the inherent unpredictability of human interaction.
But, for all my excitement about war games, the Revisionist History episode was not the hit I expected it to be. Not like, say, Episode 8, “Laundry Done Right”—which was all about Procter & Gamble’s gallant battle to convince Americans to wash their clothes in cold water. For months now, people have been coming up to me in coffee shops and restaurants and stopping me on the street to discuss their laundry habits. That’s what I call a successful podcast.
But “A Serious Game” was, shall we say, a more modest success.
Perhaps that’s to be expected: it was more of an intellectual exercise than 40 minutes on laundry detergent. But still! Revisionist History listeners are very smart! They enjoy challenging questions. So, motivated by my mild disappointment, I’m thinking about the question I didn’t ask in the war games episode. Maybe this is the question I wanted to ask all along. Since war gaming is so useful, why doesn’t everyone do it, all the time? When we have to make big decisions based on hypotheticals and predictions, why do we limit ourselves to sitting around and having long conversations? Why don’t we act things out?
I’m thinking, for one thing, about Presidential debates. Bear with me.
A Presidential election is the civilian’s ultimate hypothetical. Right? We’re expected to predict the fate of the country under Person A and compare that to the fate of the country under Person B, and decide which prediction we like better.
But just about the only way we get a sense of how Presidential candidates act is in televised debates—which, on the most basic level, are an incredibly stupid idea. Does anyone disagree? They test a candidate’s ability to look good on camera, deliver pre-scripted responses, and avoid anything that might possibly be construed as an honest or genuine answer.
One of my favorite parlor games is to imagine better alternatives. There are dozens of possibilities. In fact, I’m realizing, this needs a Bulletin all its own. So Part 2 will be next week. Stay tuned. I want your thoughts!