Monday, July 30, 2007

On the world at war

I grew up with tales of World War II — oral history of the war in Burma when I was really young, children’s books about the Great Patriotic War courtesy of the Soviet propaganda machine came next, few years later, in high school, came Alistair McLean novels, war movies and the classic documentary after which this post is titled.

I was very excited when we bought Axis and Allies. As the link suggests, this is a board game based on the war. In the game, each powers control six victory cities in the beginning: Berlin, Rome, Paris, Tokyo, Shanghai and Manila are under the Axis; and London, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Moscow, Leningrad and Calcutta are under the Allies. The aim is to control eight cities for a minor victory, ten for a major victory and all dozen for total victory.

As a game, it’s very different from Diplomacy. Compared to Diplomacy, Axis and Allies is lot more complex. On the other hand, two people can play the World War II game, whereas the Great War game requires seven players.

We have had our first game. My best friend refused to play the Axis powers. So I played Germany and Japan, and she played the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. We played for a few rounds, reached a stalemate with each controlling six cities, and called a truce.

In the Eastern Front of the European theatre, Germany captured Leningrad early on, and eventually took Moscow as well, leaving the remaining Soviet forces scattered across the country. Germans also broke through British defence in the Middle East, capturing Suez and cutting the British Empire in half. In the Western Front, Germans successfully repelled Allied attacks on France. In the Atlantic, u-boats did a lot of damage to the American assistance to the British. But despite this, Britain was defended well enough to deter any invasion.

While the Axis powers seemed to have done reasonably well in Europe, things were very different in the Pacific theatre. Here, the British raised a large army in India — we interpreted as India gaining freedom when the Suez fell to the Axis. This large army ousted the Japanese from the mainland South East Asia and wrested Shanghai. Meanwhile, the Americans, after heavy fighting, captured Manila. However, the Japanese home islands were heavily defended, and the game didn’t allow for the bomb.

So the Axis seemed to have the upper hand in Europe, while the Allies were in better position in the Pacific. As neither side could see a quick change in fortunes, the truce was accepted.
So, how does the game compare with history?

First, the similarities. Britain and Japan were heavily defended, making an invasion very difficult. Also, it also near impossible to see how the Axis could muster enough resources to launch an invasion of North America. Total Axis victory seemed impossible given the existing technology.
In some cases, the game deviated from the real world in directions that really could have happened. The Suez Canal could have fallen. India could have gained freedom and joined the war in full force, bringing million men to arms. And the Operation Overlord could have failed.

In the real world, Germans failed to win in Russia. And I haven’t read any serious history book that suggests that the Nazis could win in the Eastern Front. But here lies the biggest difference between the game and history. In the game, the power is Germany, not the Third Reich. Its symbol is the iron cross, not the swastika. This is interesting as Germany fights the Soviet Union, not Russia, whose symbol is the hammer and sickle. Presumably, the game’s creators figured that no one wanted to play the Nazis, while people could be expected to play communists.

Why is that, when Stalin and Mao killed more people than the Axis powers?

The main reason for this is because as an ideology, communism, like radical Islam, can, in theory, provide salvation to any believer. Nazism and fascism on the other hand are only for the chosen people. As described in a great book by Mark Mazower, Hitler’s ideology made it impossible for the German-occupied Europe to function — the subject peoples were never going to be acquiescent. And unlike in the game, in the real life the Russians fought to the end because they didn’t have a choice, they were facing extermination.

As noted in the review of Mazower’s book linked above, liberal democracy emerged victorious in the war not because of its appeal to Europeans, but because of its success in the United States. Americans suffered as much from the Depression as the Europeans, but no fascist went to the White House. As was also the case in the game, America was the arsenal of democracy that prevented an Axis victory.

Okay, enough history lessons. We also bought a game based on the Wild West, and I’m off to play that now.