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Playing At War

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Paula McDonnell 11:03, Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Editor’s note: Philip Palmer is the writer of the new Radio 4 drama series, Red and Blue.   Red and Blue, a journey into the world of the wargame, is being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 over three consecutive Wednesdays; 11, 18 and 25 April. PMcD.

When I was a lad, we used to play cowboys and Indians down by the river, next to the old railway sleepers.  Imaginary guns, non-existent horses, Welsh kids in jeans and t-shirts pretending to be Apache warriors or gun-toting Texans.  Make believe.

Grown ups play games too.  I write science fiction novels when I’m not writing for Radio 4, and at various conventions I’ve attended I’ve seen people dressed as Klingons, or as steampunk characters, or  taking part in complex and multi-venue LARPS (Live Action Role Plays).   It’s daft, and I’ve never really participated in any of these games. But I love it.  More make believe.

Soldiers play games too.  They call them wargames; and this is the subject of my current Radio 4 series Red and Blue.    But these games are played with serious intent.  This is how armies rehearse for war; in elaborate make-believe combat exercises. 

The idea for this series simmered for quite a while before reaching production.  I’d worked before with producer Toby Swift on a drama about military interrogation – Breaking Point – and another piece about industrial negligence, called Blame.  And Toby and I fancied the idea of doing another big subject; the kind of piece that would work uniquely well on radio.  And so we hit upon the idea of military wargames; wars fought with computer simulations, and imaginary troops; and, most importantly for our medium, wars fought with words.

That of course is the unique strength of radio; it’s all about words.  Or the absence thereof. 
The three plays feature one common character  - former Lieutenant Colonel Bradley Shoreham, played by Tim Woodward.  In the first episode Bradley is the author or ‘Exercise Writer’ of a large scale computer simulated wargame involving thousands of participants, in Britain, Europe and America.  The British soldiers are mainly based in one of several aircraft hangars, talking by radio to their counterparts in other military bases, whilst following the progress of the war on their  computer screens.   Some of these soldiers however – the ones at the 'sharp end'  - sit in tents in muddy fields as virtual missiles fly through the air towards them, and virtual soldiers die. 

One of the joys of this episode was being reunited with Lloyd Hutchison, who was in my (very free) adaptation of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, with among others Simon Russell Beale and David Oyelowo, also directed by Toby.  In Red and Blue Lloyd plays a civil servant who suddenly finds himself playing the role of an imprisoned terrorist leader with blood on his hands; and who takes to the role with relish.

The second episode, directed by Sasha Yevtushenko,  features a field exercise – a wargame in which real troops with real guns act out a mock mission in the field -  usually though not always with blank ammunition.  This episode features a troop of Special Forces soldiers on an exercise in the Arizona desert, played by Warren Brown, Ifan Meredith, Don Gilet, Paddy Wallace and Liz White.   These troops are hiding from the ‘Trojan’ army, who are a fearsome fighting machine. And every now and then a plane or a helicopter flies overhead, and the soldiers dive for cover; and so did I, such is the calibre of Radio 4 sound effects...

The cast of Red and Blue on BBC Radio 4 (L to R): Warren Brown, Liz White, Paddy Wallace, Don Gilet, Ifan Meredith (18 April 2012)
The final episode, Terror, is pretty much a two hander, featuring Tim Woodward and Bill Paterson having lunch.  Yup, that’s the plot; ‘two blokes have lunch’. You can be sure that’s not how I pitched it….!  And in this episode,  I explore to the full the terror of extrapolative war.

Wargames in real life can be dangerous things.   In 1983, a war game called Operation Able Archer very nearly precipitated World War III, when the  West, including the US and British governments, staged a full scale wargame in Germany, using real troops.  The Russians were casually told this was just an exercise; but, being paranoid, they suspected this was a devious ruse as a build up to real war.  And when Margaret Thatcher and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl both participated in the nuclear drill, the Russians decided war was imminent, and plans for a pre-emptive nuclear strike were set in motion.

Remember 1983? Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton sang Islands in the Stream on the radio; and meanwhile, the world nearly ended.

Luckily for all of us, the wargame participants packed up and went home before the Russian's itchy trigger fingers twitched; but it's a chilling example of the fine line between fiction and reality.

Wargames are, in essence, a form of science fiction; they are extrapolations based on fact but with invented premises and fictional scenarios.  Wars are fought between Red and Blue, or between nations with fictitious names like Troy or Atlantis, not between real nations.  And, most fascinatingly from my point of view, wargames generally will have an author. This will be a senior soldier acting in a consultancy capacity who will be the Exercise Writer. His or her job is to invent countries, give them names and geographies, and set them at war. 

And sometimes,  the computer simulation and the 'real life' field exercise will merge; so the computer screen at HQ will show images of an attacking army of tanks and armoured personnel carriers as filmed from an aerial drone; some of which are real, and some of which are imaginary.  Real tanks trundle beside virtual tanks; it's exactly the same as CGI in the movies, when a few real ships at sea become an attacking armada of thousands of vessels. 

But these games are not always just games; sometimes people die. Because whenever you have real trucks and real tanks, accidents will happen.  And if live rounds are used, there's always a chance someone will get hit.   The most catastrophic wargame in recent military history came in 1943, in Operation Tiger - a full scale rehearsal for the D-Day invasion, which took place in Devon in conditions of deepest secrecy. An entire town was evacuated, and at the insistence of the Americans, real shells were fired on to the Devon beaches, to toughen the men up for combat conditions.  However, due to a catastrophic mistake, more than 300 British soldiers were killed.  The deaths were hushed up; the invasion of Normandy went ahead. And the rest, as we know, is history.

As my main character Bradley Shoreham says, we live in the age of the wargame.  Oil companies wargame what will happen if there's a major oil spill; companies will wargame what will happen if they lose their market share.  And every time our troops go to war, someone somewhere will have wargamed it. 

Indeed most governments will have a wargame calendar, based on scenarios ranging from terrorist attack to a nuclear power plant explosion.  And so, as we go about our everyday lives,  there are people out there planning  possible disasters of the most stomach-churning horror...

 Philip Palmer is the writer of the new Radio 4 drama series, Red and Blue




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