A Note to Teachers (1987)

A military history boardgame like German Eagle vs. Russian Bear can be used as an extracurricular and/or extra credit study project. It can also be used as a classroom incentive to complete classwork. A game like this is basically a quantification of an historical event, a mathematical model. It can motivate mathematical students to study and relate to history. On the other hand, it can also help verbal students use and enjoy basic principles of mathematics and probability. Finally, it is an opportunity for a student of high potential, who has been frustrated or bored by more conventional coursework, to use and display his/her ability and thereby acquire some motivating recognition and self-esteem.

Although I have been regularly beaten in the game by my 4th Grade son, it is more appropriate to the 8th Grade level and above. In any given class, a teacher will probably find at least one experienced "wargamer" eager to share his/her hobby with classmates, and that student can become a teaching assistant. Indeed, trying to learn games like this directly from instructions is extremely difficult. However, if that is necessary, players should start with the historical -- June, 1941 -- game-start scenario and the "example of play," referring back to the instructions for guidance and amplification as they proceed through a turn sequence.

In the learning phase, a better or more experienced player should be the Axis Player. Thereafter, a student should be on each side an equal number of times. Team play can be educational, as players struggle to resolve or coordinate differences in ability, resources, and strategic planning. Strategic variations of the historical game-start and later scenarios should be explored only after the basic game is fully understood.

A key element of this game is its Analysis and Results Form. Using (copies of) this form compels students to analyze and understand the historical situation and their own decision-making reactions to it. This is an essential learning tool and reinforcement for an experiential learning device like this and is something omitted in commercial wargames. The form can also emphasize that learning rather than winning is the basic objective of the game. Along with the Tournament Certificate -- if use of the game is carried to that competitive extent -- the form can be a souvenir of the learning experience.

Student reactions to the game will vary sharply. Some will be utterly disinterested. Others will become totally absorbed, and -- especially in the lower grades -- the intensity of their concentration is almost frightening. Long periods of tense silence are often disrupted or climaxed by whoops of excitement, when key situations and/or the game itself are resolved.

For example, in 1972-73 at the height of anti-Vietnam/anti-military feeling in the nation, I was the graduate Assistant Librarian at the University of Illinois High School in Urbana. I naively offered to sponsor a wargames club and found myself being dragged back to school Saturday afternoons, even in the most beautiful weather. Those kids could sit there for 5 hours at a stretch (or as long as I would allow them) in utter concentration -- to the shock of teachers who had been struggling to keep their attention for 50 minutes at a time. These students' involvement with "simulation games" led to a myriad of spin-off benefits and subsequent career interests.

The values of a game like this to the social studies curriculum are many. It gives students a basic knowledge of the geography and climate of an historically significant area. It can be used as a complement to a U.S. history course, so that students can learn what our Soviet allies did in World War II with or against Nazi Germany in the East, while we came from the West.

For example, in September 1939 when Hitler began World War II by ignoring British and French warnings and invading Poland, the Soviets invaded and divided Poland along with their Nazi allies -- while at the same time secretly annihilating a Japanese army on the Mongolian border. On June 22, 1941, while Americans still clung to our hopes for neutrality and peace, Hitler launched his war machine into the Soviet Union in history's largest military campaign, "Operation Barbarossa." In December 1941, while the Imperial Japanese Navy was massacring our Pacific battleline at Pearl Harbor, the Soviets were shifting over to a desperate counteroffensive which inflicted on the Germans at Moscow the Wehrmacht's first real defeat. In November 1942, while Rommel retreated from defeat by the British 8th Army at Alamein, while Anglo-American forces were landing in French North Africa, and while American Marines fought desperately on Guadalcanal for Allied survival in the Pacific, the Soviets initiated the Wehrmacht's most decisive defeat, at Stalingrad. In June 1944, while the Western Allies were struggling to survive the beaches and the hedgerows of Normandy, the Red Army launched "Operation Bagration" in Byelorussia, effectively annihilating about a fifth of the entire Nazi war machine.

The game can be used in a military history and science class, to teach basic concepts of strategy, as well as history. Its applicability to a European or Russian history course is obvious. The ordeal and outcome of The Great Patriotic War molded Eastern Europe into what it now is and was used by the Soviet government to legitimize its existence as the defender of its people.

War is a fascinating game, but of suffering and death. Many have not learned this until suffering its grief themselves. The components of this game are paper, not flesh. Some may feel that playing games about a military campaign which cost the lives of 27 million men, women, and children of many nationalities -- and physically and pychologically maimed countless more -- is immoral and obscene. Teachers should be prepared for outbursts like "Die, Commie!" or "Kill Germs!" from younger students who naturally focus on only the positive values (of loyalty, bravery, etc.) in war or see good vs. evil in simplistic terms. The game and its grim historical commentary give teachers an opportunity to interest students in the story of an obscure but important war, to emphasize its tragic lessons, and to draw the vital distinction between games and reality. Later, when people mature and become parents, they can then better understand such lessons and their importance.

The Soviet reaction to such games is an interesting contrast. Soviets are surprised by and grateful for American interest in their war. However, naturally, the personal/emotional memory of the war for the elder generations discourages "games" about it in the USSR. Also, as a young attache at the Soviet Embassy in D.C. once explained to me, no one in the Soviet Union would "want" to be -- risk the ideological stigma of being? -- the "fascist player" in such a game. Finally, such games have "revisionist" implications toward "The Sacred War," implying things could have been done differently or better.

The Kremlin has always been embarrassed by its military and political bungling and bestiality before and during the war -- and the grim implications about Marxist-Leninism. Soviet children do not learn about Soviet incompetence and genocide, as German children learn about the Holocaust and as American children (hopefully) learn about Pearl Harbor and the (infinitely less evil but no less important) "internment" of Japanese-Americans. We shall see how far Gen. Sec. Gorbachev's program of "glasnost" goes, and whether young Soviets can learn from history -- and help us in the struggle to not repeat it.