Bad Attitudes, a magazine of culture, politics, art, literature, 
religion & foreign affairs

Pentagon Rigs $250M War Game,
Evoking Yawns from Major Media


Jerome Doolittle

Back on August 16 the Army Times ran a long and exceptionally solid story on how the Defense Department’s rigged of a $250 million war game to show how easily our boys could crush an unnamed foe in the Persian Gulf.

A quarter billion here, a quarter billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money. What’s more, Mr. Bush is desperately seeking an actual war in the Persian Gulf at this very moment, with a named foe in mind.

You’d think, then, that the press would have paid major attention. Not Britney Spears or Eminem attention, of course, but maybe at least at Martha Stewart level.

You would be wrong.

On August 20 a socialist web site, Socialist Worker Online, ran an article based on the Army Times piece. Next day The Virginian-Pilot ran a piece which added a quote or two. It was a hometown story for the Virginian-Pilot, as the games were headquartered in Norfolk.

That was it, until the New York Times administered the coup de grace on August 20. This journalistic piece of work ran under the catchy headline, “U.S. Explores a New World of Warfare.” The subhead, too, clamored for attention: “Huge Exercise May Shape Planning.”

Readers who waded further into this sludge had to wait till the seventh paragraph before coming across the first hint that something was fishy: “American forces suffered unexpected losses from a sneak attack early in the fighting but then emerged victorious.”

In the fourteenth paragraph a mysterious figure made a cameo appearance: “Analysis from the enemy commander, played by Paul Van Riper, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general, will be incorporated into a final report.” The Mystery Marine then disappeared from the narrative, never no more to be seen.

To appreciate the significance of this bit of peek-a-boo, I urge you to read Sean D. Naylor’s original story in the Army Times. Now read the full text of Thom Shanker’s New York Times story debunking it. You be the judge.

Or you can settle for my too-brief summary of Naylor’s excellent account:

General Van Riper quit halfway through the game, disgusted because he wasn’t allowed to win. The general’s version of the costly exercise, called Millennium 02, was fully supported by another participant, former U.S. Ambassador Robert Oakley. The ambassador confirmed that Van Riper had sunk most of the American fleet. The general quit when he learned that his orders weren’t being relayed to his troops in the field -- by command of the exercise director.

The whole three-week, 13,500-man war game, the general charged, was scripted to validate the Defense Department’s “New World of Warfare.” (This is described as a collection of joint-service, high-tech war fighting concepts.)

General Van Riper countered with such low-tech, low-cost concepts as small fishing boats, light aircraft, and a communications network that relied on motorcycle couriers and muezzins calling from the minarets of mosques.

Ambassador Oakley told the Army Times that the Joint Forces Command had to halt the exercise and “refloat” the fleet before it could continue.

And so on.

And so what, really? The behavior of human beings assembled into large groups is well understood. The Defense Department is a large group of humans. When threatened, it can only obey its bureaucratic genes. It closes its eyes, covers its ears, and spits at the enemy.

The New York Times comprises a much smaller group, but carries the same bureaucratic genes. Its first institutional reaction to a good story uncovered by some tiny trade publication will not typically be one of admiration and large-hearted generosity. Nor would the Times be in any big hurry to offer its readers this new and instructive information, nor to hire the journalist who beat out its own Washington bureau.

Instead the first reaction of the reporter who missed the story and the editors who hired him will be to bury this little upstart’s story, preferably in public. Mr. Shanker’s article is an excellent example of how the big boys handle such matters.

Once the Times’s man had helped the Pentagon trash the original Army Times story, further eruptions of it elsewhere could be shrugged off easily. We here at the real Times had one of our top men look into that, actually, and unfortunately this Van Riper fellow turned out to be something of a nut job.

And thus the story died, was buried -- and then, astonishingly, was resurrected in the New York Times itself. Columnist Nicholas D. Kristof ran an op-ed piece about the rigged war games on September 6 quoting General Van Riper and Ambassador Oakley and coming to this conclusion:

“I’d feel reassured if the decision to invade (Iraq) was being made honestly, after a rigorous weighing of all the risks. Instead I detect a cheery Vietnam-style faith that obstacles can be assumed away. That only works in war games.”

Unfortunately Mr. Kristof’s column didn’t motivate his editors to call in the old Whitewater team and see what it could do if assigned to a story of actual significance. But Mr. Kristof’s point remains.

This isn’t the first rigged war game in Pentagon history, after all. There was a precedent back in 1962, called Omega. This little-known and long-forgotten exercise ended with Ho Chi Minh controlling most of Indochina, in spite of 500,000 American troops on the ground. Since such a result was obvious nonsense, the strategic planners went back to the drawing board. But the second dress rehearsal, Omega II, ended the same way.

And so did the play itself, after a bloody run of thirteen years.

(The story of Omega I and II is to be found in Shooting at the Moon, Roger Warner’s excellent history of the secret war in Laos. I’ve posted these pages of his book , and hope you’ll take a look. Afterwards you can write a letter to your congressman or to George W. Bush himself, for all the good it’ll do you.)

September, 2002


Copyright © 2004 by Jerome Doolittle