A strange game

WarGames

This week is the 25th anniversary of the Australian cinematic release of WarGames, which is mainly significant because I missed the anniversary of the US release a few weeks ago! There were a few retrospectives floating about then, which focused on the movie's importance as an early popularisation of the hacking and phreaking subcultures, and its influence on adolescent computer geeks (which is admittedly where most of the fun derives from). Instead, I want to look at the wargames in WarGames, and the ideas about nuclear strategy which it imparted to its young Gen X audience. Well, I have no hard figures about any influence it might have had, but I was probably just about a teenager when I first saw it, and it certainly helped form my ideas about nuclear warfare. (Though it also inspired me to try coding a Joshua simulator on the C64 ... I didn't get very far!) Warning: spoilers follow.

The wargames in question are played by WOPR (War Operations Plan Response), a computer located in the NORAD bunker, deep inside Cheyenne Mountain:

Well, the WOPR spends all its time thinking about World War III. 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, it plays an endless series of war games. using all available information on the state of the world. The WOPR has already fought World War III, as a game, time and time again. It estimates Soviet responses to our responses to their responses and so on. Estimates damage. Counts the dead. Then it looks for ways to improve its score ...

But early on in the movie, WOPR is made responsible not just for simulating World War III, but for running it. The rationale for this is that the men in the missile silos can't be relied upon to launch their missiles when ordered to, which would undermine US deterrence of a Soviet first strike. The trouble is that the geek hero, high school student and slacker David Lightman, has hacked into WOPR -- or rather Joshua, its alter ego -- and inadvertently caused it to start playing its primary wargame, Global Thermonuclear War, for real. The big screens at NORAD start showing phantom Soviet ICBM launches and bomber penetrations. The DEFCON level drops perilously close to all-out war. General Berenger, the NORAD commander, must decide whether he should recommend to the President that the US launch its missiles in response to what looks like an all-out nuclear assault on the US. The computer scientist who designed Joshua, Professor Falken, tries to convince him otherwise, in a key exchange which highlights the ultimate illogic of mutually assured destruction:

Falken: General, what you see on these screens up here is a fantasy. A computer-enhanced hallucination. Those blips are not real missiles. They're phantoms.
McKittrick: There's nothing to indicate a simulation. Everything's working perfectly.
F: Does it make any sense?
Berenger: Does what make any sense?
F: That! [points at the screens]
B: Look, I don't have time for a conversation right now.
F: General, are you prepared to destroy the enemy?
B: You betcha!
F: Do you think they know that?
B: I believe we've made that clear enough.
F: Then ... don't. Tell the president to ride out the attack. General, do you really believe that the enemy would attack without provocation, using so many missiles and subs, so that we would have no choice but to totally annihilate them? General, you are listening to a machine. Do the world a favour and don't act like one.

Which works. But then Joshua starts trying to crack the launch codes by brute force attack, in order to launch the missiles itself. As Falken had earlier remarked, he had never been able to teach Joshua the most important lesson of all: when to give up. Luckily, he and Lightman figure out how to use the futility of tic-tac-toe (noughts and crosses) to do just that, just in time to stop Armageddon. In a spectacular sequence, Joshua then plays through all the real-world scenarios it had been programmed to play, finds that they all lead to both sides being wiped out, and concludes that global thermonuclear war is a 'Strange game. The only winning move is not to play.'

WarGames

It's very simplistic, sure, but considering the age level WarGames was pitched at, it was a pretty good introduction to the concepts of deterrence, mutually assured destruction, escalation, and so on. A very timely one, too, in the era of the Reagan military buildup, a succession of ailing Soviet leaders, and potential flashpoints all around the world. And it's with respect to the geopolitical instability of the time that I end with the following list of all the scenarios played by Joshua in the last few scenes of the film (as far as I can make out anyway):

U.S. FIRST STRIKE
USSR FIRST STRIKE

Pre-emptive nuclear strikes by each superpower against the other's homeland.
NATO / WARSAW PACT
FAR EAST STRATEGY

Evidently scenarios which begin with friction in Europe and Asia respectively (possibly Korea, otherwise oddly missing from the list).
US USSR ESCALATION
Well, that seems a bit generic ...
USSR CHINA ATTACK
Plausible enough, the USSR and China having fallen out since the 1960s. China had a huge army, but was massively outgunned in nuclear weapons.
INDIA PAKISTAN WAR
Again, plausible enough. Rivals since 1947, fighting three wars in that time. Pakistan was an American ally, India theoretically non-aligned but buying a lot of Soviet military kit. Plus India had already joined the nuclear club.
MEDITERRANEAN WAR
A bit generic, and hard to see how a war would have started there. Maybe a clash between NATO allies Turkey and Greece?
HONGKONG VARIANT
Variant of what? Of course, Hong Kong was still in British hands at this time, so presumably there was an occupation or siege by China. But if that had happened, would anyone have gone to war over it?
SEATO DECAPITATING
Hmm. SEATO, an alliance of Western and Asian countries, was dissolved in 1977, six years before the film's release. Maybe WOPR's database needed updating. 'Decapitating' is an interesting word, perhaps suggesting attacks on SEATO capitals?
CUBAN PROVOCATION
And they are still provocative, though the end is perhaps in sight.
INADVERTENT [...]
ATLANTIC HEAVY

'Heavy' is suggestive, but of what exactly is unclear.
CUBAN PARAMILITARY
NICARAGUAN PREEMPTIVE

The Sandinistas had taken over Nicaragua in 1979. Maybe a preemptive US attack to stop them spreading socialism throughout central America?
PACIFIC T[E]RRITORIAL
BURMESE [THE]ATERWIDE

A military-socialist regime controlled Burma at this time, though I'm unsure of its geopolitical alignment.
TURKISH [DE]COY
NATO [...]T
ANGENTINA ESCALATION [sic]

This was just after the Falklands War. Though Angentina had nothing to do with that.
ICELAND MAXIMUM
Iceland, part of NATO, had a crucial position in the middle of the GIUK (Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom) gap, guarding the Atlantic sealanes from the Soviet navy.
ARABIAN THEATERWIDE
Oil. 'Nuff said.
U.S. SUBVERSION
The enemy within.
[AUS]TRALIAN MANEUVER
Hey, what did we do? Oh yeah: Pine Gap. Nurrangar. North-west Cape.
[...]AN DIVERSION
[...] LIMITED
SUDAN SURPRISE

Well, yes, starting a worldwide nuclear apocalypse over Sudan would be a surprise ...
NATO TERRITORIAL
Meaning what? Soviet incursions into NATO territory?
ZAIRE ALLIANCE
The state formerly known as Congo had been the site of a proxy war between the US and USSR, in the early 1960s.
ICELAND [IN]CIDENT
ENGLISH [ESC]ALATION

Presumably they mean the trigger-happy British.
ZAIRE [...]N
E[...]ITARY
MIDDLE EAST HEAVY
MEXICAN TAKEOVER

Maybe what happens if you don't preemptively strike Nicaragua?
CHAD ALERT
That's even less plausible than the Sudan.
SAUDI MANEUVER
AFRICAN [TERRI]TORIAL
ETHIOPIA[N ESC]ALATI[ON]

Not a happy country at this time.
CANADI[AN ...]
TURKISH HEAVY
NATO INCURSION

Maybe NATO is the aggressor here?
U.S. DEFENSE
Another blandly generic title.
CAMBODIAN HEAVY
PACT MEDIUM

As in Warsaw Pact.
ARCTIC MINIMAL
MEXIC[AN D]OMESTIC
TAIWAN THEATERWIDE

One of the classic flashpoints, even today.
PACIFIC MANEUVER
PORTUGAL REVOLUTION

It had had a revolution in 1974, and was now pretty democratic. Maybe a counter-revolution?
ALBANIAN DECOY
PALISTINIAN LOC[AL]

Perhaps an intifada draws in neighbouring Arab countries and then Soviet and American patrons?
M[ORO]CCAN MINIMA[L]
[...]RIAN DIVERS[ION]
CZECH OPTION

This is only 15 years after the Prague spring, of course.
FRENCH ALLIANCE
Intriguing. Perhaps France pulling out of NATO, and maybe allying with the Soviets?
ARABIAN CLANDESTINE
GABON REBELLION
NORTHERN MAX[IMU]M
[...]RIAN SU[RPRIS]E
[...]SH PARA[MILIT]ARY
SEATO TAKEOVER
HAWAIIAN ESCALATION

Pearl Harbor was (and is) still a key US naval base. But how would escalation have worked? The nearest Soviets were many thousands of kilometres away ...
IRANIAN MANEUVER
Actually, it's surprising that Iran doesn't feature more heavily in this list, given that the revolution and the hostage crisis were only a few years back.
NATO CONTAINMENT
SWISS [INC]IDENT

Hard to think of what sort of Swiss incident might have sparked a general war.
CUBA[N MIN]IMAL
CHAD [...]RT
ICELAND ESCALATION
VIETNAMESE RETALIATIO [sic]

Probably something involving China (which unsuccessfully attacked in 1979) rather than the US.
SYRIAN PROVOCATION
Towards Israel, presumably -- probably the Golan Heights.
LIBYAN LOCAL
Gaddafi, one of the classic foes of America in the Reagan years.
GABON TAKEOVER
Gabon again. Why? Am I missing something?
ROMANIAN WAR
Interesting. Romania was, or at least at times appeared to be, semi-detached from the Warsaw Pact in the Ceaucescu era. Maybe here it tries to break away completely and asks for NATO intervention. But I'm pretty sure they would have said 'no, are you crazy?'
MIDDLE EAST OFFENSIVE
DENMARK MASSIVE

Perhaps the Soviet Baltic Fleet attempts a breakout ...
CHILE CONFRONTATION
This was the Pinochet era. Chile had a number of territorial disputes on the books, so it could have been with any of its neighbours.
S.AFRICAN SUBVERSION
White South Africa's worst nightmare. Well, one of them, anyway. Not completely implausible given the wave of usually socialist inspired independence governments and revolutionary movements in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s.
USSR ALERT
NICARAGUAN THRUST
GREENLAND DOMESTIC

Greenland would barely have enough people to start a riot, surely? But I suppose it was important strategically.
ICELAND HEAVY
KENYA OPTION
PACIFIC DEFENSE
UGANDA MAXIMUM
THAI SUBVERSION

One of the few reliably pro-Western states in this part of the world.
ROMANIAN STRIKE
PAKISTAN SOVEREIGNTY
AFGHAN MISDIRECTION

That's the third time I've fallen for that this week ... Maybe a Soviet offensive against the Mujahadeen is actually a cover for a move against Pakistan or Iran?
THAI VARIATION
NORTHERN TERRITORIAL
POLISH PARAMILITARY

This was the Solidarity period -- Poland was under martial law when the film was being made.
S.AFRICAN OFFENSIVE
PANAMA MISDIRECTION

Panama of course had the canal, so it was strategically important.
SCANDINAVIAN DOMESTIC
JORDAN PREEMPTIVE
ENGLISH THRUST
BURMESE MANEUVER
SPAIN COUNTER

Spain had just joined NATO, but was a bit iffy on the matter, and furthermore prone to revolutions and civil wars ...
ARABIAN OFFENSIVE
CHAD INTERDICTION
TAIWAN MISDIRECTION
BANGLADESH THEATERWID [sic]
ETHIOPIAN LOCAL
ITALIAN TAKEOVER

By the Red Brigades?
VIETNAMESE INCIDENT
ENGLISH PREEMPTIVE
DENMARK ALTERNATE
THAI CONFRONTATION
TAIWAN SURPRISE
BRAZILIAN STRIKE
VENEZUELA SUDDEN
MAYLASIAN ALERT [sic]
ISREAL DISCRETIONARY [sic]

It's really not a good idea to let the work experience kids near your script ...
LIBYAN ACTION
PALISTINIAN TACTICAL [sic]
NATO ALTERNATE
CYPRESS MANEUVER [sic]
EGYPT MISDIRECTION
BANGLADESH THRUST
KENYA DEFENSE
BANGLADESH CONTAINMEN [sic]
VIETNAMESE STRIKE
ALBANIAN CONTAINMENT
GABON SURPRISE

Again?
IRAQ SOVEREIGNTY
There's a familiar name. It was deep into its war with Iran at the time. But maybe a Kurdish rebellion or something?
VIETNAMESE SUDDEN
LEBANON INTERDICTION
TAIWAN DOMESTIC
ALGERIAN SOVEREIGNTY
ARABIAN STRIKE
ATLANTIC SUDDEN

Perhaps a sudden thrust by the Red Banner fleet?
MONGOLIAN THRUST
One of my favourite Soviet satellite states. Presumably some sort of conflict with China (well, there was nobody else with a border with Mongolia ...)
POLISH DECOY
ALASKAN DISCRETIONARY
CANADIAN THRUST
ARABIAN LIGHT
S.AFRICAN DOMESTIC
PAKISTAN INCIDENT
MAYLASIAN MANEUVER [sic]
JAMAICA DECOY

Must have been some decoy ...
MAYLASIAN MINIMAL [sic]
RUSSIAN SOVEREIGNTY

Interesting. I suppose there were any number of separatist movements, as indeed there still are.
CHAD OPTION
BANGLADESH WAR
BURMESE CONTAINMENT
ASIAN THEATERWIDE
BULGARIAN CLANDESTINE
GREENLAND INCURSION
EGYPT SURGICAL
CZECH HEAVY
TAIWAN CONFRONTATION
GREENLAND MAXIMUM
UGANDA OFFENSIVE
CASPIAN DEFENSE

Defence against who? Iran?

OK, so some of those scenarios appear to have been generated at random, but there are still some clues as to what parts of the world a Hollywood screenwriter thought might ignite a nuclear war, c. 1983.

Creative Commons License
This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License. Terms and conditions beyond the scope of this license may be available at airminded.org.

20 thoughts on “A strange game

  1. Post author

    No French Mistake?

    I think it's one of the small tragedies of global thermonuclear warfare that there's no time for French Mistakes.

  2. The US government seems to have had some bizarre paranoid delusions about Jamaica, mainly because Michael Manley was a socialist (not a communist but the distinction was lost on the CIA) and was quite friendly with Castro.

  3. Jakob

    DENMARK MASSIVE is obviously referring to a turn-away from European social democracy to a rampaging horde demanding Danegeld...

  4. Ian Evans

    Ah, the Good Old Days!
    "The problem with Europe is that the towns are only 20 kilotons apart"
    Then there was the drilling rig security "expert" who assured us he'd seen the Top Secret CIA list of likely dates for Commie Atrocities, and if we had seen it, we too would be terrified. From the carefully tailored bits he let slip, it seemed to consist of; Karl Marx's birthday; Karl Marx's mum's birthday; Karl Marx's dad's birthday, Karl Marx's second-cousin-twice-removed's birthday.... and so on through every well known left wing figure you can think of. I lost brownie points, an absolute pleasure, by asking if the English football fixtures were included. (It's terrorism Jim, but not as we know it).
    Another expert advised us to take precautions against subversives smuggling plastic explosive on the rigs, cunningly concealed beneath their fingernails. Working patterns then were 2 weeks on; two off - there would have been many more timeous ways to damage a rig.

  5. Post author

    That's hilarious, Ian! They really were the good old days.

    Then again, how many oil rigs did we lose to subversives smuggling plastic explosive under their fingernails? None! Obviously the paranoia was justified, because the increased vigilance stopped the attacks taking place ...

  6. name

    If you hadn't run across it, a game was produced that pleasantly recreates the WARGAMES experience, called DEFCON. Free demo out there somewhere.

    You noted that Iran and DPRK were underrepresented. Anyone in those days suggesting Iran or DPRK could be a threat on their own would have been laughed at (and often times are still laughed at depending on the political venue). Mostly the concern was war between NATO and WARSAW PACT via proxy (Afganistan and Vietnam being classic examples) running out of control to the point where nuclear exchanges began. Indeed, LBJ exploited fear of exactly that in his attack ads on Barry Goldwater.

  7. Post author

    I never said they were perceived to be threats in and of themselves; that's a reading backwards from today's situation. Iran was a potential flashpoint because of its location (on top of or near oil, adjacent to both USSR and Afghanistan), intense anti-Americanism, and ongoing war with Iraq, then supported by the US. North Korea was and is technically still at war with the US and South Korea, led by an erratic dictator, dirt poor, with a big army which had been in a shooting war with US forces a generation earlier, adjacent to rising powers Japan and China. It wouldn't have taken much imagination to see these as potential triggers for a third world war -- more likely than Gabon, say, or Chad. They wouldn't have to have been proxies either; any rash adventurism by Iran or North Korea could have had knock-on effects throughout their respective regions, which the USSR could have used as cover for some other action (like invading Hungary while the rest of the world was preoccupied with the Suez crisis).

    The real point is that not a whole lot of thought went into these scenarios. Some -- not much.

  8. JJB

    We need an updated list:

    EGYPTIAN REVOLT
    PERSIAN APOCALYPSE
    KOREAN UNILATERAL
    GREEK ANARCHY
    ARABIAN UPHEAVAL
    YEMEN TERROR
    BAHRAIN MASSIVE (kinda like JUMBO SHRIMP)
    ANTARCTIC RIOTS (it's a long shot, but WTH)
    SOMALIA PIRACY
    EURO COLLAPSE
    US HYPERINFLATION
    BERNANKE MANEUVER
    and my personal favorite...

    AFGHAN PUMMELLING

  9. "SPAIN COUNTER
    Spain had just joined NATO, but was a bit iffy on the matter, and furthermore prone to revolutions and civil wars ..."

    uh... that's a bit like saying that England is prone to revolutions and civil wars because of Cromwell...

    I like JJBs additions, here's another update:

    LIBIAN SECESSION
    GOLDMAN & SACHS BANK RUN
    BLANKFLEIN DECAPITATION
    SARKOZY'S GAMBIT
    SPANISH UNEMPLOYMENT [HEAVY]
    JAPAN TSUNAMI CLASSIC II
    BERLUSCONI'S MINORS
    H1N1 SECONDS
    MOSQUE ERECTION

    and last but not least...

    ASSANGE ASSAULT

  10. Post author

    Well, I probably should have said 'coups' instead of 'revolutions', but I stand by it. Note I was writing about the situation ca. 1983, not today. There had been a coup attempt two years earlier; a foiled coup attempt the year before; and another back in 1978. And, of course, the Spanish Civil War had taken place only a generation earlier, still within living memory. By contrast, the English Civil War was more than three centuries earlier.

    That notwithstanding, I do like your additions too; especially ASSANGE ASSAULT.

  11. Pingback:

  12. Bryce Albertson

    And keep in mind, this was written in the spell-check equivalent of the Stone Age.

  13. Post author

    Quite so. The screenwriters (or whoever wrote the list) also probably didn't expect that one day anyone would be able to examine perfectly clear freeze-frames of their slapdash spelling from the comfort of their own living rooms. Even if they could foresee, they probably would have thought that nobody would actually care enough to bother :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>