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  • Playing War: Wargaming and U.S. Navy Preparations for WWII by John M. Lillard
  • Matthew Caffrey (bio)
Playing War: Wargaming and U.S. Navy Preparations for WWII. By John M. Lillard. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. Pp. 224. Hardcover $39.95.

Many have likened today's strategic environment to the interwar period. With little money and with both technology and diplomacy evolving rapidly, each service prepared for the next conflict. A historical puzzle is why the U.S. Navy was so much better prepared for war than the U.S. Army. While the Army's Air Force fighters had too little range and the Army's ground force tanks had too-small guns, the Navy seemed to get much more right.

Admiral Nimitz gave the credit for anticipating the nature of World War II in the Pacific to the wargaming at the Naval War College. However, since then historical research has focused on the important intellectual development within the Navy and its War College during that period. In these works the role of wargaming was either mentioned but not explored or dismissed as irrelevant.

This is why Lillard's book is so important. While he acknowledges the contributions of these works, he provided the first detailed description of the wargaming at the Naval War College during this period. Through in depth research and succinct writing, he demonstrates the role of these war games in the Navy's success.

Lillard begins by providing convincing evidence that the Naval War College itself was not backwater. To cite just two of his examples: 99 percent of the Navy's admirals in WWII were Naval War College graduates, and completion of Naval War College was a prerequisite for assignment to the Navy's war strategy cell.

He then describes how the college's goal throughout this period was to teach students "how to think, not what to think." The war games gave the students virtual experience in making wartime decisions. Wargaming comprised a huge percentage of each school year. Students typically participated in twelve to thirteen war games, including the final two-month war game.

He then describes wargaming during 1919–27. Then the dominant strategy for a war with Japan was to "dash" across the Pacific and have a big gun/big fleet showdown with the Japanese. Yet even in this early period, [End Page 482] Lillard describes seeds of change. There was cooperation between the War College's war games and the Fleet Problems (live war games). Even these early war games included technologies/ship designs that did not yet exist, as well as innovative operating concepts, such as the first known use of a circular formation.

Lillard describes how by 1928–34, all routes for a dash had been explored and found wanting. New game procedures allowed the war games to look deeper into campaigns that looked increasingly like they would be protracted. Some war games began their execution where a previous class's war game had ended. Virtual sea trials on possible future ship designs became more common, the role of logistics increased and the college set up a research function to examine insights from war games and Fleet Exercises.

Even in 1935–41 the college emphasized teaching decision making. Those decisions became more and more similar to those made during World War II. Three-to-five-year wars became the norm, allied Navies were included and amphibious operations became an important element of the war games.

Lillard does not claim these war games were perfect. He shows they went from examining a broad range of naval conflicts around the world to a focus almost exclusively on the Pacific. If they had also explored future warfare in the Atlantic, perhaps the early months in that theater would have been less tragic.

I do not claim this book is perfect. His succinctness has allowed Lillard to write a remarkably persuasive, easy to read book in only 137 pages. Still, there are several places, such as the connections between the war games and the Fleet Exercises, where readers may wish he had been just a bit less succinct. Still, the only place this is a significant shortcoming is his...


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pp. 482-483
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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