Land Mines

Computer games can be engaging sources of learning and skill development. They can also be minefields.

The film A Bridge Too Far (1977) is based on a 1974 book of the same name, written by historian Cornelius Ryan. The book and film are about a World War Two operation that happened in September of 1944. It was codenamed Market-Garden.

Operation Market-Garden was a combined tank and airborne (parachute) effort to get and keep Allied troops (British and American, with some Poles and Canadians) across the Rhine River at the city of Arnhem. From there, the Allies would have been able to invade Germany itself, perhaps ending the war by Christmas. But Arnhem could not be held. Market-Garden was a failure, and the war dragged on for another seven months.

Over the years, I have viewed the film or read the book a dozen or more times. Then, I found a PC video game that allowed me to recreate WW2 battles. Market-Garden was one I was excited to reproduce.

I don't care for most so-called educational games - those where you have to answer a division problem or spell a word correctly to win a prize. But this war game, Sudden Strike, has been very educational.

I had to spend weeks pouring over photos and maps of Germany and the Netherlands in order to create a reasonably accurate game board in terms of terrain, roadways, etc. I had to research things like Allied and German unit size and composition, weapons capability and order of battle. (In his book, Ryan does a good job of explaining in both strategic and the logistic terms how Operation Market-Garden failed, but I needed to read several other books to get enough detail to script the game.) I had to do math to redraw everything to a scale the computer program could deal with. Then I would play the game. Take notes. Read more. Watch the movie once more for the visuals. Fine tune the script or redraw a bit of landscape. Make it playable and yet accurate: that was my goal.

This morning I decided I had succeeded. I had learned a lot, and created a fun game. The game I've created is win-able (of course, since I tweaked it until I won), but the computerized enemy is formidable.

For example, there is an early stage when my airborne troops are awaiting the next airlift. Suddenly, German tanks appear in real numbers. Short on anti-tank guns and rockets, my only hope is to get land mines down in a protective boundary. You can see what I mean in the photo above - the little white dots are the mines. If the tanks come too fast, my soldiers get killed, but with the mines, if I'm quick enough getting them down...

Land mines.

In The Great War For Civilization (2006) Robert Fisk calls Afghanistan the most heavily mined country on earth. He doesn't go into a lot of detail about children with their limbs blown off and so on. He doesn't need to: I know perfectly well what it looks like. But he does note the long-term loss of land - of farms and fields. Land mines do that. Even when they don't kill you, they steal your land. And they keep it.

So here I am, one sunny Sunday morning in Canada, earnestly sowing make-believe land mines in a make-believe Dutch countryside; thinking that I'm having fun and learning. I take a "break" and sit outside in a lawn chair, sipping coffee, and read a few more pages of Fisk. I read - still thinking about that tight bit where I have to get the land mines down quickly - and I come to the place he talks about land mines. And I think, "Shit."

Because after all the reading and map-making and mathematics, there's still more learning to do. There are moral questions.

And not just the easy ones about the morality of war-themed computer games. There are hard questions about political and military right and wrong.

Canadian troops liberated Arnhem in mid-April of 1945. (The main British and American forces were already fighting inside Germany; 1st Canadian Corps was doing clean-up. The photo below - lifted from wikipedia - shows one of those Canadian soldiers.) During the two-day battle they managed to knock over or blow up most of what little the Germans and Allies hadn't already destroyed the September before. The first and second battles of Arnhem were disasters for the people who lived there.

That was then. Right now, Canadian troops are fighting in Afghanistan, in another country of land mines. Those soldiers aren't putting down land mines. They are helping clear minefields (and have also been victims of land mines). But they are, on occasion, required to use deadly and indiscriminate force in the presence of civilians. Of course, some of the "civilians" are also the "enemy". But a doctrine of "force protection" that says soldiers under fire can respond with an M777 howitzer that throws shells toward distant buildings and trees ...

I'm a Canadian citizen and voter. That means I should be reading and thinking about this stuff too. Why are we there? Should we be there? Is it going well? (Don't ask the generals - they've already been caught lying, hiding information, and swapping files on Canadians who speak out against the war.) How is it going to end?

How many buildings is it okay to blow up to keep Canadian soldiers safe?

The way land mines work is this: everything looks okay, and so you go ahead, and it turns out to be not okay at all. Sometimes, learning can be a bit of a minefield. Sometimes even a silly-headed computer video game can make you think about lots of hard, uncomfortable stuff. Even on a sunny Sunday morning in Canada.

Private H.E. Goddard, of the Perth Regiment, 5th Canadian Armoured Division. 15 Apr. 1945 / Arnhem (vicinity), The Netherlands. Credit: Jack H. Smith / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-166370

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