“Sufficiently advanced simulation is indistinguishable from the real thing”, to twist Clarke’s aphorism. Simulations can take place at levels anywhere from modeling markets, to predicting sea level rise, to the staging of wargames. It is at the level of the wargame that simulation truly becomes artful in the pursuit of the temporal “God-eye”, the unified site of utter anticipation.
But the notion of “utter anticipation” is fraught in the first instance, haunted by a single question: can we actually think like the enemy? Manuel De Landa sums this problem up nicely in War in the Age of Intelligent Machines: “In most cases Red [the enemy] becomes simply a mirror image of Blue [the allied group]”.
But what happens if Blue can think Red? Instead of what may be commonly assumed—that losses would promote in Blue a greater understanding, the simulated loss opens up onto an existential nightmare, a confrontation with Blue’s own fragility. The problem then is that, of course, the wargame will always be weighted in favor of Blue.
Part of this bias is institutional, but there is also the fundamental problem of information: the true nature of Red’s tactics and materiel will forever be draped in a “ludigital” fog of war, no matter how complete Blue’s intel may be. The wargame, constructed with faulty information and to provide a satisfactory outcome, is revealed to not be a strategy tool at all, but rather, a machine to produce in Blue assurance in its own supremacy.
When this supremacy is violated, the effects are internally destabilizing, forcing Blue to come to terms with the specter of its own death, touching down on the plane of abstract horror. De Landa relates for us an anecdote: “…in the early 1960s…Richard Bissell from the CIA, father of the U-2 spy plane and co-engineer of the Bay of Pigs invasion, played Red in a counterinsurgency war game and was able to exploit all the vulnerable points in the American position.” This sent shivers down the US’s spine: Bissell’s win was enough to get the files of the game’s proceedings classified, never to be released.
In roughly the same mid-century milieu, the ‘Hot 60s’ forces the hand of the war makers to break out from abstraction, and the wargame graduates into physical space and human players as a response to civil unrest in NATO countries. With the ‘peacetime’ arrival of full-size “war cities” such as Hammelburg, (West) Germany and later, San Clemente Island off the coast of California, the wargame begins to draw ever nearer to realism. These Potemkin complexes were (and indeed, are) created entirely for training in the minutae of urban operations and neutralization of enemy combatants, appearing as a heterotopic everywhere, crammed into nowhere, a consolidation of the whole world in a top-secret blacksite.
But the spatial revolution of the wargame still was not complete. As detente collapsed, and with an ever-increasing fetish for realism and complexity, the war simulation exploded out of the city and went runaway to continental scales, with millions of machine parts. Perhaps the best kept secret of this variety was US/NATO operation Able Archer 83, a simulation that achieved such a high degree of realism that it threatened to erupt into actual nuclear conflagration.
Able Archer 83 took place from 7-11 November 1983, the culmination of nearly a year of “naval muscle-flexing” and PSYOPs designed to rattle the USSR, such as sporadic “air and naval probes near Soviet borders”, undertaken specifically to “rattle the Soviets”. These actions led to the creation of Operation RYaN by the Warsaw Pact to “prevent the possible sudden outbreak of war by the enemy”. In this already-heightened climate, US/NATO held their annual Able Archer event, designed to “practice new nuclear weapons release procedures”, specifically the “[transition] from conventional to nuclear operations”. From the official SHAPE description:
“The exercise scenario began with Orange (the hypotheticalopponent/[Red]) opening hostilities in all regions of ACE [Allied Command Europe] on 4 November (three days before the start of the exercise) and Blue (NATO) declaring a general alert. Orange initiated the use of chemical weapons on 6 November…All of these events had taken place prior to the start of the exercise and were thus simply part of the written scenario… As a result of Orange advances, its persistent use of chemical weapons, and its clear intentions to rapidly commit second echelon forces, SACEUR [Supreme Command Allied Powers Europe] requested political guidance on the use of nuclear weapons early on Day 1 of the exercise (7 November 1983)…the weapons were fired/delivered on the morning of 9 November.”
Able Archer 83 was unique with respect to past simulations, which one commentator referred to as “special wrinkles”. These include a new battle language and encryption, which made the maneuvers of NATO completely opaque to the USSR, forced to rely on observations and extrapolation as units and materiel were moved across the ACE theater and routines were executed within SACEUR/SHAPE. These terrifying machinations forced the USSR to ask a new epistemological question: if armies and nuclear weapons are being moved into position by the enemy, does it matter what reason its for? At what point does war, occurring in a liminal, ludic space, breach the gap into reality altogether? Is there functionally any difference between war and its simulation? Or, even more to the point, is simulation itself an escalation of hostilities?
Jean Baudrillard’s famous definition from Simulacra and Simulation states that “the simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” “The virtually is fully real insofar as it is virtual.” In Able Archer 83 the “apotheosis of simulation” is itself simulated, a nesting torus of that-which-never-quite-comes-true. The ragged era of the early 80s’ “Cold War II” takes the apocalyptic promise of atomic apocalypse and plugs it in to the motor of banal politics (and indeed, routine wargames), in which “the unknown is precisely that variable of simulation which makes of the atomic arsenal itself a hyperreal form, a simulacrum that dominates everything”. Able Archer 83, in which SHAPE takes part in producing a simulation of nuclear hyperreality, contained within it the possibility of finally crashing Baudrillard’s hyperreality of infinite deterrence (warding off Europe After the Rain), and inaugurating the climax, the real event of nuclear war.