Friday, August 19, 2011

This is the Glory

Photo by Jennifer near sunset this evening. The title is her's, meaning the shining solar glory of rays revealed in clouds. It was 98 degrees today. We haven't had more than a passing shower of rain in over two weeks. Often the heat index is over 100 degrees. Everything is wilting. Our grass is mostly brown and crunchy.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Call Me Skywalker

A pic of me standing at Guano Point on the western rim of the Grand Canyon last week. The vista is about 20 miles wide from here to the furtherest viewable ridge.

From cruising altitude on a bright, mostly cloudless summer morning the landscape of our nation turns from green across the southeast gradually to tan about central Texas and then to reddish-brown somewhere over New Mexico. I flew into Phoenix last week with my boss and the other managers where I work for a meeting with a Utah-based corporation we represent throughout the south. A direct flight to Salt Lake City from Atlanta was three times as expensive as a stop-over in Arizona. So, that was the route we took.

It was the first time I’ve flown since my pleasure trip to Boston two years ago. I am a complete, unashamed tourist when it comes to flying. I prefer a window seat and I thoroughly enjoy gawking like a child at whatever might be below. I saw three rather large wind-farms along the way. The dry region of west Texas and New Mexico were speckled with numerous crop circles decorating the land like green polka dots.

We had time for a little site-seeing after we finally arrived in Salt Lake. I think the country is gorgeous up there. My previous trips to Utah have all been in winter. The snow-capped mountains set against the typically jet-blue sky is something I always find inspiring. This time virtually all the snow was gone except within some deeper crevasses near the peaks. But, the snow-melt was bountiful this year. The rivers were raging and the trees were in bright green hues set against the rocky ridgelines and blue sky.

The next day was taken up with a five-hour strategy meeting with the top corporate executives. It went smoothly enough. I had about a 20-minute presentation that turned into over an hour due to some really good interaction and discussion with all the big “wheels” of the firm. Our president was the master of ceremonies, of course. The support manager and sales manager followed me with their sections. Sales have been disappointing for everyone this year but the executives were impressed with our plans for the fall and the high probability that we will close some major business deals by year-end.

The meeting lasted so long we almost missed our flight out of Salt Lake. My boss wanted to mix a little “team-building” in with the business trip. So, it was his idea to fly us all into Las Vegas after the meeting. In my mind, of all the places I want to visit in my life, Vegas was not high on the list. Of course, it is a unique place so I was curious about it. But, my curiosity did not necessarily translate into a genuine excitement about going there. I don’t gamble. My previous experience with casinos along the Mississippi River was a depressing one. All those people mindlessly blowing all that money in one of the crassest forms of material nothingness. That’s how it all seemed to me.

It turned out that none of the guys I traveled with were into gambling. So, while we were going to Vegas and certainly intended on sampling the lively culture of the “sin city,” our broader plan was to use it as a staging area for a visit to the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon. Don’t think the possibilities of The Hangover (four guys headed to Vegas for entertainment purposes) was lost on me. I jokingly told Jennifer and my daughter, who both – like myself - thought that movie was hilarious, that I wanted to be the guy who was lost up on the roof. All he got out of the experience was a bad sunburn, after all.

It didn’t turn out exactly like that. Though we did celebrate the way the meeting in Utah went with a great dinner and plenty of draft beer that night in Vegas. We all got a nice buzz and one of the managers and I spent a couple of hours walking through different casinos until the wee hours. I was particularly fascinated by the craps tables and watched them with interest, trying to figure out the rules. Each casino had the same buzzing vibe and excitement.

But, before all that there was the experience of exiting the airport at Vegas and experiencing 100-plus degree heat of the day. They all say it is a “dry heat,” of course. Well, the heat in my oven at home is pretty dry too; and it cooks stuff. It was way too hot to be enjoyable. Whose idea was it to come to the desert in August anyway? Not mine I assure you.

Vegas is nothing like the Mississippi River gambling culture. In fact, Vegas is not like anything. Vegas is Vegas. It was clean, pristine, big, bold, flashy, vibrant, exciting, and surreal. We pulled in to the Luxor Hotel which was a great surprise for me. I’ve never stayed in a gigantic pyramid before. At night the pyramid is illuminated from inside the very tip, shooting a beam of bright, white light seemingly forever upward into the desert darkness. Meanwhile, the each corner of the pyramid pulsates with short beams of light that throb upward toward the peak. Not your normal hotel for sure.

Nothing normal about the interior either. It is all done in an ancient Egyptian motif. As we initially walked along the breezeway into the hotel from the parking deck, the sun was at an acute angle, bathing the off-white walkway in a deep orange hue. From the breezeway we saw hundreds of people enjoying a gigantic pool complex. Some were splashing in the water, some lounging with drinks; all like water nymphs accentuating the larger-than-life nature of the space in that particular moment. It was all so clean and positive and beautiful. Perhaps it was simple jet lag but I suddenly felt invigorated by the moment, as if I were part of some dreamscape. I tapped one of my companions on the shoulder and jokingly inquired: “Are we in heaven? Or maybe some den of iniquity?” We laughed.

They made a mistake on booking our rooms. They only had us down for one room instead of two. For the “inconvenience” we were upgraded to two enormous rooms. (Here comes The Hangover connection again.) My boss and I shared a room that was larger than my first house…1700 square feet. It was absurdly decadent and only added to the energy I was already experiencing in the moment.

We didn’t get to linger in everything that the Hotel and Vegas had to offer, however. The next morning we were enjoying a hearty breakfast at 8AM at a local IHOP before venturing out into the Nevada and Arizona desert to visit the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon. The drive through the desert was interesting at first. Eventually, it became rather monotonous for me. Scrubby land, obscure towns in the distance, lots of weathered ridges. Quite a contrast to the Salt Lake area with its greenery and abundance of snowmelt fresh water.

Before monotony had a chance to set in, however, we reached the Hoover Dam, which is a short drive from Vegas. It is an impressive site, a fairly huge human footprint in the midst of the Colorado River. The enormous construction is matched by the massive man-made Lake Mead which formed after the dam was completed. We took a complete tour of the dam which is one of the most complex engineering achievements I’ve ever witnessed. I could appreciate its historic, political, and economic value.

Also appreciated was the fact that it was 108 degrees when we came out of the tour. One of the observation decks for photo taking featured a nice, wide brass hand rail. It burned my hand slightly as I thoughtlessly leaned into it a bit while positioning myself for a pic. Dumb move on my part. I wasn’t perspiring much in the arid conditions but I certainly was far from comfortable.

After admiring the achievement of the Hoover Dam we were back in our rented van headed two more hours east through Arizona to the western rim of the Grand Canyon. The National Park would have taken us almost another two hours by van. This was the much more practical solution as we had to catch a flight out of Vegas later that evening.

We didn’t realize we were headed into the middle of nowhere, however. This part of Arizona does not impress me. It is miles and miles of sameness. From past experiences, Washington state, Colorado, and Utah are more interesting to travel through.

At any rate we arrived at the turn-off for the west rim, located about 49 miles away. The road took us through the mysterious town of Dolan Springs. I say mysterious because it seems to be a collection of trailers and small houses scattered amongst the dirty brush and Joshua trees that are so prevalent in this area. We have no idea what these people do for a living. There is no business in Dolan Springs except for a few localized eating establishments, a gas station, and a Family Dollar Store. It is an hour to the nearest grocer. Why these people are there and what they do befuddled us. Perhaps they are all a bunch of very cold-natured retirees that prefer 100-plus degree days without any shade. Who knows?

There were several scattered groups of long-horned cattle roaming freely out beyond Dolan Springs. You had to watch for them as they have a tendency to wander into the road. Then, about halfway to the Grand Canyon, the pavement ended. We ventured onward through the dust of on-coming traffic and the teeth rattling, uneven, wash-board dirt road surface for another 14 miles. In the middle of all this there was a sign advertising 180 acres for sale – zoned commercial. It was so bizarre we could help but laugh. But, we managed to rumble through it all until the road became paved again and we finally arrived at the western rim of the canyon.

This is Havasupai Indian land and the native-Americans run the tours for this section of the canyon. We took a bus tour out to two viewing locations for taking the panoramic view of this incredible natural wonder. The highlight of the tour was a new attraction called the Skywalk. The building for the Skywalk, intended to be a museum and gift shop, is still under construction but the Skywalk itself was fully complete.

It was unlike anything I have ever experienced. The magnificence of the Grand Canyon was pretty mind-blowing in itself. But, to walk out onto a glass floor in the shape of a large horseshoe hanging out over a cliff hundreds of feet high is not something everyone can handle. It was a bit intimidating at first. But soon I was shuffling along in the special footie’s you must slip on over your shoes.

There we were out in the hot sun looking down at the valley sloping deep toward the Colorado River underneath our feet. My boss felt a bit uneasy about the whole thing and preferred to walk along the railings on the sides which are covered with about 18 inches of concrete flooring so you at least have something besides clear glass under your feet. I have plenty of anxiety about certain things but a fear of heights is not one of them. It was truly an extraordinary experience to literally walk the sky. Worth the whole trip by itself. Unfortunately, cameras were not allowed on the viewing platform but you can see what it was like in the Skywalk links provided above.

Afterwards, we took in some native-American exhibits, watched some visiting Navajo Indians do a few of their traditional dances and enjoyed some good barbeque at the third stop on our canyon tour – a rustic looking, recreation of a old western town complete with horse rides, gunfights, and other ways that white men managed to screw up the cultural heritage of the western native peoples. Good food though. And water. I drank like a fish the whole time.

Back over the unpaved road and through mysterious Dolan Springs and through the, by now, unimpressive Arizona desert. Back to Vegas just at sunset. The city stretches on in the darkness in all directions with light provided by the giant turbines of Hoover Dam. It was 100 degrees in the twilight of evening. We boarded the red-eye flight out of Vegas back to Atlanta. I slept about 3 and a half hours before landing at Hartsfield at about 6:30 Saturday morning, blurry minded and trying to appreciate the whirlwind tour of three western states in about 72 hours.

I’m glad we made the journey and walked in the sky; both over the canyon by foot and over the country by plane. The American West is big. Big sky, big space, big dams, big canyons, big casinos. It draws people from all over the world. I saw and heard Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Italians, Germans, Brazilians, and who knows what all. Vegas is a huge magnet for people looking for a unique experience and the trip was certainly that; for me, even bigger than Vegas itself. Vegas is all glitz and glitter and energized activity. Walking the sky is not so commercial, though it is certainly a thrill surpassing in my mind the collective neon in all those signs powered by a concrete monstrosity mastered by engineers many decades ago.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Into the Fog of Growth

In February of this year, Professor John Van Reenen, a leading British economist, addressed an audience in Hong Kong on the future of economic growth. In that lecture he highlighted areas from which growth was most likely to emerge. Among other things Professor Van Reenen stated growth would best manifest itself via: " policies, relaxed planning, less distortionary taxation, proper subsidization of research and development, and improved management...”

The point that struck me as I pondered this lecture and other readings online about growth from a macroeconomic perspective was that there was no mention of emerging opportunities or a novel transition from service-based economies to whatever might come next, if anything. If
the service-economy is the summit of economic evolution then we are in big trouble, no matter how optimistic many trendy economists might wish to frame things. Professor Van Reener was using the old accounting trick of simply moving numbers and agreements around without anything new actually being produced.

Presently, there is a huge (and
healthy, if dysfunctional, in my opinion) debate going on in America and around the world on the role of government in an economic downturn. Most economists follow some variation of Keynesian theory, in which governments relax intervention policy during times of economic growth and step in with an infusion of debt during times of recession. That has certainly guided economic policy in the US (and most of Europe) through every presidential administration regardless of political affiliation for the past three generations.

The Keynesian approach is not the only economic theory, of course. There is an
Austrian Economic School which I personally find more appealing. And there are many others, including the largely (though not completely) discredited Marxist alternative.

Here in the US we just went through the most fierce
Debt Ceiling debate in our history. The results will likely to affect domestic policy in our country for many years to come, possibly changing the prevailing Keynesian landscape itself. Long-time readers will know that I consider public debt to be the worst kind of economic sin and I also believe that years ago we reached an unsustainable trajectory of public debt that could destabilize the US economy.

40 cents of every dollar goes toward servicing our debt then this is a most inefficient means of generating wealth. It fundamentally means you have to grow the economy by roughly 40% in order to balance out the weight of the debt. Forty-percent growth is simply not in the cards. As the percentage rises it makes a dollar earned through the marketing of goods and services worth less than a dollar earned without the weight of the debt. It is a built-in drag on valuation and simple buying or capital investment power.

Add to this
the interconnected nature of globalization and you can see that the weight of our debt is tied to the (for now) far worse European Debt Crisis involving Greece, Italy, and Spain along with the threat of systemic contagion of that crisis. The US credit rating was recently downgraded from AAA credit rating to AA for the first time in its history. This will not be something to turn-around overnight. Meanwhile, we are experiencing a degree of political polarization in the United States that has not been seen since the 1920’s and the 1850’s before that. The American consumer, the world’s most potent driving force of economics has recently cut back on spending, increased savings, in reaction to times of uncertainty. These are all the necessary ingredients for what Jurgen Habermas aptly terms a “legitimation crisis.”

The semi-holy concept of “the American People” constantly mentioned in the routine rhetoric of our politicans is
largely dissatisfied with the politics of paralysis so superbly exemplified by the current Congress and the Obama Administration. Traditional American compromise has so far eluded us in the historic, ugly polarization that is a direct result of the 2010 mid-term elections.

The Tea Party, for example, refuses to bargain even within their own party.
They are ideologues and have thusly exposed all the many cracks in the Republican Party making matters very difficult for the party’s leadership to accomplish anything short of the theoretical utopia so naively believed in. Nothing exemplifies this better than their staunch advocacy of a balanced budget amendment. That idea, coming as it did during the brinksmanship of the US debt default deadline, had no time for serious debate let alone actual passage.

But, from my point of view, the fundamental problem is going unexpressed by any political party or media source. Perhaps they just can’t see the forest for the trees. Simply put, there is presently no alternative to service-based/information economic growth and, to that extent, this represents
a very thick fog of uncertainty. In service-oriented economies such as the United States, for years now no business sector has emerged that requires or demands mass employment. Until such a business sector emerges, all the tax breaks to businesses advocated by neocons and the would-be continuing government stimulus advocated by liberals is absolutely irrelevant.

There exists no boom industry to hire enough human beings to significantly lower unemployment. If historically
5% unemployment has been an acceptable figure of a dynamic developed society then 9% or 10% is probably the new 5%.

To understand why we have look at the way economies actually evolved through time. History teaches us that
virtually all genuine economic growth has been a progression from agriculture to industrialization to consumer services. Beginning in the 1980’s, the personal computer launched an explosive industry that sustained terrific growth in the United States from the end of the Bush senior political era through the Clinton era to the beginning to the Bush junior era.

Broadly speaking, the wheel, the plow, and fertilizers led to
tremendous growth in agrarian economies. These then either languished or evolved into industrial economies due to the discovery of coal and advanced engines of steam and oil. Each of these stages created massive new demand for employment and the opportunity for capitalism to replace centuries of feudalism as the driving force of prosperity. The next phase was reached by retailing and marketing to the consumer class that eventually developed as a by-product of a manufacturing economy.

More recently, however, outside of
the growth of the silicon economy and various services made possible through the invention of the PC there has been nothing but decline in manufacturing and private agricultural aspects of the US economy. Meanwhile, second-world countries such as China and, more recently, Brazil, experienced strong manufacturing growth. Today these nations are poised where Britain and the US were over the last two centuries.

So, it doesn't matter what the US government might try to do to "stimulate" the economy. If there are no new opportunities for growth comparable to the industrial revolution and the computer revolution then the US cannot possibly experience the growth of the 1990's or the 1920's. It is a physical impossibility to grow economically without some specific sector demands for employees. Various retread industries like transportation infrastructure and outsourcing opportunities for businesses to improve productivity can fill some of the gaps but they will not bring long-term demand for more jobs.

What we need is whatever comes after the service economy.
Human innovation will be our only way out. Until something like our understanding of the human genome or nanotechnology or some other fringe industry matures (the plow, the internal combustion engine and the microprocessor were all on the fringe of their times initially) every nation that moves from manufacturing to service-based economies will face the murky fog of no market to grow exponentially.

It will take exponential growth to get America back to 5% unemployment. Of course, the fact that human innovation is the primary requirement for such future growth is in itself uncertain. Innovation cannot be planned for or tangibly forced. It is an art not a science, spontaneous not regimented. Innovation is an inspired flipping of a switch. You never know when, or to what extent, it will happen.

This is the 800-pound-gorilla no one will talk about because they don’t even conceive it. It will not enter into any politician’s thinking because there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. It will not be part of the traditional Keynesian paradigms of growth because, to my knowledge, no economic theory presently considers the fact that every economic model eventually requires human innovation and transcendence to a new model of growth (farming to industry to services to {?}) or otherwise face stagnation.

Stagnation is precisely what
Japan has experienced for the past two decades. It is precisely what the United States and Europe have entered. We have been in stagnation for the past decade. “The Lost Decade” in the American economy is due to the fact we have improved upon efficiency and productivity of the service economy to the point where there is no demand for employment. That is the bottom line. Period.

In researching various books about our current situation I found that most authors on the subject want to address economic growth in terms of the transfer of knowledge and/or capital and/or technology. Many wish to frame the economic discussion in terms of "wealth" and "poverty". These perspectives, in varying degrees of validity, all miss the mark. The greatest poverty facing us today is the poverty of novel growth opportunities. Consumer services and information technology no longer produce the demand for jobs.

The much-vaunted
Green Economy sounds like a possible paradigm shift. It has produced about 2.7 million jobs in the US. Perhaps there is the potential for more growth here. But, once again, this isn't really "growth" in the historical sense of what we saw in the new agrarian and new industrial economic paradigm shifts. It is merely a further diversification of the goods and services economy. It is nothing new and it cannot produce what we need to genuinely revolutionize the need for more employees.

The fact is that the Green Economy is growing even slower than the rest of the economy. This might just the birthing pains of a new way of doing business. But, it is not the kind of new business model that will generate the demand for jobs that the steam engine and the microprocessor created.

So, here we are. Massive debt in America and Europe following the bursting of bubbles in housing and stocks and other things.
China and Brazil are actually raising interest rates to slow their red hot manufacturing economies down. The US is in a politically “dysfunctional” mode. Unemployment remains high. Consumer spending is not increasing. There is no momentum to drive anything and “steroid money” has created a false bull market that will eventually be fully corrected, possibly to levels beyond the 2008 financial crisis.

But, I want to make clear that nothing currently would point to
a stock market meltdown or even a double-dip recession. Despite the recent wipe-out of all gains in stocks YTD in 2011, the severity of events is nowhere near what it was back in 2008. Yet. It is just that we are moving into a Fog where Growth in any sector is uncertain and nothing is leading the way. Well, perhaps Japan is our leading indicator but not toward a way out of this, paradoxically deeper into it.

“The world has seen this before. Two decades ago, Japan’s economic bubble popped; since then its leaders have procrastinated and postured. The years of political paralysis have done Japan more harm than the economic excesses of the 1980s. Its economy has barely grown and it regional influence has withered, As a proporation of GDP, its gross public debt is the highest in the world, twice that of America’s and nearly twice Italy’s. If something similar were to happen to its fellow democracies in Europe and America, the consequences would be far larger.” (
The Economist, July 30, 2011, page 9)

Most experts agree there is currently
not much in the way of hope for the dramatic change to avoid the debt levels experienced by Japan. I disagree. I think there is hope but that hope lies in the allowing the weight of debt and the natural ebb and flow of the markets to express itself. That entails pain, however. Pain to the tune of perhaps even higher levels of unemployment and an extended period of recession/stagnation.
I hope we will find the political the leadership to withstand the pain. I hope human innovation will lead to something beyond the current completely consumer-oriented economy.

Is it not a prejudice to think that “
Audacity of Hope” can only be upbeat? Can’t Hope also reside in what is natural and necessary (the cleansing of debt from the market space) however difficult? I hope so. Because, sooner or later, neocons and liberals be damned, that is what is going to happen.

The Japanese economy has been out in the Fog of Growth for 20 years. This can happen to you. America may yet know the Fog of Growth across half a generation of time. We have already been in the fog for ten years now and in a further decade the Japanese still might not have come out of their malaise in the thick gray mist. They call back to us from ten years ahead of us and say they see no sign of the fog breaking. Nevertheless, we drift with them deeper into the fog.

To date my GLD buy in January (and all the rest of my rather large position in gold) has returned 24.4% (38% over the past 12 months). GLD closed Friday at $161.75. Gold is overbought, stocks are way, way oversold. There should be some kind of rally soon and gold will be pressured. Hopefully setting up another buying opportunity. Why not profit off all this uncertainty instead of getting your investment for the year wiped-out in a couple of weeks?

Jen's smart call on silver doubled our money. We sold half on the recent correction but missed the first buy opportunity to reinvest our original money at a lower price. Waiting on another buy opp here.
Gold will pull Silver upward.

Monday, August 1, 2011

PMD and GB2 Arrive

The newest wargames in my collection with their original versions from 1992 and 1994 respectively.

Roughly two years ago I placed separate pre-orders for reprints of two board (as opposed to computer) wargames I initially bought back in the early 1990’s. They were being independently re-published by different designers, companies, ideas, and production schedules. I enjoyed both original versions of these wargames and played each for years in times of hobby. Their recent reappearance in my life was coincidentally and spontaneously simultaneous.

That’s the way karma works, or, better, that is the stuff of karma. I want to blog about karma soon but it is slippery territory and you must be able to articulate your meaning well; very tough to do with all those preconceptions out there among other people as well as within yourself.

Both wargames arrived within three or four days of each other about three weeks ago after all those many months of foreign separateness. One game is the second printing of Guderian’s Blitzkreg II (GB2), the other game is the “deluxe edition” of two magazine games I own called Proud Monster and Death and Destruction. Both editions feature various rules tweaks and considerable graphical, aesthetic upgrades over their original versions.

Proud Monster Deluxe (PMD) is a visual feast, featuring a superbly rendered map of the Soviet Union at the time Adolf Hitler invaded in 1941. The map is very useful and informative, yet colorful, pleasing to the eye, one of the best representations of the Soviet Union at this historic time that I’ve ever seen in a wargame.

Meanwhile, GB2 is a huge expansion over the original 1992 game with its absurd, obsessive logistics rules now revitalized into what is actually a great model for how logistics work in modern military planning. GB2 is part of the Operational Combat Series (OCS) of games. OCS is the best modern operational model wargame I’ve ever played. I own five games in that series and no game better simulates how an actual “blitzkrieg” attack works upon a defended area or how the oozing breakthroughs of the Soviet forces can drive the German army back.

Although I own wargames simulating all historical periods (from ancient battles like Kadesh through games on recent operations like Desert Storm), the vast majority of my attention to the hobby over the years has been devoted to the Eastern Front of World War Two and to the American Civil War. That matches the robust military history section of my library, by far the largest section with dozens and dozens of books to choose from.

Most of my wargame life I have played Civil War battles particularly Gettysburg, of course, and Shiloh - which I hold in particular importance. But all my ponderings of southern or northern military prowess when chivalry was not quite gone and when we fought ourselves as a nation are dwarfed by the amount of time I have committed to playing various games on the Eastern Front in my life.

As a teen Avalon Hill’s Stalingrad introduced me to wargames. I played PanzerBlitz and PanzerGruppe Guderian when they were new designs. More recent Eastern Front games include Ukraine ’43, Red Star Rising, Hube’s Pocket, Baltic Gap, and Red Storm Over the Reich. I have always enjoyed playing Eastern Front games and reading about this great, tragic total war unto itself. It is also known as the Russo-German War and as the Great Patriotic War. The Eastern Front of World War Two was a mindboggling, primitive war fought with modern weapons. There was little difference between the savage methods of Hitler and Joseph Stalin and Genghis Khan, for example. The enemy village or town or city was to be wiped out. Surviving prisoners were treated as slaves, forcibly displaced hundreds of miles to industrial regions as labor. Millions were literally worked to death.

The Eastern Front between 1941-1945 featured the most horrific war, mass genocide, and human enslavement in history. By a large margin, more human beings were killed in combat, wounded, and outright murdered on the Eastern Front than in all the rest of the World War Two put together. About 30 million died on the Soviet side. About 5 million Germans died with another 6 million wounded and captured. One-third of the captured died to brutal Soviet imprisonment. These figures do not count the millions who died in enslavement and genocide committed or condoned by virtually every German fighting in the East. That total is guesswork but, altogether, the East Front probably saw a grand total of around 40 million total human dead. The largest total of human dead in a single war in history. (see Weinberg, page 264; Glantz, page 284; Duffy, page 3; Megargee, page xi, Glantz, pp.10-12, Mosier, page 338)

There has never been anything like its size on this Earth. From our tribal days, battles and wars have always been savage. Though today such savagery seems unimaginable, it has never manifested on this colossal scale before or since. At stake, of course, was the complete domination and cultural replacement of the eastern lands by the German race. The Eastern Front was true clash of civilizations in the classic historic sense, full of racial and ideological levels of conflict. Base human killing the size of Armageddon itself. This fascinates me.

So I have both read and wargamed a great deal on this subject in my life. GB and PM were among my favorites, which is why I wanted to own them in their final, “definitive” forms. Both games are large in scale and presentation. So large, in fact, that I can’t even set either one up on my modest gaming table space. They are far too big. So, I will play them either in smaller scenarios that require only a partial setup of the game or, more likely, in digital versions of them on my PC if and when they become available. I’ve already started creating a Cyberboard gamebox of PMD but it will take me months to actually get it into a playable fashion. Though I already have the large game map scanned and placed into a playable digital format, it takes a lot of work to finish a project of that size and I don’t have that much free time right now.

GB2 covers operations near Moscow from late-September 1941 up to May 1943. It is linkable with the even more massive Case Blue game (CB – itself a reprint and expansion of another favorite game in my collection, OCS Enemy at the Gates, which features “Manstein’s Backhand Blow”, my favorite all-time wargame scenario to play) that I purchased in 2007. I have only played CB in bits and pieces, and even then only in a digital program called VASSAL, focusing mainly on the post-Stalingrad time period of operations in the southern Soviet Union. If I were to setup GB2 and CB in its entirety I would need my entire living room floor to do it. Not very practical but it does afford some sense of the immense scope of the Eastern Front.

Moscow and environs as depicted in GB2. Each hex represents 5 miles.

The heart of GB2 is one of the greatest battles of all time, the Battle for Moscow in late 1941, the Wehrmacht’s first major defeat of the war, which most historians consider Hitler’s best chance to achieve his diabolical (and out-of-fashion imperialism, World War Two essentially marking the end of the Colonial period of western civilization) goals of lebensraum. The Battle of Moscow beginning in October 1941 was a result of the Wehrmacht’s and the Nazi Party’s inherent prejudices against Soviet capabilities. The Soviet people rallied and formed a bigger, better army than Hitler ever conceived. Though most Soviet units are weak and mediocre there are some good troops from Siberia (and better trained Guards divisions) helped make a difference. As such, GB2 is an entertaining aid to experiencing and understanding the military challenges for both sides during this historically critical period. The game also covers the Soviet offensive known as Operation Mars, which occurred in late 1942 simultaneously with Operation Uranus, the Red army’s counteroffensive at Stalingrad. Unlike that major victory for the Stalin in the south, however, Operation Mars was probably the very capable commanding Soviet marshal Georgy Zhukov’s greatest defeat.

The same area on the 20 mile-per-hex scale of PMD. What was arguably the largest battle of World War Two happened here in late 1941 and early 1942.

PMD is much smaller in terms of scale (20 miles per hex versus 5 miles per hex for OCS games) and it consists of four oversized maps that have a smaller footprint than the seven maps of GB2 which can be linked to the ten maps of CB, even though PMD still won’t fit my game table. PMD is an ambitious attempt to capture the war from Operation Barbarossa in 1941to the end of the various Soviet winter offensives in April 1944. Historically, the Eastern Front became even more gruesome from May 1944 to May 1945 and ended with the capture of Berlin, Budapest, and Vienna by Soviet forces. A decisive strategic victory. But, PMD covers only the most competitive part of the war. Extending it further would entail, of course, more maps and playing pieces.

I have not played PMD yet. When have I had the time? But, after reading the rules a couple of times, I know that probably 80% of the game stands as it did in 1994 when the original version came out. I played that game probably a dozen times over three or four years. It was highly entertaining. I’m sure many of the differences are improvements over the previous design. If nothing else the revised game’s developer could draw on over 15 years of playing experience in the previous version. The basic mechanics are the same with some additional “chrome” as we say in the wargming hobby. Chrome is little rules that add historic flavor and, generally, more realism and depth to a game.

PMD is an interesting design in the way it depicts the German and Soviet armies. At first, the German units are of a consistently superior nature. The Soviets are variable, but usually mediocre. Over time, the Soviets can start massing stacks of units against the German. Some of these mass of units during the course of the game will become much improved fighting units, Guards units usually. When these begin to stack the Soviets suddenly start bringing more firepower, particularly in the form of artillery support, onto the map and the complexion of the game changes. The Germans will never counter this mass of artillery, though they will deploy some highly destructive artillery of their own. You reach a point when the Soviets can overwhelm the German line at any given weakness. By 1943, the German infantry is greatly reduced and it becomes impossible for the German player to be strong everywhere. And that is, pretty much in my opinion, the way the war historically played out from a strategic perspective.

As in history, Germany’s only real chance of winning the War in the East is early on before the full potential of the Soviet army is realized. After that point only a stalemate is militarily possible for Germany and the chance for victory swings to the Soviets. Politically speaking, a strategic stalemate was never a prospect. The war was far too ruthless, racial, and cultural for that. The Germans attacked with the intent to perform ethnic cleaning beyond all human reason. It is simply human nature not to compromise with an enemy like that. But, Stalin was no compromiser in any case.

The game shows the military aspects of all this very clearly to the player. As the Germans slowly start running out of replacements it becomes more difficult to concentrate their forces while the Soviets can stack many hexes to the max in any given area of the map. When these stacks strike, if the player knows what he is doing, it should create a small, secured breakthrough enlarged with deep penetration. The Germans did this primarily in 1941 and 1942. By mid-1943 the Soviets started doing it; over minor areas to begin with, then over large swaths like they managed at Stalingrad. Historically, the Germans chose strategic retreat in spite of Hitler’s reducing it to incremental steps at the expense of many German lives.

The Soviets are highly replaceable and upgradeable whereas the German side is of deteriorating quality but for their Panzer divisions and Waffen SS. PMD sports a rule that, in 1943, limits the replacement of German infantry division and the slow attrition and bloody combat eventually tilt things toward the numerically superior Soviets. Though I have played the
Barbarossa Scenario of War of the Motherland (predecessor of Red Star Rising) numerous times, my recollection of PM and now PMD is that it reflects the sheer “bulk” of the Soviet army better than any game I’ve seen. Its RVGK (Soviet High Command) rules, from a strategic perspective, represent Soviet maskirovka better than any game I’ve ever played. So, I am looking forward to getting back into this one sometime in the next year or so.

GB2 is more of an investment than a serious game to play. Although I can (and probably will) play some of the “small scenarios” in VASSAL as well as admire the glory of the full GB2-CB setup in VASSAL, as I said, OCS is my favorite operational representation of the modern art of war. But, attempting to consider the war strategically takes forever to play in an operational game system. So, beyond the admiration of the OCS mechanics and the short scenarios, I lean toward PMD rather than GB2 to ultimately provide me with some great East Front wargaming in the true game sense of playing over time into the “deep war” where winning and losing take on a strategic rather than operational context.