The StarCraft Doctrine

The StarCraft Doctrine

A short history of modern American warfare, as told through classic ’90s strategy games.

By Drew Toal • January 7, 2013

When Barack Obama is sworn in on Jan. 20, he’ll become the fourth president in the last five administrations to act as commander-in-chief for a second term. That pretty much guarantees that he’ll leave a mark on the shape of our military, as he presides over a Department Of Defense whose budget is approaching $800 billion annually. It’s a fitting time to look back at other recent administrations to see how their U.S. military was built—or, rather, since this is The Gameological Society, to see how they played.

I’ve taken each two-term president of the last 32 years—sorry, George H.W.—and paired them with a real-time strategy game that reflects their military philosophy. All of the games come from the late 1990s, a golden era for the genre. Strategy games cast a player as commander-in-chief, putting you in control of the resources and means to build and army. The innovation of the “real-time” strategy format was to add the pressure of time to strategic decisions (as opposed to traditional turn-based war games like Risk).

Each classic ’90s strategy game was chosen to echo the geopolitical reality of the corresponding administration—as well as I could manage. You might have to use a little imagination.

Reagan administration / Total Annihilation
Reagan/Total Annihilation

It’s conservative gospel that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War. He accomplished this remarkable feat, legend goes, not with the occupation of Hungary or by nuking Stalingrad, but by employing muscular democratic rhetoric and letting the CIA disseminate blue jeans throughout the lower Caucasus. Still, the ever-present threat of Mutually Assured Destruction certainly helped—modern war would cause real-estate prices along the eastern seaboard to hit rock bottom for the next 80 million years or so. In the Reaganaut war that never came to pass, the new normal would be a steady diet of tactical nuclear strikes, vast swaths of the world rendered uninhabitable, and giant robots with lasers for arms laying waste to the ragged scraps of humanity cursed with continued existence in this irradiated hellscape.

In other words, Total Annihilation. The 1997 game pits a force of homicidal cyborgs against an army of clones. The Cold War’s escalation into something less cold would be a conflict without quarter or mercy, with massive attrition rates and widespread environmental havoc. In Total Annihilation, humanity has already discarded Earth and now wages war on planets with resources to fuel the nuclear military-Voltronian complex. The “Core” and the “Arm” send wave after wave of relentless kill-bots at one another to determine once and for all the proper role of government. At this point, Reagan’s “city on a hill” would be ashes at the bottom of a crater, but it would at least provide good cover for your star-spangled Doomsday Machine.

Clinton administration / Command & Conquer: Red Alert
Clinton/Command & Conquer

Command & Conquer: Red Alert, released in October of 1996, is set in an alternate Cold War history made possible, of course, by Albert Einstein traveling back in time to kill Hitler. The unforeseen effects on the space-time continuum result in unchecked Soviet aggression across Europe and Asia in the present day. The game’s main innovation was to give each side of the conflict separate but equal military forces, each with its own idiosyncrasies. The Allies in Red Alert, being conventionally weaker than the Soviets, rely more on speed and surprise than brute force, and they’re supported by naval domination. They’re most effectively used in quick, surgical strikes in range of their coastal batteries.

As Red Alert was changing the way we fought video game wars, President Clinton was altering the nature of U.S. military intervention. Although America could no longer shake its fist at the Soviet Union, the “Clinton Doctrine” called for a graduated interventionist foreign policy that would punish rogue regimes in Bosnia, Iraq, and elsewhere with crippling air strikes.

That is to say, the United States relied primarily on ship-based air and cruise missile strikes to impose its will on the world. In the game and in reality, this approach had some shortcomings. In Red Alert, sending attack helicopters (the only Red Alert Allied air unit) into an area heavily fortified with surface-to-air missiles and rocket soldiers is to court disaster—a situation mirrored at the Battle Of Mogadishu in Somalia (the basis of the film Black Hawk Down). Naval bombardments, while impressive to watch on CNN, weren’t enough to topple Saddam Hussein, just as they aren’t enough to stop a fleet of Mammoth tanks rolling over your doorstep.

George W. Bush administration / Dark Reign: The Future Of War
Bush/Dark Reign

If I had to bet it all on the most likely cause of future planet-wide conflicts, I’d probably push my stack of chips on “natural resources,” rather than traditional, less-concrete carnage inducers like nationalism or religion. (I’d put a small side bet on slavery—that is, humans fighting to overthrow their sentient robot overlords.) I’m talking about oil, obviously, but fresh water will also be an ever more scarce commodity. Kevin Costner pointed the way with his portable pee filter in Waterworld, but I suspect millions will perish before humanity accepts urine cocktails as a necessity.

Dark Reign eerily echoes the second Iraq War. In the distant future, the Imperium is pitted against the Freedom Guard in a nasty little generation-spanning scrap. Like Red Alert, each side has a distinct style, with the Imperium playing the heavies to the Freedom Guard’s more mobile guerrilla forces. Both sides fight for control of water and Taelon, the fuel that stands in for oil in the game’s mythos.

President Bush’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had definite ideas about how prepare the military for this future war of all against all pee drinkers. In the worldview of Dark Reign and Rumsfeld both, a steady stream of supplies is crucial to a successful campaign. During the run-up to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz proclaimed that captured Iraqi oil would cover the cost of the entire war. That was the big picture. On a smaller, more practical level, Rumsfeld sought to reduce supply problems by relying on lighter vehicles to scout enemy positions and then punishing the targets with airstrikes. In theory, it’s a more agile and effective force. Dark Reign’s fog of war necessitates a version of this approach. To employ one of the game’s most powerful weapons, the Shock Wave, you need a clear line of sight to the enemy. The unit itself is slow and defenseless, so the strategy is to send a faster unit to scout, and then roll in and unleash a hellish seismic blast. How’s that for shock and awe?

Obama administration / StarCraft

StarCraft, the sci-fi cousin of the popular Warcraft series, pits three alien species against one another in a vicious interstellar race war. The recognizably human Terrans fight for living space against the insectoid Zerg and the technologically advanced Protoss. While the idea of humans fighting for species dominance in a far-off corner of the Milky Way may seem far-fetched, it is.

Still, I can see parellels of the Obama administration’s reliance on unmanned drone warfare in the space conflicts of StarCraft. American drones are relatively simple machines, but throw in a virtual intelligence, nuclear reactor, and some lasers, and you have yourself a fully functional Cylon Raider.

Of course, there’s also the matter of getting into space, and the Obama White House has a mixed record on that front. What good is a thinking, flying death machine if it’s been 40 years since we even made it to our own planet’s nearby moon? On the other hand, while Obama was in office, our space agency did oversee humanity’s first effort to bombard another planet with deadly lasers. So while President Obama is likely to continue his halting efforts to lay the groundwork for galactic manifest destiny, it will fall upon future President Newt “Moonman” Gingrich in 2016 to fully lead us to the StarCraft promised land of interplanetary colonization and endless outer-space warfare.

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