Ed Halter – From Sun Tzu to Xbox War and Video Games Thunders

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					Ed Halter – From Sun Tzu to Xbox. War and Video Games. Thunder's Mouth Press, New York, 2006.

Part Two: Computer Gaming the Cold War

„We wire the Ho Chi Minh Trail like a drugstore pinball machine, and we plug it in every night,“ an Air
Force officer reported to Armed Forces Journal in 1971. He was describing his involvement in Operation
Igloo White, a high-tech, high-priced American effort to shut down the entry of North Vietnamese
convoys into the South during the height of the war. From 1966 to 1972, the Air force oversaw the
implementation of a 160-mile wall of electronic sensors stretched across the network of truck roads
and bicycle pathways that led through the inside of Vietnam's elbow, via the eastern edges of Laos and
Cambodia. Sometimes called the „McNamara Line,“ after Igloo White's initiator, Secretary of Defense
Robert McNamara, this intangible barrier consisted of around 20.000 highly advanced sensors of
various types, dropped from airplanes onto areas of the trail, designed to blend in with the organic
landscape. Some were shaped like spikes, weighted to wedge into the ground upon contact, so their
splays of skinny green antennae would resemble jungle plants. Others descended on camouflage
parachutes made to tangle and hang in treetops. One prototype was sculpted to mimic dog feces. As it
turned out, however, there weren't any dogs on the trail, so it was modified to look like a fallen piece of
Once in place, different varieties of sensors picked up sound, motion, body heat, and even odor – some
could „sniff“ for chemicals found in human urine. They were, literally, plants. When a sensor detected a
presence in its vicinity by one of these means, it transmitted a signal to Air Force aircraft, which flew
over the McNamara Line twenty-four hours a day for this express purpose. The aircraft in turn relayed
this data hundreds of miles west to Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, where American forces had
constructed the sprawling Igloo White Infiltration Surveillance Center, at the time the largest building
in Southeast Asia. Security for this top-secret command center was so high that airmen had to work
double time as its janitors. Inside ISCs climate-controlled clean-room sanctuary, two IBM 360/65
computers – the most powerful data processors of the era – analyzed the sensors' incoming
information, which translated onto a display terminal as white streaks of light, called „worms“, that
moved across a superimposed map grid in real time. „In their electronic brains are the entire 3.500
miles of turning and twisting Ho Chi Minh Trail system,“ Military Aircraft magazine boasted in 1971.
„The locations of every crossroad, gully and sensor are known to them.“ ISC then relayed these
coordinates back to bombing jets, which were guided by computerized navigation systems directly to
the correct location. The lab men at central command could even remotely control the release of the
bombs from the jets, whose pilots might do nothing but watch it all happen. Upon destruction of the
intended target, its correlate white blip disappeared from the screens at ISC.
A group of scientists from Harvard and MIT had suggested a plan along the lines of Igloo White to
McNamara in 1966. As Air Force Magazine put it, in a 2004 history of the operation, the eggheads hoped
to provide „a technical solution in vietnam“ that could succeed in ways that the Rolling Thunder
campaign of constant bombing had failed. The intellectual McNamara, always a friend of innovative
solutions, aggressively pushed the project forward, even though military leaders protested that it would
be too costly in terms of both money and personnel, and thus detract from the rest of the war's
operations. McNamara nevertheless established the top-secret, innocuously named Defense
Communications Planning Group, a Washington-based office boasting an elite cadre of scientists and
engineers, generously funded with the Manhattan Project-style goal of producing a new form of
electronic warfare. Ultimately, the military brass was right: it did indeed prove expensive. By one
estimate, each North Vietnamese truck cost an average of $100.000 to destroy, though the value of its
contents would be no more than a few thousand dollars at best.
While some of the military's faux foliage could transmit live audio feed, ISC received only data, which it
then reconstituted into as an electronic marker on a map. In the spirit of an updated electronic
kriegspeil, human elements became reduced to mere tokens, but this game was played real-time, with
powerfully real results. The relaying aircraft, however, did record the sounds that the sensors picked up,
for use in later analysis, and thereby retained a more material record of events. Paul Dickson, whose
1976 study The Electronic Battlefield extensively recounts the formation and operations of Igloo White
and its effects on the course of American military practice, heard a few such recordings after the war, in
the course of his research. One tape contained the sounds, in quick succession, of a shouting voice,
bleating truck horns, the whine of an approaching jet, a series of explosions, a long stretch of silence,
and then a racketing of anti aircraft fire. Another recorded a Vietnamese soldier telling his comrade that
he was going to grab a sensor's camo parachute fabric in order to give to his girlfriend, so she could
make a dress out of it. Yet another tape simply preserved the sounds of a man being crushed by a
falling tree.
Over time, the North Vietnamese learned to hack this network using low-tech means: playing
strategically placed tape recordings of truck motors, hanging bags of urine in trees, or driving farm
animals into the sensor's vicinity. Though these counter-measures never became a widespread practice,
similar actions appear in a 1979 Vietnam War novel The Ears of the Jungle, by Pierre Boulle, better known
as the writer of Planet of the Apes and Bridge on the River Kwai. Boulle's story, often mistakenly classified as
science fiction in its English translation, is in fact closely based on the realities of Operation Igloo
White. In the novel, the North Vietnamese use recordings of crickets to mask the sounds of their
trucks, and then employ recordings of trucks to trick the U.S. into bombing wild buffalo for their
troops to eat. Eventually, they produce a complex scheme of faked sounds that tricks the multi-billion-
dollar Infiltration Surveillance Center into bombing itself.
Contemporary news reports likewise found themselves reaching for science-fictional metaphors when
describing the strange new realities of Igloo White: „Buck Rogers is alive and well and bombing
Indochina,“ the Christian Science Monitor frowned. Government and military press relations encouraged
such fantastic visions. „One has only to read through a few of the official briefings and descriptions
that were given of Igloo White to see that the image being pushed is that of a clean, efficient machine
functioning like a large, electronic chess set,“ Dickson notes. „Such nasty considerations as pain,
civilian casualties, blood and death (foreign or American) were deleted.“ Not to mention that American
attacks, which were never truly pinpointed, occasionally succeeded in merely exterminating a group of
unlucky elephants. Over in Thailand, after all, they were just fighting blips on a screen.

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