John M. Lillard’s study of war games, aptly titled Playing War: Wargaming and U.S. NavyPreparations for World War II, dissects the players, game processes, andphases of wargaming during the interwar period. Wargaming proved to be a usefultool for the United States Navy in preparing for the naval battles of World WarII.
The wargames gave the Navy an upper hand, because they could predictmovements of enemy ships based on the aforementioned games. In his attempt to proveif the war games and the Naval College had any historical agency, he delvesinto a previously under-explored topic. To prove his thesis, Lillard examines theimpact of individual games and their players on the war effort, while alsoassessing the overall effects of wargaming through the inter-war period. Unlikehistorians such as Peter Perla and Michael Vlahos, Lillard reveals thesignificance of the war games to the development of technology and, ultimately,to the success of the United States Navy during World War II.
Lillard first breaks down the NavalWar College’s strategies and their assessments into sections. Using anassortment of charts, graphs, and images to support his thesis Lillard deliversthe most in-depth study of war gaming to date. Through Lillard’s research, hefound that war games were necessary to teach decision-making skills, as well asdevelop technology to advance the Navy. He uses speeches, diaries, and officialrecords from the inter-war period as a primary basis for his argument. Thedownfall to Lillard’s sources is the focus on popular figures, such as AdmiralChester Nimitz, and the lack of voices from enlisted personnel.
He does assessthe data from the graduating classes, such as the number and type. He alsoshows the different fictional opponents throughout the wargames and providesgraphics to aid in understanding for those without a military background. At times, Lillard’s argument seemedlong-winded. The lack of representation by other scholars in reference to thewar games could be because the argument can be summed up within a few pages. But,Lillard was able to redeem his work by providing stories that piqued thereader’s interest when facts became dull. His assessment of the early phase,from 1919 to 1927, is particularly interesting, especially when he delves intoone of the later exercises in 1927. The class of 1927 worked through a gamethat focused on both land and sea objectives, with special situations thrown atthem at every turn.
The class had to adapt to changes given through the games,leading to further advancements in the games. Because Lillard uses individualgames, his monograph has a narrative quality, aiding the readability of hiswork. While this history would be more aptly used by a military historian, thenarrative aspect and the clear visual aids allow anyone to enjoy Lillard’sbook.
He determines that the Naval War College deserves agency within thehistorical context of preparations for battle, which he sums up nicely in theconclusion. Playing War is awell-written, well-researched, and well-received monograph adding a new facetto military history and the study of naval advancements.