Flattening Mainz and Other Memories

The last time I was in Germany I found myself looking at a map and remembering my junior high school years, which was about the time another kid and I got seriously into war gaming. This was before the onslaught of video games. Well, there were video games, but they could not be played at home. You had to go to pinball arcades to play Donkey Kong, Dig-Dug, or Pac-Man.

If you wanted to get into serious war-gaming, you had to buy board games, and they were really expensive ($12 seemed steep to me then). At that time, too, there were a lot of small companies making war games, but my local hobby store only carried two companies: Avalon-Hill and another outfit called SDI (or something like that). The SDI games were overly technical: lots of charts, morale gauges, economic units, and complicated scenarios. The Avalon-Hill games were much more playable and better packaged.

One particular favorite was Luftwaffe. It came in a solid, pleasingly heavy box, with an inner sleeve and was roughly the size of a cereal carton. The cover showed a Messerschmitt 109, wing-mounted cannons ablaze, diving on a formation of B-17s. Inside was a game board that displayed a map of war-time Germany. It also showed small bits of Poland, the Netherlands, and a little part of Italy. Superimposed over the map was a hexagonal grid not unlike the tiled pattern on old bathroom floors. One player controlled the allied air force (the US and the RAF); the other commanded the Luftwaffe. Each maneuvered over the skies of Germany by counting off hexagons.

The aim for the allied player was to bomb all of the oil refineries, aircraft factories, and rail centers in Germany. The Luftwaffe commander had to shoot down as many B-17s, P-51s, P-47s, and B-24s as possible. My friend Van and I used to play this game for hours, exploring all kinds of scenarios: what if Hitler had developed jets faster? What if Britain had to fight alone?

Many was the junior high Friday night I spent flattening Schweinfurt, Koblenz, Mainz, Berlin. And when I wasn’t carpet bombing civilian population centers, I was slicing into tall stacks of bomber formations with Focke-Wulf 190s. Roll a five or a six and 75 Flying Fortresses would belch black smoke and plunge earthward. In many ways, the game was historically instructive. The allied player grew stronger and stronger as the game wore on, benefiting from an unhampered and seemingly endless supply of bombers and fighters that arrived with each new turn.

The German player, on the other hand, saw fighter production drop every time he lost another aircraft factory. For him, it wasn’t a matter of preventing cities from being annihilated as much as minimizing the inevitable devastation. If only half of Germany was in ashes by the game’s end, the Germans were considered to have won.

I don’t remember when I began to feel a bit uneasy about war-gaming, but I do recall one time staring down at a dime-sized cardboard counter that had just been eliminated and thinking that it represented 150 planes, with each B-17 containing a dozen guys whose fate had just been determined by the roll of a die. Over a thousand men were supposedly in that little cardboard chit. There was just something creepy about the whole thing. By high school I hadn’t thrown my games away, but I seldom played them. I think I gave them to somebody after that, but I can’t recall who.

War-gamers were a strange lot. They tended to be nerdy kids, history buffs or older guys who didn’t get a lot of dates. A few years after my war-gaming phase, a lot of people got into Dungeons and Dragons, and I always suspected this was a way of making the killing a bit more palatable. Slaying dwarfs or swamp hags is perhaps less objectionable than flattening Mainz. And make no mistake: Mainz was flattened, along with most Europe in World War II. Driving around Germany the last time I was there, I knew the names of all the major cities and even had a crude orientation to the country (thanks to those hexagons). Riding along the autobahn, I’d see a sign showing the distance to, say, Chemnitz, and I’d think, ‘Oh, man, I know that town got hammered.”

Strange then that I arrived home from that trip on Memorial Day, which made me realize how little remembering actually takes place. The local news is always fairly predictable. You could run last year’s news package or the one from the year before, and nobody would really see much of a difference. A few old guys march holding the colors, someone plays taps at the cemetery, and a lot of people say things about our fallen heroes and how we must never forget them. But each one of those dead soldiers was an individual; each had virtues and faults. Some were really nice guys, some were jerks, some loved their kids and a few beat their wives. Most were probably scared a lot of the time. In short, all of those dead “heroes” aren’t remembered at all. They are rather shamelessly lumped into an abstraction.

They were in fact just like us, except they had the rotten luck to die in a thousand haphazard and mind-blowingly stupid ways. Maybe they were just torn apart by high explosives without ever really knowing what happened to them. Maybe they caught an infection is some un-sterile aid station. Maybe they turned right instead of left and so ran over an IED. The die rolled a four instead of a three. The little cardboard chit survived, or maybe it didn’t. Who wants to remember it that way?

No, it’s far better to play taps, fold the flag into a tri-cornered patriot’s hat, and say a few words about never forgetting the fallen heroes. In the end, I couldn’t keep playing war games after I began to think that the pieces represented real people, each with a complicated and peculiar history of desires, shortcomings and fears. In that sense, I suppose, playing the games was more like the real thing than I ever realized at the time. You can’t really do either very well without a whole lot of forgetting.

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