War is Virtual Hell

FACT: According to market research compiled by Microsoft, the global market for Modeling and Simulation (M&S) software/hardware platforms across all industries, including the defense industry, has hit $18 billion per year; the cumulative growth rate is estimated at 9.6% annually.

ANALYSIS:  The lovely wife and I have been lackadaisically house-hunting down in Virginia’s Northern Neck, the Athens of America and the cradle of our democracy. The Neck is the birthplace of George Washington, the Lee brothers (the revolutionary patriots about whom John Adams used the phrase, “This Band of Brothers,” among them Declaration of Independence signers Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, not to mention their later nephew Robert E. Lee), James Monroe, John Ballentine, etc. etc. 

Anyway, recently we toured the historic 1859 house at Braehead, an 18-acre estate actually located within the Civil War battlefield in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The house is for sale, and while it’s likely overpriced (like everything else on the market these days) [this observation has been energetically and somewhat persuasively disputed by the listing agent, who read the post], but we enjoyed the tour.  I’ve posted many (too many) photos of our little tour here.  My interest in the house is the historic angle: it’s actually where Robert E. Lee visited and took breakfast on the morning of the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, one of his successful efforts against U.S. forces.  Here’s an article about Braehead’s history and historic preservation.

It was in fact at Fredericksburg that Lee spoke the words which would sum up the entire war, nay all wars, as he witnessed thousands of Union soldiers falling in battle to Confederate guns on the hills above the Rappahannock River: “It is well that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it.”  

In the words of historian Robert McNamara writing online at About.com, “The Battle of Fredericksburg in mid-December 1862 was a major Confederate victory, but it wasn’t so much a turning point in the Civil War as a gruesome confirmation that the war was going to be long and very costly.”  And you can read a succinct summary of the tragic context of the battle on this National Park Service page.

What to do today, with technology, to address the horror of war?  Many ways of course, and here’s a small one. I just read a very interesting commentary in WIRED magazine online by Clive Thompson, in which he points out his surprise at playing the newly released Xbox 360 software game Ninja Gaiden II, which was released on Tuesday. The article’s title sums it up: “Killer Gamer Asks: Where Have All the Bodies Gone?” To quote Thompson, as he played the game and successfully killed dozens of enemies onscreen, he noticed something:

Unlike in [the game’s] prequels, the bodies hang around. Indeed, they hang around for a good long while. After I’d killed my way through about seven battles, I experimentally backtracked all the way to the beginning, and sure enough — every body was still lying there, every blood fleck on the ceiling intact. I peered off the edge of a promontory to spy a battleground far below and, yep: There’s that guy I disemboweled. Still dead.  Now, did this change the emotional, or even moral, timbre of the game?  In some ways, yes. You really do get a better sense that you’re a sociopath when the evidence of your crimes is stacked around you.”

Microsoft has been working on some modeling & simulation (or M&S) ideas with several DoD partners about better immersive environments and realistic training using advanced software, in some cases inspired by gaming and virtual-world approaches.  You can see examples using some of our current line of software here, describing the ESP simulation platform and over here is a quick look at ESP in some detail.  You can also see some of the more advanced stuff we’re doing with Microsoft Research here or over here in the Social Computing Group, all of which will play a part in ways we can help governments.

Hardcore gamers would not be surprised at current DoD simulation platforms, just disappointed at their rudimentary nature. Great work is already done at Camp Pendleton and other places by DoD training elements, and yet there’s enormous room for improvement.  And these days, you certainly can’t argue the importance for the military of improving its ability to prepare for war more realistically.  Gen. Lee himself would, I believe, agree that doing so may even help prevent and avoid wars in future.

[Note: Wikipedia has a solid summary of the Battle of Fredericksburg including battle-line maps. But if you want an excellent and engrossing study of the gut-wrenching battle, I think the best book is “The Fredericksburg Campaign” by Francis Augustin O’Reilly.]

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3 Responses

  1. With all that about simulation, you should have used a realtor’s “Virtual Tour” of the house! -tom

  2. […] War is Virtual Hell on emergent defense thinking about virtual […]

  3. […] War is Virtual Hell on emergent defense thinking about virtual […]

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