“Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition.” --Monty Python
When the ships were sunk and the dead counted, this much was clear: The most expensive war game in history had not gone according to plan.
In July 2002, the U.S. armed forces staged a quarter-billion-dollar simulation of a war with a rogue Middle Eastern country in the Persian Gulf. Coming so close to a real war with Iraq, military planners hoped the exercise would be especially instructive. The game was played using some real people and equipment, but it was made more convincing through the application of Hollywood-style computer animation. Commanders watched on screens as huge numbers of troops prepared for battle, and as aircraft and ships deployed in the Persian Gulf.
The U.S. side, or Blue Team, had spent months studying their adversary, the Red Team, They knew the size of Red’s land, sea, and air forces. Where all its command and control systems were located. They knew all the weak spots in its national infrastructure--the power grid, national communications systems. And because the Blue leaders believed they’d accounted for Red’s every possible move on the battlefield, they expected to defeat the enemy in short order.
But on the first day of the game, Red failed to respond to Blue’s demand for immediate and unconditional surrender. Unbeknownst to Blue, the Red commander had sent attack orders to his forces through unusual means, including motorcycle couriers, calls shouted from minarets, and World War II-era light signals. They were all modes of communication that Blue had never accounted for. Why would Red use them when he had satellites and telephones?
Expecting a quick end to the battle, the Blue fleet instead found itself surrounded by a swarm of small, seemingly innocuous Red boats. Without warning, the small boats let loose a devastating volley of cruise missiles at the Blue fleet, which, never having anticipated such an aggressive move, was helpless to respond. Some of the boats were loaded with explosives and rammed into their gargantuan adversaries. By the end of the attack, several Blue vessels sat at the bottom of the Persian Gulf. Had this been a real expertise, it’s estimated that 20,000 U.S. forces would be dead.
The story of Millennium Challenge is one of the most frequently cited modern examples of an ancient maxim of warfare: Know your enemy. Blue’s commanders failed in large part because they evinced a profound lack of empathy. They had never anticipated that Red would act so different than them. They had not put themselves in the minds of a devious and desperate dictator who, knowing he was outmatched in a head-to-head fight, would resort to asymmetric tactics--and some centuries old ones, at that. Millennium Challenge became an object lesson in the dangers of not thinking like your enemy, and of the potential gains of doing so.
The lessons of that war game seem especially poignant now, as tensions mount with North Korea and the United States attempts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. We are reminded that U.S. intelligence about its adversaries is limited, and often not very good. This week, the Wall Street Journal reported that “after a high-visibility display of military power aimed at deterring North Korean provocations, the White House is dialing back the aggressive posture amid fears that it could inadvertently trigger an even deeper crisis.” A previously devised “playbook” of escalating displays of force was apparently based on a set of assumptions about North Korea’s behavior that might not be panning out.
"The concern was that we were heightening the prospect of misperceptions on the part of the North Koreans, and that that could lead to miscalculations," a senior administration official told the newspaper.
“Officials said the U.S. didn't believe North Korea had any imminent plans to take military action in response to the exercises,” the Journal reported. “Rather, the shift reflects concerns within the administration that the North, caught off guard, could do something rash, contrary to intelligence assessments showing that it is unlikely to respond militarily to the U.S. show of force.” [Emphasis mine.]
Military planners don’t like to be caught by surprise. As it happened, the ones who planned Millennium Challenge were so chagrined by Red’s audacious and hugely successful attack that they reset the game. The Blue ships were magically floated back to the surface. The dead were brought back to life. And as the game played on for another two weeks, the Red Team was barred from engaging in any more unexpected tactics. The Red commander quit the game in protest. The Blue Team, playing with the rules in its favor, won round two in a rout.
The military is fond of its war games, and for good reason. Even when the outcome is unpredictable--or in the case of Millennium Challenge, undesirable--the play itself is instructive. When properly constructed, war games convince players that the stakes are real. Even when played sitting around a table using rudimentary set pieces--pieces of paper, toy planes and ships--players somehow see past the artifice and behave as if the scenario were real.
“Gaming’s transformative power grows out of its particular connections to storytelling,” write Peter Perla and ED McGrady, two game designers, in a paper published by the Naval War College. A good game creates the kind of willing suspension of disbelief you experience when you watch an engrossing movie or read a page-turning book. But since play is not a passive experience, gaming heightens that sense of belief. “Gaming, as a story-living experience, engages the human brain, and hence the human being participating in a game, in ways more akin to real-life experience than to reading a novel or watching a video," Perla and McGrady write.
The effects of games linger after the play has finished. The authors recall a bioterrorism war game run by the White House in 1998 that so impressed President Clinton he asked Congress to increase the counterterrorism budget by $294 million to defend the nation from weaponized pathogens. The President had been primed for the plausibility of a bio-attack by a fictional account he’d been reading in Richard Preston’s novel The Cobra Event. (Preston is also the author of a non-fiction book on disease outbreaks, Hotzone, that is all the more terrifying because it’s true.)
The key to a successful game is that it not only seem real, but that it present the players with an adversary that they would probably never imagine, an event that is “at odds with how you see the world,” write Perla and McGrady. The crazed scientist who builds a deadly virus. The rogue commander who uses suicidal tactics. Absent this surprise, “it is unlikely that any game architecture could present an effective, realistic scenario...”
Of course, in Millennium Challenge, the Blue Team faced just such an enemy. Did they learn from that experience? A year later, U.S. forces easily defeated the military of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But then, for the next eight years, they found themselves locked in an asymmetric war with insurgents, for which no one had planned. Blue did not think like Red.
“Juche” is one of the key philosophical pillars underlying the North Korean national ideology. It roughly translates to “self-reliance,” and it is invoked by the country’s leaders to justify its state-centered policies and to set the North Korean people culturally apart from the rest of the world.
Juche Strong, a new documentary by DC-filmmaker Rob Montz, explores the origins of this idea and the broader North Korean propaganda apparatus. The film will premiere in DC tomorrow, and it will be screened at the Cato Institute on April 11.
Montz’s thesis is provocative and perhaps not one you’ve heard before to explain why North Korea behaves in ways that seem utterly counterproductive, and that have isolated it from much of the world. While Montz doesn’t paper over or disregard the extraordinary, organized tools of state oppression that North Korea’s ruling family deploys to keep its grip on power--cutting off its people from information, forcing its citizens into labor camps, and a cult-like demand for loyalty--he finds that there’s something deeper at work that keeps North Korea alive, and that keeps more North Koreans from fleeing their country.
It is the juche idea, the self-reinforcing message that North Koreans are fundamentally superior, that has captured the imagination of its people for generations. “North Korea has in some way perfected the tools of ideological control,” Montz explained when we sat down recently to discuss the film. “Those tools can kind of look silly from the outside, but if you peer into them they have an internal logic if you’ve grown up in that environment.”
Montz traveled to North Korea and interviewed a wide range of experts in order to understand how the people see themselves. He says despite the often comical depictions of the regime as detached from reality and on the brink of demise, it is “significantly more resilient than even the experts give it credit for.” Montz was by no means an expert when he started making the film a few years ago. Initially, he set out to tell a story about North Korea’s competition in the 2010 World Cup; it was the first time time the country had played in the tournament since 1966. But as Montz dug deeper into North Korean history and began to confront his own preconceptions about its society, the story changed. Here are some experts from our conversation.
What was your perception of North Korea when you started making the film?
I suffered from a lot of the misconceptions that this film is now specifically designed to combat. The media portrays North Koreans as automatons. Mindless followers. I see them repeatedly being scrubbed of their humanity. And [the conclusion] is that either this regime is colossally silly--and I can assure you that was very prominently in place during this recent Dennis Rodman fiasco--or it’s this place continues to exist purely because of oppression. It’s a purely totalitarian state and the only way it maintains social order only is through the gun and the jack boot.
The more I dug into it, I found that their nuclear program does matter. Their relationship with China does matter. The labor camps do matter as the maintenance of control. But another equally important pillar is the national ideology.
So this is juche. Where did it come from?
When Kim Il-Sung takes over in the 50s, he’s staring at people who have just relieved themselves of 40 years of incredibly brutal Japanese control. Then they go through the Korean War. This is a people primed to the idea that foreigners are not to be trusted,and that we need to figure out a way to operate completely independent of foreign influence.
Additionally, the Korean peninsula has centuries of acute xenophobia embedded in its culture. The idea is that you meld those two together and make it a founding philosophical principle of the regime. How much of it was a conscious crafting of a specific narrative or an organic expression of the culture, I don’t know. It’s got to be a little bit of both. But if you’re staring at a people that have just had a horrid experience with imperial control, it’s really smart to make a centerpiece of your propaganda that we are a self-reliant people that doesn’t depend on anyone else.
How do they view South Koreans?
I think they view them as brothers who are being misled or oppressed by a sort of idiot government. Coming down from the Juche Tower in Pyongyang, I asked a man in his 30s if he thought he’d see reunification in his lifetime. And he said yes. I think he’s indicative of most North Koreans; they think reunification is inevitable. Obviously that doesn't accord with the facts at all. It seems so silly to us. But that has always been an essential part of the sell to the North Korean people.
How much is communist ideology a part of the North Korean national ideology, of juche?
It’s not about trying to find some sense of solidarity with the rest of the global working class. It’s about a clean break between the North Korean people and everyone else. They actually eliminated the word communism from their constitution. They used to have statues of Lenin and Marx on their main square. Those have been recently removed. It’s been a gradual, concerted effort to eliminate any notion that some other country had anything to do with the philosophical ideology of the country and its ability to be independent in the first place.
It doesn’t do it justice to just talk about it as a communist state. It’s a unique fusion, but not in a silly way. It has earned the right to be taken seriously, and I only see people think of it as a nuclear-touting, bipolar, wantonly self destructive rogue state.
I’d like the regime to disappear. I want North Korea to have freedom. But you can’t have a hope of achieving true reform if you don’t have a basic understanding of how the country operates.
How did you manage to get into the country?
Getting into North Korea is incredibly simple. There are tour companies. Go on Kayak.com. Drop $1,300 on a flight. The tour group meets up with you. I brought a laptop and a camera. You’re allowed to film there.They don’t want you filming civilians or army personnel, but it’s not difficult to take covert shots of people.
But they restrict your movements. You have a minder.
Absolutely. For instance, they took us through the subway. We briefly chatted with some North Korean kids on their way to school. They seemed obviously afraid of us. You’re not supposed to film them. But if you just turn on the camera and close the viewfinder, you can take pictures. That’s how I got some of the shots inside the subway system.
How do North Korea’s current provocations fit within its ideological playbook?
I think this is just a regime that has already demonstrated being astonishingly adept at self-preservation. For decades, they’ve done a very good job of playing the international community to continue to accrue power and to continue to exist as a country. I think it’s incredibly unlikely they’d do things that are suicidal. I have zero fear of a missile strike from North Korea [on the United States]. That is all done for internal PR purposes. None of it indicates a genuine military strategy. The nuclear tests, breaking agreements, I don’t think that will have any influence on their behavior, and I don’t think it represents a genuine threat to the Western world.
Why did you decide to make a film in the first place?
I knew that I wanted to learn how to make films, but I hated the idea of going to school and accruing debt. And they don’t teach you all the business aspects of film. I’d rather take two years, make a film myself, make a lot of mistakes, but come out of it with $1,000 in credit card debt and also a first hand experience of every single aspect of the filmmaking process.
I’m a fellow at a non-profit called the Moving Picture Institute. They gave me about $10,000 to make this film. They also were a fiscal crowd sponsors for a crowd sourcing campaign and put me in touch with a lot of DC filmmakers.