As yet additional evidence (not that any is needed) of the general uselessness of the American media, I did not learn of the death of one of my all-time favorite writers on military history, John Keegan, until the day after I returned home from the WBC Convention in Lancaster. Hence, this tribute is a few days late. Still, given Keegan's influence on the trajectory of contemporary military historiography, late or not, I think this piece needs to be written.



Sir John Keegan, OBE, internationally famous as an historian, author, and lecturer on military affairs, died on 2 August 2012 at his home in Kilmington, England. The widely-respected student of warfare and the psychology of the battlefield had, after years of poor health and the amputation of one of his legs, ultimately been forced to rely on a wheelchair in order to get around. He was 78 years old at the time of his death.

The arc of Keegan's life, considering his rather unremarkable background, was both interesting and unexpectedly rich. Born John Desmond Patrick Keegan, on 15 May 1934, in Clapham, England, the future historian and best-selling writer was the son of a schools inspector and a housewife. Given the modest circumstances of Keegan's upbringing, it is probably no surprise that his early childhood was uneventful; but that all changed for him, as it did for almost everyone else in Europe, in 1939. John Keegan was only five years old when he first saw, through a child's eyes, the very real effects, both great and small, of war on his family and on his fellow countrymen. And needless-to-say those effects were not trivial.

Like most of the able-bodied men of his generation, Keegan's father had already served in uniform during the First World War; however, both because of his age and because of his background in education, when war broke out with Germany for the second time in the space of twenty years, he was given a civilian task, that of helping to take care of some of the thousands of British children who had been evacuated from England's major population centers to save them from the ravages of the German "Blitz". To the young Keegan, the later years of the war, particularly the time of the enormous build-up of men and materiel prior to the Normandy Invasion, was one of extraordinary excitement; and, given the amazing scale of the events overtaking him and his countrymen, it can reasonably be surmised that his interest in military affairs probably took root during this early period in his life. Of course, for England as a whole, the six years of conflict were a gruelling test of both the national will and of sheer endurance; and it bears remembering that, of the major belligerents of World War II, only England and Germany were in the fight from the very beginning to the bitter end.

A certain amount of normalcy gradually returned to life in Britain and the Keegan household in the spring of 1945, once the Second World War had finally run it's violent and tragic course. Unfortunately, this happy condition did not last because, within a couple of years of the armistice, young Keegan was stricken with a case of Tuberculosis of the Bone, a condition that would, in spite of extensive treatment, ultimately leave him with a frozen hip joint and a permanent limp. Not surprisingly, such a physical infirmity barred Keegan, now a young man, from British "National Service"; on the other hand, it did nothing to interfere with his academic life and, despite his recurring health problems, he nonetheless managed to win a scholarship to read history at Balliol College. In 1957, at the age of twenty-three, Keegan graduated from Oxford and, for the next few years, worked as a minor functionary at the American Embassy in London.

In one of those happy accidents that only become obvious in retrospect, Keegan was offered a place with the faculty at the British Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, as a lecturer in military history, in 1960. The twenty-six year old Oxford graduate jumped at the chance. And, as things turned out, Keegan's new-found role as a teacher of British Officer Cadets suited him perfectly; in fact, the fit between the scholar and his job was so good that he continued, virtually without interruption, to lecture at Sandhurst until 1986. Moreover, besides providing the budding military historian with a steady income, Keegan's position at Sandhurst also provided him the opportunity to do independent research and to write. And write he did, turning out numerous papers and historical monographs, along with two books, in his first decade-and-a-half as a teacher at the Royal Military Academy. However, this early body of work, worthy though it may have been, was still well within the mainstream of military historiography. In 1976, Keegan finally broke with the conventions of his field and gave voice to ideas that had been percolating in his mind for years regarding the intense psychological and physical effects of combat on the men who ultimately decide a battle's outcome: the ordinary soldiers of the line. The title of this groundbreaking look at the "micro" versus the "macro" human variables that often tend to take control of events when organized groupings of armed men clash on a battlefield was "The Face of Battle", and it's wide-spread popular success quickly catapulted Keegan from a position of relative obscurity to one of international renown. Perhaps equally important, his unsentimental and honest look at the different and often conflicting pressures that common soldiers were subjected to in the crucible of combat also established Keegan as a writer of exceptional grace and deep humanity. An accomplishment all the more remarkable because, at the time of its writing, Keegan — by his own admission — had never worn a uniform; never heard a shot fired in anger, or even visited a battlefield in the immediate aftermath of an engagement. Yet, even for those of his readers who had actually done these things, Keegan's narrative rang true.

In "The Face of Battle", Keegan examined three separate engagements from three very different historical eras that all, conveniently enough, occurred within the same general region of Europe: "Agincourt", a clash between British and French (25 October, 1415); "Waterloo", which pitted the French against a polyglot force of British, Dutch-Belgians, and Prussians (18 June, 1815); and the "First Battle of the Somme", the British and French versus the Germans (1 July - 18 November, 1916). [For a more detailed review of "The Face of Battle", please see the link at the bottom of this page.] The Battle of Agincourt was mainly fought using edged weapons (swords, battle axes, etc.), the shock power of massed cavalry, and archers; Waterloo was largely decided by infantrymen and mounted cavalrymen — both groups equipped with single-shot firearms and edged weapons (bayonets and swords) — and by the lethal power of smooth-bore, muzzle-loading artillery; the men who fought and died (in appalling numbers) during the First Battle of the Somme — unlike their predecessors — had to contend with magazine-fed rifles, machine guns, barbed-wire, entrenchments, and rifled, breech-loading artillery. Nonetheless, and in spite of the differences in weaponry, Keegan showed (rather convincingly) how — from the common fighting man's perspective — the overall physical and mental stresses engendered at the soldier's level by the three very different (at least in appearance) engagements had more similarities than differences. In this sense, Keegan's work was both an historical chronicle of three important military events, and a study of the seemingly-unchanging group psychology of the battlefield.

Interestingly, although more than three decades have passed since "The Face of Battle" was first published, it has never once been out of print. Moreover, while Keegan continued to write for most of the rest of his life and followed "The Face of Battle" with some seventeen additional books — many of which were well-received, while, it must be admitted, a small number of others were criticized for either small historical inaccuracies or political naivete on the part of the author — this work remains his masterpiece.

It should be noted that while official honors were a little slow in coming to the Sandhurst lecturer, they did come in the end. John Keegan's many contributions to the world of British letters were formally recognized in 1991 when he was awarded the "Order of the British Empire" (OBE). Nine years later, in 2000, the son of the Clapham school inspector, whose demeanor and appearance seemed more in line with those of a publican than those of a British Peer, was added to the rolls of the English Nobility when he was Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

One final observation probably needs to be made regarding both the life and works of John Keegan, and that is this: Keegan grew up during a time when the casualties from the "Great War" (over 8,000,000 dead among the European belligerents alone) were still a source of deeply-felt loss in virtually every village and town in England and on the Continent; but in which — incomprehensible though it seemed on its face — the world had, barely a generation after the First World War, nonetheless plunged headlong back into the abyss of yet another multi-continent existential struggle over the future of Western Civilization. Given his times, it is thus not surprising that Keegan's work consistently reveals a deep personal ambivalence towards warfare: on the one hand, the author clearly detests the squalid brutality and random violence of war; on the other, he grudgingly aknowledges both that wars are occasionally necessary and, as General George Patton once famously observed, that the extraordinary demands that they place on individuals and on nations make "all other forms of human endeavor pale to insignificance when compared to war." Moreover, in Keegan's view, the ordinary soldier — contrary to the popular conceit found in the writings of far too many modern historiographers — is to be admired and respected; he is neither a victim nor a dupe; instead, he is an actor with free will who, whether for reasons of loyalty to his comrades or his general, simple stubbornness, or even a desire to bring his misery and danger to an end, chooses to do battle with other men who, although wearing different uniforms, nonetheless share the same motives and fears as himself. This last is, in some ways, the mystery that both puzzled and fascinated Keegan for much of his adult life: Why, when the instinct for self-preservation urges one course of action, do the soldiers of every era, resist its call and choose, instead, to stand and fight? It is a question that puzzles us still.

John Keegan is survived by his wife of over fifty years, the biographer Susanne Everett, and by their four children.

Related Posts

BOOK REVIEW: 'THE FACE OF BATTLE' John Keegan’s Unsentimental Celebration of the Common Soldier
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Man at Work Saturday Evening Post,
by Norman Rockwell
This has been a long and — at least for me — eventful summer. Unlike last year, during which health issues severely curtailed my blogging and other hobby-related activities, this year has been chock-full of competitive gaming (two PBeM tournaments and counting), a batch of ongoing one-on-one tutorials on the Avalon Hill classics for interested new (and not so new) players, and, of course, my treks to two summer wargaming conventions: the Consimworld Expo/MonsterCon XII Convention in Tempe, Arizona, in June/July; and the recently concluded WBC Convention in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. As might be expected, given the demands that these different activities placed on my time, something had to give; and that something, regrettably, was in my blogging. However, that was then, and this is now.

The good news, for those of my readers who regularly follow my eccentric musings on "Map and Counters", is that, for this old grognard, the 2012 convention season is finally over, and my two online tournaments are on temporary hold while the last few pairings finish their matches. What this means, in terms of my future plans, is that I will finally again have time to post new material on my blog. And, given the events of this summer, I am hopeful that visitors will find these soon-to-be published articles an interesting and informative mix of both old and new. To that end, what follows is a very brief preview of some of the essays that I hope to have in readable form within the next month or so.

Among the articles that are either planned or already in the works — given that the events are still fresh in my mind — are chronicles of my experiences at this year's Consimworld Expo and recently concluded WBC Convention. In addition, along with the usual collection of reviews on movies and books, as well as additional profiles on older games, I also plan to post more essays on the history of wargaming and on the evolution of popular game platforms (a la "Roads From Smolensk"). Moreover, for those players who, like me, still have a soft spot for the older Avalon Hill games, I intend to publish a piece on easy-to-use "player metrics" for several of the classics (e.g., how to tell whether you are winning or losing while there is still time to do something about it), as well as an analyis of the pros-and-cons of various low-odds attacks in STALINGRAD. Looking farther down the road, I hope to be able to complete the first "After Action Report" (AAR) on at least one of my finished PBeM tournament matches and, if this initial outing is well-received, to follow it up with others as my two online tournaments progress from one round to the next. In something of a break from my past practice, I have decided to make a concerted effort to add a few new voices (and, quite possibly, different viewpoints) to my blog through the publication of "guest" essays from individuals in the hobby whose opinions, although sometimes at variance from my own, I nonetheless respect.

Last but not least, I want to thank those of my readers who have stuck with me through this long "dry spell" in my blogging; your ongoing support is much appreciated. That being said, it is my sincere hope that the articles that will find their way into print in the coming weeks and months will again serve to make "Map and Counters" both an interesting and an informative destination for gamers of almost every stripe.
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Because I was away from my computer all day yesterday, I am a bit late in offering a 4th of July greeting to my regular readers. Nonetheless, better late than never.

Independence Day, 2012

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America.

Yesterday was Independence Day; moreover, it was, in fact, the two hundred and thirty-sixth Independence Day since our Country was first founded. For those Americans who actually know something of their history, this national holiday is intended to celebrate and honor the passionate thirst for liberty that, almost two and a half centuries ago, pushed delegates from Britain’s thirteen American Colonies to formally declare those colonies’ newly free and independent from a distant and increasingly tyrannical Parliament and monarchy. This declaration was no small thing; the men who debated and ultimately signed the “Declaration of Independence” had — as they knew only too well — all publicly endorsed treason against the British Crown as their political cause. The often soaring language used by Thomas Jefferson when he penned the controversial document might lift men’s spirits, but it was no protection against Royal reprisals by the British army. And simply by putting pen to paper, each of these delegates knew that he had done more than sign a statement of grievances to be delivered to the English Crown; he had — in both his own eyes and in those of the King — personally and publicly endorsed a formal “writ of rebellion.” Thus, the issuance of the “Declaration of Independence” was also a declaration of war against England; in political terms, it really changed nothing so far as America’s fractured relations with Britain were concerned. On the contrary, Jefferson’s words were intended to spur American patriotic ardor for the inevitable struggle already underway, at least as much as they were meant to rebuke both the British Crown and Parliament. And, of course, many years of suffering and bloody fighting were to follow the issuance of the “Declaration of Independence,” before the former colonies — now called states — would finally succeed in winning, through force of arms, their complete and permanent political separation from England.

Signing of the Declaration of Independence, painting by Jonathan Trumball
Nowadays, widespread popular reverence for both the men who signed the "Declaration of Independence" and the principles for which they were prepared to risk "our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor" so long ago seem to have largely faded from the public consciousness. In fact, in the eyes of many (but admittedly not all) modern Americans, not only are the backgrounds and motives of the Founders suspect, but the idea that they would lead the thirteen colonies to sever their long connection with the Motherland and risk open warfare with the greatest military power of the time over issues as seemingly trivial (and reasonable, on their face) as the modest new Crown taxes levied first by "The Stamp Act" and later by the "Townshend Act", seems almost incomprehensible to those who now tend to view the steady encroachments of a distant (and unresponsive) federal government on their individual liberties as a natural condition of modern life. Perhaps this is the depressing reality of our times; nonetheless, I find it personally inconceivable that a single one of the fifty-six signatories of the "Declaration of Independence" would agree with such a docile contemporary view. And, more than anything else, their example is the lesson that we modern Americans should take away from the Fourth of July: that liberty is precious only so long as a people value it more than they value their comfort and security; and when they come to prefer their ease and safety to liberty, then it is only a matter of time before they will no longer be free. As Benjamin Franklin, when asked as to what form the government of the newly-independent United States would take, tartly observed: "We have given you a Republic, if you can keep it."

Declaration of Independence Printable Text

Happy Independence Day, and may you all have an enjoyable holiday while, at the same time, taking a little time to reflect on the seminal events that long ago set the course of our forefathers towards war and ultimately independence from Great Britain.
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First official flag of the United States.

June 14, 2012, marks a signal, but little noticed anniversary in the history of our Republic: In Philadelphia, on 14 June, 1777, the Continental Congress passed a resolution that the official flag of the new nation that, in time, would come to be known as the United States of America should display thirteen stars and thirteen stripes; in addition, the same resolution also declared that the colors of the new flag should be red (for strength and courage), white (for purity), and blue (for steadfastness, vigilance and justice). While the look of the American flag has changed as additional states joined the Union, our flag's instantly recognizeable design (along with its core symbolism) has remained largely unchanged over the wide span of years that now separate the struggling nation of 1777 from the continent-wide world power that the United States is today.

The survival and expansion of the United States, and the system of government that it continues to represent, has come at a sometimes fearful price in blood and treasure. And for this reason, the flag of the United States, nicknamed "Old Glory", has come to occupy a special place in the hearts of many of America's citizenry. As evidence of the flag's special place in American life, it is only necessary to look back on the nation's near and distant past.

In the decades following the American Revolution, a small but gradually increasing number of communities began to commemorate the date of the resolution with locally-mounted ‘Flag Day’ ceremonies. On 30 May, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson declared June 14th officially to be ‘Flag Day’ throughout the United States. Finally, in 1949, 172 years after the Continental Congress first debated and approved its flag resolution, Congress passed and President Harry S. Truman signed the Act of Congress that legally designated June 14th as ‘Flag Day’.
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Originally, I had intended to post only a few brief comments about a pair of my relatives who, although they did not go in against the German-held beaches with the first waves of the "Overlord" invasion troops, nonetheless both came ashore at Normandy in the days following the initial landings. However, in surfing the internet this morning (I no longer watch television), it struck me that there seemed to be almost no mention of the anniversary of the D-Day Invasion. For that reason, I have decided to repost last year's essay on what I considered then (and still do) to be the real long-term historical significance of the Allied victory on the Normandy beaches on 6 June, 1944.

Thoughts on the 68th Anniversary of the Allied Landings in Normandy


U.S. WWII Cemetery, Normandy, France
Today is the anniversary of D-Day. If past experience is any guide, the various network and cable outlets will probably commemorate this date in history with a smattering of short “public service” style announcements accompanied by brief and blandly uninspiring screen images. Even worse, but just as inevitably, a few TV channels (to include, regrettably, the History and Military channels) will abuse their audiences by rebroadcasting, for the umpteenth time, the earnest but cringe-worthy (the movie has Fabian in it, for Christ’s sake) screen version of Cornelius Ryan’s “The Longest Day” (1962) and/or Stephen Spielberg’s technically impressive, but vastly overrated “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). Genuinely informative historical programs, it would seem, are just too difficult for our contemporary media content providers to come up with; so, with very few exceptions, they don’t.

Beny Sur Mer Canadian WWII Cemetery, Calvados, France.
Instead, in the age of “Twitter” and “Facebook”, the tendency of contemporary popular culture to elevate the banal while trivializing the important seems to be accelerating with every passing day. Given this societal trend, it probably should not be surprising that the average college junior can no longer place the American Civil War in the correct century, or identify the particular belligerent countries that made up the Axis and Allies during World War II. Nowadays, learning even the most basic facts about one’s own history, it would appear, is simply too hard. Call me a dour old curmudgeon, but this is depressing; it is also a damning indictment, both of the current American educational establishment, and of those elites who exert influence over American culture, as a whole.

St Manvieu British WWII Cemetery,
Cheux, Calvados, France.
In the case of D-Day, such ignorance is even more inexcusable because, in a very real sense, the outcome of the Allied invasion of northern France in the spring of 1944 largely shaped the outcome, not only of World War II, but of the trajectory of the rest of the 20th century and even the early portion of the 21st. Had the unthinkable happened and "Operation Overlord" failed, the Germans would undoubtedly still have lost the war, but a Western Europe occupied by the Red Army and dominated by Moscow would have presented post-war America and Britain with a very different, and much more serious threat than that which actually emerged in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat. For this reason, if for no other, the events of D-Day deserve to be revisited and understood because, to a large degree, they helped to shape the world in which we live today. Moreover, putting everything else aside, it is also a fascinating story.


German pillbox, Normandy, France WWII.
Sixty-eight years ago, people around the globe listened with hope, tinged with apprehension, to the first sketchy bulletins on the joint American, British, Canadian, Polish and French landings against the German-held beaches of northern France. The official announcement that the D-Day invasion had begun, for most ordinary Americans, came as a surprise; everyone knew that an Allied cross-Channel assault was immanent, but no one — outside of the senior Allied military planners at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) and the topmost military and political leaders that those planners served — knew exactly when or where the blow was actually slated to fall. In that sense, D-Day was, perhaps, the best-kept secret of World War II. However, once the landings had begun; the people at home, utterly helpless to influence events so far away, could only stoically settle down to await official word on the fates of fathers, sons, husbands and brothers. The news on 6 June, 1944, did make one thing very clear: the reports from France meant that yet another battle front was being added to that of Italy and the Pacific, and a new front could only mean more American casualties — a lot more.

SAC General Dwight D. Eisenhower,
Nonetheless, on D-Day, as word of the cross-Channel landings quickly spread, the mood of the nation was guardedly optimistic. In some ways, despite the global cataclysm that was the Second World War, the spring of 1944 was a simpler, less cynical time. Patriotism, religious faith, and the wide-spread belief in America’s wartime mission to destroy fascism were not yet the targets of supercilious ridicule on the part of some among the Nation’s media and academic elites that these “old fashioned” sentiments would become in later years. In fact, early on the day of the invasion and with the outcome of the Allied landings in Normandy still very much in doubt, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took to the airwaves to address his fellow citizens. His message was heartfelt, sober and simple: he urged every American listening to his voice to join him in a solemn prayer for the safety and ultimate victory of those of America’s sons who, locked in a desperate battle halfway around the world, were engaged in a just and even righteous crusade to liberate Europe from the murderous grip of Nazi domination.

Protestant service for American troops,
D-Day, Normandy landing.
Of course, those listening to the president’s words on 6 June, 1944, could not yet be sure of the outcome of the Normandy landings; however, they were, like their president, still confident about the final outcome of the war. Berlin might be a long way from the beaches of France, but the vast majority of Americans felt that the retribution that awaited the Third Reich's leaders in the German capitol was, ultimately, certain: at some point, the seat of Nazi power would fall to the steadily-advancing Allied armies.

Subsequent events, of course, showed that this confidence was not misplaced. The expansion of Allied air and ground offensive operations in the west, along with the constant hammer blows from the Red Army in the east, furnished constant and irrefutable proof that the brutal edifice of the German Führer’s “thousand year” Nazi empire was already teetering and ready to come crashing down. Nonetheless, in the spring of 1944, the defeat of the Third Reich and the end of the war still seemed a long way off; this was why, in the eyes of the Allied strategic planners, opening a new front against German forces in France was viewed as being essential. And, in June of 1944, the Allies were finally able to launch a massive, combined air-ground-naval assault against the forces that manned the formidable defenses of Hitler’s Festung Europa.

D-Day embarcation American troops, English street.
The Allied cross-Channel invasion, codenamed “Overlord,” had been a long time in preparation. Earlier seaborne assaults — first against North Africa, then Sicily, and finally, Italy — had all taught the Allied planners valuable lessons about the special requirements of complex, large-scale amphibious operations in the European theater, and the special factors that distinguished them from those conducted in the Pacific. Unlike the bloody struggles for Japan’s island strongholds, the battle to free Western Europe would pit an initially inferior landing force against an enemy that could not permanently be denied either reinforcements or supplies. And instead of a few square miles of volcanic ash or sandy coral, the Allied troops landing in France ultimately would have to fight for and capture thousands of square miles of enemy-held territory if they were to gain a decisive, war-ending victory against Hitler's armies in the west.

Omaha Beach American troops
disembark landing craft in the surf
D-Day June 6 1944 Normandy
To achieve this goal, a vast naval armada of over 5,000 ships had been assembled in England to convey the Allied invasion forces, over 150,000 strong, across the narrow strip of sea that separated the British Isles from the French coast. Originally, the operation had been scheduled to begin early on the morning of 5 June, 1944, but bad weather in the Channel had forced a one day delay. Now, the Allied supreme commander — American General Dwight David Eisenhower — on the strength of assurances from his chief meteorologist, Group Captain J.M. Stagg, had ordered the invasion to proceed. The overall field command of Overlord had been entrusted to British General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery and his 21st Army Group. Subordinated to Montgomery’s headquarters was the American First Army, under General Omar Bradley, and the British Second Army, commanded by General Miles “Lucky” Dempsey.

Gold Beach, King Red Sector, D-Day
The operational plan for Overlord called for the infantry of the first assault waves, plus amphibious (DD) tanks and teams of combat engineers to make five separate landings along a 50-mile stretch of the northern coast of the Normandy peninsula running roughly from the town of Varreville in the west, to the northern section of the Orne River in the east. Each of the assaulting groups was assigned its own beach landing zone. If the invasion went according to plan, the senior Allied commanders expected an early link-up between the different beachheads, followed by a rapid advance inland. But, given the fact that the operation had already been postponed once, this might be, they knew, a very big ‘if’. Luck could also play a role. And General Eisenhower and his staff back in England were well aware of the fact that, once the landings actually began, the success or failure of Overlord would really depend, more than anything else, on the courage, determination, and initiative of a handful of junior officers and platoon sergeants, and the ability of these commanders and the men they led to quickly push inland and to take the fight to the German defenders before they could recover from their surprise. This would be the most critical phase of the entire operation; the crucial, bloody first hours during which the fate of Overlord would be determined.

American soldiers, Utah Beach, D-Day.
Operationally-speaking, the outlines of the Allied invasion plan were relatively straightforward. Dempsey’s Second Army was given responsibility for the three invasion beaches on the Allied left. The first of these, and the easternmost landing site, “Sword Beach,” lay opposite Lion Sur Mer and just north of the mouth of the Orne River, and it was here that the British 3rd Division, with supporting elements, planned to wade ashore; to the west of Sword Beach, the Canadian 3rd Division would land at “Juno Beach” near the coastal town of Courseulles; the British 50th Division was slated to come ashore west of the Canadians and just to the east of Arromanches, at “Gold Beach.” Omar Bradley’s Americans were assigned to two widely-separated invasion zones on the Allied right: the 1st and 29th Divisions were slated to establish a lodgment on “Omaha Beach” — a landing site that placed the Americans more than five miles west of the nearest British troops on Gold Beach; and finally, at the westernmost end of the Allied D-Day objectives, the troops of the American 4th and 90th Divisions were slated to come ashore between the Carentan Estuary and Varreville, on “Utah Beach” — a location that not only offered no defensive protection for the landing zone’s western flank, but that also placed the invading Americans over ten miles from the 1st and 29th Divisions landing to the east.

Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower
meets with the Paratroopers before the D-Day air drop.
To increase the prospects for Overlord’s success, it was decided that the amphibious landings should be supported by a series of large-scale airborne operations. Three specially-trained Allied paratroop divisions — two American and one British — would be air dropped during the night immediately preceding the invasion landings. The important, but dangerous mission of these parachute units and the air-landing troops that followed them would be to seize key advanced positions and, at the same time, to also seal off the beach landing zones from German reinforcements during the critical first hours of the invasion. The actual mission objectives of the airborne forces had been a matter of dispute at SHAEF from the outset. Essentially, Allied planners considered two different mission profiles for the paratroops and their follow-on glider reinforcements. The first and safer plan was to drop the airborne troops close to the invasion beaches so that the lightly-armed paratroopers could disrupt German defenses in the immediate battle area, but where they would also be able to link up with advancing amphibious troops relatively quickly. The second, riskier plan was to drop the airborne units farther inland: this approach sought to achieve the more ambitious goals both of seizing militarily-important objectives, perhaps for several days, and of impeding enemy troop movements toward the early, still-shallow beachheads. The first option offered smaller operational benefits to the overall Overlord plan, but it also did not risk the annihilation of the bulk of the Allies’ elite airborne forces. The second option was potentially far more expensive in terms of potential Allied casualties: British Air Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, for example, estimated that, even if Overlord went off without a hitch, losses among the American and British paratroopers could easily exceed 50%; nonetheless, it also represented the best chance for the Allies to achieve an early breakout inland from the Normandy coast. In the end, the difficult decision, like a host of others associated with Overlord, had to be made by General Eisenhower, himself. And weighing the lives of his paratroopers against the ultimate success or failure of Overlord, the Allied Supreme Commander, using the harsh calculus of war, reluctantly chose to gamble on the riskier second option.

B-26 Maurader D-Day Over Normandy, France.
Along with their massive commitment of naval and ground forces, the Allies also concentrated theater air assets for a major effort in support of Overlord. At various stages prior to and during the D-Day campaign, combat sorties in direct support of the Normandy invasion were flown by the U.S. 8th and 9th Air Forces, the British 2nd Tactical Air Force, and British Bomber Command. As might be expected, air missions in advance of the D-Day landings mainly concentrated on destroying railroads and rolling stock in France with the aim of preventing the Germans from rapidly transferring men and materiel to the Normandy battle area once the Allied landings were actually underway. [This campaign, although successful in terms of interdicting French rail lines, turned out to be less effective than Allied planners hoped; the Germans rapidly adapted to the escalating air attacks by shifting a substantial portion of their military transport requirements to river barges, which were largely left untouched by the Allied airmen.] However, in the final hours leading up to the invasion, both the tempo and the types of air operations changed. On the night of 5 June, waves of Allied transport aircraft took off from English airfields carrying thousands of American and British paratroopers towards their designated drop zones in Occupied France. And beginning at 0300 hours, still well before the scheduled start of the June 6th landings, Allied air forces commenced a massive bombing offensive aimed at destroying German coastal defenses, and at disrupting enemy lines of supply and communication, particularly in those parts of the Normandy peninsula beyond the range of the invasion fleet’s naval guns. The crucially-important contribution made by this enormous (all told, over 430,000 sorties were flown in support of Overlord) and carefully-choreographed air campaign to the invasion’s ultimate success is indisputable. Unfortunately, this contribution would come at a high price: 10,000 American and British flyers would be killed in combat operations associated directly or indirectly with the Allied invasion, and another 20,000 Anglo-American airmen would end up wounded, captured, or missing during the same period. Clearly, the skies over the battlefield, like the beaches and bocage of the Normandy peninsula below, would be a perilous place for American and British airmen during the spring and summer of 1944.

Aerial view, American troops, Normandy Beachhead.
When it finally came on June 6th, the actual events of D-Day showed that much of the planning and preparation that had gone into Overlord had all been little more than prologue; and that everything that had happened prior to this single overcast morning had really been only a dress rehearsal for the life-or-death struggle that was now about to unfold. Thus it was that, at 0630 hours, the real drama finally began: at that precise moment, the hundreds of small, troop-laden “Higgins boats” that had taken on their human cargo earlier in the morning ceased circling in the deeper water near the transports and turned south towards the obstacle-littered beaches of German-occupied France. The “Great Crusade” to liberate the captive peoples of Western Europe, which by this stage in the war had come to be seen — not just by Roosevelt and Churchill, but by a great many others in the west, as well — as a starkly Manichean struggle of “good versus evil”, had finally begun.

German turret, Omaha Beach, June 1944.
A century ago, the Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke observed: “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.” So it was for the Allies on D-Day: in many cases, the troops floundering through the surf after exiting their landing craft found that the German beach defenses, despite heavy Allied air and naval bombardment, had largely been left intact; and on one beach, code named: Omaha, a battle-tested and completely unexpected German division lay in wait for the unsuspecting American invaders. In addition, choppy seas swamped most of the Allies’ amphibious tanks before they could even reach the shore; and, most importantly, an unplanned-for tidal current swept many of the Allied Higgins boats far afield of their assigned landing zones. It was a day full of surprises and contrasts: on some beaches, soldiers wading ashore met almost no organized resistance in their own landing zone while their compatriots, only a few hundred yards away, faced fierce German opposition; on Omaha Beach, the first waves of Americans to struggle ashore met a virtual wall of fire from a maze of largely-undamaged bunkers and trenches on the low-lying bluffs overlooking the beach. Ten thousand Allied troops would be killed, wounded, captured, or missing by the time D-Day became D+1; fully half of those casualties would occur at a single beach: “Bloody” Omaha. Nonetheless, in spite of determined and sometimes ferocious enemy resistance, the Allied soldiers pushed inland, clearing the German strong points, one-by-one, until the beachheads, although shallow, could be considered relatively secure. It had been a “near-run thing”, but, by the end of the day, the landings were a success; and the single best chance for the Wehrmacht to defeat Overlord had passed. Back in England, the head of SHAEF, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, took out one of the two “invasion bulletins” that he had prepared in advance of the D-Day landings: one was an announcement that the invasion, because of the determination and valor of the Allied soldiers who had landed on the beaches, had been a success; the other was an announcement that the landings had failed, and that he, as supreme commander, took full personal responsibility for that failure. A thankful General Eisenhower, once he was completely satisfied that the Allied lodgments at Normandy were all safely-established, ordered the release of the first “success” announcement; interestingly, however, the profoundly relieved American general put aside the second bulletin to save as a personal reminder of what might have been.


British Royal Marines land in Normandy, June 6, 1944.
When students of military history are queried as to their personal picks of the most important battles in history, a certain collection of names will tend to show up again and again; among them: Thermopylae/Salamis, Actium, Poitiers, Constantinople, Lepanto, Saratoga, Waterloo, Gettysburg, Sedan (1940), Midway, and Stalingrad. Each of these military engagements is certainly important; and because of their outcomes, each of them undoubtedly affected the course of subsequent events in significant ways. However, in terms of its far-reaching historical and geopolitical consequences, I would argue that D-Day, although it is often left off of this list, is probably the most important battle of them all. And while the reaction — at least in some circles — to this declaration will undoubtedly be skepticism, I stand behind it. In fact, so far as I am concerned, the reasons for D-Day’s historical preeminence — although somewhat dystopian — are, nonetheless, actually numerous and compelling. That being said, here are just a few of them:

Rommel inspecting the defenses, Normandy, 1944.
First, an Allied defeat at Normandy, almost without doubt, would have prolonged the war for another year, perhaps longer; it would also have permitted the OKH (Oberkommando des Herres) to shift badly-needed reinforcements from the west to shore up the Germans’ battered and over-stretched forces facing the Russians in the east. Also, a victory for Hitler’s troops at Normandy would, almost certainly, have immeasurably increased the suffering of the civilian populations who were still prisoners in Nazi-controlled territory by delaying their liberation. Moreover, if Overlord had turned into a complete debacle, its political and military repercussions could well have been profound both in Britain and in the US. For starters, because of growing war-weariness in England, Winston Churchill’s government might well have fallen as a result of a major military disaster at Normandy (due, for example, to a “no confidence” vote); and with Churchill out of power, a new, less resolute prime minister and cabinet — in short, a government that was more open to a negotiated peace with Germany — could very well have taken its place. The US political scene, although farther from the beaches of France than England, could also have been jolted by bad news from Europe. For instance, heavy American losses at Normandy — particularly if they appeared pointless — might well have rekindled long-simmering isolationist sentiment in the US; particularly since President Roosevelt was already in failing health in the spring of 1944 and, for this reason if for no other, would probably not have been able to personally mount a spirited defense of his ironclad “unconditional surrender” policy vis-à-vis the Axis. As to the defeated battlefield commanders, whatever lessons the newly-chastened senior American and British generals might have drawn from a bloody failure on the beaches of France would almost certainly have been detrimental to future Allied prospects. Would the idea, for example, of another cross-Channel invasion of Europe have been viewed any longer as being advisable, or even practicable? Also, if the American and British troopers who had parachuted into France had all been killed or captured, then what plans, if any, would there likely have been for additional Allied airborne operations in the future?

Parisians line the Champs Élysées as the
French 2nd Armored Division tanks and half-tracks
pass before the Arc de Triomphe on 26 August, 1944.
Second, it is important to remember that the success of the Allied Normandy landings virtually guaranteed that, because the western Allies were securely established on the Continent, France and the Low Countries, as well as the western part of Germany would not fall to the Soviets before another Allied invasion attempt could be mounted. An Allied defeat, on the other hand, would have gone a long way towards guaranteeing just the opposite. Needless-to-say, had these captive countries not been liberated by the western Allies then there would probably have been few, if any, pro-western democracies in Europe at the conclusion of World War II. This would also have meant that, not only would a large share of the peoples of Europe have ended up exchanging one master for another, but Soviet hegemony over most of Western Europe would also have virtually ensured that there would have been no NATO as a military counterweight to a larger, and more poweful Soviet bloc.

Crowd of Dutch civilians celebrating the liberation
of Utrecht by the Canadian Army, May 7, 1945.
Third, if Overlord had failed, it is very doubtful that a triumphalist Soviet Union under Stalin — without the political and military pressure of powerful American and British forces in Western Europe — would have felt compelled to abandon control of Persia at the end of the war. And, if it had not, what would a significant post-war Soviet military presence in the Middle East have meant in terms of the future of the world’s energy supplies? Would an exhausted and bankrupt England, even one that was bolstered by the promise of American assistance, really have been willing to fight the Russians or their proxies over control of Iraq or the Arabian Peninsula? Would Great Britain even have been willing to fight to retain control of its lifeline to the Far East, the Suez Canal? Maybe it would have been; but maybe not.

Soviet troops in Berlin, WWII, 1945.
Fourth, it is interesting (if a little unsettling) to reflect on what the Soviet occupation of most of Western Europe would have meant to the post-war balance of power, if — as would have been highly likely — the Red Army had been able to capture all of the key scientific and technical personnel involved in Germany’s rocket, and other “advanced weapons” projects at the end of the war. Certainly, both the US and Britain had scientists working in similar areas, but would a near monopoly on German weapons experts have pushed Russian research so far ahead of other nations as to give the Soviet Union an uncatchable lead when it came ballistic missile, jet engine, or “stealth” technology?

Leaders of the victorious Allies meet
in Potsdam after the end of World War II.

Fifth, there is the issue of the timing of the Allied victory at Normandy. Overlord came just a little more than a year before the dawn of the “Nuclear Age”: the US succeeded in creating and using a deliverable atomic bomb in 1945. The inescapable question is, had the Normandy landings failed in 1944, would the US president have opted to use America’s small arsenal of atomic bombs against Germany instead of Japan; or what about against a belligerent Russia? And, had atomic bombs actually been dropped on one or more German cities, what would America’s use of nuclear weapons in Europe have meant for the post-war relations between a Soviet-occupied Germany and the US?

First atomic bomb test, near
Alamogordo, New Mexico, July 16, 1945. 
Photo courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Finally, the post-war Soviet Union was not far behind the US in the development of its own nuclear weapons; in fact, Russian scientists successfully tested their first atomic device in August of 1949. Given this fact, it does not take much imagination to see that the chances of a nuclear war between east and west (whether purposeful or accidental) would have been much greater had the Soviet empire, instead of holding sway over its historical Cold War territories, stretched all the way from the Pyrenees (and the English Channel) to the Sea of Japan. As things actually turned out, suspicion and hostility fomented by constant geopolitical friction between the Soviet bloc and America and its allies produced a whole series of direct and/or proxy clashes of varying intensities during the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties (China, Korea, Cuba, the Eastern European uprisings, Vietnam, Central and South America, Africa, and the Middle East); and at least a few of these conflicts — had political or military circumstances been different — could well have erupted into a full-scale war between east and west.

Seen with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, the victory at Normandy was not — like previous amphibious operations such as Torch, Husky, or Avalanche — simply one more Allied success on the long, bloody road to Berlin, but a crucial, even essential, turning point in the war in the west. By the spring of 1944, it had become clear to almost everyone on both sides of the conflict — except, perhaps, Adolph Hitler — that, barring something bordering on a military miracle, Germany’s defeat was inevitable. The new German “wonder weapons”, terrible and destructive as they were, had come too late, and Allied bombing missions — while they may have been largely unsuccessful in destroying Germany’s war production — were, nonetheless, quite effective in devastating Germany’s cities, and the civilians who lived in them. Thus, the only real question that remained to be resolved, and the one that was decisively answered on 6 June 1944, was the actual timing of that defeat. Because the D-Day invasion was an Allied success, albeit an imperfect one, World War II would end in 1945 rather than in 1946, and Western Europe would be liberated by the citizen-soldiers of the western democracies and not by the Red Army. Hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians would, because the conflict ended when it did, survive to begin the laborious process of rebuilding in a post-war world; moreover, the western Allies, as a result of their bloody but victorious campaigns in 1944-45, would demonstrate to Stalin and his advisors in the Kremlin that Russia’s western allies both controlled and were willing to use a powerful military force that was clearly a formidable match for the Red Army. The uneasy partnership between the Soviet Union and the west would not long survive the end of World War II, but the “Cold War” that soon followed it would, because of the events set in motion on D-Day, never escalate into an apocalyptic nuclear clash between east and west. And, in the end, that fact, more than any other, demonstrates the historical significance of the Allied success at Normandy sixty-eight years ago.

Blog Posts about Related Wargames

SPI, COBRA (1977)
SPI, NORMANDY, 2nd Ed. (1971)
CGC, OVERLORD, 2nd Ed. (1977)

Recommended Reference

This book is a handy guide of maps for the Normandy landing beaches.

Recommended Reading

THE WEST POINT ATLAS OF AMERICAN WARS (Complete 2-Volume Set); edited by Brigadier General Vincent J. Esposito; Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. (1959); ASIN: B000MTBTEU
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Today’s Memorial Day essay is, with only a few minor changes, a repeat of an earlier post that I first published on "Map and Counters" in 2009. I keep bringing it back each year because it conveys, at least insofar as my meager gifts allow, the essence of my thinking on the topic of Memorial Day; moreover, although I do occassionally revisit this topic, I have thus far found nothing in its core message that I would change. At the time I first wrote this essay, I had only recently experienced something of a personal epiphany: one that had imbued me with a powerful urge to honor those who, for one reason or another, are all too often passed over by their countrymen in favor either of better-known military leaders or more famous heroes. Nothing that has happened since I first wrote this post has done anything to change my mind. On the contrary, as time has gone by, I have become more and more convinced that Memorial Day shouldn’t mainly be about celebrating those who are or were famous, whether gallant heroes or successful generals — their memories will almost always be preserved somewhere, if only in a fading copy of an old history book; instead, I believe that what this day should really be about is honoring the countless ordinary men and women who — although largely uncommemorated except by cemetery headstones — have served in our armed forces over the centuries and who, when duty required it, willingly relinquished the most precious thing that they possessed: their own lives. Thus, just as it has done in years past, this Memorial Day essay honors (however modestly) two U.S. Marines who fell as a result of enemy action a long time ago in Vietnam; just as importantly, however, it is also a salute to all of those who, through the ages, have made the supreme sacrifice in the service of their country: from the first violent birth pangs of the new American Republic, to the faraway battlefields of the present day. May their sacrifices never be forgotten.

Vietnam War Memorial Wall, Washington, D.C.
In Memory of Marine Cpl. Javier Figueroa, killed in action 1/28/68 in Quang Tri Province, Republic of South Vietnam

In Memory of Marine LCpl. Clement Johnston, Jr., killed in action 4/28/66 in Quang Ngai Province, Republic of South Vietnam

When we honor the memory of those who have, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, already “given the last full measure of their devotion,” let us also take a moment to think about all of those men and women who serve overseas as a bulwark against the medieval fanatics that — in spite of the fact that their original leaders are now mainly dead or in captivity — still plot attacks against the American homeland from half a world away.

A Few Additional Thoughts on This, the First “Summer” Holiday of the Year

Today is “Memorial” Day. It is supposed to be a day of remembrance. And I like to think that there was a time, not that long ago, when most ordinary Americans understood and honored this day and its original purpose. Now, for many, if not the majority of my fellow citizens, I fear that Memorial Day has become little more than an excuse for a three-day holiday weekend, or a backyard barbeque, or even for a “blow-out” electronics sale. I hate to admit it, but I understand how this change could happen: memories are fragile things, and they fade far too quickly. I was unexpectedly reminded of this sad truth, myself, only a few years ago.

During the first week of April a little over three years ago, my wife talked me into visiting the touring reproduction of the Vietnam War Memorial: The "Wall". She, herself, had already visited the real monument in Washington, DC, but she knew that — despite the fact that I had served two and a half years in Vietnam — I had not; so she thought that it might be nice for us to finally visit the touring “Wall” display together. I agreed to make the trip, but under protest: I have to admit that I have always had mixed feelings about “war” memorials. Unlike a military cemetery or the site of a former battlefield — I still get a lump in my throat when I see pictures of Arlington or of one of the American cemeteries at Normandy or Lorraine, in France — most of these types of monuments have always struck me as being more like “guilty” afterthoughts than anything else. Too often the statues or marble structures that are erected, usually long after the events that they commemorate, actually seem to say more about their well-intentioned builders than they do about those being memorialized. Nonetheless, because I still value my wife’s good opinion of me, I finally agreed to make the trip; so, on a sunny, windy Saturday morning in 2009, the two of us drove all the way out to Buckeye, Arizona, to pay a visit to the touring facsimile of the “Wall”.

U.S. WWII Cemetery, Normandy, France.
I don’t know what I expected. But I can honestly say that no sudden, intense wave of emotion washed over me when I saw the reproduction of the monument. Nor do I think that my reaction would have been any different, had I been looking upon the real thing for the first time. I had served in Vietnam from February 1966 to August of 1968, so over four decades separated the “old man” in Buckeye from the young soldier that had gone to Southeast Asia so many years before. Also, I was never a grunt. I spent most of my time in Vietnam either helping to intercept and analyze, or, alternatively, to process intelligence gathered from enemy communications. In the course of my time in the Republic of Vietnam, my various jobs took me all over that war-ravaged country, but only rarely did I have to carry a loaded weapon or do any hard slogging. In short, all things considered, I had it pretty good. Of course, that was then, and this is now. The first truly disconcerting fact that I discovered as I walked along the "Vietnam Wall" that day was that the young soldier of my dim past — in spite of a cloud of memories from my war years — could almost have been someone else. But, unexpected as that sensation was, it really wasn’t the most disturbing thing about my visit to Buckeye that day.

Arlington National Cemetery
As I walked along with my wife of over thirty years beside me, I found myself scanning the “Wall.” Finally, when I reached the area of the monument that covered the period of my own service — for those who have not seen it, the names on the Wall are organized by date — I was stunned to discover that my mind had gone almost completely blank. In spite of having spent some thirty months in Southeast Asia, I suddenly discovered that, somewhere in the course of the march of the intervening years, I had forgotten many, if not most, of my old comrades’ names. In a lot of cases, if I could remember a name, I couldn’t match it with a face, or vice versa. This effect was particularly pronounced when it came to the soldiers and marines that I had served with in I Corps (Quang Tri Province) near the DMZ, during my first year in Vietnam. But it spilled over into other situations and locations, as well.

U.S. WWII Cemetery, Lorraine, Normandy, France.
The young men that I had had the odd beer with, or played poker with, or had met on R&R in Bangkok, Malaysia, or Taiwan had all, to varying degrees, disappeared into the mists of a half-remembered, almost dream-like past. These men had just been regular Americans; not really so much friends, as the typical GIs that you bump into and get to know when you’re in a place long enough. This wasn’t, by the way, to say that I had forgotten everyone, but only that I had forgotten far too many that I had every reason to remember. The most troubling thing of all, however, was that I had somehow forgotten the names or the faces of those I knew who had been killed. Now, it is important to note that — in the time I served in Vietnam — none of my closest friends had been killed or even seriously wounded. Others that I knew, however, had not been so lucky, and as I walked along the facsimile of the “Wall”, I couldn’t help feeling that these others deserved better. And not just from me, but from the rest of their countrymen, as well. I couldn’t shake the guilty feeling that, somehow and without meaning to, I had let these young men down. And this idea brings me, finally, to the dedication at the beginning of this piece.

Gettysburg National Cemetery, Pennsylvania
If I had not really had a purpose (other than pleasing my wife) when I first set out to visit the "Wall", one slowly took shape in my mind as I and the other visitors slowly walked beside those seemingly countless rows of names. It gradually dawned on me that day in Buckeye that it was time for me, personally, to reach back into the past and to retrieve at least a few of the memories that I had somehow allowed to slip away. Four decades was a long time and much had happened; but it was also, I reminded myself, nothing compared to eternity.

In the end, I and the wonderful, helpful people who volunteer with the monument tour all tried our best to identify at least a couple of individuals from a number of young men that I had known who had been killed in various operations from “Davy Crockett” to the “Tet” Offensive. Guilt is a powerful rebuke, and it had suddenly become strangely important to me that I at least make a serious effort to do this. Thus, melancholy though my and my helpers' task may, looking back, now appear to an outsider, it nonetheless imbued my spur-of-the-moment project and its outcome with an emotional intensity that I have rarely felt before or since. And, more importantly, my and the "Wall" volunteers' labors were not completely fruitless.

The two young marines memorialized at the start of this essay — one forever 18 and the other 22, who died so many years ago in Vietnam — may or may not be the men I knew when I was a young soldier, I will never be truly sure. But what I do know is that even if they are not, they still deserve to be honored on Memorial Day by someone, and I am proud for that someone to be me. It took a long time for me, personally, but having finally visited the “Wall,” I also now know something else: I realize, at last, that if we who served with those whose names are inscribed on that gleaming black marble do not make the conscious (and sometimes painful) effort to remember those who fell in Vietnam so long ago, then who among us will?

May you, my readers, and those you care about, all have an enjoyable and safe Memorial Day holiday. And may those who wear our country’s uniform and who daily go into harm’s way, in dangerous, far-off places, also have a safe Memorial Day!
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It doesn't seem possible, but John Kranz and company's 2012 Consimworld Expo/Monstergame.Con XII will begin only one short month from today. On June 25th, gamers from all over the world will again congregate at the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel in (very) sunny Tempe, Arizona, for an action-packed week (25 June to 1 July, 2012) of both organized and "open" gaming, playtest sessions, designer seminars, new game launches, and other hobby-related special events. In short, Expo 2012 promises to be a great opportunity, as it has in years past, for both new gamers and old to gather together in a celebration of the hobby of wargaming.

Speaking for myself, I am happy to report that this year's convention will be very different from last year's. In 2011, a combination of poor health and transportation problems limited my convention participation to that mainly of a "neutral" observer; in contrast, this year, I fully expect to be busy playing games and blogging at the Tempe Mission Palms from the first day of the Consimworld Expo to the last.

For those readers who continue to "sit on the fence", there is still plenty of time to make arrangements to attend this year's Expo; and for those of my readers who are planning to make the trek to Tempe this June, I invite you to look me up when you get to the convention site. Who knows, if your gaming interests include the Avalon Hill and SPI classics, we may even find the time to play a game or two.

To find out more about CSW Expo 2012/MonsterGame.Con XII, or to register online for this year’s convention, visit the website: http://expo.consimworld.com/
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