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Subject: Reading the original Fire in the Lake rss

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Jeff Gringer
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Just finished reading Frances Fitzgerald's Fire in the Lake, motivated in large part by the new COIN game.



There is much to recommend this book to fans of the COIN series. She does an excellent job of stepping away from the all-too-common focus on the Vietnam war through an American-centric prism. I felt the best passages covered the gradual degradation of Vietnamese culture under the French colonial period, accelerated by the snowballing US involvement. Also she provides a very interesting description of the NLF (Viet Cong), and how they tackled this problem to develop their opposition to the South Vietnamese government, and the US allies. The depiction of the dysfunctional Diem regime, followed by the chaos of military coups is also very strong.

Others would surely note that this work is very much a product of the time it was written in (copyright 1972, so I assume she finished it by the end of 1971, before the Easter Offensive). There is often a raw edge to her narrative, and anger at the destruction wrought by the US forces. While she seemed to have some NLF sources, she obviously did not have the advantage being able to dispassionately draw on the perspectives of all sides after the war was over. She is essentially a journalist, and not a historian. I felt that at times she was too quick to tar the US soldiers as brutes, as was done by the Winter Soldiers. The US military certainly made it's share of mistakes, especially at the top by neglecting to consider the danger in alienating Vietnamese support for the GVN, but I can't buy into all her criticism. For instance she views the Phoenix program as yet another failed pacification gimmick, with the focus on quantitative metrics encouraging false arrests. Again, with the advantage of historic perspective, we know that this was the program that scared the NLF the most, so it was obviously more effective than portrayed, drawing on a couple newspaper reports.

I only regret that I couldn't look at a copy of her updated afterward contained in the 2002 edition (I have the Vintage paperback from 1972). I'd love to learn how her perspective evolved.

I'll also add that thinking about the book and its COIN namesake, it seems to me that one additional element that could have been included was driving population out of the countryside into the cities as refugees. That could involve pop -1/+1 markers. For that to work in COIN, you'd need to add terror counters along with the refugees; and as they move into the cities, it would need to drive down the overall support in these spaces. Additionally it would limit the ARVN economic baseline (nobody growing rice), and you could maybe show this with the sliding resource costs as in Cuba Libre. I don't know whether Mark and Volko considered this sort of mechanic. I think it could add an intriguing additional dynamic, but it would require serious alteration in the COIN mechanics. I think the game is great as is, and this might have excessively complicated the design.

The mark of any good book is that it makes you think, and Ms. Fitzgerald succeeds in that.
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Tucker Taylor
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Thanks for this! I just stumbled across a copy of this myself, last night in a used bookstore, and picked it up more or less on spec based on the title. Good to hear I didn't waste my $3.
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Oerjan Ariander
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Dunno if Mark and Volko considered the issue of Internally Displaced Persons (to use the official term for refugees who stay in the same country) for Fire in the Lake, but I've been looking at it for another project with a similar refugee flow. (ADP also deals with refugees/IDPs, though in that game they have already fled an are only represented when they're resettled somewhere in Afghanistan.)

I've run into a bunch of problems with implementing the concept:

* Population scale. With the current scale, removing 1 Population point from an 1-Population space is a pretty huge change. Not only because each marker would represent a lot of people (each Population point in FL represents roughly half a million people), but because of the effects on scoring: if the rural population flees to the cities, then in the game the VC and NVA lose their most accessible VPs while the US and ARVN get their VP sources concentrated to fewer, easier-to-defend spaces.

* How to make it happen in the game. Do you make it entirely automatic, or tie it to some sort of player actions? If it is tied to player actions, those players that gain the most from it would do their best to make it happen, while those who don't will try to prevent it. If the factions historically didn't moderate their behaviour to reduce the number of IDPs their actions created, a mechanic that makes them moderate their behaviour in the game probably isn't appropriate. (I have no idea if anyone did that in Vietnam; in the other case I've been looking at they didn't seem to care at all.)

* How to keep the game mechanic simple. Adding lots of extra counters increases the clutter on the game board even further, and quite possibly makes the VP calculations and similar more cumbersome. Then there's the mechanics that determine when and where the IDPs move, and so on...

* Cost of components. Adding an extra sheet of counters to the game makes the game more expensive to produce, as does simply changing the number of each particular size/shape of counter on the sheet. I doubt it is a coincidence that CL, ADP and FL all have exactly the same mix if counter sizes - 60 large squares with rounded corners, 72 small squares, 6 round and 2 rectangular ones... even though neither ADP nor CL uses all of them!

All in all, not trivial to represent

/Oerjan
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Jeff Gringer
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Wow, thanks for the instant analysis, Oerjan. I could see that it would not be an easy implementation, and if something like this was contemplated, it was discarded as too unwieldy.

I could see it prompted by heavy airstrikes, as well as sweeps, bombardments, and assaults. Perhaps triggered by the magnitude of casualties, say over two pieces (the bigger, more ferocious battles would scare people more). Perhaps with a simple die roll it losses exceed 2, (say a 1 in 6 chance).

The crazy thing was that the US military saw refugees as a plus, since it moved the needle on their metric: the percentage of population under government control. Granted, in game terms they would be under nominal government control (pushing up the ARVN VP total), in the book they seemed to dilute, if not detract from GVN control, representing a listless mass drawing on whatever aid was available. Not exactly supporters...

Consequently I think for something like this, you'd need to have some negative consequences, like ever pop over the city's rated capacity, the 15R economic recharge upon a coup card goes down one, since the rural economy deteriorates, and the country needs to import more food.

Probably not practical for FitL, but an interesting concept to consider.
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Volko Ruhnke
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Mark and I do include this effect -- rural population squeezed between harsh VC and corrupt regime officials -- in a much more minor way in Event card 105 "Rural Pressure". In A Distant Plain, Brian and I with the Returnees markers that add population points had in mind the movement of millions from outside the country back into Afghanistan. In Fire in the Lake, each Pop point is a half-million Vietnamese. I don't know know how many moved from countryside to city during the conflict, but I could see that it would be enough to change the demographic terrain in game terms as you describe. Home brew variants welcome!

Btw, it may interest you that I first read that book while on a State Dept internship long ago...

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Jeff Gringer
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Volko wrote:
Btw, it may interest you that I first read that book while on a State Dept internship long ago...

That's cool. Were you doing research as an intern? My experience is that it's always hard to come up with something for the interns to do, and that's an idea that could pay dividends down the road.
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Volko Ruhnke
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Nope. I picked up the book motivated by playing Nick Karp's Vietnam 1965-1975, spent lunch hours reading it.

The internship was in IT -- just a way for an eager student to see the inside of Main State.

vfr
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Mark Herman
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Volko wrote:
Mark and I do include this effect -- rural population squeezed between harsh VC and corrupt regime officials -- in a much more minor way in Event card 105 "Rural Pressure". In A Distant Plain, Brian and I with the Returnees markers that add population points had in mind the movement of millions from outside the country back into Afghanistan. In Fire in the Lake, each Pop point is a half-million Vietnamese. I don't know know how many moved from countryside to city during the conflict, but I could see that it would be enough to change the demographic terrain in game terms as you describe. Home brew variants welcome!

Btw, it may interest you that I first read that book while on a State Dept internship long ago...

vfr


In the aggregate I would say that 2-3 pop points moved around during the war and most of them went to Saigon, perhaps 2 of the 3 with the last one to Da Nang. Basically people moved for security and where the work was as the ability to farm in some areas became dangerous.
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Mark Herman
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Volko wrote:
Nope. I picked up the book motivated by playing Nick Karp's Vietnam 1965-1975, spent lunch hours reading it.

The internship was in IT -- just a way for an eager student to see the inside of Main State.

vfr


I got my copy soon after the paperback version was released. I got it used for $3 in September of 1973.



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p fong
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The book is a penetrating insight into why the American efforts in Vietnam did not succeed. It's a detailed examination of why military power alone was not a decisive factor in this war. It seems to me that this book offers valuable lessons for subsequent COIN operations such as Afghanistan.

I've read the 2009 edition of the book. The author did not revise the 1972 edition of book. She added a coda to describe her thoughts on visiting Vietnam long after the war was over.
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Jeff Gringer
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pfong wrote:
The book is a penetrating insight into why the American efforts in Vietnam did not succeed. It's a detailed examination of why military power alone was not a decisive factor in this war. It seems to me that this book offers valuable lessons for subsequent COIN operations such as Afghanistan.

I've read the 2009 edition of the book. The author did not revise the 1972 edition of book. She added a coda to describe her thoughts on visiting Vietnam long after the war was over.

I agree that she does lay out some good reasons for the failure of the US involvement in Vietnam, particularly the oblivious regard to Vietnamese government, society, and culture. Since this book was written, there are a number of other good accounts that address US failings. I'm personally a fan of A Bright and Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan. Another strong treatment, more at the policy-making level, is The Army and Vietnam by Andrew Krepinevich.
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Mark Herman
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GringerJD wrote:
pfong wrote:
The book is a penetrating insight into why the American efforts in Vietnam did not succeed. It's a detailed examination of why military power alone was not a decisive factor in this war. It seems to me that this book offers valuable lessons for subsequent COIN operations such as Afghanistan.

I've read the 2009 edition of the book. The author did not revise the 1972 edition of book. She added a coda to describe her thoughts on visiting Vietnam long after the war was over.

I agree that she does lay out some good reasons for the failure of the US involvement in Vietnam, particularly the oblivious regard to Vietnamese government, society, and culture. Since this book was written, there are a number of other good accounts that address US failings. I'm personally a fan of A Bright and Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan. Another strong treatment, more at the policy-making level, is The Army and Vietnam by Andrew Krepinevich.


Both were sources for the game plus I have spoken to Krepinevich many times on this topic over the 25 years that I have known him.
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Volko Ruhnke
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MarkHerman wrote:
Volko wrote:
Nope. I picked up the book motivated by playing Nick Karp's Vietnam 1965-1975, spent lunch hours reading it.

The internship was in IT -- just a way for an eager student to see the inside of Main State.

vfr


I got my copy soon after the paperback version was released. I got it used for $3 in September of 1973.




Mine is the same August 1973 paperback edition! (No idea where I got it or for how much....)
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Jeff Gringer
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Volko wrote:
MarkHerman wrote:
Volko wrote:
Nope. I picked up the book motivated by playing Nick Karp's Vietnam 1965-1975, spent lunch hours reading it.

The internship was in IT -- just a way for an eager student to see the inside of Main State.

vfr


I got my copy soon after the paperback version was released. I got it used for $3 in September of 1973.




Mine is the same August 1973 paperback edition! (No idea where I got it or for how much....)

Mine too. I got it for a buck on Alibris.
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