Combat Training with Antal and Schmitt

by James Sterrett

Article Type: Book Review
Article Date: January 31, 2002

Whether you are a ground combat simulation fan or a student of tactics, you should read these books. Each author's approach has its weaknesses, but combined they are very useful.

By Lieutenant Colonel John F. Antal, US Army

Antal's Interactive Series

  • Combat Team: The Captainís War: An Interactive Exercise in Company Level Command in Battle
    (Presidio, 1991, 0-89141-383-9)

  • Infantry Combat: The Rifle Platoon: An Interactive Exercise in Small-Unit Tactics and Leadership
    (Presidio, 1995, 0-89141-536-X)

  • Armor Attacks: The Tank Platoon: An Interactive Exercise in Small-Unit Tactics and Leadership
    (Presidio, 1998, 0-89141-635-8)

By Major John F. Schmitt, USMC (ret)

  • Mastering Tactics: A Tactical Decision Games Workbook
    (Marine Corps Association, 1994, 0-940328-14-3)

Why Review Four Books Together?

Weíre reviewing all of these together because the comparison between them is instructive. All four books are well worth your money, as Antalís and Schmittís approaches each have weaknesses the other method covers. Both Antal and Schmitt have significant feathers in their caps as officers: Antal has served as a tank battalion commander and as the XO of an OPFOR battalion at the National Training Center, while Schmitt did an excellent job writing the Marine Corpsí current keystone doctrine manual, FMFM-1: Warfighting.

Their approaches to writing a training book are very different, however. Antalís books are easier to use but ultimately more restrictive, while Schmittís book is harder to use, but offers more long-term learning potential.

What Are Antalís Interactive Exercises?

Each of Antal's three books put the reader in command of the titled unit over the course of two major actions. These are paragraph-driven adventure books, the kind where you read a section of text which ends in a decision you have to make. A sample chosen at random (this is the tail end of three pages of text in Armor Attacks):
ďThe enemy column was closing the distance quickly. Time was slipping away. The artillery continued to hammer down on Jaegerís position. Jaeger had to decide now!Ē

If Jaeger decides to withdraw to live to fight another day, go to Section 20.

If Jaeger decides to stay and take on a Threat tank company with two M1 tanks, go to Section 21.Ē
Thus, playing Antalís books is akin to reading a novel where you periodically decide where the story goes next. In the process, Antal walks the player through the planning and execution of combat missions.

Antal isnít the world greatest writer, but the text gets the job done of conveying the situation and giving you a sense of the stress of the moment. Maps are periodically provided to illustrate the situation and appendices at the back cover matters such as the specifications of your own and enemy weapons, tables of organization, planning procedures, a glossary, and charts on which you can record the paragraphs used in a given reading of the book, so you can more easily retrace your steps.

In truth, in addition to decision points, these books also sometimes include instructions to roll a die and find out if you live, but most if not all players will wind up scanning the sections ahead to find out which one lets them continue. It would be extremely tedious to work your way back to the same point in the book only to roll the dice again—so why bother?

These points mostly serve to highlight the tension: Antal has reminded you that itís a place where you could easily wind up dead through no fault of your own. More often, the player is at fault for a dismal end, having made the wrong decision some time before, and you must go back and reconsider your decisions in order to find the path to victory. Antal will usually, though not always, give you some tips on what you may have done wrong when you reach the point of having lost.

A sample two pages from Combat Team

What is Mastering Tactics?

John Schmittís Mastering Tactics is a somewhat different beast. Like Antalís books, it puts the reader/player in the position of making decisions in realistic military situations, but the format is very different. The fifteen scenarios in Mastering Tactics are in the form of Tactical Decision Games (TDGs) such as appear in every issue of "Marine Corps Gazette".

Each presents the player with a map, a briefing, and a time limit to draft a plan. After coming up with a plan, the player proceeds to the second half of the book, which contains extensive and incisive discussions of each scenario. All this is supported by two articles on decision-making plus a series of appendices that contain weapon and unit information, a glossary, and map symbology quiz.

That may sound a little odd as a solo exercise—and it is. If you read through the book on your own, you will learn a fair amount, simply because the articles and scenario discussions are excellent. The best way to use the book, however, is to gather a group of like-minded friends and go through it as a group. Present a scenario and give everybody five minutes to come up with a plan. Then go around the group, presenting plans and engaging in constructive criticism of them. Somewhere in this process, read the discussion of the scenario in the back of the book and discuss that too.

Given a good group, this is an extraordinarily educational process. I had the privilege of attending a 90-minute seminar run in this manner by Schmitt, and I learned more about tactics in that time than in any other 90 minute period before or since—not least by volunteering to have a number of my plans very instructively ripped to shreds.

A sample scenario. Note that these were originally on two facing pages but have been moved about to fit a screen width better

How Do They Compare?

As mentioned at the outset, both approaches have their merits. Both also have their faults. Schmittís is obvious: Mastering Tactics works best with a group thatís ready to take the process seriously and endure criticism of their cherished plans, and its use is limited without such a group. Antalís books, by contrast, work best solo. Antalís books, however, are also more limited in the long term. By their very nature, they have only one set of outcomes for a given decision. Moreover, you cannot make decisions not expected by John Antal, and you effectively cannot disagree with Antal about the best course of action.

By contrast, plans in Mastering Tactics are not only not provided, you are expected to come up with them on your own. Antalís books reflect US Army doctrine, and if you know it, the doctrinal answer is the correct one. This serves to teach and reinforce doctrine, but does so at the expense of the greater freedom of Schmittís TDGs. It is true that Schmittís commentary is grounded in USMC doctrine, but it is also grounded in the assumption that for any combat situation, there is more than one correct solution.

Thus, which one will work best for you depends on your situation. None of these books are a bad choice, and your best choice in the long term is to get them all. While each has its drawbacks, each also has its own benefits to offer, and the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. The rigidity of Antalís bookís structure means there may not be much replay value in them, but the first time through is instructive and immersive. The freedom of Schmittís approach requires greater discipline but offers endless replay for long-term reward. Whether you are a student of tactics or a dedicated player of ground-warfare sims such as Operation Flashpoint or Steel Beasts, these books belong in your library.

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