Archive for September, 2009

Highway Thoughts

I caught about ten minutes of FOX News while I was eating at a Wendy’s in central Pennsylvania. The big news they were covering was the fact that Iran was testing a missle with a 1200 mile range, which would only be mildly interesting to me if I lived within 1200 miles of Iran. Nevertheless, they brought out a shill from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies who dutifully informed the anchors of what a grave and terrible threat Iran poses.

Then they cut away to talk about Bank of America distancing itself from ACORN and wondered aloud if this spells the beginning of the end for that organization. Personally I don’t read much into it. Bank of America is probably just preoccupied with making sure they’re charging their debit cardholders the full $350 of overdraft fees per day that BofA is legally entitled to. Still, FOX seems to think it’s bad news for ACORN that America’s biggest legal loan-shark is severing ties.

The final story they covered was the terrifying statistic that only 1/4 of all terrorism suspects are ever brought to trial. The anchors sounded pretty frightened of the thought that 75% of all terrorists are just going free, but their legal expert was on hand to assuage their fears. In his two minute segment, he said the figure was actually just a testament to what a great job our law enforcement and intelligence agencies are doing. He liked the way that sounded, so he repeated it about five more times until we got the right associations: law enforcement, intelligence agencies, great job.

It’s terrifying to think that people watch that network and think they’re getting the news. Someone from the Foudation for Defense of Democracies is treated as an unbiased expert, and the people watching at home have no way of knowing that this guy’s meal-ticket depends on advocating unrelenting interventionism. The only thing this guy probably ever defended was a master’s thesis. FOX tries to whip up some fear over the fact that terrorism suspects are going free, and never considers the possibility that, hey, maybe some of these guys are wrongly suspected. Nor do they even ask if 75% of terrorism cases are so weak that no prosecutor dares take them before a judge. Nope, FOX news just wants you to worry about all the terrorists that are no walking the streets, waiting to terrorize some more.

I laugh at FOX news a lot, but it scares me. It is packaged to look and sound like legitimate news coverage, but it’s a propaganda machine that attracts a vastly greater audience than real news. It’s existence is antithetical to the nature of an informed society, but it is also guaranteed by a free one. The contradiction never ceases to trouble me, and I’m not sure how it will ever be resolved.

Blueprint for a War Machine

Here’s the most important thing to remember about winning in Europa Universalis III: it’s all relative.

By which I mean that the goal is not to amass the absolute largest, wealthiest, or most powerful empire in the world. Instead, the game looks at what you started with and what you managed to do with those resources.

In my game, Austria consumed Greece, the Balkans, and southern Germany. Russia conquered the Eurasian continent. Despite their vast conquests, they were ranked in the top ten nations alongside my minuscule Brandenburg. Even though I was a lightweight, I’d performed well enough with scant resources that Brandenburg became more than the sum of its parts. I was a model of the Enlightenment, and a strong contender to win the game in the final 100 years.

Nevertheless, winning depends on survival. EU3 isn’t going to say, “Well, your cities have been burned to a cinder and your neighbors have carved up your nation like a Christmas turkey, but your education system was the envy of Europe!” Even a pacific and enlightened state needs to watch the balance of power and judiciously apply a thumb to the scales when needed, which usually requires a little fighting.

However, in the same way that performance in EU3 is measured relatively, military success depends on factors beyond numbers and technology. In games like Civilization or Total War, technology trumps numbers and technology combined with numbers trumps everything. In EU3, your military is subject to a wide variety of pressures that undercut the conventional “research, build, conquer” strategy.

For one thing, there are limits to how many men you can put in the field at any one time. Every state draws on a national manpower reserve in order to build new units and replace losses. That manpower reserve represents the total number of men presently available for military service. This is one of the ways that EU3 prevents runaway victories. Unless your nation is exceptionally populous and wealthy, you cannot use giant armies to steamroll the opposition. You will tap out your manpower reserves or break the treasury.

Furthermore, the national manpower reserve is tied to a number of factors beyond population size. For instance, every state has a set of policy sliders that can be adjusted, one at a time, every ten years or so. One of them has “Serfdom” at one extreme and “Free Subjects” at the other. Moving away from serfdom and towards a universal concept of citizenship produces far more potential recruits than a medieval system, but it also introduces a backlash from the nobility and creates a more unruly populace.

There are also “National Ideas” that provide special attributes. These are the concepts and policies that give a state its non-corporeal identity. So while one country might be animated by the ideas of exploration, trade, and colonization, another believes in military service, discipline, and battlefield glory. For my game as Brandenburg, I chose national ideas that increased the manpower pool at a faster rate, and improved my troops.

Two other wrinkles affect the size and strength of your army. First, while the manpower reserve represents the theoretical limit on army size, you start suffering financial penalties if you have a disproportionately large military establishment. Up to a point, you pay the normal cost of running a military. Expand beyond that point, and you start paying cost plus an extra percentage. However, the extra percentage increases disproportionately with each new unit you build. So the first extra regiment might add a 1% charge to your military expenses, but 10 extra regiments might add 25%.

Second, the quality of your troops is influenced by your country’s military tradition. You cannot build a military from scratch an expect it to perform well. Furthermore, a military that never sees action does not make for a proud tradition. On the other hand, neither does a military that gets its ass kicked.

So you must treat your military as a long-term investment, and remember that an army with practice at winning is likely to trump one that has experienced long decades of peace. Depending on your choices and opportunities, you will see your military tradition increase at a greater or lesser rate. The higher your tradition value, the better your units.

(As an aside, I should also mention that armies and navies exist in tension with one another, so everything I’ve said applies to both branches, and improvement to one often comes at the expense of the other.)

All of this determines the institutional quality of your army, but that only goes so far. During times of war, you often need to appoint a general to lead your army in battle. Recruiting a general gives you access to a specific individual that provides bonuses to your army beyond their base values. The greater your military tradition, the better your general is likely to be. The downside is that a general consumes tradition. With less tradition, your troops are less capable. The more generals your appoint, the more tradition you lose.

This might sound arbitrary, but it’s not. Great commanders do not usually leave great militaries behind them. The Prussian army that Frederick the Great inherited from his father was a masterpiece of professionalism and military preparedness. The one that Frederick left to his successor was arrogant, only 50% Prussian, and led by men who had spent their careers following orders.

In the same vein, the Royal Navy looked to Nelson long after the admiral’s death, and long after his axioms and command style were outmoded by technology. The story of the US Army after WWII and commanders like Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, and MacArthur is likewise not a happy one.

With a good army army backed by the right kind of society, and led by a good commander, even a small state can occasionally stun larger adversaries. On other hand, decades of preparation and care can be erased with a single disastrous campaign, and there are a sobering number of variables that can lay waste to a sound plan. When you only have enough manpower to field one small army, conflict of any kind is harrowing, no matter how carefully you’ve tended to these factors.

Death in Stalker, Part 2

The biggest cowards in the Zone are the Ukrainian soldiers that try to police it. They don’t go anywhere without overwhelming numbers and high-tech equipment, and they usually have attack helicopters flying cover. You can expect to see them whenever you’ve uncovered anything of value, or if you and your comrades have managed to clear a dangerous area. Then the army will swoop in and kill everyone.

They’re also corrupt. Every time I had to go through an army checkpoint, they extracted a hefty bribe at gunpoint. Meanwhile, they’ve got every exit to the Exclusion Zone mined and guarded. Anyone who tries to leave gets shot down without warning.

So even though I decided I was through with contract killing, I made an exception where the army was concerned. I can only be hassled, extorted, and nearly gunned down in free-fire zones so many times before I start taking it a little personally.

Furthermore, my murder of that deserter had an interesting effect on my ethics. While it had seemed like a watershed moment of realization that would put me on the path to a more merciful journey through the Zone, it turned out to be more of a benchmark. My reasoning went like this: I might as well commit lesser evils, because I’d done worse. In for a penny and all that.

I took a job to get a tricked-out pistol from the army major who oversees a checkpoint in the Cordon. Basically, someone wanted a novelty gun and I was going to have to kill six people to get him his souveneir. But these six people were soldiers, and those guys are assholes.

I took the contract and headed down to the checkpoint, where the soldiers ripped me off for the usual fee and gave me the usual warning about shooting me if I didn’t behave myself. This time, however, I felt that “delicious coldness” that Michael Corleone felt when the police captain gave him a beating. As I forked over my cash, I knew these guys were already ghosts. I walked through the checkpoint, made a note of its layout, and headed over the nearby ridge.

The sun was going down fast and I decided to wait until it was dark to make my attack. Dusk and dawn are difficult times to operate, because neither normal eyesight nor nightvision really work. Your eyes can’t penetrate the shadows and your nightvision is blown by the fact that the sun is sitting on the horizon.

I got into position behind some shrubs and made final preparations. I loaded armor-piercing rounds into my sidearm, which I hoped I wouldn’t have to use. I had three grenades, which I would need if they rushed me or if I needed to flush them out of cover. My rifle was the weak link. I was being forced to use the AN-94 assault rifle, which is the successor to the Kalashnikov line of rifles. It’s marginally more accurate, but still not a sniper’s weapon. It puts maybe one round in five in the crosshairs, while the rest of the shots fall a few degrees off-center. This means that even with a clear shot, you have to pop off several rounds to make sure your target goes down. This exposes your position to everyone else, and gives enemies more time to find cover. Not exactly the way of the ninja.

As the shadows deepened, I moved out from behind the bushes and drew a bead on the Major. The last light bled from the sky and I flipped on my night vision goggles. Now I could see him perfectly, standing on the summit of his tiny little hill and surveying his miniscule kingdom.

The first shot missed high and he made a run for it, but in the wrong direction. I caught him at the bottom of the slope with a few rounds, then took a quick look around as some wild shots started coming from the checkpoint. Another trooper was at the base of my ridge trying to find me, but he’d come too close for me to miss with a headshot.

There were four of them left and they’d taken cover from my sniper fire. I flipped the gun back to automatic for the infighting that was about to begin, then moved down the hill toward their position. I saw a flash of movement next to a shipping container and loosed a volley of shots. No more movement, but I didn’t know if that meant I’d killed my target or if he’d just gotten back in cover.

I pulled out my grenades and started flinging them into the checkpoint, spread out so that running from one would take my victims into the blast from another. As they exploded, I dashed across the road to negate their cover. I only saw one soldier hiding in the middle of the checkpoint, and took him down with the better part of a clip.

I put in a fresh clip, but there was no more shooting. I checked out the scene through my scope and counted the bodies. The Major, Headshot, Movement (I must have hit him), Coward, and someone I’d never seen. Probably killed by a grenade. One unaccounted for. I crept into the checkpoint, but soon found his body next to a supply stockpile. One of the grenades must have gotten him.

I found the special sidearm on the Major’s corpse, which was just a modified version of a lousy Soviet pistol. A collector’s item, perhaps, but not worth getting killed over. The Major should have had less gaudy tastes.

It struck me that the Zone was a strange place. Not quite a Hobbesian warzone, but definitely tribal and vicious. My character had killed a man who had done no wrong, and it was murder. But taking money to kill six people for a bauble was just, because they had attacked my kind and stolen from me when they could.

The world that Stalker portrays is one in which there is no higher authority to which a man can appeal, and the stakes are almost always mortal. So morality gets sanded down until we arrive back at Polemarchus’ straight-from-the-shoulder formulation: “Do harm to your enemies and good to your friends.” To every man his due.

A New History of Brandenburg

There’s a question about sports games that comes up every so often. Should a sports game attempt to be a simulation, or should it be a game about a sport?

Obviously, the answer depends on what you happen to want, but the implications of either answer are interesting to consider. If you’re just playing a game that takes football as its theme, you can take your pitiful home team to the Superbowl with an explosive running game, spectacular passing attack, and a bruising defense that leaves nothing but broken bodies in its wake. Even a Detroit Lions fan can bring the Lombardi Trophy to Motown. I suspect this is one of the reasons so many gamers of my generation have fond memories of Tecmo Bowl.

On the other hand, a game like that has very little to do with NFL football. You might be able to take an idealized version of the Lions to the championship, but you can’t play with the real article. It may not be possible for any game to make you feel like Tony Dungy or Peyton Manning, but at least a good simulation can bring that experience a little closer. Of course, it also brings the feeling of an 0-16 season a little closer, but that’s the price you pay for realism.

I mention all this because the same question applies to historical war and strategy games. There have always been those who overvalue realism and underappreciate just how a chimerical concept that is when you’re talking about modeling historical realities. So many factors are effectively unquantifiable, and it only gets more difficult the greater the game’s scale.

I remember, years and years ago, there was a minor controversy over The Operational Art of War because somebody discovered that if you put 100 jeeps up against a German Tiger tank, the game calculated that the jeeps would win. A subset of wargamers tore into the game because this outcome was clearly preposterous, and it called the entire game system into question.

The Operational Art of War was a system designed to accommodate regimental-level operations all the way up to the army group level, in clashes that could involve millions of men and thousands of tanks and aircraft. The 100 jeeps vs. a Tiger issue was a quirky micro calculation that worked as part of a system that produced convincing macro-level outcomes. But a lot of wargamers were incensed that TOAW abstracted anything. They wanted it to be accurate down to the last rifle squad.

Lately I’ve been playing a lot of Europa Universalis III, and for awhile I had my own “But you’re getting it wroooong!” temper tantrum. I decided to play a game as Brandenburg (the Hohenzollern electorate that would eventually become Prussia) starting in the early 1600s.This would put me in charge of a very small state on the eve of the Thirty Years’ War, and my goal was to recreate the rise of Prussia to Great Power status by the game’s conclusion in 1820.

One of the reasons I’ve been so curious about the Europa Universalis series was that I’ve always heard it’s “Civilization with a college degree.” In other words, where Civilization is a strategy game that simply takes human history as its theme, EU is a game that takes history as its ruleset.

Predictably, I was disappointed. For one thing, the Thirty Years’ War failed to occur, which introduced an incredible number of distortions into my game. The Habsburgs sailed smoothly through the 17th century and Reformed Protestantism never really made it off the ground in northern Europe. This in turn meant that none of the opportunities afforded Brandenburg in real life ever came my way. I sat around in a tiny four-province electorate, waiting for something to happen.

The biggest omission in Europa Universalis III seemed to the lack of subinfeudation. Subinfeudation is what gave the Middle Ages through the Early Modern era so much of their character, and not having it in the game made it impossible to faithfully recreate the period. It also made peaceful expansion nearly impossible.

Subinfeudation is a corrective applied to traditional understandings of the feudal system, which generally portray it as a pyramidal hierarchy. The problem is that the system never operated that cleanly. Noble individuals tended to wear many different titles that had different implications, because the noble houses of Europe were interwoven across political boundaries. The most famous example of subinfeudation would have to be the English kings after the Norman conquest. As the master of England, the king was a sovereign power of Europe. However, the king of England was also the Duke of Normandy, a title that granted him land in the north of France but which also made him nominally a French vassal. Now imagine that perpetuated at every level of the nobility, across Europe.

The reason I’m making such a big deal out of this is because subinfeudation was also one of the most common ways for a lord to expand his realm. The reason Prussia became Prussia and not Brandenburg is that the Hohenzollerns of Brandenburg managed to marry their way into a claim on the Polish dominion of Preusse. They used this same method to acquire most of their territory prior to the 17th century. It didn’t require troops, and it didn’t require voluntary submission. If they were recognized as the proper ruling family of another territory, and a major power didn’t block the deal, then they were able to expand without a shot being fired.

EU3 doesn’t really allow you to go this route. It’s possible, but extremely unlikely, to make another state your vassal and then have it voluntarily submit to annexation, but it is totally impossible to win a dynastic claim on a territory in another state. The game doesn’t even model that kind of thing. So where Prussia managed to almost double in size through family connections, my only hope was to conquer through force. Given that I was a small player on the European stage, that wasn’t particularly likely. So I was stuck ruling a country that practically ran itself, and spent the rest of my time remaining inconspicuous. This was not really what I had signed up for.

Here is where EU3 began to get brilliant, however. If my initial experience was one of disappointment and frustration, as my state was relegated to a footnote in the history of the 17th century, it was also transformative. Like my historical counterparts, I was forced to banish dreams of territorial expansion and conquest. I couldn’t gain an inch of soil on my own strength, because my army was too small, my state too poor and underpopulated, and my connections too weak. So I began to think in character.

I became a watchful opportunist. I demobilized most of my army to build up my finances, retaining just enough troops to maintain order. I still operated with an eye toward history, so I began breaking down the power of the nobility and concentrating the power within the royal person. The result was a state that grew steadily more efficient and wealthy while my army improved its competence. Meanwhile, I relentlessly curried favor with my neighbors, becoming fast allies with the Poles and the Russians.

When opportunities finally opened up, I was ready to pounce.

Pomerania, immediately to my north, ran afoul of the Poles and came under attack. Poland requested that I honor our alliance, and I happily obliged by attacking the western half of Pomerania. Pomerania’s only ally in this war, the tiny state of Meissen to my south, declared war on me and invaded Potsdam with its tiny army.  Because I was not the aggressor in either war, larger powers stayed on the sidelines as I wiped out small Meissen electorate and seized half of Pomerania. While Poland ultimately settled for an indemnity payment from Pomerania, I had managed to increase the size of my territory by a third.

While my game didn’t really resemble the historical record, it was behaving much as history behaved. The great powers steered clear of one another where possible, most wars ended with very minor adjustments to the status quo, and the small powers were slowly picked off. EU3 was not reproducing history exactly, but it was reproducing many of the major and minor events that added up to shape history. As a player, I was finding myself obsessed with minor objectives and details while the maelstrom swirled around tiny Brandburg. Within my limited horizons, I was finding as much satisfaction as I’ve had subjugating entire continents in Civilization or Total War.

Death in Stalker, Part 1

Gamers are conditioned to follow orders without question. Bioshock’s twist played on this convention and pointed out the extreme degree to which we do things without bothering to ask why. Of course, Bioshock also made this point with a healthy dose of irony, because we really didn’t have any other choices but to follow the path that was set for us. A man chooses, a slave obeys, but a gamer just goes to the highlighted area on his heads-up display.

But some games really do give the player a choice, and I’ve never been comfortable choosing the ethical low-road. In Dungeons & Dragons, I’m almost always a good guy who tries to do as he sees fit without reference to laws or customs. In Bioshock, I tried a playthrough where I harvested Little Sisters, but didn’t manage to finish. Hell, in games like Civilization and Total War, I tend to be an honorable ally and an implacable enemy. I don’t go to the bother of being a boyscout, but I try to avoid being a bastard.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has strained my typical videogame morality. Where it’s usually easy to see the sharp divisions between good and evil in a videogame, the world of Stalker has a way of gently and steadily eroding traditional morality and replacing it with something much more Hobbesian.

There are lots of optional missions you can take from people you meet in the Zone. Your chief employer is the bartender in Rostok, who offers the missions that advance the main story, but he also has a bunch of odd jobs for you to do.  Most are pretty straightforward and unobjectionable: go find a rare item or artifact that he needs, or clear out a nest of mutants that have been harassing other Stalkers.

So when he said he needed me to go kill a soldier who had deserted from the Ukrainian army, and who was currently hiding out in a marsh near an abandoned research complex, I didn’t see a problem with it. He asked me to trust him and not to ask why, and because I did trust him from the way he’d helped my character locate vital information, I took the job.

The deserter was staying in a squalid little shack suspended above a mildly toxic swamp. I tried to see inside with my binoculars, but couldn’t get a line of sight on him. So I grabbed my Enfield rifle and walked across the duckboards into his hideout.

The moment I walked in, he jammed a Kalashnikov variant in my face and started yelling at me not to shoot, or else he would. I put away my rifle and, to my surprise, he put away his.

He explained that he was running away from the army, and started telling me about how fucked up the army’s operations were in the Zone. He said that he and his comrades were always being used to plug the holes in the government’s policies regarding the Zone. They didn’t have the resources they needed, conditions were terrible, and they weren’t being rotated out of the Zone like they’d been promised. They were deployed to the Zone, and then they were pretty much abandoned. As soon as he could, he was going to sneak out and go home.

I told him I’d leave him alone, then went back outside. The whole thing wasn’t what I’d expected. I hadn’t counted on being confronted with a scared conscript who just wanted out. I wanted to let him go.

But the bartender asked me to trust him, and I did. Anyone can talk a good game, but someone wanted this guy dead for a reason. So I pullled out a hand grenade and tossed it through the doorway. A second later, it detonated and I got news that the mission had been completed. I went back inside, looted the kid’s body for what little he had, then started back to Rostok.

The whole thing sat terribly, though. My problem wasn’t so much the killing as it was the not knowing why. He might have had it coming or he might not have, but I would never know. I’d never been given an opportunity to find out. It was a random killing of someone who never posed a threat to me. It was murder.

On the way back to Rostok, I decided against taking any more assassination jobs unless I knew the reasons they were being ordered. My character in Stalker might be a sometime predator and sometime soldier, but I wasn’t going to let him be a murderer for hire.

I thought that would be an easy rule to follow. But I was still very new to Stalker.

Crucible of War

Earlier this year I picked up AGEOD’s Birth of America from the Target bargain rack, which is about the only way a title published by Strategy First is going to find its way into a major retailer. The game was well-reviewed and spawned a series of follow-ups covering different 18th and 19th century conflicts, but my chief reason for buying it is that I have an embarrassingly shallow knowledge of early American history. Since my interest in wargames and history have always marched lockstep, I thought Birth of America might be a good way to dip my toe in the water. Then I grabbed Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. While historical literacy isn’t a necessary component for playing a wargame, it usually helps you make sense of what you’re being asked to do.

My one disappointment with Crucible is that it is not a particularly interesting book of military history. Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans probably gave me an unrealistic expectation for how action-packed the French and Indian War was, but that doesn’t change the fact that fighting in the New World tended to be a grubby, ad hoc affair. While over in Europe, Frederick the Great was sending waves of grenadiers into dense lines of white-coated Austrians, British commanders in America were pleading with colonial assemblies to raise a handful of battalions. The most pivotal battle of the war, Quebec, is shown to be a case of mutual blundering followed by an almost inexplicable French collapse. The rest of the war mostly consisted of small expeditions against wilderness forts, accompanied by constant, tedious negotiation with the native peoples.

This might have more to do with Anderson’s own interests than it does with the subject matter. His coverage of the battles makes for good reading, but every campaign reads almost as ponderously as it unfolded. Anderson gets into the nuts and bolts of Indian diplomacy and colonial – military interactions, and ends up belaboring a couple points. One Indian negotiation is much like another, but the reader is treated to the repeated site of Indian warriors bearing gifts and liquor back to their villages, Indian chieftains struggling to maintain their social position, and English officials providing the same hollow assurances. Likewise, we find the colonial assemblies (particularly Pennsylvania and Massachusetts) to be chaotic, bitterly divided, and constantly carping about how difficult it is for them to prosecute this war. If Anderson’s goal is to make you feel the exasperation of any British official who had to deal with America during this period, he succeeds admirably.

Where the book really comes alive, however, is in the war’s closing stages, as the action shifts to London. From that point onward, Anderson seems to be on happier ground. We see Pitt at the height of his power beginning to succumb to a megalomania that disturbs his most important political allies, which sows the soil for the attack that the newly crowned George III and the Earl of Bute are waiting to unleash on him. George III doesn’t come across well in this book, despite Anderson’s attempts to be fair minded, because there is no hiding the degree to which he creates one ministerial crisis after another. George is a monarch very much in the vein of Kaiser Wilhelm II: spoiled, self-assured to a degree far beyond his abilities, and deeply desirous of asserting his prerogative over the state. Both men would take control of a government that wasn’t broken, and then bring the state to ruin in the name of fixing it.

Of some surprise is the degree to which Grenville emerges as a minor hero on the political stage, considering that he writes the Stamp Act that puts the first severe cracks in the foundation of colonial relations. While Anderson does not conceal the degree to which Grenville governed like a tin-eared technocrat, he also celebrates the degree to which Grenville was a perceptive and conscientious head of government. When George III begins making a concerted push to fire him, ultimately replacing him with the inept Duke of Cumberland (whose life after Culloden seems to have been spent plumbing the depths of his own incompetence), there is a definite sense that George is stepping off a ledge into thin air. When the Stamp Act meets with a firestorm of colonial resistance, there is nobody left in government by 1766 that is both competent and strong enough to lead Britain out of the crisis.

The reactions in America to London’s expanded efforts at administration also make for fascinating reading. At first, nobody seems to find anything remarkable in the act and the colonies are on the cusp of accepting it without complaint while leading citizens are fighting for the privilege of administering the tax (the better to skim off the top). Then Patrick Henry passes a resolution in the Virginia House of Burgesses asserting that England lacks the right to lay taxes on the colonies, it gets printed in some newspapers, and the entire seaboard explodes.

In Boston, we see the local Sons of Liberty variant contact both of the city’s official unruly mobs (honest) for the sake of raising nine kinds of hell. Similar mob violence occurs in other northern cities, providing an excellent excuse for simmering tensions within colonial politics to explode. The Penn family and its enemies immediately fall to settling old scores against the backdrop of civil disorder. In Virginia, Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry start overturning rocks and find that the state’s leading planters have embezzled fortunes from the province. In Boston, an angry mob goes looking to lynch Lt. Governor Thomas Hutchinson, who spends the long night cutting through backyards and staying with different friends as he is hunted through the city. The mob contents itself with getting liquored up at his mansion, then destroying it. By the time the Stamp Act is supposed to go into effect, there is nobody left who is willing to enforce it.

The book ends on an ambivalent note. Anderson argues that the American Revolution was far from inevitable even at the time of the Stamp Act’s repeal, but that British misconceptions about the nature of their rule in America doomed them to a series of mistakes. Pitt himself, who supported the Stamp Act’s repeal and exulted in colonial resistance, is shown making the argument that the British military could grind the colonies to dust if it needed to. Nobody in London really grasped that their relationship with the colonies was based on the colonists’ affection for the mother country and their sufferance of Britain’s occasional commands. If Britain had allowed the relationship to drift along as it always had, the Revolution might have been avoided.

On this point, Anderson’s point seems purely speculative, and not entirely supported by what he has already shown. While colonists seemed to love the Empire and consider themselves Englishmen, Anderson never really explains what we should make of the shocking violence and resentment that erupted against the Stamp Act. The Sons of Liberty spoke and thought with cataclysmic overtones, and the mobs they mobilized were as likely to rip apart redcoats as they were stamp collectors. Many colonial elites, like Washington, still cherished their status as Englishmen. But in Boston, New York, and Virginia, there were large and growing factions that were becoming self-aware as Americans. Toward the end of the Stamp Act riots, John Adams wrote in his diary about what a glorious year it had been for America. Looking over the smoldering wreckage of British policy and legitimacy in the colonies, Adams was already starting see the shape the future would take, and he liked what he saw. It did not include a nation of Englishmen.