July 18, 2024
Professional historians often dismiss alternative or counterfactual history as nothing more than entertaining—the fodder of fantasy sci-fi novels. But a team of analysts and academics has recently incorporated the "what if" into historically based wargames to offer deeper insights into what factors are most important on the battlefield. D. Sean Barnett, Robert Citino, Yvonne K. Crane, Gian Gentile, and Adam Givens explain how the RAND Corporation has created its Futures Program. Having participants refight the battle with technology that could realistically have been used at the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg provides new insights into the interplay of operations and technology. It's an imaginative way to blend realities to examine possibilities and foster creativity and analysis.

Considering historical scenarios that are counter to the facts—how things “might have been”— is a natural human tendency.

History cannot be relived or rerun as one might conduct laboratory experiments in the physical sciences. However, we can use history to help us understand what happened (and why) as a starting point for considering what might have occurred if things had turned out differently. Known as counterfactual historical analysis or alternative history, this approach allows us to use our imaginations to create laboratories of the mind, testing inputs to seek alternative results. 

Considering historical scenarios that are counter to the facts—how things “might have been”— is a natural human tendency. From entertainment films like It’s a Wonderful Life and Back to the Future to more serious contemplations of the nature of reality like Philip K. Dick’s novella The Man in the High Castle and Amazon Prime Video’s streaming adaptation of the book, counterfactuals allow us to contemplate things, not merely as they are, but how they might have been different with a tweak here and there in the timeline.

But beyond its entertainment value, counterfactual analysis has practical benefits when considering national security and defense matters for decision makers to plan for what is to come. Above all, they can be useful in putting policy makers and planners into the shoes of those who have gone before them, facing them with the same kinds of time-space dilemmas, resource limitations, and political constraints faced by the real historical actors. Standard history can often devolve into a form of determinism, enumerating a list of reasons why the historical event had to turn out the way it did. Indeed, so prevalent is this problem in historical writing that professional historians have coined the neologism “over-determined,” for cases in which the author leads the reader in a teleological fashion to the inevitability of the actual historical outcome.

Counterfactual analysis shatters the envelope of “over-determination” by making (often subtle) changes in the historical situation, either providing something that was missing or taking away something that was present. When done carefully and thoughtfully, the change can help bring the deeper reality of the situation into sharper focus. An earlier start to an operation or different weather or a particular weapon system arriving a decade or a generation sooner than it actually did allows participants in an exercise to develop deeper insights into the planning process (in the case of an operation’s start time), the vagaries of chance on the battlefield (the weather), or the nature and importance of technology and innovation (in the case of a new weapon system). Counterfactuals let the true nature of historical contingency shine forth—in which small events can combine, “snowball,” and eventually develop into mighty outcomes.

While historians are interested in the past, policy makers have a different charge: they are trying to analyze the present to gain as much insight as possible into the elusive future. As historian Niall Ferguson sees it, conclusions about the future “are usually based on weighing up the potential consequences of alternative courses of action,” so it is useful “to compare the actual outcomes of what we did in the past with the conceivable outcomes of what we might have done.” In such laboratories of counterfactual analysis, alternative pasts can offer present-day participants a way to think differently and more deeply about present and future problems, the complex factors that go into shaping a given problem, and the myriad ways thoughtful individuals can approach and solve them.

The Utility of Wargames

In a similar way to using counterfactuals, military organizations plan to fight future battles by relying on war games or simulations that consider possible outcomes on the battlefield before they occur. These wargames have historically provided valuable observations and insights for military organizations preparing for battle. Nineteenth-century Chief of Staff of the Prussian Army, General Helmuth von Moltke, used wargaming to motivate critical thinking about upcoming battles during the Franco-Prussian War that led to Prussia’s victories in the Wars of German Unification. 

Other examples illustrate the creative thinking that wargames can elicit. As depicted in the movie The Longest Day, just before D-Day in 1944, German corps commander General Erich Marcks is involved in a wargame in France to predict when and where the invasion will occur. He imagines an alternative future relative to how his fellow senior officers were thinking, avoiding the simple and obvious. As a result, General Marcks successfully anticipated the Allies’ intentions for landing locations along the Normandy coast. 

 Combining Historical Counterfactual Analysis with Battlefield Staff Rides

The aim of using a combination of counterfactual analysis with a battlefield staff ride is first to understand what happened in the battle and then to explore alternatives during the conduct of that battle that are distinct from what occurred in reality. Integrating alternative counterfactual mechanisms that were not present facilitates players’ thinking about the implications of these counterfactual devices. Just as with historical actors and present decisionmakers, a custom-made wargame with counterfactual levers forces players to approach past battles in a way distinct from how they occurred, permitting participants to think differently about current and future problems. 

The overall aim of combining a staff ride and counterfactual wargame is to create a laboratory of learning by using otherwise thinking about a given battle and applying that otherwise thinking to creative and innovative approaches to current and future problems.

The purpose of the staff ride (either virtual or in the field) is to help participants understand what happened in the battle. The wargame component enables players to employ counterfactual alternatives to explore how they might have affected the historical battle. The overall aim of combining a staff ride and counterfactual wargame is to create a laboratory of learning by using otherwise thinking about a given battle and applying that otherwise thinking to creative and innovative approaches to current and future problems. Hence this combination produces a futures program based on history and historical counterfactual analysis.

A Battlefield Futures Program

RAND Arroyo Center’s Battlefield Futures Program does just that.

We carried out a futures program using the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg at the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. On the first day of the Futures Program, we conducted a traditional staff ride of the battle. During the staff ride portion of the program, specific themes and events from the battle were highlighted with the idea that this would inform the players thinking when they refought the battle the following day using the custom-made wargame. The game allowed players to refight the battle with technologies that were available at the time but not used at Gettysburg in 1863—balloons for aerial observation, field telegraphs for commanders down to corps level for command and control, and increased firepower through repeating rifles and Gatling guns.

The player teams used their technologies differently to accomplish their missions. In one game, the Confederates started the game by making information advantage their overall operational goal and built their plan around it. They kept one of their balloons hidden so as not to give away their positions and maneuvered out of the observation range of the Union balloons. In that game, the Union built their plan around their observation capabilities— “fighting for information.” They used their cavalry to try to deny situational awareness to the Confederates. 

The two sides explored the same technologies but came up with different approaches for their use based on their different operational situations. Combining historical counterfactual analysis with a traditional battlefield staff ride can be used to gain insights about the adoption of technologies, the cost-benefits of modernization, and the impacts that different approaches and choices have on the battlefield. Combining counterfactual analysis and staff rides in this way exposes participants to the interactions of these issues within a given operational environment from the past. However, the past and the counterfactual levers applied to it to change the outcome of a battle are purposeful ways to cause the participants to think through current and future problems.

For example, today’s military may face hard choices about prioritizing certain weapons or communications technologies over others. Or they may be facing hard decisions about what types of surveillance systems to invest in. Organizational change may also be something that a current military is considering. But thinking through these problems of the present often comes with personal, leadership, or organizational biases. The program described above can provide an atmosphere for fresh thinking about current issues by using counterfactual history to enable otherwise thinking about the present and future.

Possibilities for Other Counterfactual Analyses with Battlefield Staff Rides

Using counterfactual analysis in the way described in this essay is battle-agnostic. Or in other words, for example, it could use the World War II Normandy Campaign to question what might have occurred if Allied air power had not debilitated the Luftwaffe in the lead-up to D-Day, leaving open the question of air superiority over the beaches, drop zones, and English Channel during Operation OVERLORD. Another program might use the Korean War and the Inchon Landings to analyze how the use of alternative airpower technologies by the United States, Chinese, or North Koreans might have affected the Allied operational objective of reaching the Yalu River, unifying all of Korea under South Korean writ, and confronting the Chinese intervention into the war in October 1950. A more current battle could also be used as the premise for a futures program, such as the initial months of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from February to March 2022.

The Futures Program’s main purpose is to harness history to create thought laboratories. It can be adapted to a wide range of historical battles in the different domains of land, sea, or air, depending on the interests of the participants. History is not predetermined, just as the future is not. Counterfactual analysis in the Battlefield Futures Program offers a way to better understand both.

D. Sean Barnett is an adjunct engineer at RAND Corporation. He is a defense analyst, nuclear engineer, and attorney, with over 30 years of experience leading research in the fields of national security, energy, and law. At RAND, most of his work has involved military operational assessments and wargaming.

Robert Citino is a senior historian at the National World War II Museum. He is a leading authority on modern German military history, with an emphasis on World War II and the German influence upon modern operational doctrine.

Yvonne Crane is a research communications analyst at the RAND Corporation. She has over 20 years of experience in strategic communication and outreach development for both Fortune 500 corporations and the national security sector. Yvonne has collaborated with civilian and military leadership to create data-rich visualizations of complex research and analysis that includes creating research communications for senior officials that translate to the Executive and Legislative branches of the U.S. government.

Gian Gentile is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served many years as a history professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point and did two combat tours in Iraq. He currently is a senior historian and Associate Director of the Army Research Division at the RAND Corporation.

Adam Givens is an Associate Policy Researcher at RAND. He received his PhD in military history from Ohio University. His research focuses on U.S. Army Aviation and the helicopter industry during the Cold War.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Credit: Created by Bing AI image creator


  1. I will attempt to use an alternative history; this, to think through current and future problems:

    But, first, let me try to use real history/current history; this, to attempt describe how we got to our current and future problems place today:

    The U.S./the West, post-the Old Cold War, had a historic opportunity; this, to advance Western liberalism more throughout the world. In this regard, the U.S./the West failed. This being due, primarily, to our own deep political convictions — which demanded that we advance what amounted to often massive — and often aberrant — political, economic, social and value change too completely, too fast, and too far; herein, making little or no accommodation for those individuals and groups, those states and societies, and those governments, etc. (both here at home and there abroad), who (a) would be existentially threatened by our such “transformative” activities and who (b) would react/resist accordingly. (This, given that these such individuals and groups, these such states and societies, and these such governments — specifically via our such transformative efforts — would lose power, influence, control, status, privilege, safety, security, etc., via same.) Note that — as a direct consequence of our such mistakes and failures both here at home and there abroad — the world today seems to be moving away from Western liberalism and toward an unknown future.

    (That is an attempt at current, real history. Tomorrow I will try to develop an alternative history; one that might have been able to prevent the current and future problems described above.)

    1. Now, for my alternative history effort:

      The U.S./the West, post-the Old Cold War, realized that it had a historic opportunity; this, to advance Western liberalism more throughout the world. However, the U.S./the West — also at this time — realized at that this such “achieve revolutionary change both at home and abroad” effort was fraught with both significant difficulty and, indeed, significant danger; this, given certain exceptionally well-known things. For example, (1) that the deeply ingrained conservatism of (for lack of a better word?) the “peasantry” of the states and societies of the world (to include the “peasantry” of the U.S./the West?); this would turn these such folks against the U.S./the West and our “transformative” efforts. And that (2) the enemies of the U.S./the West — working more “by, with and through” these such specifically alienated conservatives/these such specifically alienated peasants — could throw “monkey wrenches” into our such “transformative” efforts and, indeed, could bring the U.S/the West down. Also at this time, the U.S./the West realized that — unlike the Soviets/the communists re: their efforts to “transform the world” more along communist political, economic, social and value lines in the latter half of the 20th Century — the U.S./the West, post-the Old Cold War, (a) lacked similar, significant and thus sufficient useful and committed “Western liberalism” followers and, thus; (b) lacked a worldwide/both at home and abroad motivated and committed “revolutionary” force; and, accordingly, (c) lacked a sufficient foundation for its desired “revolutionary” activities. The U.S./the West, also at this time, realized — given the above — that the revolutionary changes that the U.S./the West sought to achieve post-the Old Cold War, these might take an amazingly long time — time in which support for these such Western liberalism changes might fade. The U.S./the West, post-the Old Cold War, also realized that attempts to achieve our desired revolutionary changes more quickly, these could — and indeed would — most likely result in both internal and external instability and, thus, in civil wars, international wars and, potentially, in the end of liberal international order. [In this such specific regard, see my items (1) and (2) above]. Understanding all this, the U.S./the West, post-the Old Cold War, took considerably more time and effort to consider, to address and to determine its post-Cold War actions.

      (Note: The inspiration for, and indeed many/most of the ideas and phrases that I present in my “alternative history” above, these generally come from two specific sources: First, from Linda Robinson’s 1991 New York Times article “The Sandinista Decade;” wherein, she describes how and why the Sandinista squandered their historic opportunity to transform Nicaragua more along communist lines. And, second, from Pages vii and viii of the 1973 Advanced Research Project Agency paper “Modern Revolutionary Warfare: An Analytical Overview;” wherein, author D.M. Condit describes the unique challenges facing the U.S./the West; this, in [a] attempting to achieve and support “revolutionary” activity; this, [b] without sufficient “revolutionary” capabilities to achieve such “revolutionary” objectives.)

    2. Note that — as to counterfactual changes that one might have made on the “battlefields” of the post-Cold War world — (a) the counterfactual changes that I suggest in my reply-to-comment above, (b) these might have made a significant difference indeed?

  2. Let us use Linda Robinson’s 1991 New York Times article “The Sandinista Decade” — and thus the effort by the Sandinistas in the 1980s to transform Nicaragua more along communist political, economic, social and value lines — this, to try to do some counter-factual wargaming. In her such article, Robinson seems to suggest at least three reasons why the Sandinista’s failed in their “transformative” effort, these being:

    a. Because they attempted to achieve too much change and/or too quickly,

    b. Because they underestimated the deeply engrained conservatism of the Nicaraguan peasants and

    c. Because the U.S. — realizing “a” and “b” above and having a stake in whether Nicaragua became communist — intervened and worked more “by, with and through” those individuals and groups who were thus alienated; this, to prevent this such transformation of Nicaragua more along communist political, economic, social and value lines from being achieved and sustained.

    Thus, as a counter-factual wargaming exercise, let us — alternatively — (a) take away my item “a” above, take away my item “b” above and take away my item “c” above — and — in each such case (b) cause our “wargamers” (those on both the U.S. and on the communist sides) to tell us if, when, where, how, etc., they would proceed?

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