05 November 2012

Book Reviews: Choose Your Own Adventure in Modern Combat

Recently I was lucky enough to purchase these 3 books by John Antal, who is (or at least was) a US Army Tank Officer who commanded a tank battalion in Korea and served as the Executive Officer of OPFOR at the National Training Centre in the US. He certainly appears to me to be a credible author on a set of books such as these.

The books are not your standard fare – in fact the first two are sub-labelled as “An Interactive Exercise in Small-Unit Tactics and Leadership” while the final book is sub-labelled “An Interactive Exercise in Company Level Command in Battle.” They are therefore a kind of serious adult “Choose your own adventure” books. Typically this takes three forms.

1. Where the character you “play” looks at a tactical situation and comes up with 3 or so potential concepts for how the operation could proceed and you are forced to choose one. An example in Infantry Combat is where engineers have dug a tank ditch in front of 4 trails leading into a wadi. You have to choose either a forward defence directly overlooking the tank ditch, a reverse slope defence at the end of the trails away from the tank ditch or a middle of the road defence where you split your platoon and defend each trail independently.

2. Situations where you have to make leadership decisions – such as listening to your platoon sergeant’s advice or doing what you want to do

3. Random possibilities – typically when you are in the middle of combat. You roll a dice and follow the result to another page. It’s pretty easy to die with a random dice roll.

The book is split into sections and as you make decisions at the end of each section you are given a new section number to turn to, which continues the story.

Some elements are typical to each story. In the first two books you are a new first lieutenant who has just arrived in the company when you unit is shipped overseas (to the Middle East) to deal with some situation. In Armour Attacks you are in charge of an M1 tank platoon while in Infantry Combat you are in charge of a Light Infantry Platoon. Combat Team is set in country that could only be Korea, you are a replacement Captain for a Company CO who has been killed in action. So again you have just arrived before being pitched straight into battle and you command a mixed Armour/Mechanised Infantry Team with some attached assets.

At some point you’ll have to deal with someone junior to you who can either help you or hinder you. The experienced Platoon Sergeant or bitter XO – neither of which want to be saddled with an inexperienced Lieutenant or new Captain just as they are about to go into battle. Whilst interesting I found these episodes a little one dimensional – because when you make the “right” decision you typically shake hands and become best mates which seemed a little fairy tale to me – but fine for the story.

Sometimes you make the wrong decision and it isn’t always immediately apparent. In Infantry Combat I tried not to cheat and made what I thought were the right decisions all the way through the book and won the battle – but at the loss of most of my men. So I went back and changed one very simple decision – I had allowed the men rest after working all night and excepted that our defences would not be finished, but they would be better rested – I changed this to forcing them to keep working so we were better prepared. That one change made a significant difference and once we had won the battle we got a new task and were sent out again – something I had completely missed the first time around.

I enjoyed all 3 books and probably found Combat Team to be the most challenging at first because in the previous books you have a company commander who tells you what is what and all you have to do is develop a platoon plan to fit in with your commanders’ intent. However in Combat Team you are the company commander and have to make all the big decisions. I managed to get my whole company chopped up at the first hurdle the first time around – but once I make the right decision I had no problems throughout the rest of the book.

The books teach some worthwhile lessons – some of which can translate into wargaming I think (or hope).

1. Preparation and Planning – never time wasted – and be flexible because your opponent will have plans too!

2. Focus – of your units direction and firepower – never letting the objectives required to complete the mission slip from your sight as you get distracted

3. Keeping the initiative – keep your opponents reacting to your moves

4. Manoeuvre – concentrate your strengths against your opponents weaknesses

Anyway – the bottom line is that these books are interesting and fun. They are pretty relevant to the Cold War as all the equipment and training of the enemy you face is essentially Soviet in nature and the weapons and tactics used by the Americans is all based around AirLand Battle thinking.

So if you get the chance – have a look at these books.

Have fun



  1. I have the armour one and found the bit with the platoon sergeant rather irritating, Antal certainly isn't a stylist, but he knows his onions on the tactics.

  2. Totally agree! The infantry book is much worse in that regard - but the rest of it is great.


  3. I own all of these books. Combat Team was, by far, the hardest in my opinion! Excellent series.

  4. Ran across your blog during my recent cold war web trolling, lots of useful stuff to look through! Excellent book review, I'll have to track them down for a lookise ....


  5. Well Antal was an armor officer! I was in the US Army at the time that these books came out and I only got the armor book because it was professional reading for me. He's spot on most of the time. I don't think he spent a whole lot of time on the inter-personal stuff that really happens in the field. Contrary to public perception soldier aren't unthinking automatons. They are people with all the same quirks, oddities, tempers, and skills as anybody else. The only difference is profession and that is the profession of going into some foreign place and meeting their foes on a battlefield! Leadership is as much organizing these oddballs into a coherent unit as it is tactics and logistics. That's the one place where I think Antal is a bit light on. And a tank platoon is even more so than say an infantry platoon. A tank platoon has only 16 guys in it and they are broken down into sub-units of 4 (tank = squad) and 8 (section, which is two squads in US service). Everyone really knows everyone else very well in a tank platoon and having even two sergeants who can't stand each other can really have an adverse affect on the platoon's cohesion and morale. And losing a crew can be shattering to morale too! That's all because a tank platoon is such a small unit. I think that was an important element that Antal glosses over. Not every platoon is perfect with all the sergeants being "Johnny on the spot" and all the crews being profession and on top of things. That's the platoon leader's and sergeant's fight and I've seen it from time to time.

    But still, great book!

  6. Thanks for the detailed comment. Your input/insight is much appreciated.


  7. John Antal retired about 8-10 years ago as a Colonel, culminating as the G3 of III Corps at Fort Hood, TX. He currently works as editor of ARMCHAIR GENERAL.

    His 1999 novel of a near-future war in Korea, PROUD LEGIONS, is a nice compliment to his interactive series you reviewed.