The Foggy Facemask of (Fake) War: Paintball, Tactics, Skill, and Luck

Today I went to a paintball course for what must have been the first time since my elementary or middle school days. I found myself just as fired up as I’m sure I was back then (if not more so), with all my military history and tactical knowledge bubbling up.

As I watched teams play I was certain I knew what the players were doing wrong – and what they should be doing to win. People were fighting solo and not working together or using “covering fire.” I stood there satisfied with my “superior tactical knowledge” of infantry movements which I’ve derived entirely from books, podcasts, and film.

Then I actually got on the field.

There’s a term in military tactics/history called “the fog of war.” Basically, war creates all kinds of chaos which can obscure a clear view. And today I got a little taste of that- literally: on a cold wet day like ours, our facemasks quickly fogged up, making visibility hit or miss. I could hardly see 20 feet in front me, let alone well enough to pick out semi-hidden targets. Without visibility, I was an easy target and an unhelpful team member.

This foggy facemask issue crystallized for me all the ways in which actual battle might be far harder to manage on the ground. With paintballs flying thickly (automatic weapons will do that) and limited cover, it’s remarkably simple to get separated from the team you’re supposed to work with. Once you give away your position by firing, it’s also hard to escape the fate of being pinned down.

All sorts of circumstantial challenges show up. Maybe you slip and slide in the mud, or walk into a trench full of water. Or maybe in the same fog of war, you overestimate your enemy’s closeness to you, yielding valuable time and initiative.

From all of these experiences I got a very distant, faint taste of the chaos of battle. That in turn gave me a new understanding of the skill involved in fighting. In all the movies, battle becomes something of a matter of courage and strength, but the reality is that battle involves precise, specialized skills (like inspecting a sample in a microscope) ranging beyond just shooting to include team communication, effective movement, and effective planning. And fighters have to use those skills while bullets fill the air around them. That’s an impressive show of technical skill and thinking.

I also got the impression that a good deal of a battle’s outcome has to do with something like luck. If the wind shifts one paintball a little to the left, your best on-the-ground tactician may out of the game. And with the speed of battle, little things like that escalate into your side losing.

All that’s to say that with paintball (fake battle), as with most things, the tactical doing is much harder than the tactical saying – and I can only imagine the struggles soldiers have had to bear while trying to survive on much muddier, foggier, more dangerous fields in the past.

Photo by Dylan McLeod on Unsplash

P.S. All war is waste.

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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