Thursday, March 26, 1998
"The feats I've done over my time meant nothing for I've stood on shoulders of giants."
-Sir Isaac Newton
When a verbal portrait of Bill Gates is painted, it's usually with words like: "Visionary" and "Innovator." Are they true? Visionary? Yes. It takes a man of vision to accomplish some of the things that Bill Gates has accomplished. But is he an innovator? No. Bill Gates' success has little if anything to do with his or even Microsoft's ability to write software. His success can more easily be attributed to good timing, marketing acumen and a little luck.
Bill Gates was born outside Seattle, Washington in 1955. The child of socially prominent parents, he was first introduced to computers at the prestigious Lakeside School in Seattle in the late 1960s (Gates, 1). His interest in computers and programming continued into his teens and his first years at Harvard. It was during this period, that the first micro-processors capable of controlling "microcomputers" were invented. In 1975, Gates and his friend, Paul Allen, dropped out of college to form a company committed to writing software for these microcomputers. They called it Microsoft (Gates, 17).
In the beginning, all Microsoft did was write versions of the BASIC programming language for all the new micro and personal computers that were becoming popular in the late 1970s. (Machines like the Altair, the Apple II and the TRS-80.) The most successful of these computer companies was Apple Computer, Inc. which dominated the personal computer market until the early 1980s. Apple lost a great deal of its business to IBM and dozens of other computer manufacturers making IBM compatible, or clone, computers. One of the key decisions that contributed to the success of the IBM PC was the decision to use "off the shelf" components in both hardware and software. When the original IBM PC was sold, it came with the Microsoft Disk Operating System (MS-DOS). But this choice raises some interesting questions.
When it came to big mainframe computers, IBM was the premiere company with over 80% of the mainframe market. Personal computers, however, were the things of electronics hobbyists. IBM saw the business potential of these new devices and felt that embracing an open standard was the quickest way to get a machine on the market with their logo. They approached Microsoft in 1980 to discuss writing an operating system for their machine and purchased the royalty-free right to use MS-DOS for a one time fee of $80,000. This was a shrewd move on the part of Bill Gates who would see MS-DOS quickly become an industry standard with the strength of IBM's reputation solidly behind it (Gates, 54). What most people seem to forget, however, is that Microsoft was still a very small company. It wasn't even incorporated until 1981, the same year that IBM introduced its personal computer. On top of that it was run by a 24-year-old college drop out. Why would a multi-billion dollar company like IBM approach the likes of Bill Gates, let alone bet its reputation on him coming through in time to deliver their PC? John Opel, a top executive at IBM at the time, served on the national board of United Way. This, in and of itself is not unusual, but there was one other member of the board that may have had some influence in IBM's decision to go with Bill Gates and Microsoft. (A woman by the name of Mrs. Mary Gates. Bill's mother.) It could be just a coincidence; it has been rumored in the industry that Mrs. Gates may have mentioned her son's venture to Opel. Though there's no smoking gun, one thing is for sure: Opel, who is now retired, won't talk about it (Wallace & Erickson, 189).
Another question that comes to mind is when exactly did Microsoft go from writing BASIC to writing operating systems? Well, they didn't. DOS was not originally a Microsoft product. They had actually bought an operating system from Seattle Computer Products called QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System), which was in turn an imitation of another operating system called C/PM. Microsoft also hired Seattle Computer Products' top programmer and, together, worked some programming magic and christened their new OS baby MS-DOS (Gates, 53). This was, undeniably, Microsoft's and Bill Gates' first big success.
The next major "breakthrough" for the company was an upgrade to DOS that looked like a revolution. The majority of computers sold today run Microsoft's Windows 95 operating system. As its name infers, it was introduced in 1995 with much hype, fanfare and blatant commercialism. People were lining up outside of software stores to buy this piece of software like rock and roll fans line up for concert tickets. A concert that over forty million other people already saw... twelve years earlier and conceived even earlier than that.
In 1973, Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC) developed what can truly be called the first computer with a Graphical User Interface (GUI) designed to be operated by a single user. This computer was called the Alto and used a system sometimes referred to as WIMP. An acronym for "Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointer." It was controlled with the ubiquitous computer keyboard and a strange looking device with three buttons called a mouse. Because of the high cost of development, Xerox never sold it. PARC was a kind of technological playground where anything goes even if it would cost too much to market. So, the Alto remained unnoticed by the outside world until 1979 when Steve Jobs and Bill Atkinson of Apple computer paid a visit and were inspired (Linzmayer, 60).
On January 19, 1983, Apple introduced the first commercially available computer with a graphical user interface. It was called the Lisa, having kept its company code name. Commercially, the Lisa was not very successful. It was overpriced and underpowered but the technology that it used set the stage for a major change in the way people worked with computers (Linzmayer, 69). And it was something that Bill Gates took notice of. Ten months later, he announced the development of a graphical user interface to be incorporated into DOS that was simply called "Windows" giving DOS users the same functionality of windows, icons, menus and a pointer controlled by a mouse. Two months later, the real revolution began when Apple introduced the Macintosh (Linzmayer, 264). (The first commercially successful computer with a graphical user interface.) Microsoft had worked closely with Apple in the Macintosh's development. The company wrote programs for the new platform, like Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel, and remains the number one developer of Macintosh software. This investment in time and money was a calculated move by Gates. He wanted the Macintosh to succeed. The more successful the Macintosh became, the more accepting people would be of using a graphical interface on a personal computer (Gates, 59). A year later, Microsoft released Windows 1.0 (Linzmayer, 247).
The Macintosh was Apple's proverbial ace up its sleeve. It saw IBM PCs and clones eating up its market share and it had to have a product that could really compete. In an interview in the February 1984 issue of Fortune , Steve Jobs said, "We're not going to sell five million [Macs] a year by being IBM compatible. We're going to do it by making a second industry standard." In the November 26 issue of BusinessWeek that same year, Bill Gates stated that "the next generation of interesting software will be done on the Macintosh, not the IBM PC." From that point on, if software developers wanted to reach an absolute majority of computer users, they developed their software for both the Macintosh and the IBM Personal Computer.
Prior to the release of Windows, Gates felt he was in a bit of a bind. He didn't want to be sued by Apple for making Windows look too much like the Mac so he played hardball by threatening to halt development of the successful (and very lucrative) programs Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel for the Macintosh if Apple sued. Gates and Apple's board knew that Microsoft wouldn't stop developing for the Mac. Microsoft was making a lot of money from Macintosh software, it always has, but Apple's CEO, at the time, John Sculley, was made of softer stuff and took Gates at his "word," hook, line and sinker even going so far as to sign an agreement virtually giving the Mac's interface to Microsoft in exchange for continued software development (which was never in fear of being lost to begin with.) (Linzmayer, 247).
It was after this fiasco that Gates really got cocky. Microsoft continued to develop Windows, now without fear of reprisal from Apple. Though Apple did try to sue Microsoft for copyright infringement, the courts dismissed Apple's case in part because of the 1985 Sculley agreement. Sculley would eventually leave Apple in 1993. Steve Jobs left the company in September of 1985 to start NeXT, Inc. In 1989 Jobs had complained about the similarity between Windows and the Macintosh. Bill Gates responded in the March 14 issue of MacWeek by saying, "Hey, Steve, just because you broke into Xerox's house and took the TV doesn't mean I can't go in later and take the stereo."
What's really ironic is that six years earlier, Apple succeeded in a lawsuit against Franklin Computer Corporation for copying Apple II technology to sell Apple II compatible systems. Bill Gates even wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times saying, "Imagine the disincentive to software development if after months of work another company could come along and copy your work and market it under its own name... Without legal restraints on such copying, companies like Apple could not afford to advance the state of the art."
Microsoft continued its development of Windows and in 1990 introduced version 3.0 of the operating system. It was far from being as easy to use as the Macintosh but it was given the blessed description of "good enough" by many business and home users to upgrade. Meanwhile, the Macintosh was maturing into a full 32-bit OS with System 7 and was still a graphical system from the ground up unlike DOS based Windows.
In 1995, Windows 4.0 was released. By this time, Microsoft had done away with version numbers. It would now name its products by the year in which they were introduced just like the automotive industry. With the release of Windows 95, through all the fanfare and the hype, there was still a voice in Apple computer. They bought multi-page ads in national magazines that said, in part: "Introducing Windows 95. It lets you use more than eight characters to name your files. It has a trash can you can open and take things out of again. It lets you drop files anywhere you want on the desktop. Imagine that." and on the following page: "In short, it makes a PC more like a Macintosh--you know, the Macintosh we built back in 1984." The ads went on to discuss numerous advantages that the Macintosh still had over Windows. But regardless of this and similar ads, Microsoft's operating system, which blatantly becomes more and more like a Macintosh with every release, secured Microsoft's place in the home and business market. (Leaving Apple to scramble to retain at least a respectable niche.)
In 1994, a little company called Mosaic Communications was formed. Their function: designing software for use on the internet. (Software for hosting web sites, networking businesses and, most importantly, selling a little program called "Navigator.") Navigator was a web browser, designed to let computer users easily "navigate" the complex and graphical world of the internet. The company soon changed its name to Netscape Communications and rose in popularity so quickly that it took Bill Gates completely by surprise.
Gates, at the time, felt that the internet was just too complicated for home users. He was certain that the future connectivity of personal computers would be through so called on-line services like America On-Line, Prodigy, CompuServe and the fledgling, albeit unoriginal, Microsoft Network. But he soon realized that in order for Microsoft to continue to succeed, he would have to bet the whole company on the internet, and he would start... with somebody else's idea.
Microsoft started by developing a web browser of their own called, "Internet Explorer." Like Netscape's Navigator, it was based on a program called Mosaic, which was written by Marc Andreeson. Andreeson went on to found Mosaic Communications and the rest, as they say, is history. The first versions of Internet Explorer didn't have all the bells and whistle's that Navigator had matured to, but it did fill two basic needs: It was functional and it didn't cost anything. In an attempt to make up for lost time in the development of a browser, Bill Gates decided that his customers would want a browser with fewer features, as long as they didn't have to pay for it.
Microsoft then got into a game of technological leapfrog with Netscape. (Each company racing to have the newest and best features in their browsers.) As Microsoft got closer and closer to full compatibility with Netscape's browser, it gained in market share. Unfortunately, the browser war between these two companies has resulted in a stalemate that only pains the end user. When each browser offers features the other lacks it creates an environment where open standards are no longer the rule. It was hoped that the internet would be a neutral zone where all platforms, Windows, Macintosh, Unix, etc., could freely communicate with each other. But Bill Gates' desire to control even the platform agnostic internet has resulted in stalled development of the language of the internet and herding of even more users to his already dominant operating system.
When we step back and take in the big picture, we see that the course Bill Gates and Microsoft has taken over the last two decades has largely been reactionary. Sure, Gates can throw around words like "innovation" and "state of the art" but rarely does that innovation actually come from Microsoft. Bill Gates has been very good at keeping his eyes open to new trends, jumping right on top of them and taking control. He did it with the personal computer, he did it with the graphical OS and, after almost missing the paradigm shift, he saw it in the internet. But, if I may paraphrase Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, "it didn't take any discipline on Microsoft's part to make these products. Gates read and saw what others were doing and he took the next step (sometimes backwards). They didn't earn the knowledge for themselves so they don't take any responsibility for what are often third rate products. They stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as they could and before they had products that were even worth buying, they packaged it, slapped it in a shrink wrapped cardboard box and sold it!"
There's nothing wrong with competition. Competition is healthy. It breeds innovation and offers customers a choice. Competition in the style of Richard Branson and the Virgin Group is an excellent example of profitable and healthy competition. Branson knows that he'll never beat British Airways with Virgin Air. He knows he'll never beat Coke or Pepsi with Virgin Cola or any other major product that he adds his own spin to. He does it in the pure spirit of competition. He does it to keep the big guys on their toes. But when the object of competition is to drive others out of business, even when it means delivering an inferior product by whatever means necessary, then that company has moved beyond competition and into the unfair and unethical realm of a monopoly.
Microsoft's actions over the last several years have caught the attention of the United States Department of Justice. Especially in its attempts in trying to control the Internet. It unfairly used its market position as the dominant OS vendor to force computer resellers to use its web browser, Internet Explorer, over Netscape's Navigator. Microsoft's defense for this action, "Internet Explorer is not a program. It's a feature of the Windows operating system." Meanwhile, everyone who is running Internet Explorer on a Macintosh or Unix based computer is asking, "How is Internet Explorer on my machine a feature of an operating system I don't even use?"
By calling Microsoft an "Innovative company," Bill Gates does a great disservice to the real creators that inspired him. On the subject of innovation, Microsoft is a company that holds a total of 417 patents. Is that a lot? In the high tech industry, no! Apple Computer holds over 800 patents. IBM holds the world record in patents numbering in the tens of thousands. When it comes to innovation, Microsoft is small potatoes and Bill Gates is really nothing more than a clever showman. He needs competition to keep giving him new ideas. He needs Netscape, he needs Apple and he needs that unknown programmer working in a garage coming up with the next big thing because Bill Gates isn't clever enough to come up with it himself.
Gates, Bill. The Road Ahead . Penguin Books USA, Inc., New York, NY
pp. 1, 17, 53, 54, 59
Linzmayer, Owen W. The Mac Bathroom Reader . SYBEX Inc., Alameda, CA
pp. 60, 69, 247, 264
Wallace, James and Erickson, Jim. Hard Drive : Bill Gates and the Making of
the Microsoft Empire . Harperbusiness, New York, NY,
Tuesday, March 24, 1998
None of us were sure where we were. The vehicle we arrived in had no windows. It traveled a good two-hundred KPH and never hovered more than forty centimeters above the surface of the expressway. The ride was long and uneventful. As we traveled, we watched a video program discussing what we might endure in our training. We were told to expect hardship. Physical, mental and emotional. The training would be difficult and many of us would not complete it. There were more than fifty of us in our group. We would train with one-hundred-fifty to two-hundred more once we arrived. But the number that would complete the training would be far fewer.
When our vehicle stopped, we felt it hover for a few minutes then lower itself to the asphalt, the clang of metal on the tarmac riveted throughout the body of the transport. The interior lights went out. The video screens shut off and there was only silence. We were afraid. Our heartbeats deafened us as we waited in quiet agony for it all to begin. A door opened and a drill instructor entered the vehicle wearing the black uniform of The State. We were welcomed to the training facility with screaming and the thunder of weapons fire as we ran out of the transport and into a crude formation. We already endured intense physical examinations before arriving and met the strict physical requirements for serving The State. Thus, we were found able to endure physical punishment early on. One trainee attempted to smuggle in a portable media player. He hid the media player beneath his belt and the audio transceiver in his ear. It would have been unnoticeable, had he not attempted to adjust the device while in formation. He was pulled out of the formation and forced to the ground. His hand, still holding the device, was brought up behind his back until he released it. Then the transceiver was fished out of his ear and crushed underneath the boot of another drill instructor.
"Were you not told to leave all media behind, Trainee?" the instructor screamed at him.
"Yes, Sir," the trainee strained to say, his arm still twisted behind his back.
Two other trainees who turned to see what was happening were also brought out of formation and forced to the ground. I was near the rear of the formation and could see all that was happening. The rest of us quickly learned to ignore the disciplining of our comrades lest we be disciplined beside them.
We would see no bunk that first night. Though the air and asphalt were cold, the light of the moon revealed that we were in the middle of a desert. If anyone had thoughts of running away, the act only of a coward, we were assured that if The State didn't kill you in the attempt, the heat and the vastness of the desert would. We marched to what appeared to be an aircraft hanger to be issued our training uniforms and other essential materials and equipment. When we had all of our gear, it was time to move into our quarters. We got into formation outside of the hanger. It was morning. The sun was high in the east and the desert heat was starting to make itself known to us. Before going to our barracks, we stopped at the dining facility. We entered wearing our crisp new uniforms and looking... out of place. Though to our untrained eyes the other senior trainees looked like seasoned veterans, they were only keen to the routines of their respective levels in training. Many would still never see graduation. Training was a constant weeding out process. First, they weeded out the weak. Then they weeded out those who refused to conform. Finally, they weeded out those who probably would never survive. To graduate was more than an honor. It was more than a first step in your career. It was proof to yourself and to The State that you have what it takes to survive. It was a baptism by fire. A communion with death. A confirmation of life lived for the purposes of The State.
We dared not speak as we ate our first meal. We had only fifteen minutes to eat and then we were back in formation and marching to our barracks. Everything was always in a rush. We did little more than place our gear on our bunks before we were back in formation outside. An announcement was made throughout the training facility that all new trainees were to report to an indoctrination meeting. We marched across the facility, the sun beating down on our bodies clad in the gray uniforms of trainees. We arrived at a parade ground where over two-thousand new trainees stood in formation facing the senior staff of The State Initial Training Facility. We then played audience for the next two hours to a carefully choreographed parade singing praises to The State and its perseverance through the last century. Its survival in the face of opposition from outside and within. Its triumph over the tyrannical rule of more primitive nation-states in the world. Triumph in wars that were already won and wars that had yet to be fought. It ended with a procession of floats, if one could call them floats. Some were little more than large, primitive looking wagons. Each symbolizing the great nations and empires of the past that had since crumbled and were now eclipsed by the growing power and dominance of The State. From the ancient empires of Babylon and Rome to the fallen "Super Powers" of the Soviets and Americans. Their flags and symbols draped over floats in the procession as if they were the coffins of fallen heroes. In a way, they were. While The State was still relatively young compared to these empires and kingdoms at the peak of their power, it still had more control over the world than any three of them combined. And where there was control, there was peace. For that was the ultimate goal of The State: to bring peace to the world. Even if it meant the violent end to those who might oppose it.
Some of us could not stand through the entire program. Between a lack of sleep and the desert sun, it was simply too much for some to bear. They were removed and quickly out processed. The weeding had begun.
Our initial company of over two-hundred dwindled to one-hundred Twenty-eight in the first three weeks. A few lucky senior trainees were given a second chance by being reassigned to our company. Though they had some experience that we lacked, and offered us a few insights into what we could expect in the next couple of weeks, they were not given positions of great responsibility. In some cases, they had failed to keep up with the training of their original companies and were now given the privilege to continue their training with us. In other cases, their companies had been weakened in numbers so severely that they were dissolved and its members absorbed into new companies like ours. After absorbing these senior trainees, our company was back to its original strength.
Companies were organized into two platoons and each platoon was divided into four squadrons of between twelve and twenty-five trainees. I was Second Trainee in my squadron, so I was in a leadership position. It was my duty to motivate my trainees and supervise their learning as well as my own. In the classroom and in the field, my First and I would attend special training that we would in turn give to our subordinates. If we failed to do our jobs well, we could be replaced. Decisions of this nature were usually made by a drill instructor. In a few instances, the decision could be made by the First of a platoon.
Those of us that made it through the first half of training were now going to be transferred to a State Intermediate Training Facility. This intermediate phase of our training would be conducted in near combat conditions. Those of us who made it through would then be given the opportunity to have their place in The State secured. We would then go on to more specialized training on land, in the sea or in the air. But the first order in the next two phases was survival.
We marched to the airfield where we were greeted by two giant tilt-rotor aircraft. Each could carry a platoon of over one-hundred trainees. Here, we left behind our drill instructors. They had seen us through the first part of our training. In the coming weeks, we would look back on their heavy-handed philosophy and stern, sometimes abusive, treatment with nostalgia and even longing. The hard part of training hadn't even begun. It wasn't until we were inside and secured to our seats that we felt an eery familiarity to our situation. Once again, there were no windows in our transport. We would not know where we were going until we got there and even then, there were no guarantees. Despite having trained at the Initial Training Facility for nearly two months, we never did learn exactly where it was located, only that it was in the middle of a desert.
The wearing of chronometers was strictly prohibited for trainees with the exception of the trainee leaders like the First and Second Trainees of each squadron. However, our timepieces were confiscated prior to our departure. The flight was long enough to try and sleep. Ultimately, it made no difference as to how far we had traveled. Like the desert before, it didn't matter where we were only that The State required us to be there. The transports hovered above an asphalt airfield like they did that first morning of training. Only this time we were hundreds of meters above the ground instead of only centimeters.
When we finally landed and the tilt-rotors stopped, the interior lighting of the aircraft changed from the dim yellow they had maintained throughout the trip to an intense red. We stood up from our seats, as we were ordered, and shuffled to the door. When it opened, we were welcomed with the same intense heat that we endured in the desert but now it was accompanied by almost unbearable humidity. It was difficult to breathe and it would take us several days to acclimate. As we left the aircraft, we assumed our, now usual, formation in the field. As we formed up, we took a brief opportunity to see where we were. The airfield was a clearing in the middle of a dense jungle. The only way out was a single road that could lead almost anywhere.
We were met by two new drill instructors. They wore the green and brown camouflage of Jungle Soldiers. We still wore the training uniforms from Initial Training but would soon wear uniforms similar to those of our new instructors. Only they would be in shades of gray. Until we had completed all of our training, we did not yet earn the privilege of wearing the uniform of The State. The first instructor informed us that we would march to our new quarters. It would take an hour at a leisurely pace which, we learned, was a double time march for those of us still accustomed to the routines of Initial Training.
We got there in a little over fifty minutes. This earned us only a few minutes to rest before moving into our quarters which were tents capable of holding a squadron each. My squadron consisted of only eighteen trainees. My First and I were quick to organize our personal areas and ensure that the rest of our people were finished and in formation before the other squadrons. Though a couple of squadrons did beat us to formation, it was only because they had fewer numbers, twelve to fifteen trainees, and they beat us only by seconds. While it was only a formation prior to our first meal in Intermediate Training, we learned early on that competition was the key to success in training for service to The State. Honest competition to be the first and to be the best was an excellent motivator and, ultimately, the key to survival.
While the intensity of Initial Training often resulted in injuries on the part of trainees, rarely did a trainee lose his life. Though some wounds didn't heal sufficiently for a trainee to go on to serve The State and others were out processed with disabilities (though The State was not obligated to assist a former trainee who never saw actual service), Initial Training was not life threatening. But in Intermediate Training, where near combat conditions were the norm, it was not unusual for lives to be lost. It was very rare that a company endured its combat training without even minimal casualties. Survival at the Intermediate Training Facility didn't just mean moving on to specialty training. It meant being one step closer to earning the privilege of serving The State.
Our first meal in the jungle was in one of several large tents that doubled as lecture halls and class rooms. The rules were not as strict as they were in Initial Training but time constraints were still in place. New companies arrived two or three times a week so there was the constant shuffle of instructors and trainees about the main base. It was a far cry from the evenly spaced barracks, school houses and training centers in the desert. This new base was much larger and spread out in a maze of trails and training areas that were as tangled as the jungle vines themselves. Our training would consist of combat, search and destroy missions, wilderness survival and long, seemingly endless, treks into the depths of the jungle. A jungle that could be just as deadly as any enemy of The State. Our first lecture followed our evening meal and discussed the many ways a trainee could lose his life if he or she wasn't careful in and around the facility. Our company would lose its first trainee a week after arriving from a snake bite near the obstacle course.
It was a natural clearing in the jungle. A fire had burned through it about ten years before and it never fully recovered. Now it was a firing range. We had come here before when we trained with the more powerful and capable combat weapons which we now carried with us twenty-four hours a day. But on this day, we were training to use a new weapon. A rocket-propelled grenade. We were taken to the range one platoon at a time and spread along the line by squadron. Most had dwindled to more manageable groups of a dozen or so but a couple, including my own, still retained between eighteen and twenty trainees. My First and I decided to split our squadron into two groups of nine so we could train more easily. As was customary, the First and Second of each squadron were trained with the weapon first so they might assist the instructors in training their subordinates. I was already familiar with the weapon through lectures and reading available manuals and instructions relating to its use. But this was the first time I held it in my own hands. I familiarized myself with its weight and how it felt as I positioned it in the appropriate manner to be fired. As I was instructed, I loaded the weapon and released the safety.
"Do you see that fallen tree, Trainee?" asked my instructor.
"Yes, Sir," I said. The tree was gigantic. Centuries old when it fell, I suppose during the great fire. It was now rotting and falling apart with every rain shower and gust of wind in the open clearing.
"Trainee, I want you to finish what nature has started for you. Do you see where the tree was broken a few meters from the ground?"
"Yes, Sir. Do you want me to completely knock it over?"
"That's right. Fire when ready."
I brought the weapon up and aimed. When I pulled the trigger, the rocket fired and formed an arch of smoke between myself and the fallen tree. But it overshot my target and exploded on the other side.
"That's not what I wanted, Trainee," said my instructor.
"Then I will try again, Sir." I loaded another round into the weapon and aimed again. I heard another weapon fire nearby. It was my First aiming at a different target. The muffled applause that followed informed me that he had hit it. I then fired my weapon and this time the device fell short exploding in front of the tree. It shuddered as the blast threw shrapnel against the aging wood, but didn't fall.
"Trainee, Im giving you one more chance. If you don't knock that tree over, you will no longer be Second."
"I understand." I loaded the third round into the weapon. My position in the squadron now depended on this shot. I aimed the weapon again and fired. The smoke trail arched once again and impacted squarely against the tree, exploding and shattering the already crumbling trunk. What was left of the tree fell to the ground in a loud thump kicking up mud and decomposing plant matter around it.
"Excellent work, Second. Now show your subordinates how to load and fire the weapon."
"Yes, Sir." I proceeded to instruct the trainee behind me in arming the weapon. As I did so, I heard the explosion of another grenade. But I didn't hear the sound of the rocket preceding it. I heard screams and turned to see what had happened. The other half of my squadron was scattered from where they were firing. As the smoke cleared, I saw three bodies laying on the ground. One was an instructor; the others were trainees including my First. My instructor ordered my group to remain then had me follow him to the site of the accident. When we arrived, we knew there was nothing we could do. They were dead. The rest of the platoon halted their training and the other instructors simply waited as if this sort of thing happened before. I later learned that it had. Not necessarily at the firing range, but usually in near combat situations. They merely waited. I didn't know what to think or say. I couldn't recognize my First except for the name embroidered onto his now bloody and shredded uniform. The other trainee appeared to be standing too close when the grenade had exploded prematurely. My instructor turned to me and ordered me to gather my squadron together. I had them in formation and requested instruction.
"Trainee," said the instructor, "who is the next senior trainee after you?" I pointed out another trainee that had been with the company from the beginning. As I looked at her, I realized that she had arrived with me at Initial Training on the same transport. I called her forward and we stood by the instructor. He then looked at me and said, "Trainee, you are now the First for your squadron." He then looked to the trainee I brought forward and said, "You are the Second." The instructor brought a portable communications device to his mouth and had the other instructors end the training. The company formed up and marched back to the main base. We would learn to use the rocket-propelled grenade another day. For now, there was other training that could be done and there were bodies that needed to be disposed of.
They weren't the first to die... and they weren't the last. We lost a few trainees in a search and destroy exercise. Another was killed in an airborne exercise when her chute failed to open. And we lost a few others who simply couldn't handle the mental stress of the training. As the weeks wore on, the training got harder and more realistic. Finally, our opportunity to have our place in The State secured had come. Our last month of training was a "Full Theater Simulation." What used to be called a "War Game." The six most senior companies were divided into two opposing forces of six hundred men and women each. An objective was declared. Territory had to be taken to guarantee victory. All of our knowledge and training was to be used in this simulation. Though our combat weapons were modified to fire lasers and we wore special sensors on our bodies to register injuries and kills, there was still a very real threat to the lives of the trainees. Lives were lost, mostly in accidents. In other cases, because of carelessness. The line between these two descriptions was a blurry one.
The simulation was difficult for both forces. It required transport to the Advanced Training Facility under all too familiar conditions. Though the environment this new facility was located in seemed a temperate compromise between the desert and the jungle, it was still a harsh place to fight even a simulated war. The combat areas ranged from urban locales to open fields and dense coniferous forests. Smaller preemptive operations were exercised at the jungle facility but this State owned territory was created to simulate every possible land-based combat environment.
Very little enemy territory was actually taken by either force even by the third week. The front lines remained relatively fluid for the greater part of the simulation. There was room to extend the operation, should it be needed, but in the few times that these simulations resulted in a stalemate, it usually meant recycling the best half of the trainees into more junior companies and out processing the remaining trainees to return to their civilian families in shame for failing to live up to the requirements of The State; especially after having had so much time and resources invested in them.
Through the attrition, by various means, of certain members of the company, I was now First of my platoon but I continued to fight alongside my original squadron. I lead them on a surveillance mission one night and we found the location of our objective. It was in a bunker at the top of a hill. We weren't actually sure what it was, though rumors in our force ranged from it being a simple flag to some sort of weapon. An unarmed cannon, perhaps, or even a classic sidearm. Whatever it was, we were certain that we knew its location and we were preparing an offensive operation to acquire it. Though the company Firsts became our tactical commanders, the instructors were our strategic advisors. When we informed them of the intelligence we had gathered, it seemed that the end of the simulation was at hand.
Our force was gathered together for a final briefing by our instructors. We were informed that this final offensive in the simulation would signify the end of our training. It was the aim of the instructors at all the Training Facilities to make us warriors for The State. Our performance during the simulation was being recorded and evaluations were being made to determine what specialized training we might go on to receive after these training objectives had been met. But it was with grave determination that our instructors informed us that, "It will only be those of you who survive this phase of your training, the final offensive in this simulation, that will go on to pursue careers in the service of The State."
We thought we understood what they had meant. We were young, but we were not strangers to death. We knew because we were children of the intensity and danger that went with training for State service. Watching our fellow trainees die offered us a cold reminder of that. But we were still naive enough to think that we had already seen the worst that peacetime training had to offer.
Through the smoke and gunfire of the simulation, we moved forward. The area surrounding the objective had been secured but victory would not be ours until the objective itself, whatever treasure was hidden in this bunker, was in our hands and available for presentation to our strategic advisors. As a platoon First, I had some pull in our force and I fought for my original squadron to be the one to secure the objective. We had, after all, gathered the original intelligence which helped us determine its location. With little infighting among the ranks, my squadron was given its honor. Of the original eighteen that had arrived, despite the attrition of some and absorbing a few others, ten of us remained. Our force lost a small number of trainees in the confusion of the battle field. But we didn't think about it. Simulated or not, to us, this was war; and in war, men and women die.
The objective bunker was at the top of a hill. It wasn't steep, but it was heavily guarded by the opposing force. We didn't know, until after the simulation had ended, that they were not even aware that the objective was located there. At the bottom of the hill was a trench lined with reinforced concrete. This was the first major obstacle we had to overcome in taking the hill. Once that was done, it was a matter of surrounding it, protecting it from the opposite side and fighting our way to the top. Once we arrived at the bunker, we would fight our way in, if necessary, and claim our prize.
But intelligence was something that worked both ways. Reconnaissance units from the opposing force saw our troops preparing for the offensive so they reinforced their positions on the hill. It was a tough fight, but we managed to break through, traversing the trench and snaking our way around both sides of the hill. An entire enemy platoon was positioned on the hill but they were trapped once we surrounded it. In our fighting, up until then, we had managed to weaken their force substantially, eliminating almost an entire company in the process. Our numbers had dwindled somewhat as well but we were able to maintain a strategic advantage through extensive use of intelligence gathering and search and destroy missions. Since we knew that this would be the final battle in the simulation, we threw everything we had at them leaving minimal troops behind to protect our base of operations. The opposing force, however, didn't think that this would be the deciding battle and left a much larger defensive unit behind thus weakening the troops assigned to guard the hill. A clear battle line was drawn between the hill and the opposing force and we split our troops evenly between the enemy positions at the bottom and the platoon at the top. It didn't take long before we had overwhelmed the enemy platoon by nearly two-to-one and secured the bunker. By the time the enemy platoon First had realized what they were sitting on, it was too late.
The battle raged on at the bottom of the hill and I radioed down to the tactical officer informing him that I was taking my squadron into the bunker. He gave us the go ahead and we smashed through the locked door. I was the first to walk through and found what appeared to be a command and control station. There were maps of the area and potential troop locations plotted in a ten-kilometer radius, including those of my own force. The maps rested on what appeared to be a crate. I then heard something. A short, high pitched, sound. My former Second Trainee, now First, of my original squadron was with me.
"Do you hear something?" I asked.
"A beeping sound?" she said.
"Yeah." I swept the maps off the crate and heard it again. "Its inside of this." I grabbed a bayonet from my pack and pried open the top of the crate. We looked inside and saw a metal canister with a digital interface on top of it. It beeped again and continued slowly for a few seconds. Then it became more regular. The display then blinked and showed a countdown beginning at ninety seconds. I looked closer and saw a symbol that I thought I'd never see in a simulation. My knees felt weak and my heart raced. I turned to the squad leader and we both started to run out of the bunker, pushing others out with us. As we emerged, I screamed, "Its a trap! Run to the trench!" We started down the hill as fast as we could move. The opposing forces that sat on the hill with their kill lights blinking on their uniforms were confused at first but then started running with us. I hadn't realized how far it was to the trench. And I knew now why it was constructed with reinforced concrete. I didn't dare stop to see how many would make it with me, if any. I just ran. When I got to the trench, I dove head first and saw a bright flash of light as I fell to the bottom and I covered my ears and closed my eyes as I heard the roar above the trench. I thought I saw someone jump in beside me but I wasn't sure. I just curled into a fetal position at the bottom and waited...
Eighteen of the original twenty-five in my squadron made it to the Intermediate Training Facility. Ten of those made it to Advanced Training. Of those ten only three of us remained. Of all the forces involved in the war game, some twelve hundred men and women, only four hundred remained. Fewer than twenty died during the course of the exercise. The majority died in that last fatal blast of a nuclear grenade. I couldn't understand it at first but it started to make sense as I stood with my comrades in a quiet graduation ceremony at the end of our training. As we stood in our crisp new black uniforms of The State, I realized that winning doesn't necessarily mean taking home a prize. Sometimes it just means survival. And lessons like this would ensure the survival of The State.