In the mid-1960s, political scientist Lincoln Bloomfield decided that a major war in the late 20th century would start not with a bang but a whimper. It was Bloomfield's contention then, and it is conventional wisdom now, that a nuclear confrontation would begin with a minor conflict ``spinning out of control.''
So, to help his students -- and United States State Department officials -- become more familiar with the way low-level conflict can escalate, Bloomfield and colleague Amelia Leiss ventured forth into the then-daring new world of computers. They designed a data-based system that could call up and compare data on more than 60 ``small wars'' that have taken place since 1945. 30,000 facts at your fingertips
Do you seem to have misplaced your mental files on the West Irian Crisis in 1962 (when Indonesia challenged Netherlands sovereignty in Dutch New Guinea), or the Quemoy-Matsu conflict in 1955 (when Communist China started shelling islands held by the Nationalists)? The Computer Aided-System for Information on Local Conflicts (CASCON), the system Bloomfield helped design, can inform you up to your ears.
There are 500 pieces of background information (more than 30,000 in all) on the most important factors leading to each small war. Further, the system can compare these factors with the development of any conflict -- real or imagined -- the student might enter in.
While students find CASCON fun, they also find it a serious challenge -- not a candidate for the video parlor.
After lengthy research in the library on, say, the Peloponnesian War in ancient Greece, they can type in a point-by-point summary of what they see as the causes and conditions that led to conflict. The analysis must include economic, social, and religious issues, as well as the character and ambitions of the leaders involved.
Based on this data, CASCON displays wars that are similar in some or many respects. Students then are asked to formulate policy recommendations based on the comparisons. The process ``moves students beyond two-dimensional learning,'' says Bloomfield.
Political science Prof. Chadwick Alger at Ohio State says the uniqueness of the CASCON system, which Bloomfield calls a ``little historian,'' is that it includes ``real world data'' on many more conflicts than other similar systems in classroom use. Generally, comparative research takes place with only one or a few such wars. Games for State Department
In the upcoming years, Bloomfield, who will design ``political gaming sessions'' for the State Department this spring, expects that new software and data bases will be developed that can help in conflict-management research. Thus far, very little work has been done in tracking conflict patterns at the international level, he says, in the way police departments, for example, track patterns of crime.
Since 1974, CASCON has been housed in a large mainframe computer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a few months, however, an upgraded version will be available on floppy disk. This version will include data on conflicts in the Falklands, Grenada, and El Salvador, as well as other technological, resource, and geopolitical factors not available when the earlier version was prepared.-- R. M.