On a recent morning, 15 teenage girls and young women reported for duty at an office overlooking the Pentagon. Their mission: Save the world from nuclear war.
"This is where I want you to stop being you," said Stacie Pettyjohn, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a defense think tank. "You're going to have to start to role-play."
Pettyjohn was leading a war-game exercise on North Korea. Typically, military commanders and policymakers use war gaming to test strategies and their likely consequences. But nothing about this game was typical. It was designed by women — RAND's "Dames of War Games" — for teenagers from Girl Security, a nonprofit that introduces girls to defense issues. The partnership was a first for both groups; it's among a series of recent efforts to boost women's participation in national security.
"You have to fight," Pettyjohn told the teens. "You are the military commanders."
The scenario Pettyjohn laid out was bleak. U.S. talks with North Korea had collapsed, and deadly tit-for-tat attacks had spiraled into open conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Half the teens would join the blue team, assuming the roles of U.S. and allied South Korean generals. The others went to the red team, playing North Korean leaders determined to stay in power.
The teens immediately broke into their respective groups to study maps and take a look at their arsenals. Little plastic figurines represented the weapons – daggers for special forces, a ship for naval assets, a "cyber token" for electronic warfare and so on.
The blue team's Alexis Visser, 19, pushed her game pieces around the map. With each move, she was thinking about what North Korea might do in retaliation.
"Is North Korea's mindset, like, taking it to an urban area?" Visser asked. "Would they still be willing to use a chemical weapon in an urban setting?"
"That's a good question," Pettyjohn said, before giving a detailed answer about unintended consequences of chemical warfare.
The girls asked about which routes refugees were taking and whether they would have access to drones. Their inexperience was evident only in flashes, such as when one teen asked a basic question probably shared by many Americans: "So, say you were to denuclearize North Korea. Can't they just make more?"
Girl Security founder Lauren Bean Buitta beamed as she watched the teams plot attacks and counterattacks. She said they reminded her of herself at that age, a young girl who loved war movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket but didn't meet a woman in the defense industry until she was in her 20s.
The girls in her program now have that chance sometimes before they can drive or vote.
"I was that age and I was doing those types of things, except it was in my basement with my brother, the two of us playing together," Bean Buitta said. "So it fills me with such joy that they feel confident in their ability to stand around a table and talk about very complex issues."
In their first moves, the girls got used to having infantry forces and artillery at their fingertips. They quickly found that power — even the imaginary kind — can be intoxicating. For the red team, especially, there was a certain thrill in being the "bad guy," North Korea, which is the so-called hermit kingdom, the most sanctioned country on Earth. When you're a global pariah, you don't have to play by the rules.
"I'm loving it!" said Rose Kelly, an 18-year-old who floated the use of chemical weapons just minutes into the game.
The coaches from RAND said they wanted the girls to fully embody their roles, to challenge themselves by considering a thorny conflict from all sides. If they end up pursuing careers in national security, the coaches said, they're still likely to face moments where they're the only women in a meeting.
As she watched the teens confidently planning their maneuvers, RAND war gamer Jenny Oberholtzer said it made sense that they're good at this.
"I can't imagine a better training for thinking about trying to win an unfair fight when things are stacked against you than being a teenage girl," Oberholtzer said. "Someone who just finished high school while growing up as a girl is probably going to be one of your fiercer fighters who knows what to do with a limited tool set."
For a couple of the girls, there was also a personal dimension to the scenario.
Crystal Lee, an 18-year-old who just graduated from high school, said she was hesitant at first to play for the red team because "it's like playing devil's advocate." Not just as an American, but because of her family ties to South Korea, which the red team was targeting. It wasn't lost on Lee that, for many on the peninsula, this is not a game.
"As a Korean American, I grew up in Virginia, but my parents immigrated from South Korea," she said. "It puts a more real-life aspect to what we're doing today."
And on the blue team, there was Visser, the 19-year-old who had asked about urban warfare. She's an Army reservist who comes from a military family. The little plastic figurines she was moving around the map could represent people she knows, maybe even herself one day.
"That's the one thing I've had on my mind this whole time," she said.
Visser played around with the pieces, looking for the best way to keep her forces safe. Maybe she could pair artillery with armor to attack? But she soon ran into the ugly reality of war.
"There's just no way around military casualties, soldier casualties," Visser said. "It's something that has made a very real picture in my mind. If anything was to happen like this, how we could put in danger people I know, friends, family, people I work with?"
The RAND game designers said the goal is to urge the teens to find the smartest strategy to guard the interests of their respective sides. But they also wanted the players to think hard about the stakes involved in a game of brinksmanship between two nuclear powers.
As the hours wore on, it became clear to the players how quickly even a measured escalation could spin out of control and expand the conflict. By the end of the game, North Korea had used chemical weapons and deployed a nuclear land mine but lost much of its ground forces. The U.S. and South Korean side also suffered heavy casualties after a chemical attack.
"The situation is not good," Pettyjohn said, surveying the game board.
Nobody won. Nobody ever wins in this simulation, which is why policymakers complain that their North Korea options range from bad to worse. RAND's Ellie Bartels told the players that professional military planners struggle with the same frustrations they did.
"One of the things we hope to do with war games is help people plan for wars so we never have to fight them," Bartels said. "And this is not a pretty war. It's a war that's not going to be low-cost, either, in terms of money or lives."
In the "hot wash," war game parlance for the dialogue and recap that comes after playing, several teens said they struggled with using unconventional weapons, even if they knew the scenario was fictional. Kelly, the red team member who was amped about chemical weapons, thanked her teammates for tempering some of her trigger-happy impulses.
"It's really easy to forget the human cost," she said. "Too easy."
Before they broke for the day, RAND's Becca Wasser told the players that this war game was special to her; she called it a highlight of her career to work with smart, young leaders-in-training. She also announced that each player would take home a souvenir — a miniature tank bedazzled with glitter.
"I want to see these on your desks at the Pentagon, when you are the CEO of Google, when you are teaching history, whatever it is you decide to do in your careers," Wasser said.
The young women said they were also taking away a newfound confidence from their glimpse into the national security sisterhood they hope to join one day. Some want to go into cybersecurity, others into human rights work or to intelligence.
Lee said her favorite part about the day was meeting professional women working in the field she wants to enter. She said the experience made her visualize a place for herself in national security.
"Some of us are going to college and some of us are still in high school, but in our near future, we're going to be one of them, empowering other young women," Lee said. "That time frame seems far away, but here we are already interacting with them in real-life situations. It puts this perspective on just how short it is before we become those women."