Under the god gun: battling a fake insurgency in the Army's imitation Iraq.
Across from the fruit stand, villagers wearing gingham head scarves and Middle Eastern-style robes over blue jeans and tennis shoes stood in the shade of a tin carport, listening to Arabic pop music wheedling from a ghetto blaster. Beneath a second carport, two older, sun-poached men in desert-drab fatigues were trying to outfit a villager's arm with a sleeve of gore-spattered rubber meat to make it look as though he had been freshly maimed by an improvised explosive device (IED). The villager, whose name was Louis Jones, was already missing part of his arm. An accident in a plywood mill a few years back had taken his hand, abbreviating his left forearm in a burl of flesh so flawlessly smooth it looked as though it had been shaped on a lathe. The phony wound was unappetizingly realistic: a dark claret color, subtly shiny as though flash-braised by the explosion's heat, and daubed here and there with highlights of venous blue. The illusion's sole defect was that it was studded with only one pale cross-section of bone, rather than the dual radius and ulna you'd see in the real thing. "Actually, this one's for where the foot's missing, but we'll make do," one of the uniformed men said huffishly, as though it peeved him to perpetrate even so minor a breach of battlefield verisimilitude.
The men were employees of Cubic, a defense contractor in charge of orchestrating village life in Mosalah as well as in the seventeen other villages that constitute Talatha, a fictional governance owned and operated by the U.S. Army's Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, Louisiana. The troops for whom Louis Jones and others would be enacting scenes of dismemberment and civil unrest on this late-summer day were attached to the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, out of Fort Riley, Kansas, bound for Iraq after the new year. The idea, one of the Cubic men told me, was to subject the troops to war's ghastliest scenarios here in the Louisiana woods so that they'd be fully braced for the horrors of combat in Iraq. "We want a soldier's worst day to be here, not on the battlefield."
In addition to Louis Jones, the man said, Cubic employed a full complement of "real life amputees," cherished for their usefulness in playing bomb victims. "We'll fix them up with moulage and blood bags and everything, so that when the soldiers come through, what they see looks every bit as real as what they'll be dealing with in-country."
The Cubic men reseated Jones's gory rubber cuff. They garlanded his neck with a slumping bladder of maroon food coloring, which fed an umbilicus of plastic tubing running under Louis Jones's shirt and through an egg-shaped pressure bulb that he could squeeze to send the food coloring spurting out of his injury. Louis Jones gave the men a thumbs-up and walked out into the soggy heat to await the troops' arrival.
Next to the costumers' carport was a resting police cruiser, Arabic script on its plates. Motley bunting of thrift-store clothes was strung up between the pine trees, beyond which a pair of scorched and dented trucks--the worse for many months' bombardment with simulated IEDs--tilted in the weeds. At the head of the village, the main avenue split off onto a smaller road identified as Liberation Loop, which ran in a noose shape through Mosalah proper. Along Liberation Loop were a gas station, its hand-lettered sign reading NO GAS AVALIBLE [sic], assorted plywood shanties, a garden planted and tended by role players and whose yield the villagers would actually eat on the job, and an ocher-hued hut with a gambrel roof and a couple of men smoking cigarettes in its cool interior gloom.
Back on the main road, a dozen or so dark-skinned men sat on a shady eminence of land, chatting in Arabic. When the visiting unit is training for a deployment to Iraq, as the 1st/1st was, Cubic stocks Talatha with hundreds of fluent Arabic speakers, known in JRTC argot as "Cultural Role Players." The CRPs are Iraqis, Kurds, Kuwaitis, Saudis, Iranians, who live in Arab and Kurdish diasporas in Michigan, Atlanta, Memphis, Houston, and elsewhere, and who are bused to Fort Polk for three-and-a-half-week stints and paid $220 per day to hector the soldiers in their native tongue. During training, non-Arabic speakers are forbidden to utter any English within earshot of the troops.
I squatted in the sand with Issim Abdul-Rahim, a native of Baghdad. Saddam Hussein's unending suite of wars, he said, had annihilated most of his family, which had once been quite large. Abdul-Rahim had left Iraq in the 1980s to avoid serving in Saddam's army and had resettled in Nashville, where he found work in a meat-processing plant. He still had a sister in Najaf, although what he'd heard of her life tinder the occupation made him feel a little wistful for the relative dispatch with which Hussein had managed the country. "We had security in old regime. There was no water shortage."
Being a Cultural Role Player, Abdul-Rahim told me, was arduous work. The days were long and hot, and if you didn't like sitting in the dirt, which teemed with biting ants, you had to bring your own chair. Nevertheless, he said, "You do it to help, to try to teach soldiers to understand Iraqis. And who knows, maybe the wrong person will not get shot."
From deep in the blind place where the lane curved off into the trees came the muttering of large engines and the thunking blather of helicopter rotors. Issim Abdul-Rahim removed his head scarf and mopped the hollows of his eyes. "Ah, they come."
As a trio of Humvees prowled into view, the villagers moved into the lane, forming a shuffling scrum. A few held prop merchandise--empty packs of cigarettes, a tin of ground pepper, oddments of glossy paper torn from magazines which they brandished in a kind of grouchy retail semaphore. A helmeted soldier protruded from the roof of the foremost vehicle, idly browsing the air with the barrel of his machine gun. Clinging to his gun's muzzle was a little red cage, on top of which was mounted a tiny monocular.
All weapons in Talatha shoot blanks, and firefights are essentially a game of technologically sophisticated, very loud laser tag. When you fire a round, the monocular discharges a laser burst whose range and accuracy reflect the gun's ballistic capabilities. Everybody involved in the role-play wears a harness studded with black-domed laser receivers, which look like ant traps and which chirp when they're pegged with laser fire. The harnesses also have little readouts telling you what sort of weapon hit you, from which the referees--known as Observer-Controllers (OCs)--can assess the extent of your wounds. Devastation by non-laser explosives is also determined by the OCs. There are six hundred of them on hand for each rotation. They wear short-billed camo caps rather than helmets, and they all carry "god guns," which look like industrial versions of the Telxon price scanners retail stockers wield. OCs use the god guns to reset the ant-trap rigs of the notionally dead or wounded soldiers and restore them to the exercise.
Units often bring their own air or armored ground support. Despite numerous safety precautions, actual injuries are all but inevitable under JRTC's lifelike battle conditions, and in 2002 two soldiers from the 101st Airborne were run over by a tank and killed during a predawn siege of a mock village. Less dangerous are the real battleships stationed in the Gulf of Mexico that at times assist Coalition forces in training. Units can call up a ship's artillery crew and request that they pretend to lob missiles at such-and-such coordinates, and JRTC explosives specialists will mark off an appropriate kill radius and declare everything within it blown to make-believe smithereens.
At the sight of the approaching villagers, one of the soldiers walking alongside the Humvees began to chum the barrel of his M-16 in nervous circles. The closer the Arabs drew, the more rapidly and tightly he churned. Issim Abdul-Rahim and the rest of the CRPs did not look so comfortable either. Under the scrutiny of the gun barrels, several of the men seemed involuntarily to turn their bodies sideways, as if to make more slender targets of themselves.
An uneasy peace held until the mule cart trotted up to greet the convoy. The gunner, angling his weapon at the mules, started roaring, "Get back! Get back!" while his fellow infantrymen shouldered their rifles and shifted nervously in their fatigues. But the mule skinner, an aging local cowboy named Herbert Peavy, was allowed to respond only to Arabic, not to English, so he balked his mules. The convoy stalled.
All of a sudden a gray comet of smoke burbled out of the pine woods and smacked into the pre-immolated hulk of a blue Chevy pickup truck, cuing a fountain of golden sparks, which sprouted from the truck bed in the shape of a peeled banana. Fort Polk's commanding general, Michael Barbero, who had just arrived in Mosalah to assess the proceedings, said that that was a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), which was vivified in the exercise by a piece of PVC tubing and propelled along a hidden wire by a model-airplane motor. "For twenty-five bucks you get a flash and a streak," he said. "We're a[so working on a better way to simulate a suicide bomber using baby powder and compressed air." Then Barbero directed my attention down the lane in time to see a giant black lobe of smoke erupting with a rib-quaking boom from a shelled-out green jeep. A sulfurous fog drifted from the woods. A soldier jogged past, yelling, "Contact! We're getting fucking contact!"
The villagers scrambled beneath tables. A man in an Iraqi National Guard uniform ducked behind a tree. Two women in aqua robes hid beneath the fruit stand, sort of clawing at each other and wailing quite credibly. Louis Jones staggered into the street, food coloring pumping freely from his short limb. A frantic herd of villagers swarmed the convoy, hideously and endlessly bawling, "Imshi! Imshi!" which is Arabic for "go away."
Then a crisp flatus of small-arms fire burst from the treeline. A gunner swung the tottering barrel of a .50-caliber machine gun in the direction of the woods and started blazing away--Prug! Prug! Prug! A group of soldiers stalked cautiously in the direction of the shots, and it was hard not to feel a pang of sympathetic terror for them. You couldn't see a soul in those woods, just brambles and loblolly trunks echoing with the dry laughter of rifle fire.
General Barbero pointed out an old man lying on a square of plywood in the lee of the fruit stand, fake blood gouting extravagantly from his leg, which ended at the knee. "Real-life amputee, arterial blood," he said with dramaturgical relish.
A weeping woman cradled the old man's head and bawled for medical attention at a soldier who was passing by. The soldier, who was still drawing fire from the wood line, winced at the tableau and murmured, "Holy fucking shit." Then he bobbed and weaved off down the lane.
Gunfire bleated from the vegetable garden on Liberation Loop. A handful of soldiers sprinted up the shallow rise, and after a long, percussive interlude the Talathan insurgency was temporarily neutralized in Mosalah. The bereaved stopped wailing. The sulfur miasma thinned. Louis Jones's arm was tourniquetted by a medic as neatly as a round tip roast. The living soldiers heaped their dead in the back of a truck. I stood with General Barbero and watched men hooking up tow ropes to a Humvee that had been pretend-destroyed by an IED. The skirmish in Mosalah had winnowed the company by nearly 20 percent. The general nodded approvingly and said, "Overall, pretty good."*
Talatha is also known as the Fullerton Training Area, but around Fort Polk it is more commonly known as "the Box." The Box lies within Louisiana's Kisatchie National Forest and occupies 98,000 acres of woodland crowded with sweet gum, hickory, oak, poison oak, poison ivy, fern, and longleaf and loblolly pines. The forest is home to brown recluse spiders, the endangered red cockaded woodpecker, a misdirected Bengal tiger (a matter of local conjecture), geese, goats, hogs, and a quantity of wild horses left here by farmers who did not have time to round up all their stock when the Army annexed their land some sixty years ago.
Talatha means "three" in Arabic, the significance of which no one I spoke with during my week at JRTC last August was able to explain. Until the spring of 2005, Talatha was described as an Iraqi principality, though now, with certain dispiriting associations swarming like bluebottles around the word "Iraq," JRTC literature refers to Talatha as a governance of the sovereign country of HN, which stands for "Host Nation"--a figurative Arab anystate upon whose hospitality the engineers of the Global War on Terror might now, or someday soon, feel stirred to impose American materiel and troops.
Architecture throughout Talatha consists of tin and plywood huts, cinderblock barracks, poured concrete bunkers, and steel shipping containers. Talatha is not much less handsome than Fort Polk's host city, Leesville, Louisiana, whose population is less than half the size of Fort Polk's and which is little more than a haggard appurtenance to the base. Driving through Leesville, one passes blank storefronts with stubborn ghosts of masking tape marring the plate glass; a church whose sign features a silhouette of a soldier kneeling with his M-16 ("As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord"); a road called Poverty Knob; a sign-printing concern with a demo model hanging out front that reads REPENT!; payday loan, bail bonds, and nude-dancing establishments; tracts of bungalows and low-lying strip malls in various degrees of abandonment; a Wal-Mart; yellow ribbons lashed to trees in front of plastic picket fences; two retailers of mortuary supplies, one with a GOD BLESS AMERICA sign next to a cluster of blank headstones awaiting inscription; and a bit of city-sponsored muralage proclaiming Leesville "best hometown in the army." The military spends an average of $9 million staging each three-and-a-half-week mission-rehearsal exercise in Talatha. Last fiscal year, Talatha underwent occupations by thirteen separate brigades over eleven months, costing a minimum of $117 million--a sum exceeding the city of Leesville's annual budget by approximately 820 percent.
The phase of training I witnessed in Mosalah is known as Convoy Trauma, which is part of a seven- to ten-day battery of discrete participatory lessons in the assorted tactical and diplomatic challenges awaiting the troops abroad. Later, the scripted theatrics complicate and broaden into a round-the-clock miniature war, which spans a week and a half and whose narrative elements undergo perpetual revision to mirror accurately the drama unfolding in Iraq. "We're plugged into theater every day," said General Barbero, who was heading back to Iraq in late August to gather fresh authenticity to inject into Talatha. To reflect the mounting volume of perils in-country, Barbero said that he had recently fattened the ranks of enemy snipers and quadrupled the number of IEDs along a convoy route. He said that Talatha's dozens of scriptwriters were trying to include more of the tribal and ethnic tensions now impeding our nation-building efforts. "If something happens in Baghdad, thirty-six hours later you could be seeing it here."
In addition to its regularly scheduled firefights with the resistance, the rotational unit is also assigned the more delicate task of winning Talathan hearts and minds, which involves regularly touching base with the sheikhs, imams, mayors, governors, lumpen citizenry, and pretend Iraqi National Guardsmen residing in the villages. To teach soldiers the shrewd art of negotiating public-relations pitfalls on a media-saturated battlefield, JRTC operates a full battery of ersatz press: a television station, a radio station, and three Talathan newspapers with editorial stances ranging from a more or less neutral daily in the Al Jazeera mode to an anti-Coalition, psyops propaganda sheet. Videotapes of the news broadcasts and copies of the newspapers are distributed to the troops daily to drive home the idea that the eyes of a simulated world are upon them. If a soldier says something impolitic or bloodthirsty to the faux press corps, the unit will have a tougher go of it in the villages. The role-play's architects may instruct the villagers to riot or to start rendering material assistance to the insurgency. The degree of nuance and dynamism present in the Talathan melodrama, I was told by JRTC officials, extends to the finest of situational crannies. "Say a role player tells a soldier she had her purse snatched, and the soldier ignores the intel," one officer said. "It could happen that that money that was stolen in her purse winds up getting used to buy an RPG."
Each day the men behind Talatha's baroque interwoven narratives convene for long and eye-crossingly dense meetings in which they script evolving conditions in the Box. Troops usually rotate through in brigade strength, about 4,000 soldiers. On average, 500 civilian role players take part in the exercises every day, plus another 250 Arabic speakers, plus another 240 insurgents played by the men of the 1st Batallion (Airborne), 509th Infantry stationed here at Fort Polk. Choreographing the activities of so many human beings is an extraordinarily complicated job. "The best way to describe what we're doing here," said one of the intelligence officers in charge of writing the general threat, "is that we're producing a very complex movie with a huge number of plotlines and a very high budget."
My first day on post, Jim Beinkemper, a public-affairs officer with the durable, sun-bronzed handsomeness of a TV news correspondent, told me all about the careful planning that went into Talatha. Pointing at a page of printed matter, he read aloud a section asserting JRTC's indispensable role in the "Global War on Terror," "OEF," and "OIF."
"OEF," he said, "that's Operation Enduring Freedom, and OIF, that's--hold on." Beinkemper got up and walked out to the hall and leaned his head into the next office. "Hey, Doc," I heard him say. "What's OIF stand for?" Then he came back in, chuckling and shaking his head. "Operation Iraqi Freedom," he said.
When the formal briefing concluded, Jim Beinkemper came out from behind his desk and took a chair next to mine. We talked plainly about how things were going overseas. JRTC's lavish mission-rehearsal exercises notwithstanding, the public affairs officer didn't seem to feel our present course was going to do much to hasten the war's end. What it would probably take to get the credits rolling, he told me, was the unleashing of an atom bomb. "I know we're a kinder, gentler country these days and all that," he said. "But how did we end World War II?"
One afternoon, while the grunts were rehearsing the particulars of Convoy Trauma, the 1st/1st's brigade and company commanders convened in a warehouse-like building in north Fort Polk for a workshop on in-country diplomacy. The exercise's coordinator explained the fictional crisis the commanders were charged with smoothing over: earlier in the day, a patrolling Humvee had hit a ten-year-old boy, triggering a villagewide anti-Coalition riot. In a few moments, the officers would be faced with the awkward job of convincing a local sheikh both to quell the disturbance and to blow the whistle on any hostile elements lurking around town. Two young men with Middle Eastern features who would be playing the parts of the sheikhs sat nearby, gazing at a television showing Fox News's live coverage of Cindy Sheehan's vigil outside George W. Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch.
The officer doing the briefing spelled out the exercise's negotiating guidelines, written in a bulleted list beside him on a dry-erase board. "You cannot release the soldiers involved in the accident to an Iraqi court," he said. "You cannot offer an apology in front of the media."
I was standing off to the side with a Colonel Matt Anderson, one of the officers overseeing this phase of the training. He explained that media apologies were a bad thing, "because people like you"--meaning reporters--"might twist an apology into an admission of guilt."
The officer at the dry-erase board pointed to a third item on the list: "Compensation for death/injury $2,500," which Colonel Anderson told me is the actual sum the military does, on occasion, dole out to the families of civilians slain by our hand. The money, explained Colonel Anderson, is not really all that important, because the Iraqis are generally more easygoing about their family members getting killed than we might be. "When someone dies over there, they believe it's God's will," he said. "But we make some reparations so that people feel justice has been served."
JRTC also tests commanding officers' mastery of sanctioned talking points at a mock radio station called ZVOT ("The voice of Talatha"), where officers are required to participate in simulated call-in shows, fielding queries about the occupation from Talatha's generally unhappy citizens. Major Randy Martin, the public affairs administrator who runs the radio station and also the most impartial of the three newspapers, showed me a clip from a recent ZVOT chat with a brigade commander from a prior rotation. After a few softball questions from the host, the phones were opened up. A man's voice speaking loud, angry Arabic crackled over the line.
"Sir," repeated a translator, "you detain innocent people.... How do you explain torturing detainees? We saw torture in your compounds. Why do your soldiers torture our people?"
"I don't understand the references to soldiers torturing any of the citizens of Talatha," the commander replied. "I am unaware of that incident."
Next call: "Sir, our living standards was bad under Saddam regime and have gotten worse since you came here, and I just wanted to know how long you'll be here."
"Very good question," the commander said. "It is very difficult to put a timeline or a time limit on how long we will be here."
Next call: "Sir, you Americans are cowards. You run from fighting. You occupied our country and insult our women, stole our revenues. Your presence here is unwanted, and you cause a lot of pain. We want you to get out of our country. We can provide our families with more than you can offer. Stop stealing and leave."
The commander took a breath. "We want Talatha to be free as much as the people of Talatha."
Major Martin smiled. "Command message," he said.
My fourth day at Fort Polk, I was back in Mosalah, where rain like grapeshot was pounding down and tall white legs of lightning stalked the forests. A funk had settled on the townspeople, who were gathered under a carport, watching the raindrops darken the boulevard.
"Bores the fire out of me," said a woman with a square of rubber shrapnel glinting in her arm.
"Wish they'd hurry up so we can play," said another woman, who had a big dome-shaped wound in the center of her forehead, a slit across its middle like a chimp's muzzle. While they waited, the women recited key elements of the Arabic trauma vocabulary.
"There's saduna," said the woman with the shrapnel laceration, whose name was Lulu. "That's 'help us.'"
"And you got ana bi-haja tabeeb. That's 'I need a doctor,'" said B.J., the woman with the chimp-muzzle wound.
Mosalah, whose hypothetical population consisted of Sunni Kurds, Shia Arabs, and Assyrian Christians, was supposedly neutral to the Coalition, although Lulu and B.J. said they enjoyed themselves more when the troops made a mess of things and the village was told to turn hostile, or "red" on the Talathan intel chromometer.
"Red's the best," B.J. said. "Them OPFOR [opposition forces], we'll help them out when they come to town."
"Give them food, tell them about checkpoints or whatever," Lulu added.
Cubic management wouldn't tell me how much role players are paid, but a few people I talked to said they made about $1,500 a month, which they felt was a pretty decent wage, given that there wasn't much paying work in this part of the state outside of felling, milling, or pulping trees.
A white-haired man came over to chat with B.J. and Lulu. One of his arms ended in a blunt nub and the other concluded in a thumb. I asked him how he'd lost his hands. "Dynamite," he said. "Blowing stumps."
The man's name was Kennitt White, age seventy-one. White was a farmer in semi-retirement, and his face had a raw, pink cast, as though he had suffered a drastic sunburn that had never healed right. White told me that he liked his job very much, although he couldn't take part in any scenario that required putting him in an enclosed space because he had claustrophobia, a result of exposure to agent orange, which he called "ancient orange." He had worked a spray rig in the local woods. "You'd be wet with that stuff before the day was over. They didn't tell me there was ancient orange in there. They had to pay people some money, but by the time they got through paying, you didn't really get nothing."
Next to Kermitt White was the man with the missing leg whose powerful arterial gouting General Barbero had pointed out on my first visit here. The man introduced himself as Cole Young, seventy-four, "the great nephew of the famous Cole Younger," who in Civil War days had made a name for himself murdering adherents to the abolitionist cause and had later robbed banks and trains with Jesse James. Cole Young had lost his leg laying oil pipeline: the dragline that hoists the pipe had "mashed it all up."
Thunder shocked the carport. The Korean woman who ran the plastic fruit stand and a large white woman with braids as thick as naval hawsers huddled together and sang "Amazing Grace" and "In the Sweet By and By." Kermitt White got a faraway look and said, "Now that's really pretty."
Presently, a car horn sounded, summoning the villagers to reenact the sketch I'd witnessed days before. The Humvees and the five-ton trucks crept into the curve. The mule skinner, head wrapped in a cellophane bonnet against the pelting drizzle, gently lashed his mules and started up the road.
Again the RPG streaked into the ruined jeep, and again came the gut-clenching wallop of the IEDs. Cole Young resumed his customary posture, supine on the plywood litter, his raggedly absent leg spewing a long dark arc. A thickset soldier moved in to render aid. But when he noticed Young's hand working beneath his poncho, operating his blood pump, the soldier did a high backpedaling leap and shouted, "He's got a fucking wire!" In a single fluid motion, he unshouldered his rifle and started pouring an enfilade of blanks into the old man's chest. When his clip ran dry, he darted behind a tree trunk, slammed in a fresh magazine, and shot Cole Young some more.
Nearby, a boy with a convoluted pink package of fake intestine peeking from his shirt lay off the mortal quaking number he'd been doing to watch the old man's passing. Rainwater pooled in the creases in Cole Young's features, but his face remained as still and placid as the Pieta. B.J. and Lulu took Young's pretend death awfully hard. They raked the air with their hands and bellowed klaxons of bereavement. The rain rinsed the wound from B.J.'s forehead, sending a dilute rose rivulet curling into her mouth. She dragged a shroud of wet muslin across Cole Young's face. An onlooker clucked and said sadly, "And he was doing such a good job squirting."
The killing of Cole Young touched off a small riot. "Murderers!" a female villager screamed, inadvertently in English. One soldier, quailing at the horde before him, turned to a man wearing the sky-blue blouse of the Iraqi National Guard and said, "You hold 'em back."
With the troops occupied by the furor in the bazaar, an insurgent cell--three or four young, lean men with neat military haircuts, forty-grit stubble roughening their cheeks, and wrinkled, sweat-stained clothes--bounded from the woods. They quickly fanned into the lane and started mowing down the troops as effortlessly as they might a herd of grazing cows. Their movements looked superhumanly limber in comparison with the rotational troops, who, encumbered by flak jackets and bulky inventories of equipment, strode the muddy avenue with hulking, labored gaits. One of the insurgents hopped onto the back of a decommissioned Humvee and commenced laying down fire, but it looked as though there wasn't much of anybody left to kill. The slaughter was so total that a few of the villagers abandoned their roles and began chatting in English. A young, swaybacked girl, her shirt knotted immodestly above her belly button, lounged near a smoldering pickup truck. She gazed at a young man playing a member of the Iraqi police force. "What's up, police?" she asked him, her voice swollen with a low, estrous music. The policeman looked around for troops. "They're done," she reassured him, tugging at her waistband to let out some rainwater that she complained had gathered in her underpants.
Three insurgents in white macrame beanies loitered under the carport, smoking cigarettes. They watched a soldier, groggy from the firefight, lollygagging up the lane. "See him, looking at his feet, weapon down?" one of them said. "If he was in Iraq, some little kid would come along and blast him."
"They oughta make them recock and run it again without OPFOR," said another man.
The first man shook his head and took a hard pull on his cigarette. "It's too late for these guys," he said. "Get out here and you're not ready for this? It's too fucking late."
The following morning, the fifth day into my visit, I went on a tour of the imitation city of Suliyah, which is the state-of-the-art facility on the Talathan landscape and which conveys some idea of what Talatha--or whatever identity the Box assumes in simulating wars to come--will look like in the future. Suliyah is nothing like Talatha's more primitive carport-and-storage-shed settlements. It is a brick-and-mortar city of multistory buildings, many of them designed to absorb live fire and to explode at the press of a button. Suliyah was built, at a cost of $49 million, in 1994, soon after the U.S. military revealed a lethal incompetence at close, urban warfare on the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. It covers four city blocks and contains a hospital, a school, a hotel, sewage tunnels for combatants to crawl through, and is home to a population of semi-animatronic, bullet-tolerant mannequins, some of which ride around town in remote-controlled jeeps.
Marty Martinson, Suliyah's chief administrator, welcomed me to the city's command center, which doubles in the role-play as a water-treatment plant. He led me to a large terraced chamber full of high-backed, black leather chairs, banks of televisions, and a lectern manned by a streetwise-looking target-practice dummy in a backward baseball cap. The dummy held a phalloid toy gun with an incandescent, amber glans. Martinson said that the mannequins would before long be replaced by fully ambulatory, shootable robots--"a human urban target that walks and talks and does all kinds of weird stuff."
Martinson delivered a brief oration on Suliyah's various amenities. There were twenty-nine buildings in the city and a tremendous number of rooms, each one equipped with a remote-controlled smoke machine coughing forth a nontoxic smog made from incinerated vegetable oil. Nine hundred video cameras were scattered throughout the town, and everything that happened during an exercise could be fed into the TV screens and submitted for critique by the upper brass, who looked on from the leather chairs. Suliyah was also wired with a sophisticated intercom system that piped MP3 recordings of screaming women, crying babies, barking dogs, and other sound effects throughout the whole city, giving soldiers a sense of the collateral hysteria they might encounter on a cordon-and-search.
"We also are fixing to start implementing smells of the battlefield," Martinson went on. "Smells like vomit, burning rubber, burning bodies, those kinds of things." The government could buy these sorts of aromas from the same people who make air fresheners for your car. "Soldiers need to understand, there's a smell to the battlefield. There's a smell to death."
At the close of the diplomacy training module and the Convoy Trauma scrimmages, the mission rehearsal culminates in nine days of round-the-clock, unscripted combat known as Force-on-Force. The role players work in at least twelve-hour shifts, populating the villages twenty-four hours a day. The ersatz media fans out across Talatha, and the insurgency takes to the towns and forests.
On the eve of the Force-on-Force, I embarked on a two-day embed with an insurgent cell from Alpha Company of the 1st/509th, known also as the Geronimos. The cell's leader was Sergeant First Class Jimmy Benton, a capable man in his mid-thirties with a cropped knob of fur on his chin and an air of amused abrasiveness. "You go out with Sergeant Benton, you'll definitely see some killing," his commanding officer had told me.
We rode out from the headquarters of the 1st/509th in an elderly jeep, with Jimmy Benton riding shotgun and one of Benton's subalterns, a young man named Tommy Brasington, behind the wheel. Brasington had a large, blunt face partially obscured by a black checkered "haji rag" he had picked up during a recent tour in Iraq. I was wedged in the back seat alongside some prop IEDs and a simulated 500-pound bomb--made of wood and wired with a walkie-talkie--which the insurgency planned to use to blow up a bridge.
We passed through a checkpoint into Talatha. A bloated, halide moon was hovering above the dark loblolly palisades. The night air was evilly still and murky. No one was allowed to do any killing before the exercise kicked off at midnight, but Jimmy warned me that the soldiers often succumbed to the jitters and started shooting ahead of schedule. Benton and Brasington were pretty unconcerned about the onset of the war games. Jimmy told me that I should have been here a few rotations back. "We killed an entire company, and another company came in to cas-evac them, and we killed them, too."
"Whoo," said Tommy Brasington. "That was a fun day."
Over the week and a half of the Force-on-Force, the 200 insurgents usually annihilate 1,500 or so members of the rotational unit. Although the lopsided nature of the casualties in Talatha does not accurately reflect the tallies in-theater, the successes of the Talathan insurgency do articulate a few of the tactical realities overseas. As in Iraq, the insurgent cells here are small, mobile, and fighting on terrain they know well. They can make themselves invisible in the forests or the villages, nullifying the rotational unit's enormous advantage in firepower. The soldiers, for their part, travel predictable, easily assailable routes, and are pretty much a parade of sitting ducks for any patient ambush team. The Talathan insurgency, in fact, is so vastly more skilled at casualty infliction that the game's overseers script in a number of handicaps to diminish would-be bloodbaths. To the frustration of Benton and his men, the insurgents are constrained to operating in cells of six or fewer, and they're forbidden to raid the troops' camps without orders from the brass.
During its last rotation in Iraq, which ended in March 2004, the 1st/509th lost two men: Sergeants Brett D. Swank and Andrew W. Brown. Tommy Brasington wore a pair of memorial bracelets imprinted with the men's names. Still, he said, he'd "fucking love to go back. I miss the adrenaline rush." He was grateful, however, for the comparatively tamer thrills of the role-play insurgency. Brasington, Benton, and the other men I met from the 509th did not talk much about the prospects for the Coalition's withdrawal, or whether the war was a good idea to begin with. Although later Brasington told me that he thought anybody who hadn't seen combat in Iraq ought to shut his mouth about the war. He said that he knew for a fact that Saddam had had WMDs. He'd seen documents from the former regime requisitioning millions of dollars to purchase them; he'd seen them, and anyone who didn't believe those weapons were there was out of his head.
Tommy pulled over at a moonlit bridge with his headlights off, and a half-dozen OPFOR guys gripping rifles crept out of the brush. At Jimmy Benton's instruction, two of them relieved the jeep of the big wooden bomb. They lugged it off toward the bridge, murmuring about what a heavy motherfucker it was.
"Where should we put it?" one of the men asked Benton.
"Wherever you put it, it's gonna create chaos, it's gonna kill someone," Sergeant Benton said.
Then headlights swelled in the curve. Everybody leapt into the dark abyss of thistles lining the road. We hunkered in the brush while worlds of insects swarmed our faces and sweat pooled in the hollows of our throats, and waited for the lights to pass.
A distant clatter of gunfire roused us not long after dawn. In terms of material comfort, being an insurgent was a rougher business than being a Coalition soldier. Troops slept in sprawling tents, safe behind guard towers and bulwarks of razor wire. Benton and Brasington slept on a root- and rock-strewn piece of forest floor, getting chewed on all night by bugs, dozing in their boots in case they suddenly had to flee a raid or mock airstrike. A less enthusiastic soldier might have been tempted to excuse himself from insurgent duty, which was simply a matter of deliberately failing to dodge a laser hit, as those "killed" are rotated post-mortem to more comfortable work outside the Box. But the men of the 1st/509th took a great deal of satisfaction in socking it to the troops as hard as they possibly could.
Jimmy Benton handed Tommy six magazines taped together in solid bricks. "Sucks to get out there and not have enough to party with," he said.
Besides Jimmy and Tommy, this cell had two more members: a skinny, rosy-cheeked blond guy named Jerrid Hixon, from Washington State, and Cesar Aleman, twenty-six, of Los Angeles, who had rotated into Alpha Company after the death of Sergeant Brown.
The men rose quickly and set off to find soldiers to harry. They hiked to a stretch of woods that offered thick cover and a solid bead on a wide gravel lane. Jimmy told the men, "Do what you want to, shoot at what you want to," and then he hiked off to meet with another cell.
A convoy soon crept into range. Tommy, Cesar, and Jerrid raced up through the shrubs and started potting away at the troops. The trucks bristled with rifles being shouldered. The insurgents made five or six fast kills, taking little care to dodge the unit's hasty, feeble retorts. Shortly, the convoy sped off up the road.
The Geronimos sat down on the sandy ground to await another convoy, which was very slow in coming, and the doldrums congealed over the morning. Tommy painstakingly tucked some dip into his lip and spit brown syrup into the sand. He tossed tiny sticks at other tiny sticks. Jerrid Hixon smoked cigarettes and talked about the vector differences between two kinds of artillery. From overhead came the thudding of a helicopter, but it failed to spot the men. Everybody seemed to sort of wish that it had.
Cesar Aleman had seen two deployments in Iraq and had fought in the invasion, where he "lost twelve buddies." He had not had the benefit of training beforehand, and he wasn't sure what difference it would have made if he had. "Training helps, but it's not really like combat." Then, upon reflection, he posited that combat was not really like combat. "It's pretty unreal. You can't describe it," he said. "It doesn't hit you until later on: I could have died. I don't know how to put it. It's so fast but at the same time so fucking slow."
By about midmorning it was clear that the insurgency was experiencing diminishing returns. The bombing of the bridge had gone according to plan. But now that the referees had declared the bridge impassable, the flow of Coalition troops to this neck of Talatha had tapered to a trickle.
Benton's cell moved up the lane, where a few more Geronimos were lurking on a bosky knoll overlooking the road. They weren't having any better luck finding soldiers to ambush, but the men all sat there for a hot, frustrated hour listening to sounds of far-off gunplay.
Cesar said, "Man, I hope we get a support convoy or something, maybe with some females."
Tommy said, "Yeah, girls are funny when you shoot them."
Another forty-five minutes and still no convoys, so the men decided to meet up with Sergeant Benton at the other cell's camp, which was a couple of klicks off. They humped it through fields of fern scorched brittle and golden by the summer heat. They plowed through desperate walls of thorn, and through poison ivy saplings, and hells of poison oak, and growths of a kind of demon briar with big black barbs like sharks' teeth. At last they reached the camp, and everyone was caked in his own personal salts and smelled like a bus station.
I talked with a young soldier there named Gabe Greco, who had served in Baghdad and had been caught in the same blast that killed Andrew Brown in October 2004. "Nobody saw the IED," he said. "I was just looking at the desert and then everything was black. When I woke up, I thought I was still in Iraq, but it was four days later and I was in Walter Reed. It had burned my arms, my face. I got a fractured skull and inhalation injuries. Spinal fluid was leaking out of my ear. I was in the hospital two months."
I asked him how he'd feel about another tour. His expression did not shift the tiniest bit. "I wouldn't mind doing another one."
When everyone finished eating lunch, which was pork and beans, Pringles, and sunflower seeds, Jimmy Benton announced that it was time to move out to the road. "We're carrying too much weight. Let's go unload some fucking brass. There may actually be something to kill up here."
Benton led the insurgents to an ambush spot he knew about, a narrow strait of road that curved between steep canyon walls, which if you had men blasting down on a convoy from both sides would be akin to shooting turtles in a well.
"Too fucking perfect," Jerrid Hixon said, slipping into one of the foxholes scalloping the canyon's lip.
Within minutes, the insurgents were rewarded with a convoy of Humvees and five-ton trucks trundling through the strait. Because of the Geronimos' superior position, the ensuing battle turned out to be incredibly brief and rather short on dramatics. On the far bank, Jimmy Benton stood and began shooting in open view, a golden arc of brass sneezing from his rifle's breech. Jerrid, Cesar, and Tommy rose from their foxholes and calmly poured fire down upon the convoy in ratcheting peals. There was little to see of the troops, just thickets of gun barrels haplessly prodding and jabbing from the Humvees' windows. It was a sad and frantic sight, sort of like watching the bobbing snorkels of swimmers who below the water's surface are being gnawed on by sharks. Sounds of men's anguished yells and the bleatings of laser harnesses rang in the lane. The convoy hurried off through the curve.
A few minutes later, a second convoy rolled into the curve. This time Benton and the rest made a point of shooting the drivers, and the convoy stalled a couple of hundred yards down the road. "Oh shit, oh shit," shrieked a man's voice, ragged with panic.
At the sound of the hollering, the insurgents tore through trees to wipe out the last survivors. "Muhammad jihad!" Jerrid Hixon was yelling above the cracking of his own rifle. "Muhammad jihad! Muhammad jihad!"
Then a third convoy passed, and the guys set about shooting them to pieces. But the troops didn't return fire, and it turned out that this was actually a ghost convoy of people they'd already killed. During a lull between massacres, Jimmy got on his radio to take a count of casualties in the rest of the platoon. A loose estimate had insurgent losses at one man and Coalition killed at a hundred or so.
Days before, when I was visiting the high-tech city of Suliyah, Marty Martinson had wrapped up his presentation on the latest advances in combat simulation, dimmed the lights in the briefing room, and led me out into the town. The sun was rising balefully over Suliyah's skyline, which included a faintly Frank Gehry-ish water tower, rows of concrete block apartments, a mosque, and a power station whose walls were perforated by large O-shaped, prefab artillery wounds.
Off the main boulevard, villagers were gathering under a sycamore tree. We saw Cole Young cruising around on his little red buggy. I waved and he looked at us, but he didn't wave back.
We kept walking, passing shelled-out concrete buildings and a gas station whose pumps, Marry Martinson told me, were rigged to explode. Nearby were a fleet of crumpled cars and a wrecked van covered with spray-painted letters the color of a new scab: GO HOME AMERICAN. Another graffito declared, LONG LIVE THE RESISTANCE. At the end of Suliyah's main street stood a waterless fountain made of jersey barriers. Lying on the ground beside it was a sign reading, FUTURE SITE OF LIBERATION MEMORIAL.
As we were leaving, we stopped at Suliyah's mosque, which was topped with a pyramidal Christian steeple that had been lately retrofitted with a bronze minaret onion. The city, explained Martinson, had been conceived during the difficulties in the former Yugoslavia, when our military had been thinking of Eastern Europe and not the Middle East as the site of its next grand urban battles.
We walked through a plastic picket fence into the churchyard, where the grass had taken on the untender dark green of late summer. The windows of the church were big blue decals, but the gravestones here were the genuine article, slate and varnished granite, bearing names like Mrs. Birding Hester, James Stanley Harmon, and Buster Paige. Martinson said that these headstones were factory seconds, rejected because of misspellings, incorrect dates, or other flaws in the stonecraft, and the retailer had let the Army have them cheap.
From the vantage of the stones themselves, it seemed like a piece of good fortune to be remanded to this pretend cemetery, pardoned from the melancholy work of lying among the dead, of being grieved on by the living and in the end forgotten. Marty Martinson, for his part, was delighted to have secured the headstones for Suliyah's graveyard. They added a nice fillip of authenticity you could not get from plastic or cardboard props, and it hardly spoiled the mise en scene that the names engraved on them were American, or that the deaths they marked were real.
Wells Tower's last article for Harper's Magazine, "Bird-Dogging the Bush Vote," appeared in the March 2005 issue.
* I had a brief conversation with a stern, rock-ribbed guy, Lieutenant Colonel McCurry of the 1st/1st, about the day's exercise. McCurry had seen combat in Iraq, so I asked him how Talatha compared with the real thing. "Aside from the fake bullets, it's very realistic to what we're facing over there." I asked him about the mission he'd been tasked with this morning. "I can't disclose that," he said.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
|Previous Article:||Improvised, explosive, & divisive: searching in vain for a strategy in Iraq.|
|Next Article:||Owning the weather: the ugly politics of the pathetic fallacy.|