Infantry: The Play's The Thing


February 4, 2011: The British Army has built an "Afghan Village" in one of their British bases, to better train troops headed for Afghanistan. In additions to dozens of buildings, including a market place, over a hundred Afghans living in Britain have been hired to dress and act as residents of the training village. This is not a new idea. As far back as the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army had built mock villages for training troops headed for combat. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to a lot more of this sort of thing, mainly because it works.

One of most unnerving things about combat is the uncertainty, especially for those who are experiencing it for the first time. This uncertainty causes first-timers to make mistakes, and that gets people killed. Thus the U.S. Army pioneered the development of new training methods, to eliminate a lot of the uncertainty, over the last three decades. First came the laser tag attachments to weapons (from rifles to tank guns), which exposed the troops to an environment where lots of people were shooting at you. Now the troops knew how easy it was to get hit if they were not careful about where they were, where they were going, and how they got there.

 When the war on terror came along, troops had to face other new experiences. Mainly involving dealing with people from a different culture. Most of them were not shooting at you, but you had to get information from them. And do so without turning them against you. Laser tag wouldn't help, but a large scale re-creation of a piece of Iraq would. Staffed with 3,000 civilians trained to play the roles of Iraqis (including 300 Arab speakers, some of whom are Iraqis) and others (aid workers, journalists), the army training program was a huge role-playing game. Normally, these exercises are run at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) in Louisiana, in a special facility that contains fourteen Iraqi villages and enough area for a brigade to run realistic missions for days on end. But the civilian actors were sometimes brought to military bases large enough for a brigade to move around in, and used any buildings available. The important thing is to get the troops some real experience dealing with a different culture.

 Troops coming back are full of praise for this preparatory training. While 80-90 percent of the American officers and NCOs going over to Iraq or Afghanistan now are combat veterans, they still have to get the many younger, first time, troops up to speed. The realistic training does it. This sort of thing isn't sexy or newsworthy, but it's one of those things that saves lives, American, Afghan and Iraqi, and does wonders for the morale of troops headed into combat for the first time.

Not to be outdone by the army, over the last six years, the U.S. Marine Corps has built the world's largest urban warfare training area at their 29 Palms base out in the Mohave Desert of California. There are already hundreds of structures, from private homes, to large government building complexes, operational in the training area. When development of the center is complete, there will be over 1,200 structures to train in.

Many of the buildings are really shipping containers, equipped with doors, windows, some paint and contents, are being used to represent the buildings. Like Legos, the containers can be joined together, or stacked, to make larger buildings. More importantly, the entire "town" can be rearranged to represent a different kind of environment. The training towns now being built represent what the marines are currently encountering in Afghanistan. But in a few years, the marines may be fighting somewhere else, and they want their training town to reflect that, quickly, when the need arises.

The marines have been carefully studying urban warfare since the early 1990s, and have used their experience in Iraq to develop new tactics, and training methods. The U.S. Army has nothing like the marine training center, and is negotiating for some time to get army troops into it. The marines are using the center heavily, but they are always ready to deal.

The most serious shortcoming noted, especially by combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, are the smaller number of civilians present in the training area. In actual urban battlefields, there are lots of civilians running, or scurrying, around. For the Mohave Desert training area, local civilians have to be hired to act as extras, or off-duty marines found for that work. There are never enough civilians available, so the marines have been bussing them in, as some exercises have required nearly a thousand civilians.


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