In the Box Tour: Battles in Fake Iraq
Fort Irwin, California
Editor's Note: This report was written in 2010. In the meantime, the US has left Iraq, continuing training as a replica Afghanistan. The Ft. Irwin public tours are now run by the US Army.
Theres nothing quite like a trip to fake Iraq.
We embarked on Fort Irwin's public "In the Box" tour, deep in the desert northeast of Barstow. "The Box," short for the sandbox, is a region where the US Army tests battle tactics and the readiness of American troops before their deployment (within 90 days) to real combat zones.
At its National Training Center (NTC), the US Army has constructed 13 Iraqi/Afghan-like villages (and, shhhh, a few "secret" villages). They're populated with role-players as unpredictable townspeople, elusive snipers, with some exploding roadside bombs... all the dangers of modern urban warfare. Every detail in the villages is carefully designed, right down to the size of stair steps (which are not standard US height).
The public tours had been run on a limited basis since 2008. From a tourism perspective, In The Box sounded promising -- like a combination of Colonial Williamsburg, with its charming, stay-in-character actors, and a Wild West attraction, with street gunfights and impromptu hangings.
That turned out to be true to some degree, but you never forget the context for the real soldiers seen in The Box -- "Training for the worst day possible," said Jackie Hoggins, NTC tour marketing director. Most NTC training days, 36 simultaneous combat patrols are underway.
Our group of 30 security-cleared tourists assembled at Painted Rocks, just outside the base, then rode a bus into the Fort to meet up with our guide, Captain Dave Moore. We were told we could snap still photos, but no full-face views of unmasked Iraqi nationals unless they gave permission. And, significantly, we were issued earplugs.
The day-long outing includes a stop for lunch and a good orientation film, but the primary mission is to witness an actual battle exercise, where hyper-realistic special effects and simulated sucking chest wounds can be around any corner....
Our bus continued into the Box, flanked on parallel dirt roads by speeding military vehicle convoys. Tanks trailed dust clouds along a ridge in the distance. For decades, Cold War armor scenarios were conducted in Ft. Irwins mountainous desert tracts. In 2003, the focus moved to in-country "situational training."
We entered the outskirts of Medina Wasl, a fake village of more than 800 buildings. Though some are mere facades and painted containers, others are more substantial, such as a functioning VIP hotel and large, ornate central mosque.
Our bus pulled up at the end of a crowded market street. We were instructed to walk to the center of town, and were immediately assailed by friendly Arabic-speaking vendors, who hawked their wares and pushed platters of fake fruit and fish in our faces.
The market street was a clever way to instantly immerse us in the otherness of The Box. Was that a harmless seller of meats... or a scheming insurgent? Beat-up cars and pick-ups continuously cruised a traffic circle, while a vendor tried over and over to sell us a rusty push lawnmower.
Another army officer Colonel Collins soon took command of our group, and explained more about the training scenarios. He asked if there were any Star Trek fans; at least two involuntarily blurted out "Kobiyashi Maru!"
"That's right -- they're meant not to win," said Collins.
The conflict scenarios follow a script, but evolve depending on the actions taken by the trainees, who have no clue what awaits. A platoon doing well might find the scenario suddenly ramped up with more snipers, explosions and moral dilemmas.
Observer-controllers stood in the shadows and on the rooftops to watch the training. The controllers on the street, disguised in local garb, coordinated insurgent network attacks and orchestrated pyrotechnic effects.
The colonel noted that scenarios and tactics are constantly updated: "Whatever you saw 90 days ago in Iraq is obsolete."
We were positioned on a second-floor balcony overlooking another busy street, and here's what we saw:
Not much happened at first. Then a 20-something Iraqi stole a boom box and ran down an alley, pursued by two Iraqi police officers. A few minutes later they emerged, leading the scamp in handcuffs. He comically drooped his head and dragged his feet...
Then all hell broke loose.
A Humvee across the street exploded in a fountain of flame. Out of the smoke tumbled three American soldiers -- two missing legs (the Army hires amputees for these roles).
Street Iraqis surged over to the smoking ruins, and carried away injured friends. The wounded Americans left near the wreckage howled in mock pain and crawled feebly. After several minutes a patrol approached from an FOB (Forward Operating Base) visible in the distance, outside the village. But their response was too slow...
Insurgents appeared and carried off one of the soldiers, waving their rifles and shouting "Allahu Akbar!" We were told the trainee soldiers would see the captive on simulated Iraqi TV back at the FOB that night -- as the insurgents cut off his head.
The trainee patrol finally entered Medina Wasl, moving along the storefronts. Their caution didnt help another bomb went off and killed three instantly (every combatant wears a sensor array to register lethal effects of attacks). An observer-controller popped from a doorway and issued the "dead" soldiers their KIA cards.
More pandemonium roiled the street as other soldiers filtered in with their armored vehicles. A rocket-propelled grenade whistled overhead from a rooftop. A sniper opened a plexiglass second story window and took potshots at the Iraqi police, hunkered down behind a fruit stand. They fired back, then seemed to forget he was there.
Our tour group, at first stunned by the loud explosions, started to anticipate the next no-win gambit. A patrol confronted a second group of insurgents parading down the street, carrying a dying soldier. The troops blasted the bad guys, then moved in to save their comrade.
A booby-trap under the bodies exploded and took out four more soldiers. The trainees -- declared instantly dead -- reluctantly collapsed to the ground, hands extended to receive KIA cards.
They're learning hard lessons. 90 days on, it might be real.