TCS Daily

Welcome to Iraqifornia

By James Pinkerton - March 11, 2004 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This is the first of four-part series on training for combat..

TIEFORT CITY, Iraqifornia -- This is one tough town, here in the Sunni Triangle. Most of the locals aren't all that hostile to the Americans, but some are extremely hostile -- and they all have guns. In the middle of this divide is the town's 50-something mayor, Sabah Gewarges; he wants simply to keep the peace -- and not get shot by either side, accidentally or on purpose.

Here come the Americans, riding in their Humvees and M-113 armored personnel carriers. They are coming from all directions, converging on this town, which is a dun-colored cluster of low-rise buildings. Some GI's are descending from a nearby hill, others come across the flats. The vertical places around here are brown and rocky, with the occasional brown shrub to liven things up. The horizontal areas are much the same -- more variations on the theme of brown, rocky, and shrubby.

Shots ring out. At first I am startled -- so this is it, this is what gunfire sounds like, here in Iraq. I look around helplessly; I can't see where they're coming from, in part because buildings obstruct my sightlines, and also in part because it's not that easy to tell where sound is coming from on a windy day. Here in Iraq, it's not like the movies, or even TV news, where the camera helps guide the viewer toward to the locus of the action. I get a whiff of cordite, but no sense of direction. The fighting has barely started, and already I'm in the thick of what Clausewitz called "the fog of war." From what little I can tell, however, there's no sustained shooting. I hope. If this were a real combat mission, I figure, there'd be planes and choppers overhead.

The Americans have the city surrounded. Keeping a safe distance of 50 or so yards, they dismount from their vehicles. Moving deliberately, they mostly crouch behind their machines for cover, as a few men scoot forward. A few yards from me, I see that Mayor Gewarges is warily watching one of his people. That would be Sangar Mahmoud; he's a local cop, but he's known to be a hothead. Mahmoud is the type who could and would get in a fight, for no reason, no matter what the odds, and so the mayor is right to watch him. But will the Americans give Mahmoud a reason to get mad? Prudence and the life-instinct tell me to keep well away from Mahmoud, lest I get in the midst of a crossfire, but the story-instinct is getting the best of me. I came all the way over here to get the story, and so I'm going to get it -- even if I put myself at risk of Getting It.

Carefully, the Americans walk into town, fanning out in all directions. Nobody is shooting; it's quickly evident that the Americans are on a search mission, not a destroy mission. An Army sergeant walks up to Mayor Gewarges. He introduces himself, through a translator, and asks the mayor if there are any "bad people" in his town. The mayor shrugs; I can't tell if the mayor doesn't understand -- or doesn't want to answer the question. The sergeant next asks if the people here need food, or water, or medicine. The mayor nods three times. Which is to say, he will take, but not give.

Meanwhile, I amble over to another cluster of Americans and Iraqis. For whatever reason, the Americans seem to think they have a "bad person" in front of them. Maybe they have previous "intel" about him; maybe he just doesn't look right. The GI's ask the man if he shot at the Americans as they were nearing Tiefort, or if he knows who it was who was shooting at the Americans. The man stares at them, blankly. The Americans stare back, accusingly, as they formulate more questions. Language is obviously a huge problem here; the soldiers have a few translators, but not enough -- so the Iraqis are able to get away with playing dumb a lot of the time. So, for example, the Americans again ask the Iraqi who was doing the shooting. The answers: "Hunters." Ah yes, hunters, going after the abundant number of animals here in this arid semi-wasteland. A good answer, really persuasive. But there's not much the Americans can do.

Further down the main street, I see a crowd of Iraqis gathering. I have no idea what's going on, but I figure it's worth getting closer. Isn't that the rule of journalism -- "if it bleeds, it leads"? So I could have some front-page stuff here. Even from a distance, from the tone of the townsmen's voices, I can tell that trouble is brewing. Cool. That's what I came here to see.

I count about 40 Iraqis, all yelling to each other and chanting anti-American slogans. Poised against them are about a dozen GI's. The Americans don't know quite what to do. They have their M-16s, of course, but they have them in the "ready safe" position -- finger on trigger, but barrel pointed downward. The GI's seem under orders to stop the Iraqis from doing anything wild, but that leaves the locals free to yell and chant a lot. In fact, these soldiers are National Guardsmen, I learn, deployed over here from California and Washington State, So they are older, and maybe cooler. One GI looked to me as if he was at least 50; I think to myself that I wouldn't want to be lugging around 60 or 80 pounds of equipment at that age. On the other hand, part of the game here in Iraq is keeping calm; this is not a free-fire zone. The Americans are here to win hearts and minds, as part of the US nation-building effort. And all that cool will be needed, I reckon; I see Sangar Mahmoud at the front of the crowd. He's small but loud, a coil of noisy potential energy, sort of like a young Joe Pesci. Yes, Mahmoud is trouble on a fuse.

Elsewhere in Tiefort, I see that US soldiers are searching houses and buildings, looking for weapons. Other reporters are milling around, getting the story, also getting in the way. I guess this is post-modern combat, in which Americans deal with civilians, combatants, and the media, all at once. In fact, the Americans have a new typology for media: black, grey, and white. Black is hostile, as in, media controlled by a hostile government. White is friendly, as in, associated with the Americans in an official capacity, such as the Armed Forces News Service. And grey is for the independent news outfits in between. I am regarded as a grey.

The Americans have a technique that they use for forcing their way into a doorway; it's called "stacking." Four of five GI's stand against the exterior wall, just outside the doorway, as closely packed as they can get. The first man kicks down the door, and then the rest rush in behind him, fanning out in a 180-degree arc as soon as they are inside. That way, any conceivable target inside the room is covered immediately, even as the entering soldiers splay away from each other to avoid getting hit in the same burst of enemy fire from inside the room. Stacking is the sort of maneuver that takes practice; failure to execute the procedure ends with everyone looking like a Keystone Kop -- or everyone ending up dead.

Indeed, such house-to-house tactics are tough to pull off, especially when someone might be shooting at you. And, in fact, I hear a fair amount of shooting. As I watched the Americans doing their search-work, I thought of a book by the late historian Stephen Ambrose, Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, which I had read a few years back. Ambrose was full of admiration for those brave citizen soldiers, but a persistent point in his book is that the GI's who poured into Europe after D-Day weren't particularly well trained or prepared for the task at hand -- which is the main reason why it took them 11 months to traverse a mere 500 miles against a Wehrmacht that had already been bled white by three years of combat against the Red Army.

I catch up with Mayor Gewarges. He himself hasn't gotten hurt, which seems to be his main objective. He stands near the Americans for awhile, and then stands near the Iraqis for awhile, as if to demonstrate to both that he's on their side. All around me, there's motion, as Americans search, as some Iraqis chant and yell, as others watch passively -- and as reporters generally crowd everyone else. The occasional shots are still heard, but by now, strange as it may seem, I have tuned them out. After all, I can't tell where they're coming from, so what's the point of craning around? Indeed, shots now sound like part of the natural aural environment.

I look around. The chanting Iraqis are still at it, railing against the GI's, including the 50-year-old. Mayor Gewarges is still standing around, not helping anybody. And the sky is darkening; it looks as if it might rain. Maybe it's time for me to skedaddle.

But as I head for my own vehicle, I notice a cluster of GI's. They are carrying away other GI's, who are helpless, even quite still. Omigod, I think to myself, some of that shooting wasn't just for show, or bravado.

I ask an Iraqi standing nearby -- he couldn't have been more than 20 -- what had happened. "Thirteen Americans killed, plus some wounded" he told me.

"Who shot them?" I asked.

"I did, and my buddy," he answered in perfect English, pointing to another man a few yards away. "We were on the second floor, and they were coming up the stairs, and we capped 'em. Then my buddy and I came down the stairs, and we popped the rest of 'em."

Holy smokes, I think to myself. It happened so quickly. The man had an impassive expression on his face, although I could tell that he was pleased with himself. He was a stone killer, all right. But as I stared into the face of this killer, he started to look less like an Iraqi to me, and more like an American.

"Where are you from?" I demanded to know.


WHOOSH--CRACK! Overhead, I heard the sonic booms of two American fighter jets. They were Air Force F-15s; my guess was that they were up overhead to provide air support. They couldn't undo the damage already done to this American unit, but they could do a lot of damage of their own, and soon.

But another, quieter whoosh and crack went through my own head, as I was snapped back to the reality of where I was. Nobody had been killed, even though this young man, who identified himself as "Frank," looked cool enough to do a lot of killing.

I wasn't in Iraq at all. I was in California, out in the middle of the Mojave Desert, at Fort Irwin, which is the home of the National Training Center, where the Army trains its troops in realistic, real-time war games. The 13 Americans had been "killed" because their MILES -- Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System -- had been "lit" by shots fired from the enemy. All the mock-participants at Tiefort had been wearing sensors, which lit up when they were hit by a laser burst fired from M-16s specially fitted to fire nothing more dangerous than a light beam. The MILES system is at the heart of the Fort Irwin experience; it gives participants the feeling that they can kill or be killed, depending upon their personal skill and their unit's tactics.

I had been witness to one such Fort Irwin training exercise, one of many going on simultaneously at this sprawling 642,000-acre facility. Typically, units undergoing training spend a month here; the men and women I was observing were headed for Iraq.

So yes, the whole afternoon was an exercise. The mayor, for example -- Sabah Gewarges is his real name -- was born in Baghdad; he's lived in the US for more than 30 years. Currently he is studying for his real estate license in San Diego; he responded to an ad in the paper. But he still speaks Arabic like a native, still reacts like an Arab -- even when he's role playing. And as for the townspeople of Tiefort -- it's a local place name here -- a couple dozen more were Iraqi-Americans, also hired to come out here and play themselves. These Iraqi-American civilians were bolstered by a larger group of Army guardsmen, assigned the role of playing Iraqis.

The most interesting of all the "Tiefortians" was young Sangar Mahmoud, who played -- quite convincingly -- the hotheaded Iraq cop. The real Mahmoud is from Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous part of Iraq. In fact, he was born in Halabja, the Kurdish city that was gassed by Saddam Hussein in 1988. On March 16 of that year, Iraqi aircraft dropped mustard gas on the town, killing 5,000, injuring another 10,000 or so -- although the further casualty toll, including birth defects, respiratory illness, and cancer, has never been fully measured. Mahmoud was a small child then, but he remembers the scenes of carnage. His family fled to Iran, then to Pakistan, and then to Southern California. (He and Gewarges both, by the way, are both solid supporters of Operation Iraqi Freedom.)

But if the afternoon at Tiefort was an exercise, it was no joke. I am telling you, at the time I was out there, watching the "Iraqis" confront the Americans, it felt real. Dramatists speak of the "the suspension of disbelief" as the key to making a play or movie succeed; the audience must lose track of its true environment and choose to live, at least for a couple hours, in the make-believe world of the show. And it works; that's why audiences cry and cringe. And it's the same way at Fort Irwin; when you're out there, running around in a place that looks like Iraq, in the company of people who look and sound like Iraqis, one gets the feeling that one is in Iraq. And while that was instructive for me, as a visiting journalist, that's potentially life-saving for GI's.

Because if one is "killed" at Tiefort, well, that's OK, because one can get up again. But the whole point is that to live and "die" in California makes it more likely that one will survive in Iraq. The power of the training is obvious to anyone who comes here for a visit. But hey, you needn't take my word for it -- you might think I'm still mesmerized by the Tiefort experience. So instead, take the word of, a great site for wargeeks:

"There's a war going on in Iraq. Who's winning? Hardly anyone noticed, but U.S. troops aren't losing. American casualties have been steadily declining since they peaked last November (414, including 82 dead). The casualties went down to 306 in December, 234 in January and 167 last month. In February there were twenty American soldiers killed in action, or .79 per day. This was the first month, since the war began, that the troops killed fell to less than one a day.

"The reasons for the decline in casualties are numerous. Probably the most important one has been the improvements in tactics and training. American troops have developed the habit of carefully studying actual operations, and quickly brainstorming possible solutions for problems encountered. Pretty much anything goes, and officers and troops are encouraged to use their imagination and initiative to come up with new ways of doing things."

This approach, Strategypage continues, has "produced dozens of new tactics and techniques for dealing with roadside bombs and ambushes. Even though the Iraqi resistance was quickly changing their tactics, the troops have been faster, and more effective." In other words, almost a year after the fall of Baghdad, the military is busy adapting to an ever-changing military environment in Iraq.

Not all the training occurs at Fort Irwin, although just about every Army man or woman in Iraq has probably been through this facility. (The Marines have a similar operation in nearby Twentynine Palms.) And the point of all this training, wherever it occurs, is to the improve the effectiveness of America's armed forces--and to save lives by any and all means.

And training is the middle name, literally, of the National Training Center.

Next: more lessons learned at Fort Irwin.


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