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The plan called for the attack to begin before daylight. Darkness would mask the movements of the attackers and their tanks. High-tech night vision goggles would enable them to peer through the blackness.
What the plan did not count on was rain, unrelenting rain. Birds Creek had grown from a trickle through the piney woods to a torrent 4 to 5 feet deep. Fording was no longer an option.
Instead, the soldiers of Alpha Company marched back through the woods toward a bridge. The enemy, anticipating the move, was waiting as the soldiers crossed. Artillery and machine-gun fire killed or wounded about 40 percent of the company.
"Once they massed up on the bridge, the [enemy] drove down ... and shot the hell out of everybody - just mowed them down," said one observer.
By the time Alpha had linked up with its sister company, Bravo, it had lost another 30 soldiers and its commander.
Once the companies launched their assault on the town, the slaughter really began. Vicious crossfire eliminated any infantry that made it into town. And lone enemy soldiers killed $2.6 million, 60-ton M1A1 Abrams tanks by heaving onto their back decks satchel charges containing 40 pounds of explosives.
Had the mission been an attack on Kandahar or a Somali village suspected of harboring terrorists, the staggering casualties would have been replayed every 20 minutes on CNN and outraged American citizens, repelled by the sight of their fighting men and women dying.
Fortunately it was only practice.
The Playing Field
Welcome to Fort Polk, located in the red clay of west central Louisiana - home to miles and miles of pine forest, wasp-sized mosquitoes, several varieties of poisonous snakes and the Joint Readiness Training Center - the Army's premier combat training base.
At Fort Polk, the U.S. Army has created a battlefield environment intended to be as close to the real thing without flying bullets and blood. Small villages inhabited by role-playing civilians dot the 96,000-acre facility. There are service personnel and townsfolk who play the role of local inhabitants, reporters and camera crews for the fictional "World News Network," relief aid workers, demonstrators who oppose the presence of U.S. forces, and terrorists.
The "danger" is everywhere: from helicopter attacks to snipers to car bombs.
The goal for soldiers and their officers is to wage as real a war as possible and to learn from their mistakes. Mistakes that on battlegrounds in Afghanistan today and somewhere else tomorrow - Somalia? the Philippines? Iraq? - could prove devastating.
"In our brigade there are a lot of new soldiers," said Sgt. 1st Class Dave Carr, a 19-year veteran, of the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry, which had arrived for a training stint. "I'd rather have all my soldiers shot by MILES down here than to lose one on the battlefield."
MILES, or multiple integrated laser engagement system, is how score is kept. A beam is emitted when a weapon, such as an M16 rifle or tank cannon, is fired. When the beam strikes the target - say a soldier's vest - a beep sounds, signifying a hit.
The intense training at Fort Polk is designed to create an atmosphere more stressful than what soldiers are likely to experience in actual combat. Soldiers who returned from the Persian Gulf War told their commanders that the war was actually easier than the training they'd faced, said retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr.
"You will always be stressed to the limit, which means the level of your training will be superb," said Scales, a former commandant of the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. "It's sort of like running with weights on."
The heaviest "weights" at Fort Polk are the soldiers of the Opposing Force, OPFOR in Army parlance. The 1st Battalion of the 509th Infantry Regiment, a storied fighting force that led the Allied assault on North Africa during Operation Torch in World War II, plays that role.
By engaging in intense simulated combat 10 times a year, OPFOR has become awfully good at making life miserable for visiting soldiers, Blue Force, or BLUFOR for short, who must confront everything from regular troops to commandos to terrorists. Add to that a host of Hollywood-type special effects, including car bombs, and the visiting forces are never sure what to expect.
OPFOR soldiers take their training mission seriously.
"Training hard here will prevent soldiers from losing their lives on the battlefield," said OPFOR's commander, Lt. Col. Skip Lewis.
That sentiment is echoed by Sgt. Matthew Mathias, an OPFOR member who, along with two colleagues, was "killed" as he approached BLUFOR to observe a column of tanks and take potshots at the advancing infantry.
"I'm upset," he said. "If I had lived, I could have trained more guys."
Once their MILES begin to beep, soldiers who are deemed killed in action are out of the game for several days. The wounded must be transferred to medical aid stations or a field hospital within a specified period of time, or they, too, will be considered dead. A tank or Humvee that is destroyed must be replaced through normal supply channels.
Several hundred officers and noncommissioned officers work as observer/controllers during the exercises. Known as OCs, they function as referees, coaches and mentors.
Once the war games end, the OCs lead the participants through an after-action review, in which everyone hashes out what went wrong and what went right, and privates get a chance to quiz colonels.
"That really is part of the Army's training revolution, to get a platoon or company in the room and get them to confess what they've done wrong," Scales said. "We can sit there in this Socratic AAR [after action review] and go through this process of learning by doing and then assessing performance in this very democratic environment that's uniquely American."
A host of data collected during battles, such as where units were at specific times, true casualty rates and the success of resupply efforts, is used to evaluate a unit's performance.
U.S. assistance has been requested by the fictional country of Cortina, located on the mythic island of Aragon.
For 25 years, the neighboring People's Democratic Republic of Atlantica has supplied and aided the insurgent Cortina Liberation Front. In the past month, the People's Revolutionary Armed Forces of Atlantica have sent a special operations brigade into Cortina and larger PRAFA forces are massing on the border.
His forces overwhelmed, the president of Cortina asks for U.S. assistance.
The U.S. military mission: to restore regional stability, support Cortinian internal defense, protect the Cortinian government, protect U.S. national security interests and demonstrate U.S. resolve in promoting the democracy of free nations. To accomplish the mission, the soldiers will encounter insurgents, the PRAFA soldiers and even a terrorist/criminal faction known as the LUGs, or Leesville Urban Group. (Fort Polk is adjacent to the town of Leesville, La.)
The assault on the town of Shughart-Gordon was the major exercise for the week, a remarkably difficult one requiring coordination of infantry, armor, artillery and attack aviation.
The defending OPFOR held a strong hand. It knew the lay of the land, its personnel were concealed in a variety of structures, and it had the advantage of defending, rather than attacking. And OPFOR was not constrained by rules placed on American forces, such as avoiding civilian casualties.
"We're bad guys," said Lewis, the OPFOR commander.
By the time what is left of the attacking infantry reached Shughart-Gordon, 30 minutes after the attack was spearheaded by M1A1 Abrams tanks, the surviving infantry were easy targets for enemy soldiers firing from the town hall and two condo complexes.
The staggering number of casualties at Shughart-Gordon said more about the difficulty and horror of attacking a well-armed and trained enemy in an urban environment than it did about the ability of the attackers.
The complex's name is a sobering reminder of the risks and costs of urban combat. Sgt. 1st Class Randall D. Shughart and Master Sgt. Gary I. Gordon were Delta Force soldiers killed during the vicious battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Oct. 3, 1993. That battle, which is the subject of the book and newly released movie "Black Hawk Down," saw 18 Army Rangers and Special Forces soldiers die. Another 84 soldiers were wounded.
At the height of the Mogadishu battle, Shughart and Gordon requested repeatedly to leave the safety of their helicopter to go to the aid of a downed U.S. Black Hawk helicopter. They saved the helicopter pilot, but suffered fatal wounds. Each was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor in combat.
Leaders at Fort Polk say the Army must be prepared for urban combat because of the continuing worldwide migration to cities. About half the world's population now lives in cities, a figure that will rise to 75 percent by the end of the current decade, said Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., Fort Polk's commanding general. Hard, costly urban fighting is a reality the Army must prepare for, he said.
Others contend that U.S. forces should limit urban combat to raids or peacekeeping, actions where the military's strength and speed will give it the greatest advantage.
Block-to-block fighting is something U.S. forces should avoid, said Scales and Dartmouth College Professor Daryl Press, an expert on military operations.
"When an enemy contracts into a city the advantage is yours," Scales said. "There's no reason to do a block-by-block clearing of a city."
"Going into a city to do urban operations is going to be really bad for the civilians as well," Press added.
Swannack agreed that urban operations can result in extremely high losses, recalling the Soviet's experience in 1945.
"In big cities like Berlin, they would absolutely consume entire divisions to get them secured. So do you bypass them and try to let them whither on the vine, or commit forces. That's a very difficult decision."
The better option is to place a loose cordon around a city, control the surrounding countryside and control all means of access. Then, Scales said, the surrounding forces can target specific places, such as utilities, military headquarters, the city or regime's ruling elite, TV and radio stations and food and fuel distribution points. U.S. forces should provide a safe haven for civilians outside the city, he added.
"Given the destructiveness and lethality of high intensity urban operations, it's hard to imagine situations in which it would really make sense to trade the lives of several thousand U.S. soldiers to take a city quickly by force rather than simply to surround it, let the civilians walk out and starve out the enemy soldiers," Press said.
Even the Taliban and al Qaeda forces saw the futility of making a stand at Kandahar, Scales added. They headed for the mountains.
Had they remained in Kandahar, and had the Northern Alliance and U.S. forces placed a cordon around it, terrorist leader Osama bin Laden would never have escaped, said Scales, who is writing a book called "Warfare in the American Age."
The Russians learned the same lesson in their combat with rebels in the Chechen capital of Grozny in January 1995. The first time the Russians tried to put down the insurrection, troops moved into the city. Three days later 800 of the 1,000 troops were lost, and 20 of 26 tanks and 102 of 120 armored vehicles were destroyed.
The second time the Russians went after Chechen insurgents in Grozny, they placed a cordon around the city.
By the time a smoke screen covered Shughart-Gordon in a thick gray haze, most of the attacking troops were dead and the defenders - who have yet to lose - were jubilant.
High-ranking officers watching the battle from a simulated water tower in the town's center declared the battle over. The dead stood up and crewmen aboard the dead tanks hopped to the ground.
"It's a great day, a great training day," said Brig. Gen. William Brandenburg, the man in charge of training and readiness at Fort Lewis, Wash., home to the 1st Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division.
He and his soldiers would soon head home with videotapes of the battle, captured by 950 cameras placed throughout the town, along with the comments of observer controllers who watched closely every aspect of the brigade's performance.
"Every rotation, every one I've been on, I always walk away with a laundry list of things to make my little bit of the Army better," Brandenburg said.