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What Garbage Workers and Make-Believe Iraqis Taught Our Military

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Despite this week’s bad news, things have gotten better in Iraq. A lot of the reason has to do with the success of the Jan. 30 election and the growing competence of Iraqi security forces. But give credit where it’s due: The U.S. military has stepped up its game. When the insurgency began in the summer of 2003, the U.S. armed forces were caught off guard. Most soldiers and Marines had little training for, or interest in, nation-building and counterinsurgency operations. But the U.S. military has proved that it adapts to unexpected events, learns from its mistakes and passes those lessons along.

Last week at Ft. Hood in Texas, on a tour of military bases organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, I heard a colonel in the 1st Cavalry Division explain one training approach. The 1st Cavalry, which garrisoned Baghdad from March 2004 to March 2005, is an armored force designed to fight other tank armies. In order to figure out how to run a modern metropolis, officers spent time with Austin city officials before they deployed. They also rode along with electrical, water, sewage and garbage workers. Applying what they learned, the 1st Cavalry troops discovered that the more they improved municipal service in Baghdad, the less likely residents were to cooperate with insurgents. Thanks to their efforts, the Iraqi capital is significantly more peaceful today than it was a year ago.

One of the biggest lessons U.S. forces have learned in Iraq is the need to guard convoys against ambushes. There are no safe rear areas; every Humvee is on the front lines every time it goes “outside the wire.” Yet until recently, most soldiers in trucks and Humvees did not train together for combat as intensively as tank crews did.

To address the shortfall, in the fall of 2003 the Army created the convoy skills trainer. Located in a Ft. Hood warehouse, the trainer consists of four plywood boxes rigged up like Humvees. Soldiers sit inside watching virtual-reality screens that give them the illusion that they’re driving through Iraq, fighting off guerrilla attacks. Every hit and miss is registered on giant video walls for later analysis. (My performance proved that I’m more adept with metaphors than an M-16.)

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A much bigger and more elaborate real-world simulation has been created at the Joint Readiness Training Center, which sprawls over 106,000 wooded acres at Ft. Polk in Louisiana. There are 18 “urban areas” here that represent Iraq, complete with mosques and Arabic street signs. They are populated by more than 1,200 role players, including hundreds of Iraqi Americans, who play civilians, and costumed U.S. soldiers as insurgents. Like their real-life counterparts, “guerrillas” plant IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and fire RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). Explosions are simulated with smoke generators, pyrotechnics and other Hollywood-style special effects. Hits are registered on laser harnesses worn by participants and recorded in a computerized command post. All the action is caught by 1,300 video cameras.

Army brigades about to be sent to Iraq come here to face not only simulated enemy fire but also demonstrations by unhappy civilians and ambush interviews by pesky reporters. Visiting officers analyze media coverage from newspapers produced at the center. If U.S. troops needlessly kill civilians, the media and villagers turn hostile; if they stop a cholera outbreak, reactions are friendlier.

Scenarios are adjusted based on what’s going on in Iraq; the center has observers there who report on the latest insurgent tactics. And, just as in Iraq, the actions taken by U.S. troops have ambiguous results. Visiting units are not scored as in traditional war games. Instead, commanders discuss what they did right and what they did wrong with a corps of experienced umpires.

“We’re fighting a thinking, adaptive enemy,” one of the trainers told us. Even amid some recent setbacks, the increasing stability in Iraq shows that the American military is capable of matching that learning curve.

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