Sim Cities and theatres of war

When I wrote “Rush to the intimate” (DOWNLOADS tab), a discussion of the ‘cultural turn’ in US counterinsurgency, I was fascinated by a rich and rapidly expanding literature on pre-deployment training and Mission Rehearsal Exercises in simulated “Afghanistans” and “Iraqs” across the United States and beyond in what Steve Graham later called, in Cities under siege, a ‘theme-park archipelago’:

fort-polk‘US troops prepare for deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq by rotating through major Combat Training Centers.  The arc of these ‘theatres of war’ runs from the United States through Europe to Jordan and Kuwait, but the main Mission Rehearsal Exercises are conducted at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fork Polk, Louisiana; the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California; and the US Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Training Center at Twentynine Palms, California.  Each includes prefabricated villages and small towns to train troops in urban operations.  … There is little attempt at morphological similitude.  In fact, the same physical structures serve for Afghanistan and Iraq, as though the two are indistinguishable and interchangeable, and the buildings are rudimentary approximations.  One journalist described the crude architecture of ‘Wadi al Sahara’ at Twentynine Palms as being ‘like an impressionist painting’.  From the surrounding hills it could be mistaken for part of Basra or Fallujah, but ‘a walk through its dusty streets shows it to be only a vast collection of shipping containers.’ This too is not without its performative consequences.  Shipping containers are an improvement on poker chips and Lego bricks, but reducing living spaces to metal boxes and studio flats conveys a silent message about the sort of people who live in them.

Realistic Urban Training‘The focus at all the training centres is on interactive realism, and the cultural turn has transformed the terms of engagement.  In the early stages of the ‘war on terror’, the emphasis was on kinetic operations and on state-of-the-art special effects that drew on the visual and pyrotechnic skills of Hollywood and theme-park designers.  When one reporter visited Fort Polk in January 2003, she described troops calling in air strikes, securing roads and bridges on the perimeter of a town, and dealing with ambushes staged by insurgents played by soldiers from the base. Her story repeated the physical imagery of the Handbook for Joint Urban Operations issued the previous fall with precision: ‘From sewers to rooftops, cities are multi-layered, like three-dimensional chess boards.’  Civilians appeared only as casualties, and then only in the very last paragraph, where one soldier admitted that he had ‘no clear answer’: ‘“What can you do?”’ The cultural turn is supposed to provide the answer to that question, and from 2006 a flurry of media reports described a new emphasis on military-civilian interaction.  Exercises still include kinetic operations, though these are now more likely to focus on combating IEDs and suicide bombings, but the main objective is no longer scoring kills but ‘gaining the trust of the locals.’  The deployment of Civilian (sometimes called Cultural) Role Players has expanded dramatically.  More than 1,000 are on call at Fort Polk alone, including 250 Arabic speakers, many of them recruited from the Iraqi diaspora in Atlanta, Houston, Memphis and as far away as Michigan.  Their very presence has changed the imaginative geography.  One corporal noted that his previous training had never incorporated civilians ‘wondering what’s going on, and looking around, and doing everyday things.  So when we got there and there were other people besides the enemy, it kind of threw us on our heels.  You know, all we trained for was that the enemy are the only ones on the streets.’  But these Civilian Role Players are not extras, figures to be bypassed, and their roles are carefully scripted.  They play community leaders, police chiefs, clerics, shopkeepers, aid workers, and journalists, and new scenarios require troops to understand the meaning of cultural transactions and to conduct negotiations with local people.  Careful tallies are kept of promises made by US commanders, and the immediate consequences of civilian casualties are dramatized in depth.  Mock newscasts by teams representing CNN and al Jazeera remind troops that local actions can have far-reaching consequences.  Even the special effects have become more intimate; in one Gothic gesture, amputees are used to simulate the effects of suicide bombs (though not, I suspect, US air strikes).  ‘It is no longer close in and destroy the enemy,’ one Marine officer explained: ‘We have to build relationships with Iraqis in the street.’

At the time the richest reports were these (and the quotations above were taken from them): Dexter Filkins and John Burns, ‘Mock Iraqi villages in Mojave prepare troops for battle’, New York Times, 1 May 2006; Wells Tower, ‘Letter from Talatha: Under the God Gun’, Harper’s Magazine, January 2006; Vince Beiser, ‘Baghdad, USA’, Wired Magazine 14.06 (June 2006); Tony Perry, ‘“Mojave Viper” sessions reflect situations in Iraq’, Los Angeles Times, 24 July 2006; Guy Rez, ‘Simulated city preps Marines for reality of Iraq’, National Public Radio, 13 April 2007.

I now need to re-visit all of this for The everywhere war.  My good friend, the ever-enterprising Oliver Belcher, visited Muscatatuk Urban Training Center in Indiana in September 2010 as part of his PhD research, so I had some idea of what had changed in the interim (and what had not).

NTC Fort Irwin exercise

Now Geoff Manaugh (of BldgBlog fame) has provided a sumptuously illustrated account (also on his blog here and at Venue here) of his recent visit to the simulated Afghan town of Ertebat Shar at Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert (above); when US troops were training for Iraq it was Medina Wasl, and the basic geometry was imported from satellite photographs of Baghdad.
‘… at the most basic level, soldiers will use Fort Irwin’s facsimile villages to practice clearing structures and navigating unmapped, roofed alleyways through cities without clear satellite communications links. However, at least in the training activities accessible to public visitors, the architecture is primarily a stage set for the theater of human relations: a backdrop for meeting and befriending locals (again, paid actors), controlling crowds (actors), rescuing casualties (Fort Irwin’s roster of eight amputees are its most highly paid actors, we learned, in recompense for being literally dragged around during simulated combat operations), and, ultimately, locating and eliminating the bad guys (the Blackhorse regiment [a 120-strong insurgent force drawn from the 11th Armored]).’

Other recent images and video-essays can be found here and here.

Two things in particular stand out for me from Geoff’s immensely interesting essay.

First, the site and at least some of its training exercises are now regularly open to the public – NTC ‘Box Tours’ run twice a month and can be booked no more than 30 days in advance: see here for details – so special dispensations are no longer needed.  As this implies, the sense of public scrutiny has evidently been dramatically heightened since 2007, though even then national media seemed to be all over the place, and this now extends to the incorporation of the visitors themselves.  Geoff reports:

‘In the series of set-piece training exercises that take place within the village, the action is coordinated from above by a ring of walkie-talkie connected scenographers, including an extensive internal media presence, who film all of the simulations for later replay in combat analysis. The sense of being on an elaborate, extremely detailed film set is here made explicit. In fact, visitors are openly encouraged to participate in this mediation of the events: We were repeatedly urged to take as many photographs as possible and to share the resulting images on Facebook, Twitter, and more.’

NTC Fort Irwin media

As I’ve argued before, this sense of reflexivity – attention to the conduct of conduct – is focal to later modern war (though it extends far beyond multiple media platforms and includes, crucially, the lawyering-up of the kill-chain).

Second, the wounds of war have become ever more elaborately scripted.  Wells Tower‘s brilliant ‘Letter from Talatha’ (cited above) was very good on this, but now Geoff reproduces
‘an extraordinary collection of injury cards handed out to fallen soldiers and civilians. These detail the specific rules given for role-playing a suite of symptoms and behavior — a kind of design fiction of military injury.’

US ArmyTactical Combat Casualty CareScanning these cards raises a series of questions about other, more visceral geographies that lie behind the fiction: the (selective) geographies of care that extend from a war-zone back to hospitals in the United States. The US military has developed an elaborate system of recording and removing its own casualties (as part of what it usually calls ‘tactical combat casualty care‘).

Tactical telemedicineThe geography of this process is acutely physical. The delays imposed by time and space can kill, which is why the US military is currently exploring what it calls ‘tactical telemedicine’ (see the simulation report here; image on right).

The military casualty system is the product of a long historical geography: there’s a useful review of the US experience up to World War II by Bernard Rostker here, and I’m starting to wonder – with another good friend, Craig Jones – and as part of our joint interest in ‘geographies of the kill-chain’ how to explore the changing political and cultural geographies of injury and trauma that radiate from military violence.  There are vital comparative aspects to this, involving not only the (differential) treatment of combatants and civilians by different actors but also the different capacities of military and civilian medicine in war-zones and beyond.  All other dimensions of the theatre of war.