In the middle of the De Soto National Forest in Mississippi, the Iraqi Haidar Al Jasham takes one last drag on his cigarette, stubs it out and, along with a handful of other demonstrators, marches toward the entrance control-point of a well-guarded U.S. Army base. Among the crowd are a dozen American civilians wearing Arab clothing over jeans, T-shirts and baseball caps. Together with Al Jasham and several other Iraqis, they noisily confront a solid line of 15 American soldiers who stand silently behind a steel barrier.
As the crowd chants "Bush, Bush, Ali Baba. No more Ali Baba," Al Jasham lifts the barrier and two protesters slip through. Quickly, several of the soldiers march forward and pretend to handcuff them, much to the annoyance of the crowd. Suddenly, two grenades explode near the checkpoint and, while some of the soldiers take cover, others appear to freeze amid the shouting and the chaos. Al Jasham and the demonstrators don't look at all perturbed and continue to poke and point at the soldiers, screaming about poor living conditions in a mixture of Arabic and broken English. More explosions echo through the longleaf pine trees and a soldier, reading from a laminated card, drops to the ground, shouting out, "I'm hit, I'm hit." Some of his colleagues appear unsure how to react.
If this was taking place in Iraq, the U.S. would have suffered at least one more casualty in its war on terror, as well as doing little to win the battle for the hearts and minds of the indigenous population. But here, at Camp Shelby, this is all just part of what the U.S. Army refers to as "theatre immersion training."
"The soldiers are making mistakes," says Al Jasham, "But we help them get better."
In order to better train troops who are scheduled for deployment in Iraq, the U.S. Army has constructed three full-scale and fully operational forward operating bases (FOBs), replicating as closely as possible existing desert bases in Iraq. It has also built three full-sized Iraqi villages, complete with mosques, markets, police stations, houses and supposed "improvised explosive device" (IED) factories, in which it conducts supposedly realistic combat operations.
To complete the picture, to populate the villages and to confront the soldiers, the army has hired more than 100 civilians, including 25 Iraqi nationals, who have moved to Mississippi from all over the U.S. to play the parts of insurgents, imams, translators, demonstrators and, on occasion, suicide bombers.
"We'll play whatever the army asks us," Al Jasham insists. "These are important parts. We are helping these soldiers."
The notion of theatre immersion is not new. During the Second World War, Camp Shelby, which covers more than 134,000 acres of forest, fields and open brush land, was the main mobilization station for U.S. troops departing to Europe and had at least one village on its grounds built specifically so soldiers could train for urban conflict. During the Vietnam War, troops departing from the base also had the benefit of a reconstructed Vietnamese village.
However, this is the first time that so many non-military personnel-the army refers to them as "civilians on the battlefield"-have been hired to add realism to its training exercises. It is also the first time that the army has insisted that troops live, not in garrisons while on base, but in the FOBs they have constructed; in tents, surrounded by manned guard towers, Scud bunkers, rolls of razorwire and under the constant threat of (simulated) attack from snipers, rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and mortar fire.
In a paper for the U.S. Army, entitled "Theatre Immersion: Post-Mobilization Training in The First Army," Lt. Gen. Russell L. Honor and Col. Daniel L. Zajac wrote, "Theatre immersion places-as rapidly as possible-leaders, soldiers, and units into an environment that approximates what they will encounter in combat. Training is tough, realistic, hands-on, repetitive and designed to illicit intuitive soldier-responses."
Several other U.S. Army bases also conduct theatre-immersion training and have built FOBs and smaller Iraqi villages. They have all based their programs on the Camp Shelby model. More than 78,000 American troops currently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have undergone this type of training.
Hiring Iraqi nationals to be a part of theatre immersion is meant to help the soldiers prepare for their tour of duty and to learn some of the mores of the Islamic faith. Given the controversial nature of the war, however, and the continued attacks by insurgents on Iraqis seen to be cooperating with the U.S. and coalition forces (by joining the police or the new Iraqi army), Al Jasham and his fellow countrymen and women know that working for the army in America is contentious. "The Iraqi people don't know what we are doing. I don't think the terrorists would be happy with what we are doing, but the other people would be," says Al Jasham.
Several of the Iraqis playing demonstrators are reluctant to be photographed or interviewed, saying they have family in Iraq who could face reprisals. Others are not so afraid.
"People judge you," says Tahrer Mohammed, 45. "They say, 'Why are you helping the Americans? They invaded your country.' But I don't care. Why shouldn't we help them? I want to show the soldiers how to be safe. I want to show them the culture." Mohammed has lived in America for 18 years, and moved to Mississippi from South Carolina a year ago to take this work. Despite the ever-rising number of civilian casualties caused by the conflict, she still believes she is doing the right thing in helping to train American soldiers for her homeland.
"This country gives us our living," she says. "Our kids go to school here, so we appreciate it and we are proud of them. They got Saddam out and I don't think they mean to kill civilians. Insurgents are to blame." (According to a recent study, more than 25,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq since the start of the war, and U.S.-led forces are accused of responsibility for more than a third of these deaths.)
The roles the Iraqis are asked to play change on a daily basis, depending on the theatre of operation and how many troops are undergoing training-Camp Shelby acts as the deployment center for the majority of troops based east of the Mississippi River and dispatches soldiers to both Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Sometimes we work five days a week, or it could be two days a week," says Al Jasham, 34, who has lived in America since 1995. He gave up his job as a maintenance worker at a nursing home in Idaho and relocated to Mississippi when this opportunity arose. He and his co-workers get paid $12.50 an hour, which everyone agrees is good money. It also suggests there is more than altruism behind their decisions to continue to live and work here.
"Sometimes we have to start at five in the morning and go till midnight," says Al Jasham. "Sometimes we work for 24 hours. It depends on the scenarios. Sometimes we are protesters, translators, or they want us to do a car bombing."
The army contracts the civilians for four months at a time, but, as the insurgency shows no sign of abating and as specific mission training is a vital part of every soldier's preparation, none of the Iraqis expects to be leaving Camp Shelby any time soon.
While the Iraqis cannot attest to the soldiers' infantry skills, they claim to see them make some basic mistakes they hope they won't make in Iraq. "They cuss women too much," says Mohammed. "They need to respect women there. They have to be polite. And I don't want them to react when someone says, 'get the hell out of our country,' because the people are suffering a lot. The country is messed up. The Iraqi people are confused." Al Jasham says the most important thing he can teach the soldiers here is to "respect our culture."
Several of Mohammed's fellow demonstrators say they would love to go back to Iraq with U.S. forces to act as translators or advisers, but the military will only take U.S. citizens and while the Iraqis here, a mix of Sunnis and Shias, are all legal immigrants, none has been granted U.S. citizenship.
For the officers of the third brigade of the 87th division of the U.S. Army Reserve who are charged with conducting the exercises at Camp Shelby, training each group of soldiers for four to six months and working with the Iraqi and American civilians, this is a lesson they have been teaching since they started the theater-immersion program in February last year. More than 20,000 troops have taken part in the exercises.
"It is very important to teach soldiers how to treat civilians with dignity and respect," says Sgt. Adrian Thomas. He is involved in showing inexperienced soldiers how to react to civil disturbances and how to conduct body searches at checkpoints. Specific techniques are needed in Muslim countries as male soldiers are not permitted to touch women. The army teaches several different methods, depending on whether female soldiers or interpreters are present.
As well as offering instruction on how to deal with specific religious customs, Thomas and his fellow trainers teach the soldiers how to deal with the mortal threat posed by IEDs, which have been responsible for more than a quarter of all coalition fatalities to date.
To this end, living in a simulated desert base and working in the replica Iraqi villages with a mix of Iraqi and American civilians is "invaluable," according to Capt. Kevin O'Connell. "We are trying to scare the living crap out of these soldiers," says O'Connell, who has recently finished a tour of Iraq. During this time. he helped train the Iraqi police force. "The soldiers have to get used to the fact that they are always in a combat zone. If we can get them to keep their guard up by being as surprising as the bad guys can be, then I think they will realize that. This training, and these situations, help that."
Shortly after the demonstration at the checkpoint has finished, O'Connell tells a platoon of the Wisconsin National Guard training here that intelligence has reported that an IED factory has been identified in the mocked-up town of Al Asad (each of the three Iraqi villages here are named after existing Iraqi towns: Al Asad, Trebil and Al Jaffah). The platoon's job is to destroy the factory, capture or kill any insurgents present, and leave the town, having suffered as few casualties as possible.
From a distance, Al Asad looks quite realistic: The buildings are all sand-coloured, some covered in Arabic graffiti; burnt-out cars line the roads leading into the village; low-slung power lines drop from telegraph poles; and the minaret of a mosque dominates the skyline. On closer inspection, however, all of the buildings are large painted steel cargo containers. To create their version of Al Asad, the army has assembled 23 containers at the crossroads of two dirt tracks and built a plywood minaret.
Bureaucracy has prevented the use of adobe bricks or even mortar, as financing has come from the military's contingency operation funds, which require that any structures be temporary and removable at the end of the specified contingency. The army has leased the cargo containers from a freight company.
In one of the containers, most of which have been given doors and interior partitions, a 27-year-old American student and former soldier, Antoine Josserand, is holding a plastic AK-47 and standing next to a fake IED. He is supposed to be a non-English-speaking insurgent working in the bomb- making factory, and is dressed in a dishdasha (a full-length garment) with a black and white ghutra (headdress) draped around his neck.
He has been playing the part of an insurgent for three days a week for more than a year and although he believes his job is helping save lives, he still sees young soldiers making inane mistakes that could get them killed in Iraq.
"Just this morning, soldiers were searching this building and they saw explosives and, instead of evacuating right away, they were kind of loitering," he says. "They should have moved out as soon as they saw them. And the first group didn't take the prisoners with them. They left us there with the explosives and the AKs." He laughs. "That wasn't very smart."
A convoy of 11 unarmoured Humvees approaches the village and Josserand ducks down inside the factory-cum-container. He waits with a second American (who is playing a fellow-insurgent) for the convoy to roll into town and surround the building. Instead of this, a three-man team is dispatched from one of the Humvees to penetrate the factory. Upon arrival, they quickly detain the insurgents and call for back-up. Three more men arrive but, like their fellow National Guardsmen earlier in the day, they, too, fail to evacuate the building. Captain O'Connell instructs one of his fellow officers to throw a flash-bang grenade near the building and, upon its noisy detonation, tells everyone in the supposed IED factory that they've just been killed.
The platoon commander, safe in a Humvee outside the village, orders three more of his soldiers to approach the building. A sniper opens up with a (blank-firing) machine-gun from a nearby second story window, and O'Connell tells this team that they, too, are all dead.
It takes another five minutes before two of the Humvees with roof-mounted 50-calibre machine-guns enter the town and six soldiers, their M16s firing (blanks) on automatic, storm the sniper's hideout. They toss a grenade up the stairs but, as there is a plywood floor there it "explodes" over their heads and they too would, in a real life situation, have suffered critical injuries.
There is a sense of relief on all of the soldiers faces when O'Connell shouts 'End Ex!' to bring the exercise to a close.
"We got tore up pretty good," says Anthony Klemme, 30, an insurance agent in his everyday life but the leader of these men this afternoon. "We were too spread out for one platoon. There are a lot things we can take from it."
He admits the number of "casualties" the platoon took is frightening. "It's an eye-opener," he says wearily, but as this is the first time his men have faced "insurgents" in a "foreign" village, he is grateful it was on American soil. "All of it betters conditions us for what to expect over there." According to O'Connell, "even when you are doing it in real life, people make mistakes. Anytime you are faced with a situation like this, it is chaos and it's about trying to make order out of chaos. That's why we train, and the village set-ups and the civilians add to the realism of that training."
These members of the Wisconsin National Guard will be deploying to Iraq in August. They have less than four weeks to perfect their urban-combat techniques. A further two brigades (perhaps 8,000 soldiers) are scheduled to arrive at Camp Shelby over the coming months, with a similar number due to receive theatre-immersion training at other bases in the near future.
The role-playing Americans and Iraqis will be told in October if they are needed into next year. In the meantime, they will continue chanting, attacking and sniping at their current employers from the checkpoints and cargo containers scattered among the moss-covered oaks and cypress swamps of Mississippi, believing that they are helping all of those who are affected by the conflict. "By doing what we do, we stop the soldiers getting culture-shocked," Al Jasham insists. "That benefits them, Iraqis and our country," he adds. "Inshallah."
This piece originally appeared in the The Independent UK.