How US Army trains for a different kind of war
Counterinsurgency tactics put a big premium on winning hearts and minds. For soldiers undergoing training at Fort Polk, La., it seems to be sticking.
Fort Polk, LA.
– Ask Army Staff Sgt. Troy Sherlock how to win in Iraq and his unscripted response seems right out of the playbook for fighting insurgencies.Skip to next paragraph
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To succeed there, he says, US forces have to emphasize respect for the populace and Iraqi culture, engaging both to truly defeat the insurgency. "We're starting to realize that we're never leaving that country if we don't do it right," says Sergeant Sherlock.
Or as a junior officer summed up the training here from his perch in a Humvee beneath a stand of scraggly pines: "You have to be nice," he concedes in a sigh.
More than four years into the Iraq war, the US military's rank and file seems to have gotten the memo. Instead of kicking down doors, hard chargers like Sherlock know they must knock. This evolution is slowly changing military thinking about warfare and, if it's not too late, could change the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It all sounds so familiar, this notion that success over insurgencies comes not with guns but with soccer balls. But for many jaded Iraq war vets, the Vietnam-era "winning-hearts-and-minds" mantra was an impractical slogan in the face of roadside bombs and sniper attacks. And, with the exception of some notable military leaders, few on the front lines were known to actually believe it.
For the past few years, from less progressive generals on down to the most gung-ho privates, many in the military figured the insurgency was, as Vice-President Dick Cheney declared in June 2005, "in its last throes." So-called irregular warfare was only taking the military on a detour, and ultimately it would return to its conventional warfare roots.
Bringing up a new kind of soldier
But evidence is growing that the military's fundamental approach to warfare may be changing, perhaps for good.
At Fort Polk in any given month, thousands of soldiers undergo "force-on-force" training that trainers here say is as realistic as it gets. There are the usual scripted events that simulate car bombs and suicide bombs – and that teach must-have tactics to cope with the horrific violence that still ravages parts of Iraq.
But increasingly, the emphasis here and at other training centers in California is on teaching the full spectrum of operations in the war on terror, from humanitarian assistance to full-on combat. For a military steeped in the traditions of gun battles and "kinetic" action, it is the focus on the finer points of security and stabilization that get the most play here.
When he came through Fort Polk earlier this year, Army First Lt. Chad Nakamura, a member of the Third Brigade of the 101st Airborne, realized that the tactical stance he used as he held his gun was too threatening. So he changed it. He says he has also worked to develop his interpersonal skills, anticipating his first tour in Iraq. Lieutenant Nakamura, previously an enlisted soldier with nine years of service under his belt, now a trainer at Fort Polk, believes he'll take a different approach when his turn in Iraq comes.
"Let's fix it," he says, referring to Iraq. "But it doesn't have to be in a violent way or a threatening way."
Meet Fort Polk's commander
Army Brig. Gen. Daniel Bolger leads the charge at Fort Polk as both its commanding officer and the commander of the Joint Readiness Training Center there. General Bolger has helped to create a training environment where soldiers participate in sophisticated scenarios in which their actions produce effects that resemble real-world situations. In this world of make-believe with life-or-death implications, a corporal who uses the wrong hand to wave or a commander who ignores the request of the local sheik to fix a school's roof could have negative consequences and lead ultimately to those role-players setting up a car-bomb attack against the "friendly forces" being trained.
The training at Fort Polk replicates to the degree possible the situation on the ground, where Iraqi police and Army units play a larger role than they once did. The training also quickly incorporates tactical changes by the enemy in Iraq. For instance, earlier this month insurgents began blowing up bridges in Iraq. Within a day or so, the trainers at Fort Polk began using the same tactic against soldiers undergoing training.