Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
For several years now, the U.S. military has been trying to replicate Afghan and Iraqi towns on U.S. soil to prepare soldiers to go there.
Western Louisiana doesn’t look a thing like Afghanistan, which makes the challenge of recreating Afghan towns here all the more disorienting. Back when Fort Polk was used to train deploying soldiers for World War II, and Vietnam, and even Kosovo, the landscape was at least sort of accurate. It’s green and rolling and lush. But Afghanistan? This is place-making at its most extreme.
The military has long sent soldiers here to prepare to deploy abroad. And as far back as the late 1980s, they’ve used mock villages to simulate the experience of patrolling and fighting in towns on foreign soil.
“We were primarily at first in a make-believe country on a make-believe island, and the units would deploy in there to push back a neighboring country on that island that was trying to invade a country we liked,” says C.J. McCann, the now-retired Operations Groups engineer who helped design all of these places. For years, his team built vaguely third-world looking clusters of wooden shacks with tin roofs. “Honestly and truthfully,” he says, “they looked about like what was outside Fort Polk.”
But America’s current wars are somewhat different: They’re fought in urban settings, amid a society less familiar than what troops experienced in Europe in World War II. And the military’s strategy has evolved to depend on soldiers knowing how to behave around a mosque, or what to expect in an Afghan home, or where to find IEDs buried in communities that look nothing like American towns.
“It’s not the Battle of the Bulge here,” says Erik Doman, a senior trainer with IDS International who works at Fort Polk. “Counterinsurgency is a population-centric strategy, and the center of gravity in the counter-insurgency is the people.”
In a sense, these are much more place-specific wars than America has fought in the past. And wooden shacks with tin roofs just won’t do to prepare people for them.
McCann volunteered for a year in Iraq from 2004-05 as a civilian working on reconstruction. When he returned, he approached the commander at Fort Polk to say he’d been in-country, and the mock villages they’d been creating just weren’t anywhere close.
“You can send a soldier to a tin hut and tell him ‘that’s an Iraqi building,’ and he’s going, ‘yeah, right,’” McCann says. “When he gets there and actually has to knock on a door, it’s not like that at all.”
Around this time, Fort Polk – alongside another training facility at Fort Irwin in California – began what McCann calls the “Hollywooding” of these training towns. He began working at Fort Polk with an actual set designer. Now the training towns have regionally specific architectural touches, native-speaking role players, and all kinds of props.
The whole endeavor is a curious exercise in recreating the sense of a place that exists 10,000 miles away. How do you recreate the physical signature of a place? Does the sense of being there derive from its landmarks – mosques and municipal buildings – or its subtler touches, such as the width of doorways and roads? And what about the look and behavior of the local people who populate public spaces and communal bazaars, lending a place its living personality?
It’s one thing to build a town from scratch, anywhere. It’s quite another to build an Afghan town in the middle of nowhere, Louisiana.
During the Iraqi surge, McCann was primarily focused on replicating places there. Now most of the soldiers who come through are on their way to Afghanistan.
“One of the things people instinctively fear is the unknown,” Doman says. “And by exposing soldiers to copies of Afghan villages over a period of weeks and months, depending on what training rotations they’re on, you give them more confidence so that when they get boots on the ground in Afghanistan, it’s not the first time they’ve seen a mosque, or a mud hut, or a dead goat or something of that nature.”
Literally, there are dead goats in these mock villages – taxidermied dead goats. (“The contractor doing work with us,” McCann says, “he has access to those things.”) There are live animals wandering about the towns, too, although they’re much harder to take care of. This is one of the little touches that speak to the kind of cultural jolt Americans sometimes experience in Afghanistan.
“I remember one of the things that I found upsetting was seeing dead dogs on the side of the road,” says Doman, who spent about three years in Afghanistan. “Just as an American who likes dogs, I found that unnerving. I got used to it, of course. But for some reason, the Afghans aren’t in a big hurry to bury their pets when they die.”
And they aren’t appreciative of American soldiers who show up with shovels to do that. These taxidermied animals also serve a dual purpose at Fort Polk: their cavities are sometimes used (in mock towns and real life) to hide IEDs.
The villages at Fort Polk – there can be up to 22 in total – run the gamut from regional capitals to rural family compounds. The biggest towns contain maybe 30 buildings, including a mosque, a municipal center (where soldiers are commonly expected to meet with local officials), and markets that are stocked with live venders and life-like produce. Most Afghan villages – relative to Iraqi ones – are somewhat haphazardly laid out, McCann says, and the infrastructure is minimal. There are no gas stations and no pay phones. (OK, there are also not supposed to be this many trees, but McCann stresses that he’s replicating here, not duplicating.)
Afghans also have a different conception of outdoor family space from the American lawn. Residences instead have courtyards contained within massive exterior walls, sometimes 10 feet high. The buildings themselves have paned, divided windows similar to what you’d see in Eastern Europe (in rural Iraq, which has no real winter, you more often find openings in walls with shutters covering them). Afghans build with some wood; Iraqis don’t. And doorways in rural Afghanistan are much smaller, too.
“You look at the size of the windows, the size of the doors, and you look at our soldiers,” McCann says. “They carry so much stuff on their back. In Afghanistan, you send a soldier to go clear a building, and the door is only 5 feet high. And he’s got to figure out, ‘what am I going to take off to go in here?’”
McCann has tried to capture some of these touches from soldiers and civilians who have returned back from Afghanistan, and so, over the years, the villages have grown eerily more accurate. But the role they play has evolved over time, too, as more soldiers are arriving in Afghanistan now not for the first time, but the fourth or fifth. For them, these mock villages offer more of a mental transition than a first-time introduction.
“The biggest compliment I ever got out of doing all this work with the villages,” McCann says, “was from people that would come through and say, ‘man when I went in your village it gave me goose bumps.’”
In Army-speak, the villages are collectively referred to as “the box.” When you’re in "the box,” you’re in Afghanistan. And for many soldiers and trainers, especially those who may spend up to 12-15 hours a day here, leaving the box is almost as weird as entering it.
“Especially for the folks that are recently returned from Afghanistan,” Doman says. “To be in this village, dealing with a society that really hasn’t changed much in 4,000 years, and then to drive into town and grab a quick bite to eat at McDonald's – that’s a bit surreal.”
All images courtesy of the Operations Group public affairs department, Fort Polk.