Hollywood props, deployed by the U.S. Army

April 20, 2009

There was no one there but us and the fake chickens.

I visited the U.S. Army’s training center at Fort Polk in Louisiana this month with some fellow foreign correspondents to see soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division training for a mission in Afghanistan. For 21 days, the soldiers are meant to live and operate as if they had already deployed to the war zone. (You can see the story here.)

The center goes to great lengths to recreate the experience that troops will face in Iraq and Afghanistan. That means fireworks to simulate bomb explosions, fake blood to make casualties look realistic, and Afghan or Iraqi role-players to act as civilians, security force members and interpreters.

The Army even allows “relaxed grooming standards” for the soldiers who play insurgents — they are allowed to grow beards and long hair to look the part.

The trainers produce a daily newspaper which reports on the previous day’s events in the fictional Afghanistan, along with an enemy propaganda sheet which can be filled with lies.

But perhaps the most striking symbols of this attention to detail are the mock villages created with the help of Hollywood set-dressers. We visited one that was close to completion with C.J. McCann, the Army official in charge of the villages. It was rather eerie, standing in the otherwise empty village on a windswept day. The place felt like a cross between a ghost town and a spaghetti western set.

The fake fruit and vegetables, the fake carcasses hanging outside the butcher’s shop, the washing hanging out to dry, and the uncannily lifelike fake chickens… they may seem over the top to some. But the Army says the more realistic the setting, the better the training for its soldiers.

Unlike the villages, the video below is not Oscar-worthy. It was filmed with a small, mobile phone sized camera, with the wind whipping around us. But it provides a feel for the level of detail in the villages as McCann explains how they came to be built and how they force soldiers to think about the effect they have on civilians — even with actions as basic as getting vehicle antennas caught in power lines.

(Just in case you were wondering, TRADOC is the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. And Fort Irwin is the Army’s other major training centre in the United States, located in the Mojave Desert in California.)

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