Fort Irwin is a U.S. army base nearly the size of Rhode Island, located in the Mojave Desert about an hour's drive northeast of Barstow, California. There you will find the National Training Center, or NTC, at which all U.S. troops, from all the services, spend a twenty-one day rotation before they deploy overseas.
Sprawling and often infernally hot in the summer months, the base offers free tours, open to the public, twice a month. We made the trip, cameras in hand and notebooks at the ready, to learn more about the simulated battlefields in which imaginary conflicts loop, day after day, without end.
Coincidentally, as we explored the Painted Rocks located just outside the gate while waiting for the tour to start, an old acquaintance from Los Angeles -- architect and geographer Rick Miller -- pulled up in his Prius, also early for the same tour.
We laughed, said hello, and caught up about a class Rick had been teaching at UCLA about the military defense of L.A. from World War II to the present. An artificial battlefield, beyond even the furthest fringes of Los Angeles, Fort Irwin thus seemed like an appropriate place to meet.
We were soon joined by a small group of other visitors- -- consisting, for the most part, of family members of soldiers deployed on the base, as well as two architecture students from Montréal -- before a large white tour bus rolled up across the gravel.
Renita, a former combat videographer who now handles public affairs at Fort Irwin, took our names, IDs, and signatures for reasons of liability (we would be seeing live explosions and simulated gunfire, and there was always the risk that someone might get hurt).
The day began with a glimpse into the economics and culture of how a nation prepares its soldiers for war; an orientation, of sorts, before we headed out to visit one of fifteen artificial cities scattered throughout the base.
In the plush lecture hall used for "After Action Reviews" -- and thus, Renita apologized, air-conditioned to a morgue-like chill in order to keep soldiers awake as their adrenalin levels crash -- we received a briefing from the base's commander, Brigadier General Terry Ferrell.
With pride, Ferrell noted that Fort Irwin is the only place where the U.S. military can train using all of the systems it will later use in theater. The base's 1,000 square miles of desert is large enough to allow what Ferrell called "great maneuverability"; its airspace is restricted; and its truly remote location ensures an uncluttered electromagnetic spectrum, meaning that troops can practice both collection and jamming. These latter techniques even include interfering with GPS, providing they warn the Federal Aviation Administration in advance.
Oddly, it's worth noting that Fort Irwin also houses the electromagnetically sensitive Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, part of NASA's global Deep Space Network. As science writer Oliver Morton explains in a paper called "Moonshine and Glue: A Thirteen-Unit Guide to the Extreme Edge of Astrophysics" (PDF), "when digitized battalions slug it out with all the tools of modern warfare, radio, radar, and electronic warfare emissions fly as freely around Fort Irwin as bullets in a battle. For people listening to signals from distant spacecraft on pre-arranged frequency bands, this noise is not too much of a problem." However, he adds, for other, far more sensitive experiments, "radio interference from the military next door is its biggest headache."
Unusually for the American West, where mineral rights are often transferred separately, the military also owns the ground beneath Fort Irwin, which means that they have carved out an extensive network of tunnels and caves from which to flush pretend insurgents.
This 120-person strong insurgent troop is drawn from the base's own Blackhorse Regiment, a division of the U.S. Army that exists solely to provide opposition. Whatever the war, the 11th Armored is always the pretend enemy. According to Ferrell, their current role as Afghan rebels is widely envied: They receive specialized training (for example, in building IEDs) and are held to "reduced grooming standards," while their mission is simply to "stay alive and wreak havoc."
If they die during a NTC simulation, they have to shave and go back on detail on the base, Ferrell added, so the incentive to evade their American opponents is strong.
In addition to the in-house enemy regiment, there is an entire 2,200-person logistics corps dedicated to rotating units in and out of Fort Irwin and equipping them for training. Every ordnance the United States military has, with the exception of biological and chemical weapons, is used during NTC simulations, Ferrell told us. What's more, in the interests of realism (and expense be damned), troops train using their own equipment, which means that bringing in, for example, the 10th Mountain Division (on rotation during our visit), also means transporting their tanks and helicopters from their home base at Fort Drum, New York, to California, and back again.
Units are deployed to Fort Irwin for twenty-one days, fourteen of which are spent in what Fort Irwin refers to as "The Box" (as in "sandbox"). This is the vast desert training area that includes fifteen simulated towns and the previously mentioned tunnel and caves, as well as expansive gunnery ranges and tank battle arenas.
Following our briefing, we headed out to the largest mock village in the complex, the Afghan town of Ertebat Shar, originally known, during its Iraqi incarnation, as Medina Wasl. Before we re-boarded the bus, Renita issued a stern warning: "'Afghanistan' is not modernized with plumbing. There are Porta-Johns, but I wanted to let you know the situation before we roll out there."
A twenty-minute drive later, through relatively featureless desert, our visit to "Afghanistan" began with a casual walk down the main street, where we were greeted by actors trying to sell us plastic loaves of bread and piles of fake meat. Fort Irwin employs more than 350 civilian role-players, many of whom are of Middle Eastern origin, although Ferrell explained that they are still trying to recruit more Afghans, in order "to provide the texture of the culture."
The atmosphere is strangely good-natured, which was at least partially amplified by a feeling of mild embarrassment, as the rules of engagement, so to speak, are not immediately clear; you, the visitor, are obviously aware of the fact that these people are paid actors, but it feels distinctly odd to slip into character yourself and pretend that you might want to buy some bread.
In fact, it's impossible not to wonder how peculiar it must be for a refugee, or even a second-generation immigrant, from Iraq or Afghanistan, to pretend to be a baker in a simulated "native" village on a military base in the California desert, only to see tourists in shorts and sunglasses walking through, smiling uncomfortably and taking photos with their phones before strolling away without saying anything.
Even more peculiarly, as we reached the end of the street, the market -- and all the actors in it -- vanished behind us, dispersing back into the fake city, as if only called into being by our presence.
By now, with the opening act over, we were stopped in front of the town's "Lyndon Marcus International Hotel" to take stock of our surroundings. In his earlier briefing, Ferrell had described the simulated villages' close attention to detail -- apparently, the footprint for the village came from actual satellite imagery of Baghdad, in order to accurately recreate street widths, and the step sizes inside buildings are Iraqi, rather than U.S., standard.