The Army is rethinking how to fight the next warand win the current one
Fort Irwin, Calif.The legendary Gen. George Patton first used a desolate stretch of California desert to train his tank units in the 1930s. Some five decades later, the Army returned to the area's harsh scrublands. The opening of the National Training Center here allowed heavy brigades to square off in large-scale exercises to prepare for the war that never came, the massive tank-on-tank battles against the Soviet Union. For an ambitious colonel, a war game at the National Training Center was very likely the climax of his brigade command. These days, it is merely the beginning. The real test comes afterward. The real test, of course, is Iraq.
After three years of roadside bombs, midnight raids, and sectarian strife, one can safely say that Iraq is not the kind of war for which the National Training Center and the U.S. Army spent decades preparing. In fact, Iraq is the kind of fight that, after Vietnam, the Army hoped to avoid. It is a messy war in an urban landscape against multiple insurgencies, a powder keg of ethnic tensions that the United States still does not completely understand.
It is a war that is forcing the Army to change. Today, combat veterans, military thinkers, and Army historians are beefing up the study of insurgencies. They are emphasizing tone, intelligence, and cultural understanding. They are training designated skeptics to question planned operations. And they are rethinking the way the Army trains and fights.
War stories. Most of America's top Army generals carry with them the almost-war stories of their trips to Fort Irwin. As the ridgeline known as the Sawtooth Escarpment comes into view from the window of a Blackhawk helicopter, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus is reminded of a long-ago rotation in which his light-infantry battalion squared off against a company of tanks. But the play tank battles that produced the almost-war stories are no more, a casualty of Iraq. Now, Fort Irwin is host to a different kind of drama. As the Blackhawk swings away from the ridge, the new training center comes into Petraeus's view. Two hundred feet below him is Medina Jabal, one of 12 simulated villages at Fort Irwin where 250 Iraqi-American "role players" from San Diego live during the two-week training exercises. This is the new battlefield. Now, brigade commanders must learn how to maneuver between the Sunni and Shiite imams and politicians. They must win friends and outfox an opposition force that has turned in its tanks, grown beards, and joined an insurgency.
The broad outlines of what went wrong in Iraq are becoming increasingly clear. Even last week there were new reports that the Pentagon focused too little on postwar planning and was ill-prepared for an insurgency. It remains to be seen whether the Iraq war, now passing the three-year mark, will go into history as a success or failure. But the Army can't wait for history's judgment; it has already begun to draw its conclusions, its military lessons, in order to learn how to better fight the current war and prepare for whatever may follow.