The Pentagon's Homegrown Theater of War

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Grandma used to say that there's a silver lining inside every dark cloud and maybe she was right. This month, Harper's magazine has found a big, heartwarming silver lining inside that gloomy old Global War on Terrorism. Here it is:

Our government has hired a bunch of poor souls who lost their arms and legs in accidents and has rigged them up with bags of fake blood so they can play wounded civilians in war games down at Fort Polk, La.

Not only that but Cubic, the defense contractor that produces these games, has also hired 250 Arabic-speaking immigrants at $220 a day as "Cultural Role Players" in the war games. They've also hired hundreds of local Louisianans to play random Arab civilians, plus "dozens of scriptwriters" to come up with realistic scenarios for the war games.

"The best way to describe what we're doing here," says one of the Army intelligence officers who plan the games, "is that we're producing a very complex movie with a huge number of plotlines and a very high budget."

How high is the budget?

"The military spends an average of $9 million staging each 3 1/2 -week mission rehearsal exercise," writes Wells Tower, author of this jaw-droppingly bizarre article. Which works out to about $117 million a year, he writes.

That doesn't include the $49 million spent constructing the state-of-the-art fake city of Suliyah, which contains 29 buildings, each one equipped with remote-controlled smoke-making machines and an intercom system that pipes in "recordings of screaming women, crying babies, barking dogs and other sound effects throughout the whole city."

Plus 900 video cameras so the brass can watch the games in real time while sitting in high-back black-leather chairs in Suliyah's control center.

"We also are fixing to start implementing smells of the battlefield," said Marty Martinson, Suliyah's chief administrator. "Smells like vomit, burning rubber, burning bodies, those kinds of things. . . . Soldiers need to understand, there's a smell to the battlefield. There's a smell to death."

Needless to say, the Army doesn't use live ammo in these exercises. Basically, the soldiers are playing very sophisticated games of laser tag. Each of the 4,000 or so participants wears a harness that chirps when it's hit by a laser "bullet." And when the game is over, referees wander the battlefield with "god guns" -- devices that erase "wounds" from the harnesses and resurrect the "dead" so they can play again.

One day at the war games, Tower was chatting with some of the amputees who play wounded civilians when suddenly a horn went off, signaling the start of another fake battle. A Humvee and a convoy of trucks were attacked with a fake rocket-propelled grenade, causing a fake explosion that caused Cole Young, 71, who lost a leg in an oil pipeline accident, to lie on the ground with fake blood spurting from his amputated leg.

A soldier came to give Young some fake first aid. But when he saw that Young's hand was under his poncho, working his blood-spurting machine, the soldier yelled, "He's got a [bleep] wire!" and started firing laser bullets into Young's chest.

That caused the other fake civilians to start screaming, "Murderers!" That distracted the soldiers, enabling a bunch of fake insurgents to sneak up and wipe them all out -- "mowing down the troops as effortlessly," Tower writes, "as they might a herd of grazing cows."

Which is, alas, not unusual: Time after time, Tower reports, the fake insurgents massacred the American troops in these games.

Grandma would no doubt say that the silver lining in that news is that the games are just . . . well, games. In the real war in Iraq, we're kicking insurgent butt, says President Bush.

That Nutty New Republic

"I laughed so hard milk came out of my nose" is not a sentence you hear often when people start discussing the New Republic. It's a sober, serious, moderately liberal policy wonk mag. But in its year-end double issue, now on newsstands, the folks at the New Rep have given us "The Rough Guide to GOP D.C." -- a satirical guide to our fair city.

And it's pretty funny, although it should be noted, for the record, that my nose remained dry.

The guide recommends several good Washington shows. For instance, Scott McClellan's White House briefings: "He spins. He stalls. He tells flat-out untruths."

Or the semi-famous Wednesday morning meetings of the vast right-wing conspiracy at the office of Americans for Tax Reform: "Watch as zookeeper Grover Norquist takes their temperatures, checks their teeth and feeds them their weekly talking points."

After witnessing that, you might be ready for a good stiff drink, and the guide recommends Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill: "When former Representative Jack Quinn recently moved from public servant to head of lobbying giant Cassidy & Associates, Republican members decamped to Charlie Palmer's to toast the job promotion. . . . Come for the fund-raising, stay for the influence-peddling!"

Predictably, the guide is rough on Republicans, but it also provides useful advice on how not to be bored to death by Joseph Wilson, the Democrat who blew the whistle on the Niger yellowcake hoax: "If you encounter him, at all costs do not let yourself get between him and a camera, a lectern, or a buffet, or you will be trampled. . . . As he talks (and talks and talks), scan the area for possible escape routes. Or create a diversion by pointing and saying, 'It's Wolf Blitzer!' When he turns to look, flee."

Perhaps the most valuable item in the guide is this timeless advice on Washington party etiquette: "Keep nonessential interactions brief, and position yourself so that your eyes can keep taking in other faces in the room. If a conversation partner is undermining your status, exit the dialogue quickly. . . . When greeting people, a generally acceptable phrase that does not require use of name is 'nice to see you again.' (Failure to have met previously is not a factor.)"

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