When the tourists spill out of their big white bus into the still heat of the Mojave Desert, they find themselves in a curiously empty village: a cluster of strange buildings, with ominous black spaces where windows and doors should be. A few large, glossy crows waddle down the dirt road. Suddenly, the azan—the Islamic call to prayer—erupts from the nearest building, along with billowing white smoke that pours out of every opening. The tourists enter, unable to see through the haze. The smell of chai fills their noses. It’s all very disorienting, intentionally so: the smoke is machine-made, and so is the chai smell, piped in from a vent. A uniformed soldier emerges and beckons them to draw closer.
“This is called sensory inundation!” he shouts, and the tourists chatter excitedly among themselves. They look delighted, and a little dazed. This particular group is made up mostly of retirees, but students and VIPs visit Fort Irwin, too: athletes, actors, dignitaries from other countries. The people in this crowd look to be in their mid-50s to early 60s, and are wearing shorts, sensible white sneakers, baseball caps. One especially pleased woman begins filming everything on an iPad.
The visitors have been granted a day of rare access to the National Training Center at the Fort Irwin military base, some 40 miles northeast of Barstow, California, near the southern edge of Death Valley National Park. The NTS, which is open to the public just a few times a year, is a vast military training ground covering 642,000 harsh desert acres. Divisions from every branch of the military come here to practice the combat skills they’ll need when they’re deployed abroad, often in the Middle East: flying helicopters, traversing rugged mountain ranges, and surviving in brutal conditions in the desert, where the heat can climb to triple digits during the day and drop to nearly freezing at night.
Around 2006, while American troops were deployed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the first stage of the ongoing war, the NTC began construction on a specialized complex of 14 fake villages. These were designed so that soldiers could learn in them how to fight in urban environments or desert ones, and in larger cities such as Baghdad or smaller, more remote villages, against enemies who might sometimes be hard to identify. Incorporated into their training were lessons on how to successfully interact with local people in the areas where conflicts are taking place. As of 2018, only nine of the villages remain, the largest one with a staggering 500 buildings. The Army is also beginning work on a mega-city, which will take an estimated ten years to build and is, according to plans, going to have a four-lane freeway.
Visiting soldiers train against the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, also known as the “Blackhorse Regiment,” which plays whatever enemy the military is supposed to be preparing to face. Their US-issued gear is visually altered to look foreign: uniforms covered with odd insignia, tanks with out-of-place turrets and guns. The fake country in which the training takes place is called Atropia, and the fake village that’s open to the public is called Razish. The usual narrative has it that Atropia has been invaded by a neighboring country, Dinovia, and asked the US for assistance.
According to the military, the NTC’s villages are able to transform into anywhere on earth—anywhere hot, sandy, and extremely dry, anyway. But the towns in their current incarnations are very much Middle Eastern, meant to prepare soldiers for conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan: aside from the calls to prayer and the buildings made to look like mosques, the signs in the fake marketplace at the center of Razish are in Arabic.
Civilian actors, known as “role players,” are hired to play the local population, including doctors, shopkeepers, and police; insurgents in disguise are played by the Blackhorse Regiment. For rotations of two or three weeks at a time, about 150 of these role players live at Fort Irwin, eating, sleeping, and breathing their jobs. Most of the role players are immigrants from Iraq. Some are from Egypt, now living in San Diego. Very few of them have ever worked for the military before: in their home countries, they were business owners, educators, makeup artists, and stay-at-home parents.
Jim Sana, a 56-year-old role player from Iraq with close-cropped white hair, has been in the US for more than three decades and has worked at Fort Irwin since 2008. The job, he says, felt particularly urgent in 2013, with the rise of ISIS, whose torture videos he’s watched with mounting anger and disgust.
“We bring them closer to the culture,” he says of the soldiers he works with. “We introduce these units to the new culture and how to deal with them and how to approach certain situations.” Sana likes the idea that he’s showing the tourists “what’s really going on,” he says. “Not like a Hollywood thing.”
“For me, it was a wake-up call,” says Ashley Romero, 32, a role player from nearby Whittier. Unlike many of his coworkers, Romero is Latino; he started working at the NTC after seeing a military contractor at a recruitment day at his college in 2008. Before he began at the training center, he hadn’t had very many interactions with people from the Middle East.
The fake country in which training takes place is called Atropia, and the fake village that’s open to the public is called Razish. The usual narrative has it that Atropia has been invaded by a neighboring country, Dinovia, and asked the US for assistance.
“I was very small-minded back then,” he says. “I wasn’t worldly or knowledgeable. I thought Arab people were bad. I had stigmas.” He pauses, then decides to be less delicate: “I thought they were terrorists.”
The long hours with his coworkers, he says, erased that. “They opened my eyes to the struggle for people in these areas—what they go through. How would you feel if half your family disappeared at the hands of some regime?”
As the tourists stumble through smoke and take turns climbing down a ladder into a subterranean tunnel, Sana and the other role players set up on a narrow street nearby that’s been made to look like a marketplace. They stack fake fruits and vegetables, as well as wooden eggs, hookahs, toasters, and shoes, then settle down in lawn chairs, chatting quietly in Arabic and English and scrolling through their phones. At the start of each exercise, the role players are given “role cards” explaining what they’re meant to do, who they’re supposed to be: a pregnant woman, or an injured person in need of assistance. Like the soldiers, all of the role players wear MILES—Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System—vests; essentially, this is the military’s very expensive version of laser tag. When a soldier or civilian is “hit” with a fake gunshot, the MILES system records it, so they can later evaluate how a particular battle went.
The NTC’s publicity materials say that the interactions with the role players are meant to teach soldiers how to handle the unique cultural and moral dilemmas of wartime. The goal, the Army writes on Fort Irwin’s website, is to shape soldiers “who can prevail in conditions of ambiguity.”
“It’s important to have a different cultural understanding of something like body space,” explains First Lieutenant Travis Lindeman of the Blackhorse Regiment. He and a crowd of other soldiers are standing around on the road, bracketed by fake buildings, waiting for the tour group to appear. “People in other places, you know, they might stand very close. It might be totally innocuous, like they’re trying to sell you something.” As Lindeman puts it later to the tour group, “You don’t want to shoot somebody who’s totally innocent. We know what a public disaster that is!”
As the war in Afghanistan stretches into its 16th year and thousands of US troops remain stationed in Iraq and Syria, the NTC’s continued existence raises questions about the nature of that conflict. The Army says that the focus at the base is shifting; soldiers will be prepared to fight other uniformed armies—“near-peer” military forces from, say, Russia or China. But American military conflicts in the Middle East are very much ongoing, meaning that the need for these desert villages isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
Over the years, the villages at Fort Irwin have evolved into a kind of military theme park: Colonial Williamsburg meets Call of Duty. The tourists are here to interact with soldiers, watch a reenactment of the kind of military training they undergo, shoot real guns (without live ammunition), eat real military meals, and get a close-up of simulated blood and gore. Social media sharing is very much encouraged.
“It’s awesome,” says Tom Meigs, who is visiting with his wife Rita from South Carolina, on the recommendation of a friend who works on the base. “If you can see how the soldiers prepare, you can understand that these are your neighbors and your neighbors’ children who are putting themselves in harm’s way. Knowing how they prepare is a really useful thing to have to contemplate.”
Rita chimes in: “And understand how our country is helping people.”
“I wish everybody could visit this place,” says Yolette Rios, 60, from Hesperia, California. She and her husband have tried for years to make it onto the tour, which tends to fill up extremely quickly, and she’s beaming now that they have finally arrived. (Tourists have to apply online and submit to a basic background check to attend.) “It shows where our money’s going,” Rios adds, “and you can really see how high the morale is.”
Actually, it would be tough to glean anything about soldier morale from this tour, which is staged explicitly for the public. But a lot of the visitors aren’t clear on that; they appear to think they’re witnessing an actual training. There are several anxious questions about whether people will be shooting live rounds in the staged battle they’re about to witness. They seem excited to be in proximity to real live soldiers.
“You like NASCAR at all?” one older man in a ball cap inquires of a Blackhorse soldier, who smiles back politely.
“Off and on, sir,” he replies.
After the interlude in the smoke-filled building, it’s time to head to the market. The tourists scramble through the marketplace in a giggling line and the role players spring to life, pressing in very close on all sides. A man balances a plastic mound of khubz, a traditional Middle Eastern flat bread, on his head, gesturing at the tourists to sample it. Another man in a fedora juggles eggs. People wave hookahs and toasters and large fake cabbages wildly, trying to attract interest in their wares. Someone clangs a pot insistently.
“They’re not gonna have anyone pick our pockets,” one visitor says to another, rather loudly, as they rush through. “That would be too much realism.”
The interaction is over in minutes, a set piece created and collapsed at dizzying speed. It’s intended to show the tourists the kind of busy, disorienting scene that soldiers might face. In an actual training, such a sequence is, in theory, an attempt to help soldiers learn what’s normal in different parts of the world—what a friendly overture, versus a veiled threat, could look like.
No discernible conversation of any kind takes place between the role players and the tourists, who are quickly shepherded onto a nearby rooftop to see a staged attack that will take place in the street below. Earplugs are handed around, and there’s a long, expectant pause. Here, the tourists are at a tidy remove, everything arranged before them like figures on a chessboard. To their far left, there’s a seemingly broken-down vehicle bordering a deserted, dusty road. A semicircle of buildings behind the vehicle make the surroundings look like an amphitheater.
“I’m hearing things,” an older woman says, nervously.
“It’s just the speakers,” a soldier assures her, patting her shoulder, gesturing at a large audio system just behind them.
Digital cameras and iPhones are raised into position. Everyone watches, huddled against a railing, as a mounted patrol—a short, steady line of armored vehicles—enters the town. Suddenly, with a tremendous boom, a truck bursts into flames: an IED was hiding underneath it. A soldier loses a leg in the attack, though the fake blood is difficult to see from the rooftop. (The NTC says that the amputee actors have usually lost limbs in accidents; few of them are actually military veterans.) The soldiers hurriedly recover and fight off insurgents as they attack. A helicopter lands nearby to evacuate the wounded.
From the roof, it looks like an action movie, albeit one that’s tough to follow: the sound system is narrating the action, but the voice is drowned out by explosions, and enormous dust clouds swallow much of the detail. Still, the audience is rapt. The ground below is soon littered with fake shell casings. It’s over, and the tourists applaud. As they’re led to their next activity, a maintenance crew hurries over to the exploded car and tries to put out a still-smoldering fire.
It would be tough to glean anything about soldier morale from this tour, which is staged explicitly for the public. But a lot of the visitors appear to think they’re witnessing an actual training.
The Army seems to take pride in the realism of the training, while recognizing some of its potential pitfalls. “This training is emotional,” Command Sergeant Major Michael Stunkard tells the tour group midway through the day. “Observer controllers” are on hand if things get too heated, he says, to step in and remind soldiers “that this is a training event. This is not really your enemy.”
The tourists’ day at camo Disneyland is free from any hazards, of course, except those inherent in trying to choke down MRE—Meals Ready to Eat, the sustenance (and bane) of deployed soldiers everywhere. After the mock battle, the group is shuttled into the building that serves as a cafeteria, where the MRE, a heap of unappealing brown packets, are displayed on a large table: tortellini, a lamb dish, chili that looks like it was found at a crime scene. The scent of something like warmed-over dog food fills the air. The tourists poke dubiously at their food.
“Everything is equally awful,” one young soldier tells them, grinning, as they consider their options.
When lunchtime is over, the group is herded back outside to shoot an array of machine guns with an alphabetic jumble of names: M2 Browning, M240, M249, M4.
Most of these guns are large—in a firefight in Afghanistan they would be used to fight insurgents—and the tourists have to sit down on camouflage blankets to shoot them, bracing themselves against the ground and digging in their heels. They put on eye protection and blast away with blanks; the triggers take a considerable amount of force to pull, and the guns kick like irritable donkeys, right into the shoulders of the shooters. The air begins to smell like gunpowder. An older woman with gray sneakers hesitates for a moment between blasts. “Keep goin’, ma’am,” a soldier advises her.
Nearly everyone poses for selfies with the guns. The shift here—from observing to participating—seems designed to elicit identification and empathy with the troops.
“I like that one,” one teenage girl tells another, pointing at the M4.
As the tourists take turns shooting at nothing, the role players in the marketplace put things back in order and settle into their lawn chairs. They’re finished for the day; they grab their phones again to compare photos of their children and grandchildren, chat companionably, or just rest quietly in the shade of the windowless, doorless buildings that act as stores. But no one has taken off their MILES vest, and, in truth, their rest won’t last all that long: their next assignment will start early in the morning, when the newest group of soldiers arrives at the NTC and the real training begins.
The role players are contractors, and while they receive hourly wages and health benefits, this is taxing part-time work that involves unusual demands and truly difficult conditions.
“Working out there isn’t easy,” a role player who’s been at the NTC for many years told me, requesting anonymity so she could speak freely. “It’s almost like being in the Army.”
The role players, she says, live on the base, either sleeping in barracks or in the makeshift villages. They drink water brought in by giant stainless-steel trailers called “water buffaloes,” the kind that soldiers use in the field. They bring their own food to cook, sometimes purchasing it as a group to save money. And, the role player says, they occasionally have to instruct the soldiers mid-training on how to do things safely.
“Some of them, they are really rough on their job,” she says. “They have to be reminded sometimes that it’s not the real thing.” If, for instance, a soldier is told to put a role player in a tank to help her evacuate, she might have to remind the soldier that it’s unsafe for a civilian to ride in a tank without a helmet. The role players keep a close eye on one another: “We work together and watch each other’s back. We make sure we’re all safe.”
The level of realism at the NTC has led to two class-action lawsuits. In 2015, a group of NTC role players sued the three military contractors who hired them, saying their living conditions were inadequate. They alleged that the mock villages had no running water or electricity, no air conditioning or heating, and that role players consequently “suffered through the extreme temperatures of that region.” Despite being on base 24/7 during their rotations, the role players also maintained that they weren’t paid overtime.
None of those three contractors still hire role players for Fort Irwin. The NTC’s current contractor is Lexicon Consulting, based in San Diego, which was sued in a similar class-action suit in May 2016; it alleged that the company didn’t provide role players with meals, rest periods, or overtime. Later that year, without admitting liability, Lexicon settled the suit, agreeing to pay up to $750,000 to the role players in back pay.
Despite the hazards, the role player tells me, “It's a blessing for me to have this job. ’Cause I know it’s helping out our soldiers.” She adds: “I wish it was full-time.”
The role players are contractors, and while they receive hourly wages and health benefits, this is taxing part-time work that involves unusual demands and truly difficult conditions.
Even when I momentarily slip free of the media relations officer assigned to trail me and double back to chat with the role players, there’s little sign of dissatisfaction, and a lot of pride.
“I love it,” beams Taghrid Salim, 51, who’s from Baghdad. (She’s Christian, she’s careful to point out, though religion hadn’t come up.) She studies cosmetology, as evidenced by her perfect eyeliner and expertly dyed hair, and she’s worked for the military since 2005. She truly believes the training makes civilians in Iraq safer: “It helps the soldiers, and it will help them, when they go there, to respect all men and women.”
Jim Sana, also from Baghdad, says that returning soldiers have told him the training prepared them well. “They tell me, ‘What we saw here, we saw there.’”
He looks at some fake fruit for a moment, his hand resting on the corner of the cart, his mind seemingly elsewhere.
“At the end of the day,” he says, finally, “we’re saving lives.”