The Iraqis I met a few weeks ago are still fleeing car bombs and sniper fire, but they’re not running for their lives. Instead, they are running for a living, earning money by playing distraught civilians in a fake Iraqi province called Ghanzi. Created by the U.S. military in California’s Mojave Desert, Ghanzi is part of Fort Irwin’s National Training Center, where U.S. troops prepare for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.

A spot where in 1981 tanks geared up to face off with the Soviets is now littered with dusty, overturned cars theoretically hiding snipers, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or injured children. It’s fake, but it reflects the new set of challenges U.S. soldiers face in combat. As the base commander, Brig. Gen. Dana Pittard, admitted during my visit, U.S. soldiers have for years been unprepared for this kind of fight — one demanding that we make more friends than enemies.


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