Anja Niedringhaus  /  AP file
U.S. Marines of the 1st Division, 3rd Battalion prepare for a patrol in Fallujah in the early morning of Feb. 4, 2005. Allegations that Marines killed unarmed civilians are raising questions about whether U.S. troops get proper training for a war in which, quoting one soldier, “the enemy is everybody and nobody at the same time.”
updated 6/6/2006 5:46:08 AM ET 2006-06-06T09:46:08

Allegations that Marines killed unarmed men, women and children in Haditha are prompting questions about whether U.S. troops get proper training for a war against insurgents who walk freely among Iraqi civilians.

The military has adapted its training, but troops say no one arrives in Iraq completely ready for the complexity and stress of a guerrilla war in which insurgents are loosely organized and fight with hit-and-run tactics on the streets of cities crowded with innocent bystanders.

“Nothing is going to prepare you,” Spc. Travis Gillette, a 26-year-old Army infantryman from Coldwater, Mich., said as he pulled deeply on a cigarette. “You can train up all you want, but you’re not going to be prepared until you get here and mingle with the culture.”

The brass does try to prepare soldiers and Marines, though.

From changes in boot camp, where recruits learn the basics of fighting in Iraq, to advanced training centers that teach commanders about urban insurgencies, the U.S. military has tailored its training at home for the mission in Iraq.

Before deploying to Iraq, most Army soldiers spend weeks at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., or the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., immersed in high-tech training scenarios designed to acclimate them to urban combat.

Soldiers conduct patrols in makeshift towns that look like Iraqi villages, with actors behaving as residents would during demonstrations and uprisings.

No practice like the real thing
They are taught how to react to roadside bombs and insurgent gunfire. They spend hours on computerized drills forcing them to decide whether a man in a robe holding a rifle is a threat — sometimes he is, often he isn’t.

Commanders say the exercises give soldiers a base of knowledge by introducing them to decisions they will make every day in Iraq. But they concede the real test is the war itself.

“It helps you with the foundation, but that foundation is where you start in Iraq,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Kunk, commander of the 101st Airborne Division’s 502nd Infantry Regiment.

Facing an unseen enemy daily in Iraq — where allies easily become opponents — often lies far outside the reach of any of their training, soldiers say.

“Nothing can really simulate the situations you have on the battlefield except the battlefield,” said Spc. John Ford, 25, of Magnolia, Ark., a soldier in the 502nd’s Delta Company.

There are guidelines that troops must follow in deciding when to use deadly force.

ID’ing the enemy: ‘Everybody and nobody’
“When they are unarmed, we can’t just shoot ’em, and they know that and use it against us,” said Marine 2nd Lt. Brian Wilson, a 24-year-old platoon commander from Columbia, S.C.

“That’s why this war is so hard. The enemy is everybody and nobody at the same time. All they have to do is put down their AK (assault rifle) on the side of the road and walk.”

Soldiers and Marines are drilled constantly on the rules after they come to Iraq, and most face situations every day where they have to make a decision to shoot.

In Ramadi, insurgent attacks are often preceded by unarmed men staking out coalition positions, walking by them or watching from a distance. U.S. troops must wait until they are sure of “hostile intent” — typically when a man is brandishing a weapon or planting a bomb.

Sometimes suspected insurgents will pop their heads around corners to get a glimpse of U.S. forces, a tactic Marines call “turkey peeking” that often prefaces a burst of insurgent gunfire.

No substitute for experience
Maj. Fred Wintrich, executive officer of the 502nd Infantry Regiment, said exercises and training prepare soldiers for Iraq as much as anything can, but there is no substitute for experience in a combat zone.

“Everywhere from Samarra to Mosul is a combat zone,” Wintrich said. “There’s nothing saying we won’t have to make a life or death decision walking to the laundry.”

The killings in Haditha on Nov. 19 came after a Marine died from a roadside bomb aimed at a convoy of a unit that was on its third tour in Iraq. U.S. lawmakers say military investigators have said evidence points toward unprovoked murders by Marines angered by the death.

Multiple tours, or what some call a “revolving door” deployment policy, can take a psychological toll on soldiers, experts say.

“Repeated deployments have a cumulative effect on people’s ability to maintain moral judgment, tactical standards,” said Howard Prince, a retired Army general who is director of the Center for Ethical Leadership at the University of Texas at Austin.

Links to an earlier war
Some historians have compared the Haditha killings to the massacre in My Lai, a hamlet in Vietnam where American soldiers killed hundreds of innocent civilians during a sweep for communist guerrillas in 1968.

U.S. commanders insist there is no comparison. But they have ordered all American troops in Iraq to undergo ethics and values training in the aftermath of Haditha .

Staff Sgt. Mike Dover has been both to Fort Irwin and Fort Polk for training. While he feels the constant drilling on rules of war has made him a better soldier, even exercises that deal with ethics or overcoming combat stress fail to mimic the reality of war.

Dover, 42, of Charlotte, N.C., won’t judge what happened in Haditha. He was close to a roadside bombing in Mahmoudiyah, a town south of Baghdad, and has lost friends, too.

Human emotion sometimes is too strong and takes over, he said.

“It’s human nature to try and take revenge on somebody that’s trying to kill you,” Dover said. “It’s really hard not to want to indiscriminately fire back.”

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