A tour through the simulated battlefields of the U.S. Army National Training Center at Ft. Irwin.

NTC represents @ Fort Irwin’s Painted Rocks

NTC represents @ Fort Irwin’s Painted Rocks.

Many years ago one of the squadrons visiting Ft. Irwin climbed to the top of the rockpile and painted their company colors on one of the rocks. As time went on other squads painted their colors on the rockpile as well and over the years it has grown into the spectacle it is today.

Many years ago one of the squadrons visiting Ft. Irwin climbed to the top of the rockpile and painted their company colors on one of the rocks. As time went on other squads painted their colors on the rockpile as well and over the years it has grown into the spectacle it is today.

And the winner for best design goes to...

And the winner for best design goes to…

Fort Irwin & the National Training Center (NTC) is 31 miles northeast of Barstow, CA.

Fort Irwin & the National Training Center (NTC) is 31 miles northeast of Barstow, CA.

We met up at Painted Rocks and were bused into Ft. Irwin.

We met up at Painted Rocks and were bused into Ft. Irwin.

Col. Braga is a super cool bad ass. The day began with a glimpse into the economics and culture of how a nation prepares its soldiers for war; an orientation, of sorts, before we headed out to visit one of fifteen artificial cities scattered throughout the base.

Our orientation began with Col. Braga briefing us on the economics of how we prepare our soldiers for war, before we headed out to visit one of fifteen artificial cities scattered throughout the base. Btw – Col. Braga is a super cool bad ass.

If the messhall was good enough for Rudy, it's good enough for me.

If the messhall was good enough for Rudy, it’s good enough for me.

It was a pretty decent meal and it was only $4.

It was a pretty decent meal and it was only $4.

Stomachs full, it was time to hop back on the bus and head out to Faux Iraq.

Stomachs full, it was time to hop back on the bus and head out to Faux Iraq.

Our leaders prep us with some battle plan tips and courtesy ear plugs for the loud explosions we were about to be exposed to.

Our leaders prep us with some battle plan tips and courtesy ear plugs for the loud explosions we were about to be exposed to.

Fort Irwin is the only place where the U.S. military can train using all of the systems it will later use in theater. The base's 1,000 square miles of desert is large enough to allow "great maneuverability"; its airspace is restricted; and its truly remote location ensures an uncluttered electromagnetic spectrum, meaning that troops can practice both collection and jamming. These latter techniques even include interfering with GPS, providing they warn the Federal Aviation Administration in advance.

Fort Irwin is the only place where the U.S. military can train using all of the systems it will later use in theater. The base’s massive 1,000 square miles of desert is large enough to allow “great maneuverability”; where troops can practice both collection and jamming, including interfering with GPS, providing they warn the FAA in advance.

Time to check out the village.

Time to check out the village…

During our casual walk down main street, we were greeted by actors trying to sell us plastic loaves of bread and piles of fake meat.

…where we were greeted by actors trying to sell us plastic fruits and vegetables.

Fort Irwin employs more than 350 civilian role-players, many of whom are of Middle Eastern origin.

The base employs over 350 civilian role-players, many of whom are of Middle Eastern origin.

Pumping up for battle.

Pumping up for battle.

You want pots, we've got pots.

You want pots, we’ve got pots.

It's halal I promise.

It’s halal I promise.

 Medina Wasl Mosque

Medina Wasl Mosque.

Must've been a girls school.

Injury cards handed out to fallen soldiers and civilians. These detail the specific rules given for role-playing a suite of symptoms and behavior—a kind of design fiction of military injury.

Injury cards handed out to fallen soldiers and civilians detailing the specific rules each actor must follow during the simulated combat scenes.

You want some of this?

You want some of this?

They offered me a 2 for 1 deal but I politely declined.

They offered me a 2-for-1 deal but I politely declined.

The footprint for the village came from actual satellite imagery of Baghdad, in order to accurately recreate street widths, and the step sizes inside buildings are Iraqi, rather than U.S., standard.

The footprint for the village came from actual satellite imagery of Baghdad and even the step sizes inside buildings are Iraqi, rather than U.S., standard.

Along with the 30,000 feet of airspace above the base, the military also owns the ground beneath Fort Irwin. They have carved out an extensive network of tunnels and caves from which to flush pretend insurgents.

Along with the 30,000 feet of airspace above the base, the military also owns the ground beneath Fort Irwin. They have carved out an extensive network of tunnels and caves from which to flush pretend insurgents.

The 120-person strong insurgent troop is drawn from the base's own Blackhorse Regiment, a division of the U.S. Army that exists solely to provide opposition. Whatever the war, the 11th Armored is always the pretend enemy.

The 120-person strong insurgent troop is drawn from the base’s own Blackhorse Regiment, a division of the U.S. Army that exists solely to provide opposition. These roles are widely envied: they receive specialized training and are held to “reduced grooming standards. If they die during a NTC simulation, they have to shave and go back on detail on the base, so the incentive to evade their American opponents is very strong.

In addition to the in-house enemy regiment, there is an entire 2,200-person logistics corps dedicated to rotating units in and out of Fort Irwin and equipping them for training.

There’s also an entire 2,200-person logistics corps dedicated to rotating units in and out of Fort Irwin and equipping them for training.

Every ordnance the United States military has, with the exception of biological and chemical weapons, is used during NTC simulations. In the interests of realism (and expense be damned), troops train using their own equipment, which means that bringing in, for example, the 10th Mountain Division (on rotation during our visit), also means transporting their tanks and helicopters from their home base (wherever that may be) to California, and back again.

With the exception of biological and chemical weapons, every ordnance the US military has is used during NTC simulations. Troops train using their own equipment, which means they have to transport their tanks, helicopters etc. from their home base to California, and back again. Units are deployed to Fort Irwin for 21 days, 14 of which are spent in what Fort Irwin refers to as “The Box” (the 15 simulated towns, tunnels, caves, gunnery ranges and tank battle arenas).

Here comes trouble.

Here comes trouble.

Soldiers use Fort Irwin's facsimile villages to practice clearing structures and navigating unmapped, roofed alleyways through cities without clear satellite communications links.

The action is directed from above by a ring of walkie-talkie connected scene coordinators, who also film all of the simulations for later replay in combat analysis.

In the series of set-piece training exercises that take place within the village, the action is coordinated from above by a ring of walkie-talkie connected scenographers, including an extensive internal media presence, who film all of the simulations for later replay in combat analysis. The sense of being on an elaborate, extremely detailed film set is here made explicit.

As the exercise began, loud explosions, smoke, and fairly grisly simulated combat scenes ensued.

Suddenly, a car bomb detonated, smoke filled the air, and an injured woman began to wail, while a soldier slumped against a wall, applying a tourniquet to his own severed arm.

Suddenly, a car bomb detonated and chaos ensued.

We had front row seats to all the action.

We had front row seats to all the action.

It was hard to tell who was doing what, and why: gun trucks began rolling down the streets, dodging a live goat and letting off round after round as insurgents fired RPGs (mounted on invisible fishing line that blended in with the electrical wires above our heads) from upstairs windows; blood-covered casualties were loaded into an ambulance while soldiers went door-to-door with their weapons drawn; and, in the episode's climax, a suicide bomber blew himself up directly beneath us, showering our tour group with ashes. Good times.

Twenty minutes later, it was all over. The smoke died down; the actors reassembled, uninjured, to discuss what just occurred; and the sound of blank rounds being fired off behind the buildings at the end of the exercise echoed through the streets.

Soon, it was all over and all the players reassembled to discuss what just occurred.

Incredibly, blank rounds assigned to a particular exercise must be used during that exercise and cannot be saved for another day; if you are curious as to where your tax dollars might be going, picture paid actors shooting entire magazines full of blank rounds out of machine guns behind simulated Middle Eastern buildings in the Mojave desert. Every single blank must be accounted for, leading to the peculiar sight of a village's worth of insurgents stooped, gathering used blank casings into their prop kettles, bread baskets, and plastic bags.

Even though the exercise was over, the sound of blank rounds being fired continued to be heard. All rounds assigned to a particular exercise must be used during that exercise and cannot be saved for another day.

Finally, we descended back down onto the street, dazed, ears ringing, and a little shocked by all the explosions and gunfire. Stepping carefully around pools of fake blood and chunks of plastic viscera, we made our way back to the lobby of the International Hotel for cups of water and a debrief with soldiers involved in planning and implementing the simulation.

After the “show” we made our way to the lobby of the International Hotel for cups of water and a debrief with soldiers involved in planning and implementing the simulation.

Looking back after the chaos.

Looking back after the chaos.

Back to our 1-star hotel, at the Lyndon Marcus International.

Welcome to Lyndon Marcus International Hotel.

OOP! As in don't bomb the hotel please, tourists inside.

OOP! As in don’t bomb the hotel please, tourists inside.

Hookah recap party with the suicide bomber in red.

Hookah recap party with the suicide bomber in red.

The hotel is dedicated to the fallen soldiers of the Blackhorse Regiment.

The hotel is dedicated to the fallen soldiers of the Blackhorse Regiment.

...and scene! The actors leave their walled village home and prepare to be analyzed.

…and scene! The actors leave their walled village home and prepare to be analyzed.

Faux Iraq is the next big global tourist hotspot.

Faux Iraq is the next big global tourist hotspot.

Next stop, The National Training Center and 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment Museum

Next stop, The National Training Center and 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment Museum.

Wesley was the man back in the day.

Wesley was the man back in the day.

Yes, that really is a real stuffed camel. "Hi Jolly" was the name given to Hadji Ali, a camel driver from Syria. He was imported by the U.S. Army on May 14, 1856, to shepherd a camel train (also imported) across the American Southwest. Hi Jolly passed through this stretch of the Mojave Desert on his travels, which is reason enough to include an exhibit about him at Fort Irwin's National Training Center and 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment Museum.

Yes, that really is a real stuffed camel. “Hi Jolly” was the name given to Hadji Ali, a camel driver from Syria. He was imported by the U.S. Army on May 14, 1856, to shepherd a camel train (also imported) across the American Southwest. Hi Jolly passed through this stretch of the Mojave Desert on his travels, which is reason enough to include an exhibit about him at Fort Irwin’s National Training Center and 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment Museum.