Sensitivity Training and the War in Iraq

Can Marines learn to be more sensitive? The U.S. military hopes sensitivity training will save lives in Iraq. One such training program was held recently in California's Mojave Desert.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

After last week's Iraq Study Group report the Bush administration now says it won't have a new plan for Iraq ready until the new year. The report says the U.S. should encourage Iraqis to take control of their own destiny, and it recommends that the U.S. roll back its combat troops by early 2008. Many remaining troops would be reassigned to training Iraqis.

Now that role requires that U.S. troops have high-level cultural sensitivity and communication skills. But are they ready?

Brian Palmer is an independent journalist. He's been embedded with Marines in Iraq three times since 2004. Palmer has seen firsthand the problems that can occur when troops interact with civilians in the hostile climate of an Iraqi village.

So when the military began sensitivity training for Marines out in California's Mojave Desert, Brian Palmer went to find out what was being taught. We asked him to tell us what he saw out at Operation Mojave Viper.

BRIAN PALMER (Journalist): Well, sensitivity training might not be the best term to describe what Mojave Viper is, but essentially what the U.S. Marine Corps is trying to do is incorporate lessons learned in Iraq, on the streets of Ramadi, Baghdad, al-Sadr, into training that they offer now.

The idea being really kind of basic - they want to kill fewer Iraqis, fewer Iraqi civilians, and they want fewer Marines to die. Now, one of the reasons that you have to incorporate some of these, you know, the softer tasks, linguistic tasks, negotiation skills, that sort of stuff, is because that's really mostly what Marines are doing now on the streets of Anbar province.

There is war fighting to be sure, but they have a really tough time finding the enemy. And in order to find the enemy, you have to work your way through a lot of civilians, and that means a lot more talking and a lot less shooting.

CHIDEYA: When you talk about Mojave Viper, you're talking about a program that's been in existence since the fall of 2005, and you've got out in the desert - a beautiful area, Twentynine Palms near Joshua Tree National Park. You've got a simulated Iraqi village. So set more of a scene for us. What goes on day to day there?

PALMER: Let me walk you through it. First of all, Mojave Viper is a 30-day long program. The first half is devoted to kind of your old-fashioned Marine Corps war fighting stuff, helicopters and tanks and infantry units.

The last half, that's the new part, Farai. That's the part where you've got a battalion, say, a battalion-size unit that's about a thousand troops. They breakup into their individual squads, and they learn the basic tasks of urban warfare.

So Marines will simulate the surrounding of an area and the entering of a home, either in a permissive way, which is to say they'll knock on the door, or in a kinetic way - they'll kick down the door. And I saw both of those types of entry.

CHIDEYA: Well, Brian, let's listen to a little bit - you were allowed to videotape portions of Mojave Viper, and let's take a listen to a little bit of what that it's like.

(Soundbite of recorded video of Marine training)

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: Hey. Hey. Hey.

Unidentified Man #3: Hey. Keep your hands over your head.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #4: Don't move. Don't move.

PALMER: You're listening to a practical application, which is a simulation that involves actual U.S. Marines and the employees of a private contracting firm that works for the Marine Corps. These are Iraqi ex-patriots who are hired to be civilians and insurgents and all sorts of things. And in this particular situation, the 22-year-old Marine corporal leading this particular squad and a coyote - the coyote is an instructor.

(Soundbite of recorded video of Marine training)

Unidentified Man #5: Do you really want these people just sitting outside here?

Unidentified Man #6: On the search of - no, I don't want to (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #7: I want to say you could, you know, clear a room, bring all these people inside. Because if there are other locals around here, you would be embarrassing them right now.

Unidentified Man #6: OK.

Unidentified Man #7: All right.

Unidentified Man #6: OK.

Unidentified Man #7: Good.

CHIDEYA: You mentioned the coyotes in your article, along with someone who calls himself Hadji Kahlid(ph), who is a 66-year-old Iraqi-American who was one of the people who was role-playing.

What did - that's not his real name - but what did Kahlid have to say about how the Marines approached him in one of the exercises?

PALMER: I'm glad you brought up that example, Farai. Hadji Kahlid is a guy who's been living in the States for more than 30 years. And he did not give an inch. He made it very difficult for them to do their job.

And of course he spoke entirely in Arabic and they had to use a translator. So at the end of the exercise I asked him, so how did they did do? And he said, listen, one of the things that the American soldiers and Marines have to learn is that you can't barge into people's homes in Iraq.

You've got to respect the sanctity of their home, and you have to respect also the humanity and the customs. And this particular squad I think did something that Marines in Iraq tend to do a lot because of the adrenalin, because of the genuine fear and the genuine dangers that they face. They go in amped up and they forget that 9 times out of 10 they're going to be dealing with civilians.

CHIDEYA: There have been a lot of civilian casualties in Iraq, many at the hands of insurgents and, unfortunately, many at the hands of U.S. military. In fact, during the training exercise, you recorded an instructor just talking about some statistics about the number of people killed at these checkpoints.

Let's take a listen to that tape.

(Soundbite of recorded video of Marine training)

Unidentified Man #8: Bottom line is we need to communicate to the locals what we want them to do. Over the last 12 months or so, we killed about a thousand Iraqis at blocking positions and checkpoints.

About 60, we could demonstrate that, yes, he was a bad guy. He was an insurgent - six-zero out of about a thousand. All we're doing - if we don't communicate what we want them to do, all we're doing is creating more enemies.

CHIDEYA: So, Brian, those are absolutely shocking numbers. Only 60 confirmed insurgents out of a thousand people killed. But there's a twist. Officials later told you that those weren't the right numbers. What have you been able to find out since?

PALMER: Farai, there were several twists. And I must say that when I heard the captain utter that statistic, 60 hostile actors out of a thousand people killed at checkpoints, my jaw dropped.

I heard that statement repeated by another Marine. I did a little checking on that statistics. I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the people at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center.

And what they told me - after much back and forth - was that oh, these guys just made up that statistic. And I pressed and I pushed, and that was the final answer that they gave me; that in order to stress the seriousness of the situation in Iraq, that these two Marines - independently, I assume, of one another or maybe in collusion - made up these numbers. Now to me this was not some cavalier gung-ho kid. This was a captain. And in the Marine Corps, captains can lead up to 200 men into combat.

So where it stands now is, after my FOIA report, my Freedom of Information Act request, the Marine Corps told me there are no responsive documents. So they're telling me…

CHIDEYA: That means they are telling you they don't have any numbers.

PALMER: That's one of the things that they're saying. The other thing is that these guys made it up. So I did ask for the documents upon which such statements might have been based, and they say that those documents do not exist because the Marine Corps did not keep statistics on the number of civilians killed in these circumstances.

CHIDEYA: Where does that leave you having been in Iraq embedded in thinking about what these Marines face?

PALMER: I should say up front that I respect what the Marine Corps has done with this particular urban warfare training program. The reason I went to Iraq originally in 2004, I mean I am a child of the Vietnam era and I'm an African-American. I hold in my heart that history that is both proud and tragic. And I am very aware of how our government, sometimes very powerful people, can make decisions and can make policy based on very, very narrow national interests, and sometimes those national interests are really personal interests.

The failures of the Bush administration's policies are sort of being heaped on the shoulders of these kids because, OK, if you can't find the enemy, then let's just create more tasks for these kids so that they can sort of answer some of the deficiencies in the planning. So let's have them try and be police. Let's have them train the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police.

Generally speaking, these are not skills that they spend a lot of time acquiring. These guys don't speak Arabic. I met no fluent Arabic speakers either at the training in Mojave Viper or on three trips to Iraq.

CHIDEYA: How much of this is language? If you can't understand what someone is saying, it's very hard to evaluate them.

PALMER: Yes. In a word, Farai, yes. Language is huge, huge, huge. There's also that general mindset, I mean if we go up to the kind of conceptual level, Marines have a very simple job. They kill people and they blow things up. And in terms of the language stuff, I mean the patrols, the squads that I went out with in Iraq, relied very heavily on the translators. They didn't have enough of them and the quality of the translators is very poor.

Some of the translators, you couldn't understand their English. Some of the translators, the Iraqis couldn't understand their Arabic because they are from places like Sudan. So that linguistic divide I think is just deadly. One of the coyotes says at some of these checkpoints at which Iraqis must sort of stop, sometimes there are actually situations that he cited where they put a sign out there. The Marines would put out a sign at the trigger line that would say something. It would be in Arabic. Vehicles would keep driving even when the Marines were signaling for them to stop. Because the Marines thought the sign said stop when in fact it said proceed with caution.

So when those Iraqi civilians proceeded with caution, they got killed because they crossed the trigger line through no fault of their own. And one must remember that the Marines are under standing orders. If anybody crosses the trigger line - anybody - you shoot them, and you shoot to kill.

CHIDEYA: Finally, Brian, cycling back, do you think that this Mojave Viper program will save any lives in Iraq?

PALMER: Yes. It's - I get kind of worked up about this, Farai, because the situation in Iraq is actually a tragic improvisation. Because you've got these Marines going it out on the streets. They don't really know the culture that they are dealing with. Their strategic direction has not been provided by the administration, so they essentially make it up as they go along. I do believe it will save lives, Marine lives, and it will save some Iraqi lives. But I have to say that it's a day late and a dollar short.

CHIDEYA: Well, Brian, thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

PALMER: Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: Brian Palmer is an independent journalist whose article on the Mojave Viper is in the latest issue of Mother Jones.

NEWS & NOTES contacted the public affairs office at the Twentynine Palms Base about the numbers used by training officers at the base on June 27 of this year. The base confirmed what it told Palmer: There is no collected data on Iraqi civilian deaths at checkpoints.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Coming up on our Roundtable, jobs for peace is the Pentagon's latest strategy in Iraq. And later, the FDA released a heart drug just for blacks. Find out what happened next.

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