More than 60 percent of U.S. Army personnel have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of them were trained in the Cold War mentality of conflict with a superpower. But the enemy in today's wars is much different. The insurgent warfare there has led the Army to change the way it teaches its future leaders. VOA's Kane Farabaugh traveled to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to see firsthand how updated training is preparing cadets for a new kind of battlefield.
As Arabian music blares from a radio perched in a village window, U.S. soldiers cautiously approach the village elder. The rest of the unit takes up positions in the surrounding tree line.
If it weren't for all the trees, it could look like Iraq, and sound like Iraq.
That's the idea, says U.S. Army Major Christopher McKinney. "…Sheiks, insurgents, you see villagers, or as we refer to [them] as, civilians on the battlefield. We see media on the battlefield. You see the language barrier exists,” says the training instructor. “The cultural aspects of head of household, respect for family members, civilians on the battlefield getting in the way of what you are trying to do perhaps, not on purpose, but just living in their village and all of a sudden there is a big fight here."
But just like the bullets in this training exercise, this is not a real Iraqi village or battle.
Welcome to West Point -- the U.S. Army's premiere military academy along the Hudson River in New York State. It's an institution of higher learning…and ground zero for training future officers in the new challenges of fighting an insurgency.
Captain Ryan Morgan served in Iraq during the initial invasion in 2003. Now he is a training instructor. Morgan is a West Point graduate who went through the academy at a time when the military was still preparing to fight a superpower.
"We've had to change the focus of our training away from the Cold War era static offense-defense type of fight, to the more non-contiguous asymmetrical fight we see now in Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom," said the captain.
Instructors here say almost all current West Point cadets will serve a tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan during the course of their initial five-year military service. Most will arrive there less than a year after they graduate.
As officers, these cadets will eventually lead soldiers into battle. Or in some cases, into a trap. "When the cadets take action, we try to have a realistic reaction for whatever it is they do, because that is often the case in theater," explains McKinney.
Helping the Army create those realistic reactions are translators and actors for whom the Iraq war was not a simulation.
Samie Sawa fled from Basra, Iraq in 1992. Since the war in 2003, he's been back and forth as a translator and consultant. Now he plays the part of a village sheik and gets paid by the U.S. Army.
"I want them to learn how to deal with the Iraqi people,” says Sawa. “How to deal with Iraqi custom. Don't talk to the lady. Don't shake hand with lady. Don't go like that. Don't go and bother the sheik. You have to respect sheik of the tribe or the emir of the village or city. Take care of people. Be nice to them. Always smile to them. They'll respect you."
This training is also the time and place for instructors to reinforce battlefield ethics, prompted in part by the recent allegations of rape and murder of Iraqi civilians by U.S. service members.
"We require the cadets to go through the full investigation, just like they would with sworn statements and everything, so we treat situations out here in training the same way they would in that theater," Major McKinney tells us.
This is all a new kind of training that is evolving as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue.
Veterans returning from those battlefields -- where the bullets and bodies are real -- pass on their knowledge to these cadets under the old military mantra: “The more you sweat in practice the less you bleed in battle.”