The town officially goes by the name of Shughart
Gordon - a cluster of buildings set in forests that could be almost anywhere
in the world. But in the minds of the soldiers of the 101st Airborne who stormed
it, it was Baghdad.
Troops from the division's 3rd Brigade fought from house to house in this mock-up
settlement, as part of an exercise intended to get them ready for their next battle,
only a few months after their return from Afghanistan.
Most of the 600 soldiers in the exercise believe that if an invasion of Iraq
is ordered, the highly mobile 101st Airborne, the "screaming eagles", will be
among the first units sent in. And they are aware that the endgame against Saddam
Hussein's special republican guard is likely to be fought out in Baghdad, in Tikrit
- the Iraqi dictator's home town - and other urban areas. They would be full of
civilians, snipers and booby traps.
Perhaps that is why the planners of the war game chose the name Shugart Gordon
for the fictional Baghdad. Urban warfare has given US military planners bad dreams
since the assault on the Somali capital Mogadishu in 1993, when two Black Hawk
helicopters were shot down and 18 American soldiers were killed in the labyrinth
of the capital.
Shughart Gordon is named after two of those dead soldiers.
Along with a chemical or biological attack, urban warfare is the US army's
That goes for Private First Class Mark Meshreky too. "Urban warfare is the
number one worry," Private Meshreky said. "You've got to have 360-degree vision.
In Afghanistan, around Kandahar it was just a desert. You could see in every direction.
Here, you've got to see around every corner."
Even through the camouflage paint on his face, it was clear that Private Meshreky
was exhausted. He had not slept for more than 30 hours, but as the sun came up
over Shughart Gordon, he beamed with the elation of a survivor, as dozens of fellow
soldiers lay dead and wounded.
On this occasion, they had been hit by lasers fitted to the guns of the town's
defenders, played with appropriate ferocity by two platoons from the 509th Parachute
Regiment. The lasers are picked up by shiny black receptors on every uniform and
helmet, that emit a whine when struck. Explosions are mimicked with ear-bursting
effect by Hollywood-style pyrotechnics.
It is as close to real life as the army can make it. And these exercises, no
matter how well orchestrated, can also be dangerous. Two soldiers were killed
in a similar exercise last week when a tank ran over them. But much of the adrenalin
in this particular war game was the knowledge that it could soon be played out
for real in Iraq.
"It's kind of why we're doing this," said Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Sabb,
who led the 15 Black Hawk helicopters used in the assault. "It's never away from
our minds that the things we are doing here are going to happen to us in real
"We want to avoid an urban fight as much as possible. You have the danger of
fratricide [killing soldiers on your own side]. And we don't want to hurt
"We'll be at a disadvantage out there because there's a lack of knowledge of
what we're about. The regime's propaganda machine is at work. People of Iraq don't
know we're not there to hurt them."
Lt Col Sabb's other big worry was in a satchel at his waist - his chemical
and biological protection gear. While waiting for the war game assault, the helicopter
squadron was attacked three times with chemical weapons.
In the final assault on Shughart Gordon, some of the 3rd Brigade's troops had
to don protective gear to detonate what they thought could be a chemical booby
trap. In the town's last stand, however, the defending forces opted not to use
chemical or biological agents, on the grounds that it would be suicidal - a premise
that might not hold in Iraq.
The demand for the war game facilities at Fort Polk is at an all-time high.
The training base is normally dormant in December, but not this year. Next week,
it is the turn of the 10th Mountain Division, another combat unit that fought
in Afghanistan and could well play a role in Iraq.
The Louisiana base is a prime example of everything the US army is good at.
It is a technological marvel which allows officers to watch the progress of the
battle through hundreds of thermal imaging cameras and, through satellite positioning
technology, to see individual platoons move across maps lit up on giant screens
in a control center.
In the cold night outside, however, the vastly superior American technology
was of less use in close-quarters street fighting. A mighty MI Abrams tank was
brought to a halt for more than an hour because barbed wire got tangled in its
tracks. Dozens of troops were picked out by a single sniper before he could be
found and killed with a tank shell. Total casualties from the exercise were not
It is clear from the hints seeping out of the Iraqi regime, that in the event
of a US attack, President Saddam would not repeat the mistake he made 11 years
ago of leaving his best troops out in the desert to be slaughtered by American
air power. This time, he is more likely to pull back the special republican guard
into Baghdad and Tikrit where civilians would serve as human shields.
The US military is trying to send a message, to say it is not afraid of going
into the streets, which may in part explain why international journalists, including
a television crew from the Arabic channel al-Jazeera, were invited to Fort Polk.
"If you show you're ready and willing to go in there and do it, then perhaps
the Iraqis will think twice about it," said Gary Anderson, a retired marine colonel
who is advising the Pentagon. "I think we have to show we won't be deterred by
this kind of blackmail, or else we'd turn urban warfare into a bogey man, and
we'll be held hostage by it."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002