Two and half hours east of Los Angeles in the middle of the Mojave Desert is the largest urban warfare training facility in the country. Conflict scenarios are played out in mock villages (MOUTs), a mock city, and the Combat Simulation Center, where Marines and Sailors practice convoy operations. There are 360-degree interactive video screens with weapons and tanks, and simulated vehicle driving and rollover trainers. The 29 Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC) spans 998 acres and is similar in the size to the state of Rhode Island. It neighbors Joshua Tree National Park to the south and Mojave National Preserve to the northeast. On February 1, Incendiary Traces met with a group of 28 artists, writers, landscape architects and scholars to tour and draw the 29 Palms MCAGCC. Our mission was to adopt a military gaze towards our Southern California desert landscape to connect with seemingly remote conflict zones.
The Mojave landscape mirrors other subtropical regions around the world and has been used since World War II to prepare military troops heading to combat in those locations. Here, General Patton trained troops to familiarize them with the geographic conditions of the battlefields in Algeria. The Desert Training Center took up 18,000 sq. miles and was the largest in the world. More recently, the military has relied on this landscape to train soldiers for combat in Iraq, and is now using it as a stand-in for Afghanistan. Our tour guide that day, Operations Officer Michael King, explained that the air temperature here is the same as Iraq's, the terrain similarly mountainous, and the villages are comparable distances apart. While Afghanistan is less like the Mojave, the approximation is serviceable.
King embodies the image of a Marine Sergeant popularized in movies and mainstream media: big, loud, full of witty quips and not someone you'd want to get in the way of. Also joining us was Captain Nicholas Mannweiler who played the straight guy, friendly, well spoken and suited to his role as MCAGCC Public Affairs Director. Standing out in the morning sun, we gathered around King's booming voice to receive the Combat Center's rules and regulations, as well as some important desert survival information in the unlikely event we found ourselves wandering alone in the exposed landscape. With the necessary protocols and paperwork out of the way, we boarded a white tour bus and began our day's adventure.
One of our primary goals was to draw the MOUTs, fake villages constructed of modified shipping containers. However, the MOUTs were in use that day and there were concerns about our access. As our bus pulled onto a road bisecting what looked like two little towns, green smoke plumed in the air to our left and armed Marines moved in on the rectangular, beige buildings. The sound of blank rounds being fired could be heard. However, to the right, all was quiet in the village. If there was any chance of exploring the MOUTs, now was the time and King took his chance to let us off the bus.
Wandering into what appeared to be a town square, we were greeted by the shell of a burnt out pickup truck. It immediately became clear that we had entered into a strange, seemingly foreign land. The square was staged to resemble a Middle Eastern market with all manner of props, from racks of fake meat to a shoe stand and clothing hung on lines. It was eerily devoid of people, or more specifically the role players who "inhabit" the town and interact with the Marines. (Read an excerpt from tour participant David Buuck's upcoming novel about role players.)
A Marine in a bright orange vest approached and informed Operation Officer King that the village had been set up for training exercises and we were to touch nothing. Fake improvised explosive devices (IED) had been planted through out and triggering one would result in a very loud, smoky explosion. This threat, though potentially minor, brought us startlingly further into their conflict zone scenario. Still, they let us continue to explore the square and surrounding buildings. We wandered into what looked like an electronics store, then over to the bread bakery, finally coming out onto a balcony where we could take stock of the landscape and do a little drawing.
From our perch, we surveyed the two worlds in front of us, the Southern California high desert merging with the set of a Middle Eastern-style desert village. All the while gunfire sounded across the road and the occasional fake IED exploded. It was unnerving and it only got worse when the Marine's began to move into the buildings on our side of the road. With the unit's exercises closing in on the square, we headed back to the bus. On the way, an antennae was noticed sticking out of the sand and we carefully stepped around it.
Driving further into the Combat Center, we passed large housing complexes, military vehicle storage lots, barracks and administrative buildings. King continued to point out significant features. We learned the only thing that can stop a convoy on a training exercise is a tortoise in the middle of the road. The Mojave is home to many creatures, including the endangered desert tortoise, and the Marines work closely with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect them. (See our post on San Clemente Island for another look at the military's relationship with the EPA.) Other heartwarming facts were doled out for the "bunny loving tree huggers" among us, including the military's interest in and use of sustainable and efficient energy saving technologies. At one point, King gestured to a large armored transport storage lot where the vehicle that pulled Saddam Hussein's statue down in Baghdad is kept. They call it "Lucky."
Our next stop was the vehicle rollover simulation station. Marines receive training on what to do to increase their safety and chances for survival in the unfortunate event that they drive over an IED in the ground. Given weighted plastic replicas of M16s to hold, a few of us awkwardly posed for photos before clambering through the barrel-shaped transport vehicle designed specifically to deflect road bomb explosions.
After an intense morning, we headed to the Warrior Club for lunch. Burgers, hot dogs and chili cheese fries were on the menu. Sharing our table with young Marines dressed in desert utility uniforms and casually resting their unloaded M16s next to them, we had the opportunity to ask questions about their experiences at the Combat Center and being deployed in Afghanistan. Several expressed that the conditions of the Mojave were quite similar to those found over there.
Back on the bus, our next stop was the video simulation station where we were invited to experience what it feels like to drive an armored vehicle in a variety of weather conditions. Climbing into a seat with a steering wheel and projection screen in front you, it felt a lot like a race car game at a video arcade. A calm, female voice gave directions and suggested corrections when you ran off course. When you crashed, it was game over.
Following the driving trainer, we were taken into the 360-degree interactive video convoy combat simulator. Enclosed in a circular room with a stationary tank in the center, we were once again provided with M16 replicas, this time mounted with functional laser scopes. A member of our tour took the driver's seat. The video simulation began, an open landscape with a single road and roadblock checkpoint ahead, which we were instructed to drive past. As we continued, a figure on the side of the road opened fire followed by several others. Our instruction was to shoot back, focusing on the characters in our laser scopes and pulling the trigger to take them out. The room erupted in gunfire as our group of civilians engaged the "insurgents." The video characters were generic and the landscape only a basic layout.
We left the guns behind and boarded the bus once more. Our final destination was a hillside parking lot outside the fitness center with an overlook of the Combat Center facilities for another brief round of drawing. Artist Scott Polach pulled out a roll of surveyor's flagging tape and headed off into the drainage canal near the road. Landscape architect Andy Wilcox quickly and skillfully sketched panoramas of the military center embedded into the landscape. Finally, we packed up our sketchbooks and drawing materials, thanked Operations Officer King and Captain Mannweiler for their time and headed to High Desert Test Sites for a post-tour discussion.
Located 20 minutes away in Joshua Tree is the headquarters of High Desert Test Sites (HDTS), a non-profit organization whose mission is to support experimental art that engages with the local environment and community. There, tour participant and Incendiary Traces contributor Sarah McCormick Seekatz gave a brief history of the real and imagined relationship between the Indio/Palm Springs area and Saudi Arabia, while we munched on Imperial Valley grown dates. Sarah's brief synopsis of her research on the region inspired reflections on the uncanny military connections between our Southern California desert and the Middle East and North Africa. The discussion included a conversation about the grid-like layout of the mock villages, and comparisons to the historic urban plans of the places they were meant to emulate. The day's experience was emotional for many of us and we were each left contemplating all that we had seen, heard and learned.