A State of Military Mind
AS THE FOOT PATROL SNAKED INTO THE MOCK AFGHAN TOWN in the foothills of Camp Pendleton, just north of San Diego, the marines scanned courtyards, rooftops, and the crowd of locals milling around the market. A simulated improvised explosive device, or IED, exploded in a trash pile and shook the ground. The role players—Afghans hired to play street vendors, teachers, village officials—shouted and scattered, leaving the streets empty save for two marines lying in the street, deemed wounded for the exercise. One lay motionless. The other writhed and screamed for help. “Get the casualties back here,” a marine yelled from the cover of an empty building. “Let’s go!” As his comrades frantically tried to evacuate their wounded, a second fake IED exploded in the town square.
Afterward, the platoon leader, First Lieutenant Giles Royster, gathered his marines, two-thirds of whom had never been in combat. “We’re giving you these emotions now so when it happens for real, you won’t be acting so crazy,” he told them. “You’ll be able to calm yourself down.”
This village—complete with plastic fruits and vegetables in the market stalls, scent machines that can pump out the stench of singed hair and rotting trash, and bomb victims gushing fake blood—represents one of the most noticeable shifts in military training over the past decade. By running mock scenarios that introduce mental and physiological strain, trainers can help troops adjust faster and perform better in the real situation, and make them less likely to be overwhelmed by chaotic or ambiguous events. This is inoculation, same as a flu shot: a dose of stress now can stave off more-severe effects later.
And the benefits may go further: the military is trying to understand what’s happening in soldiers’ brains in moments of extreme duress, then train their minds to perform better. “It’s less about how we can mitigate stress and more about how they can learn to learn under stress,” Douglas C. Johnson told me from the rooftop of the mock town’s police station, as we watched another squad of marines hunt for an insurgent sniper.