By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“It cost a lot of money,” says Wagstaffe.
Even so, Brig. Gen. Pittard wasn’t satisfied with the look and feel (Wagstaffe remembers him saying, “You think this looks like Iraq?”), and set up a competition among three Hollywood movie-set operations. The winner got to turn The Box into Iraq. Currently, Fort Irwin is constructing a $57 million replica of Fallujah, which we drive by in its nascent state on our way back from that lunch in Medina Jabal.
“It’s going to be the largest urban-warfare facility in the world,” says Wagstaffe, proudly. “We import the stones from Iraq.”
“Why?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” he says.
It doesn’t stop there. Occupying the Iraqi villages are 250 Iraqi “actors” like Bassan Kalasho, the provincial governor. These actors stay 24/7 during the full training rotation, often under harsh conditions: heat, sandstorms, bitter nights and boredom. They man their posts — as governors, mayors, villagers, merchants, doctors, shepherds, imams – all day long, whether they are due to see any action that day or not.
“They do it out of a sense of patriotism,” says Wagstaffe, “for their former country and their adopted country.”
Kalasho is indicative of these people. During Saddam’s reign, the Baath Party killed Kalasho’s parents. “I do everything here, not just play governor. I teach a culture class,” he says. “If we can save one innocent life, on both sides, that will be great for us.”
The army has also hired 300 unemployed people from Barstow (“the Barstow 300,” Wagstaffe calls them) at $4,000 a month, to fill out the role-playing. While it’s certainly a small boon to the local economy, Wagstaffe admits it’s barely made a dent in the area’s unemployment rate.
The idea is to be as realistic as possible in every phase of warfare. When soldiers die in simulated combat, they are taken away to someplace called Deadland. Commanding officers must then go through the process of condolences, requesting awards, requisitions.
IEDs are made with Iraqi phones and simulators. Real amputees are brought in from Hollywood to play casualties. Fake shepherds bring their goats and sheep to market. Prisoners go to court and are represented by lawyers. Imams get their throats sliced. Poker games between Sunni and Shia strongmen go awry. Vendettas are played out. One gets the impression that this is the largest movie set in the world.
The operating budget for Fort Irwin must be staggering. I ask Wagstaffe what it is.
“I don’t know,” he says. “A lot.”
I’m not the only one waiting for the numbers. Wagstaffe tells me later that Dan Rather is still waiting on the info. “If I ever find it,” he says, “I’ll get it to you guys.” Me first, I assume.
What does it mean when our financial system is collapsing, when there’s no money for basic infrastructure, social services, health care and education, but there’s a never-ending pipeline of green to the military? I have no fucking idea, but maybe the desert tortoise — pushed to the brink of collapse itself, and now being airlifted out of a critical habitat so a military base can play more and bigger war games — would tell us if it could talk. Since it can’t, we go searching for answers in Barstow, of all places.
My sun-absorbing black Jeep Cherokee is in four-wheel drive and moving at a righteous clip through the Mojave. It’s all good sport in a delirious Mad Max kind of way, until my partner in crime, C.R. Stecyk III, and I realize we have noidea where we are. We also have no detailed map, no shovel to dig ourselves out should we get bogged down in the sand, a temporary spare that wouldn’t be much good out here, barely half a tank of gas and precious little water. What brought us here is the kind of impulse that can get you into trouble in the desert.
This whole adventure started back in early April, when I finally succumbed to Stecyk, an intrepid artist, photographer and cultural historian who looks at the universe and sees patterns and connections that weave themselves into an inevitable design while the rest of us, caught up in the fabric, see only randomness and coincidence. These patterns and designs he sees sometimes take on a sinister, X-Files–like shape and tone colored in a military-industrial palette.
Not surprisingly, Stecyk spends a lot of time in the desert. Often, when he reports back after such trips, eager to describe the tangled web, I’ll put the phone down and pick it up at what I believe are the appropriate intervals to insert an “umm hmmm . . . ” or “ . . . really?”
During one of these phone calls, when he was going on about a huge tortoise relocation being done by the military and what this action said about where we are at this time in our history — or something like that — I suggested we go out to take a look. It wasn’t that I was so interested in desert tortoises — I wasn’t even aware that they were endangered or that they were our official state reptile, or that they could somehow be part of the Rorschach test some people, like Stecyk, see when they visit the desert just beyond the tentacles of our metropolis. I just didn’t have anything better to do.