U.S. Troops Train in Mock Bosnia

HOHENFELS, Germany -- Here in the forests of northern Bavaria is a grim place where snipers shoot at anyone, thugs set up checkpoints, drunks carry automatic weapons, amiable-looking old mayors seldom tell the truth and helpful commanders of the local militia are up to their necks in black market smuggling.

Welcome to "The Box,'' the U.S. Army's sneak preview of its worst Bosnian nightmares. Set in the hills and mock villages of an 128-square-kilometer training ground, it is an elaborate military fantasy designed to save U.S. lives once they're facing the real thing.

Of the 20,000 U.S. soldiers now packing their bags for Bosnia to join NATO's peace enforcement mission, about half have spent at least five days training here during the past year.

The goal, as stated by Major George Seiferth, who took the course with his unit of the 1st Armored Division, is simple: "You want to make your mistakes there instead of in Bosnia."

Mistakes, indeed. Like the one made by the soldier who threatened to ram and shoot his unit's Humvees through an illegal checkpoint, only to find four bigger, better-armed vehicles blocking the path. Or the two soldiers who rushed down an alley to stop a rape, only to be greeted by a dozen armed brutes.

Then there was the commander who decided to send in his men to root out stubborn "Serbs" from a village they'd refused to evacuate.

"He lost 200 men,'' said Colonel Dean Cash, who, as commander of the Hohenfels Combat Training Center, oversaw the setting up, rehearsing and running of this Bosnia-in-miniature. But, because the goal of the place is to let soldiers learn from their mistakes, the errant commander got a second chance.

"And then he lost 50 men,'' Cash said. "We said, all right, now how would you do it? And he said, 'Geez, I'd negotiate.' He lost no one. Did it resolve the issue? No. But did it get the issue on the path to being resolved without losing a life? Yes."

The dress rehearsal came with a cast of 1,200 soldiers playing the parts of the fighters for three warring ethnic factions: Bosnia's Serbs, Croats and Moslems. Also helping were local actors, with plenty of scripting advice from Bosnia-tested UN soldiers of various nations.

One result has been another step into the future for a slimmed down army whose main form of training used to be huge mock slug-outs against East Bloc "invasions.'' Old procedures, when units measured success by toting up simulated "tank kills" and captured land, are not valid in an age of complex missions such as the ones in Somalia, Haiti and, now, Bosnia. And soldiers haven't taken to the new roles happily, even in training.

"Generally speaking,'' Cash said, "there is a feeling of frustration with the complexity of the problem [in the mock Bosnia]. Who's the bad guy? ... The theme we pushed was: 'Nothing is as it appears to be.'"

One of the tougher lessons to teach was how to deal with atrocities -- rapes, lynchings, point-blank execution killings. "Our soldiers left here with a real knot in their stomach from the atrocities that we put them through, and that was just role-playing,'' he said.

But Cash can cope with the anger if he feels the soldiers have learnt something.

"We had soldiers leaving here very frustrated, upset, mad at us,'' he said. "When that happened we knew we had achieved what we wanted to. We wanted to sensitize them to an environment where you cannot trust everybody."