PINON CANYON MANEUVER SITE, Colo. – The car slid to a stop on a sun-baked road, drawing the attention of wary soldiers squinting through sand blown by a hot wind. Nearby, someone started running and soldiers started shooting.
In seconds, a woman in a dark-colored shawl was screaming her boy had been shot and crowd of villagers surged forward as troops tried to clear an area for their medic to work. A soldier in camouflage shoved a woman with his M4 carbine. More shots. Another civilian went down. Local police began arguing with American troops.
Things had gotten very bad, very fast — just the way the Army wanted it.
Thousands of soldiers just spent 16 days on the dusty plains of southeastern Colorado, thrust into situations their commanders designed to resemble what they will face in Iraq, complete with mock villages, mock villagers and real, itchy-trigger-finger tension. The hope is that the troops at the Pinon Canyon training site learn how to make the right decisions and not end up dead or defending themselves against accusations like those surrounding the Marines stationed in Haditha last fall.
Throughout a hot day and cool night, Haditha was never mentioned. But its impact was palpable and the soldiers repeatedly heard the importance of staying calm.
"Don't start lazin' and blazin'," Sgt. Shawn Farnsworth barked to his troops before a night raid. "Know what you're shooting at. Do not be rough with the people in the town!"
Lt. Stuart Smothers, commanding 39 veterans back from Iraq, said his team learned in the real world how civilians in Iraq react to American troops. Back in the states, Smothers and other veterans become trainers, sharing tips with the next wave of troops.
Treat the locals right, the soldiers get the help they need, he said. Treat them wrong, they can damage the entire U.S. mission.
Smothers said he and other trainers tell the troops that in Iraq, upsetting the acting mayor or cleric can cost the lives of the troops who replace them.
That, Smothers said, is how it is in this new kind of war. Everyone pays for mistakes.
"This is no longer the old Army where you see a bad guy, you automatically shoot them," said Command Sgt. Major Terrance McWilliams, a 30-year veteran. "You're trying to maintain the calm with the villagers and at the same time weed out the insurgents."
It is training that has had to evolve since U.S. troops arrived in Iraq three years ago. Army warfare is changing from full-on frontal assaults to dodging roadside bombs and finding shadowy insurgents in cramped, confusing Iraqi cities.
"We were prepared for the Cold War and what we thought that was going to be," said Lt. Col. Richard Harms, who helps training bases comply with the new goals of the Army's Combat Training Center Directorate at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. "When the Cold War was over, we looked around and said, 'Who are we going to fight next?' It took us a couple of shots to the gut to kind of figure that out."
The training goes on across the country, at places like Fort Irwin, Calif., and here at Pinon Canyon, which is slated for an expansion that has Colorado ranchers and farmers nervous their property will disappear. The Army says the space better simulates battlefield conditions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
For this war, veterans of Iraq say, training includes learning some basics — how to sit low in a Humvee in case of a roadside bomb or how to get inside the warrens of courtyards and tiny apartments in Baghdad's ancient neighborhoods. How to tell when something's just not right.
"If there's kids around, that's probably a good sign," said Smothers, who returned from Iraq this year. He said even insurgents seem to avoid killing their neighbors' children.
Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Mayville said the changes in training are obvious. A 16-year veteran, he has been to Pinon Canyon plenty and he's seen war taught the old way and the new.
"I was here in 1993," he said. "It was all just open battlefield. This is just a completely different kind of warfare. You could look out here, and it was all tanks, lined up far as you could see, tanks coming at each other. Then they'd get together, and 'boom, boom, boom,' they'd be firing. There was smoke, lights flashing, and a lot of dust.
"All of our Army regulations, all of our training manuals, are completely changed."
Another soldier, Charles Price, chimed in: "We're pretty much fighting ghosts."
Colin Gray, a military expert at the University of Reading in England, contends that it wasn't until the Sept. 11 attacks that the American military's plans for the future got any real attention.
"Can the American way of war adapt?" Gray wrote for the government's Army War College in March. "My answer is 'perhaps, but only with difficulty."'
Harms said the Americans are learning. He needs fighters, but he also needs soldiers who can learn how to act as negotiator, counselor and project manager, all while keeping a cool head. Soldiers are learning that everything they say or do has the potential to affect the relationship between American and Iraqi governments.
"We are very cognizant of winning the hearts and minds, using that old term," Harms said. "You've got to understand the culture of the locals in order to do that."
When they finish training here, along with hours on the firing range shooting live ammunition back at Fort Carson 150 miles away, troops will head for more training in California before being deployed — probably to Iraq or Afghanistan. Some of the troops at Pinon Canyon were members of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, tabbed just days ago to be among those next up for a tour in Iraq.
Back at the dirt road, McWilliams and his trainers tried to sort out why the sudden appearance of that silver car caused so much chaos.
The "boy" who was shot — a solider playing the role of a mentally retarded child who panicked — had nothing to do with the car. But when he ran, a soldier instinctively fired his rifle, equipped with blanks.
In the investigation by trainers, there were allegations that soldiers planted a weapon next to the boy. Other soldiers complained that trainers had stashed guns in a mock mosque. Tempers flared.
It was only a drill, but in the real world, a mistake like that could be a disaster.
"Something that small can have a devastating effect," McWilliams said. "The troops here understand it. That's why they're all gathered around saying "uh oh" and trying to figure it out: 'Why did you? Why did you engage that mentally challenged child. Just because he took off running, does that automatically mean he's hostile?"'
Nearby, Sgt. Roy Jackson watched the whole thing, from the accidental shooting to, even worse, a scuffle with the local police.
If something like that happened in Iraq, Jackson had two words to describe the fallout: "Bad juju."