Combat Training in Twentynine Palms

Several times per year, land, sea, and air units come together to coordinate tactics and abilities in Twentynine Palms, California, and other bases nearby. Narrator Gene Hackman calls the exercises choreographed “dances” in which many teams are briefed as in a real combat situation. The overall mission is to land a battalion, with cover from the air and ground, in a small village—which has been built to be true to life. “These combat towns are constructed on bases around the country, and they’re built so that you feel like you’re in central Asia or the Middle East,” Brad Ohlund, Director of Photography, says. “There are sound effects—chickens and goats, the call to prayer, and copters and gunfire in the distance. There are odiferous effects, such as meat cooking or garbage. Role-players act as locals, and they can be as aggressive as a person in an Afghan or Iraqi village.” It’s as real as combat gets—without being in combat.

Marines board Ospreys on the ground while a helicopter and a Blue Goose 2-7 take off from an aircraft carrier. As the sky fills with aircraft, airwaves are peppered with communications: “Phantom 3-2-6, green from the spot,” and “Whiskey 2-0 coming off the starboard bow.” Every group has a language all its own, which we hear as assault vehicles hit the beach. Nearby, ground-based fire support leads the charge with mortars before the first Marine arrives at the target location.

Marines always say that no plan survives first contact, which means that even the best-laid plans cannot account for every eventuality. Therefore, instructors throw in unexpected people or circumstances, forcing the Marines to think on their feet. This kind of training has been essential in places like Afganistan and Iraq. As one Marine puts it, “We no longer have enemy that wear uniforms, we don’t have an enemy that has a state capital, or even a state.”

We, The Marines ensures that viewers realize that this brutal business of training for war requires razer-sharp attention, fast reflexes, constant teamwork—and compassion. Troops might be attacking a building on one block and handing out meals and water on the next. One Marine reflects, “The difficult you do immediately, and the impossible just takes a little bit longer.”

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