“The historical record does not show it to be a general truth that military establishments prepare for the last war. All too often they forget what their predecessors knew at the close of the last conflict. In addition, soldiers are prone to choose to ignore the lessons of recent warfare, if that experience is rejected because it pertains to a mode of combat that the military organization views with extreme disfavour.”
– Colin S. Gray[i]

Wars are fought where people live. This simple statement was true of Ypres in 1917, of Binh Ba in 1969, of Derapet in 2010, and of Ukraine today. And yet the human terrain is a domain to which the Army often pays only lip service during training exercises.[ii] Continuing to do so will leave soldiers unprepared and vulnerable in future operational deployments.

An often misrepresented and misunderstood concept from General Sir Rupert Smith aptly frames the challenge. When the former NATO Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe described “war amongst the people” in 2005, he was not referring exclusively to counterinsurgency.[iii] Instead, General Smith was drawing attention to the paradigm shift away from “interstate industrial war”, a concept that ended in 1945 along with World War II and so many Japanese lives when the Enola Gay and Bockscar released their payloads.

In its place is a kind of war the US and allies can fail to win despite overwhelming force. This was probably no more apparent than the Vietnam War where US forces dropped double the tonnage of bombs from 1965-75 than was dropped in all of World War II, on Europe and Asia combined, by all sides.[iv] “War amongst the people” does not mean every conflict in the future will be a counterinsurgency; it means every conflict in the future will be fought on and for the human terrain, because that is the terrain worth fighting for.

Do we train to fight wars on this terrain? Does our current training imbue soldiers with the same level of confidence in their ability to effectively interact with civilians as they have in their ability to put holes in Figure 11 targets at 300 metres?

“Whatever is drilled in during training comes out the other end in combat – no more, no less.”
 – LTCOL Dave Grossman[v]

Training rhetoric in recent years has heralded a return to “foundation warfighting”, an apparently unique form of warfighting wherein battle is restricted to wholly unpopulated patches of terrain. We have become so concerned with avoiding the trap of “preparing to fight the last war”, that we have focused on preparing to fight a type of war that does not exist.[vi]

Even urban operations training is conducted with minimal civilian role players. And when it comes to training combat shooting – a valuable and long-overdue revolution in traditional marksmanship – a successful interaction with civilians in the battlespace starts and ends with not shooting them.

Training exercises often reinforce the myth that population support – winning “hearts and minds” – and acknowledging the existence of civilians generally is a problem of counterinsurgency and stability operations. When conventional war breaks out, so goes the myth, civilians teleport away from the battlefield altogether or self-contain within a township with clearly defined boundaries. For all the value provided by the proliferation of urban operations training facilities (UOTF) throughout military training areas in recent decades, the facilities are not very realistic depictions of real-world places where people live. When these facilities come to be inhabited by role playing civilians, they make a further departure from reality.

The role playing civilian is a breed of human unlike any that exists outside the confines of a military training area. These civilians keep strictly to an allocated township, never venturing beyond its boundaries to hunt, farm, shepherd animals, or visit relatives. With one glance at a map (which coincidentally depicts the location of all structures, roads, and regional boundaries with unnatural accuracy), soldiers up and down the chain of command know where they can expect to find civilians, and where civilians definitely will not be.

When soldiers do encounter these odd civilians, they will find them to be a Spartan people – occupying homes conveniently bare of furniture that might impede room clearances or aid in the hiding of contraband. The role playing civilian will also act in an oddly antagonistic fashion – even the most innocent bystander will regularly risk their life with inexplicably suspicious and aggressive provocations. Conveniently fluent in English and apparently with nothing better to do, they will seem strangely comfortable bantering with and goading the imposing foreign soldiers who patrol their hometown.

The training defects described above are not less-than-ideal limitations that diminish the value of training by a few percentage points. They are also not “shortfalls” – they are training soldiers to do human terrain wrong. Soldiers come away from this training with a subconscious “understanding” of the nature of foreign civilians, of urban centres, and of war that is fundamentally incorrect and dangerously misguided.

“He needs to be taught the nature of that field as it is in war and as he may experience it some day. For if he does not acquire a soldier’s view of the field, his image of it will be formed from the reading of novels or the romance written by war correspondents, or from viewing the battlefield as it is imagined to be by Hollywood. One of the purposes of training should be to remove these false ideas of battle from his mind.”
 – S.L.A Marshall[vii]

Australian soldiers deploying on operations in the future, regardless of the intensity of the conflict to which they deploy, will need crucial skills in reading, manoeuvring through, and influencing the human terrain. To achieve this, training to interact with people must become as fundamental to soldiering as training to shoot.

Our urban training facilities, and what we train to do in them, need a realistic reimagination. The defining characteristic of real-world urban terrain is people, not buildings.[viii] People live in urban terrain, not on top of it. Real-world urban terrain is cluttered with the things people need to live and to make their way in the world – furniture fills houses; crates, machinery, and shelving sets fill warehouses and commercial spaces; and vehicles pack streets.

Real-world urban terrain is also cluttered with the people themselves and their waste products – when the government and rule of law break down, one of the first services abandoned is garbage collection.[ix] These additions are not merely cosmetic. Patrolling real-world urban areas is not merely a more colourful version of patrolling empty streets lined with cinder-block building husks and half a dozen role players – it’s a completely different activity.

Situations that are a problem in a UOTF – encountering a vehicle-mounted hostile force element, for example – become a dilemma[x] in a real-world urban centre teeming with people and their property. So too is a room clearance not just complicated, but altered completely, by the presence of furniture. This is a reality with which soldiers should be well experienced before they deploy. Given all the trials and terrors a soldier will face for the first time when deployed to a warzone, learning to clear a room that includes a coffee table seems an unnecessary additional burden.

People don’t only live and move within urban centres – they can also be found on the outskirts and making their way between these places. The possibility that civilians may be present changes the decision-making cycle for soldiers at all levels and tests their in-depth understanding of the rules of engagement. Anecdotally, soft compromise by civilians is a common – possibly the most common – way observation posts are exposed in the operational setting. As in urban terrain, something that is a problem (being compromised by the enemy) transforms into a dilemma (being compromised by civilians) but it is rarely a consideration for soldiers conducting an observation post in training.

“If you do not take the training seriously or are not willing to commit time and resources, you’re probably better off disbanding your team until you do.”
– MSG Paul. R. Howe[xi]

It is important for training spaces to accurately reflect the environments they represent, but it is vital that role players are an accurate representation of real-world people. Too often, soldiers assigned to role play civilians are provided only the briefest possible instructions on their role and expected actions in an activity. Under such conditions, when a scenario devolves into a circus performance that serves no purpose beyond the personal amusement of the role players, the fault lies solely with the person who briefed them.

Soldiers assigned to role play must know the culture they are expected to represent to the extent necessary to accurately represent it – this will help to inform their decision making as the scenario unfolds. They must know where their sympathies lie, and act (realistically) upon those sympathies. Many civilians who support the enemy will not hurl abuse at Australian soldiers upon first encountering them – their allegiances will be manifested in more subtle ways. Civilians who do support an Australian presence in their country won’t necessarily feel comfortable openly expressing their position. Teaching soldiers to detect these subtle atmospherics in their interactions with civilians is the reason we conduct this training in the first place.

Allocating an appropriate number of personnel to role play civilians is also vital to realistic training. Managing 100 refugees is not simply more difficult than managing 10. It requires a completely different allocation of manpower and resources. There is an understandable aversion to allocating significant numbers of personnel and/or equipment to an activity if they are unlikely to be heavily utilised.

Therefore, we rarely – if ever – see pistols loaded with blank ammunition during blank-fire training exercises (a separate problem that requires its own essay). The under-resourcing of civilian role players in an exercise creates in our soldiers and their commanders an unrealistic expectation of what will be required to manage challenging situations in operational settings.

“Good morning, sir. I am a member of the Australian Army and you have entered an Australian vehicle checkpoint. From here, I’ll ask that you and your passengers exit the vehicle, and I’ll ask you to make your way around the vehicle opening all external and internal doors and compartments, including the bonnet and petrol cap.”
– typical dialogue heard in VCP training

People in many of the places in which we expect to operate do not dress the way we do. Many also do not speak our language, and those who do are unlikely to be masters of the vernacular and all the various jargon and slang that make up our own day-to-day conversations. As with the difference adding furniture makes to a room clearance, removing English from an interaction completely changes how it must be done.

The unconscious “training-isms” that have emerged from failures in this regard are beginning to seep into standard operating procedures. Soldiers manning vehicle checkpoints ask in-depth questions of a driver to screen a vehicle for further search. A captured enemy is directed to face away from the capturing troops before being given detailed verbal instructions on what to do next. As per all examples above, training this way is not just less realistic, it is training to do the wrong thing.

“Leaders are judged, ultimately, by the quality of the leadership reflected in their subordinates.”
– GEN Charles C. Krulak[xii]

If soldiers are to be prepared for the deployments of the future, they need training that realistically models the complexity of the modern battlefield. It may require significant logistics and resourcing to populate a UOTF with real-world clutter. It may mean allocating whole battalions of personnel to the role of human terrain on major exercises. It will mean allowing role players more freedom to undertake plausible movements throughout an area of operations, rather than simply loitering in a UOTF. And it certainly means briefing role players in a more detailed way and ensuring they are committed to achieving training outcomes.

To do otherwise is training to do it wrong. Much of our training seems purpose-built to create soldiers who are actively suspicious of the civilians they encounter in the battlespace. Although a degree of healthy objectivity is certainly necessary, overly suspicious soldiers will fail to capitalise on opportunities to build population support while simultaneously failing to perceive the subtle indicators of genuine threat amid the noise of a busy urban centre.

Achieving these outcomes will require significantly more resources than is currently allocated to this element of training. It will strain logistics and impede commanders’ tactical plans, but such is the nature of war. And training realistically for war is not easy.