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Inside Fort Irwin, fake cities provide a training ground for real warfare

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Twice a month in California's Mojave desert, anyone can spend half a day in a war zone. The Fort Irwin National Training Center is meant to give soldiers a crash course in realistic combat before they deploy. The thousand-square-mile base contains everything from fake towns to caves for "insurgents" drawn from a regiment whose role is to provide an opposing force, no matter who the US is fighting. While soldiers will spend two weeks in "the Box," however, tourists can come for a morning and afternoon visit to the simulated battlefields.

What is it like to spectate a firefight that's supposed to feel like the real thing? According to Venue, which recently made the trip, it's a strange trip through a kind of military Potemkin village. Actors playing Iraqi or Afghan citizens hawk plastic wares and disappear as soon as a tour goes through, and mosques or shops are mocked up in plywood. When the combat starts — with a car bomb and an insurgent attack — the scene becomes chaotic and bloody; the photographs tourists are urged to share are disturbing despite being the result of makeup and blanks. And over it all looms the question: what will Fort Irwin become when America finds a new enemy?