In his 1923 manifesto Vers une architecture [Toward an Architecture] Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier famously described houses as machines for living. By comparing houses—or any buildings—to machines he at the same time gave us a new way to consider and understand buildings and also posed an implicit question. A machine—a tool—only realizes its fullest potential in performing work. Machines require use to be fully understood, because there is tacit knowledge—what philosophers of knowledge distinguish as “know how” as opposed to “know of”—that can only be known through performing the work itself. So if houses—if buildings—are machines, must we in fact be in them and “operate” them to order to fully understand them?
I had this question in mind in January when I was preparing for a visit to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California. I joined a group of creative thinkers that included artists, designers, filmmakers, historians, geographers, and computer scientists on a trip to view Range 220, the largest urban combat simulation training facility in the United States and one of the largest in the world, and also to talk with Marines about terrain visualization, drawing, and training for these activities.
This trip was a follow-up to an earlier Incendiary Traces trip to Twentynine Palms in March of 2013. For many on this trip just the thought of going onto a military base was exciting, and for some a little bit unnerving. But I already have a little background in considering military training and military training environments. I joined the Army reserves in 2003 and served until 2012, working as an imagery and geospatial analyst. Since leaving the Army I have both made work as an artist and worked with human performance experts in the Department of Defense to understand how training and performance in simulated environments works to create embodied knowledge. Even so, I didn’t have much experience with sites like Range 220, and like the other members of the group I was excited to see for myself how this place really worked.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to find out. After waiting for a couple hours we learned that a mix-up had led the base's commanding general to cancel the tour. Many in the group were disappointed, but I left with an even greater interest in understanding these spaces, with an interest in considering how much we can understand about them without actually operating within them, and in considering how a lack of access to—and therefore a lack of understanding of—these spaces makes their purpose unclear to the outside observer.
Militaries employ mixtures of simulation, role-playing, and performance to deliver training that teaches the embodied knowledge required to operate in the extreme conditions of combat. But at a fundamental level this training is not real. In fact military training must be unreal because the ultimate goal of combat is to kill. One can practice shooting at more and more realistic targets under more and more realistic conditions—but there is at the end of the day no way to practice killing other than to do it. So training is designed to asymptotically approach that goal without ever reaching it. While military training may be highly realistic—while it may look and feel real to the trainee, while trainees may be hurt and may even die in the training—because the training cannot exercise the final action of killing, some part of the training is always an act or a performance.
In the case of the Marine Corps at Twentynine Palms this training has traditionally included practicing live fire with coordinated operations of air and ground units in both the desert and in simulated urban environments. But after the experience of more than a decade of counterinsurgency warfare, training at Twentynine Palms and other similar sites has also grown to include enacting highly realistic cultural scenarios with dozens or more role-players acting in a simulated urban environment that is then combined with traditional military training. It is a highly realistic theatre where the participants are both performing and watching themselves perform. And this theatre is only one of many in which Marines or other services members will participate as they train for combat.
Military performance—in all senses of the word—arguably begins and certainly ends with embodied action, and this in turn drives embodied learning in the military. This embodied learning begins in basic training, but not with skills like shooting or hand-to-hand combat. One is expected to look like a soldier and to act like a soldier well before one is expected to be able to perform as a soldier. The actions of making one’s bed, of organizing one’s locker, of maintaining one’s uniform and equipment, are all essential precursors to what many would consider the “real” training of a soldier. These initial lessons are designed to develop an outlook that enables more advanced training.
The training environment where these early lessons are taught is arguably a simulation of being in the military more than it is actually being in the military. Marine Corps boot camp, for example, is on a Marines Corps base but separate from where the real work of the Marine Corps is performed. To the trainee boot camp is often the realest thing they have ever experienced—but it is in fact a series of scripted and stylized scenes that are designed to teach very specific lessons that are important to performing the tasks required of a Marine.
This stylization in initial training continues throughout all military training. One of the most typical aspects of this stylization is that aspects of reality are exaggerated. Because combat is stressful, stress is often exaggerated. Because combat is often chaotic, chaos is often exaggerated. Whatever the case, because these are training environments—because they are not real—they can be and are designed to be stylized, to be exaggerated—to be unreal—in specific ways.
Sometimes this exaggeration is visible from the outside. Film sometimes captures some of the intense stress of military training. For example R. Lee Emery’s character of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket represents the closest thing that most viewers will ever get to a Marine Drill Instructor in boot camp, in no small part because Emery was a Drill Instructor in real life before becoming an actor.
In fact for most who have never served in the military most of their knowledge of the military comes from media like film. Amongst the creative arts in the United States, filmmaking arguably has the closest relationship with the military. The United States military draws on the expertise of the entertainment industry to create some of these unreal environments, and Hollywood filmmakers obtain privileged access to military training, equipment, and operations. There is a symbiotic relationship between filmmakers and the military, where filmmakers gain access to information to better tell a story and the military gets an opportunity to tell its story. There is also arguably a connection in that in both military training and films about the military, the participants are performing.
In both film productions that cooperate with the military and in those that have enough budget to simulate this cooperation through hiring a critical mass of former military members as advisers actors receive training that orients them to the military in a way that most civilians can never match. For example, the actors playing Delta Force operators in Black Hawk Down were trained for a week at Ft. Bragg, NC, home of United States Army Special Forces, by active duty United States Army Special Forces cadre supervised by the real-life commander of the Delta Force team who had fought in Somalia. Similarly, actors playing SEAL Team Six (DEVGRU) operators in Zero Dark Thirty were trained for a week at the King Abdullah Special Operations Training Center in Jordan, a training site used by special operations forces around the world by former DEVGRU operators who also acted alongside the actors during filming. In both of these cases, actors reported a level of confidence in their performance derived from the knowledge that, while they were not soldiers themselves, they at least knew how to act like soldiers. Not just acting in a sense of delivering lines of dialogue, but of how to hold themselves, of how to see, of how to move through a space, of how to fire weapons—of how to perform.
While the shared interests of the military and filmmakers are clear, the shared interests—and therefore the shared ground on which to have a conversation—between the military and other creative thinkers is sometimes less so. Perhaps this is because the narratives that other creative disciplines tell about the military are sometimes less flattering than film narratives. Perhaps it is because there are fewer creative thinkers who have served in the military than in earlier eras. In any case, while the bond between film and the military remains strong—e.g. American Sniper—the connection between other creatives and the military is not.
But even though such groups are not always in alignment, many of their interests are. Artists of the early twentieth century, for example, were heavily involved in the study of camouflage, because they, like the military, were interested in understanding how to influence and even manipulate human perception. In the early twenty-first century the Israeli military borrowed ideas from French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari that they came to in part through architectural thinkers like Bernard Tschumi, because these ideas enabled the military to develop tactics to tunnel through space in order to gain a positional advantage. What is interesting about these examples and many similar ones is that they highlight how both groups are interested in changing both perception and reality, and often in confusing the difference between the two.
While shared interests are important, shared experience is more so, especially considering how much knowledge in these areas is embodied knowledge. Military movement through a city, or a house, or a field, only really makes sense when one does it. This is just as true as the fact that a Richard Serra sculpture only really makes sense when one interacts with it. Mere descriptions—whether moving images, or pictures, or objects, or words—can only approach the experience without ever quite reaching it. So in the case of military training spaces like Range 220 their true nature remains a mystery. And so too does the true nature of the experiences of the military service members who train there.