HOHENFELS, Germany (August 6, 2000) -- Switching from language to language, the interpreter presses between an Army captain and an irate village mayor. Crisp morning air can't stop the sweat on his brow.
He must convince the village leader that the motor pool that suddenly occupied the town will soon disappear, and that the U.S. Army will pay for any damage done. It's not going well; a group of townspeople are gathering to echo the mayor's complaints.
Finally, the interpreter gets his point across. The mayor settles down. Abruptly, he invites the captain for a drink. To be politically correct, the captain accepts the offer and the trio wade through the farmers toward a war-battered house…until somebody yells the military-training equivalent of "Cut!"
This captain-and-villagers roleplaying scenario helped train soldiers for their parts in the military's growing roles as peacemakers. It took place at the Combat Maneuver Training Center [CMTC], Hohenfels, Germany, a U.S. training outpost in southern Bavaria.
The "interpreter" was actually an ethnic Hungarian hired in the United States. The "mayor" was an actor from Munich. Some of the were Army soldiers in civilian attire; but others are local German farmers paid to act like, well, farmers.
Dubbed "COBs," for civilians on the battlefield, these "extras" have been roleplaying on U.S. military installations since NATO began Balkan peacekeeping operations in the early 1990s.
Their mission, says chief COB Tim Good, is to "train soldiers for what they might see downrange. Whatever is happening on the ground in places like Kosovo, we can duplicate it here for training."
When soldiers train at CMTC, they can expect to see a procession of "beggars, snipers, basecamp thieves, riots, drive-by shootings, foreign journalists, and rival ethnic factions," said Good, who took over the burgeoning overseas COB program in 1993.
A COB props warehouse on the base is filled with thousands of pieces of civilian and uniform clothing items, fake bombs and weaponry, and other props. The idea is to be able to produce extreme civilian chaos and mayhem for training soldiers, "so they'll get used to it if they have to do it for real," Good said.
COBs receive a three-day course on their roles at CMTC. They learn about the lives and surroundings of the citizens they are to play, and are briefed on the hazards that exist in the CMTC maneuver area. And, of course, they get a few acting tips to prep them for their roles.
What does the future hold for the COBs? There are plans to add an additional, permanent crew of more than 100 local roleplayers. and blueprints for a multimillion-dollar expansion for the six training villages at CMTC.
With these assets, and "the right background information," Good said, "the civilians on the battlefield can portray any ethnic group, civilian populace, or paramilitary organization in the world."