From the Magazine
october 2023 Issue

The US Military’s Grave New Frontier: Training for Conflict—Theoretically—With Another Superpower

Combat exercises have pivoted from anti-guerrilla tactics to preparations for full-scale war with a nuclear-armed opponent like Russia or China.
At dawn soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division prepare for a mock assault during training exercises at Fort Johnson...
At dawn, soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division prepare for a mock assault during training exercises at Fort Johnson, Louisiana (formerly Fort Polk).Photograph by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos.

America’s military is preparing for a different kind of war. After two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting insurgents and terrorist groups who used guerrilla-style tactics, the US armed forces have a new focus: “peer-to-peer combat.” War between great nations with large militaries. War—hypothetically—with Russia or with China. Combat of the sort America hasn’t engaged in since Korea. As alarming as it may sound, every branch of the Defense Department is currently undergoing a major restructuring, reevaluating doctrine, weaponry, tactics, and training to prepare for just this kind of war. After a recent trip to Washington, DC—to help military experts workshop peer-to-peer war—Austrian army officer Franz-Stefan Gady, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told me that this new cultural and tactical pivot among the world’s major powers “could be as big of a change as going from frontier soldiers chasing Comanches to the Civil War.”

A US serviceman rests before embarking on a brigade readiness exercise at Fort Johnson.Photograph by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos.
Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division camouflaged on a training exercise at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.Photographs by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos.

As a result, Peter van Agtmael’s photos on these pages, showing recent exercises by the 101st Airborne’s Second Brigade Combat Team, don’t just document training for air assaults and ambushes (a tactic once memorably defined by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Armstrong as an “act of premeditated murder and terrorism against strangers”). At Fort Campbell, Kentucky (and later at Fort Johnson, Louisiana—formerly Fort Polk—which van Agtmael also documented), soldiers of the brigade learned to fight at night against electronic warfare jamming, against unmanned aerial systems and counterfire radars. They learned to breach complex mine and wire obstacles, to defeat enemy motorized counterattacks. “Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we oriented on high-end combat against a peer threat,” explained Colonel Ed Matthaidess, the brigade’s commander. Peers, of course, are America’s fellow superpowers.

In practice, that means thousands of soldiers operating in synchronicity to deliver overwhelming firepower. And in an era of drones and other high-tech surveillance assets to help adversaries deliver fire at long range, soldiers can’t expect to operate out of combat outposts or forward operating bases as they did in Iraq, where they could count on a warm bed and hot food more often than not. In contrast, soldiers can expect extended periods in the field, living out of a rucksack, dispersed and camouflaged in dug-in fighting positions before massing to attack.

Barely visible in camouflage, soldiers march through the forest on their way to taking an “enemy town” by surprise, at Fort Johnson.Photograph by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos.

This was not the military’s focus when van Agtmael first met Matthaidess in 2006, in Mosul, Iraq. Right then the US military was transitioning to counterinsurgency, a population-centric style of warfare in which American troops spend time patrolling towns and villages, learning the cultural, political, ethnic, religious, and economic forces of a region and, ideally, developing relationships with local leaders in an attempt to effect not simply military success but a change in the nature of the society where they fight.

The quintessential training exercise of the counterinsurgency era was the meetup with “tribal elders.” An infantry squad would patrol in an imaginary desert toward a pretend sheik and drink chai while talking about how they could help improve security in the area. Sometimes the stand-in sheik or elder was an actual Iraqi or Afghan immigrant hired to play the role with the utmost realism. In 2009, I remember sitting in a forest in North Carolina and asking a young infantryman headed to Afghanistan how his unit would succeed. “Through cultural effectiveness,” he told me, a line his leaders had clearly impressed upon him. That kid ended up in the famously violent Sangin District, where the cultural, political, ethnic, religious, and economic forces all converged on one point: murderous hostility to American troops.

Troops move in on an “enemy village” in a large-scale exercise at Fort Johnson.Photograph by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos.

The Fort Campbell and Fort Johnson training sessions included a few of their own “key leader engagements,” simulated meetings with military and political leaders, but that wasn’t the emphasis. In van Agtmael’s photos, Humvees and even soldiers’ heads are decorated with leafy branches, their goal to blend not with the local population but with the inhuman landscape. It’s a more natural and even comfortable place for professional soldiers to be—killers in hiding, not junior sociologists strolling through Murderville.

Left: A soldier, his gear meant to blend into the field of battle, prepares to “take over” a house. Right: A soldier lying “dead” after getting hit by “enemy fire” during brigade-wide training.Photographs by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos.
Battle prep entails colored smoke used to lure a unit into a would-be ambush at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.Photograph by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos.

Van Agtmael, who for almost two decades has covered combat, especially the US military at war, has documented units like this before—young kids just out of high school, eager for combat. He’s seen them turn into hardened veterans. He’s seen the bloody tables of trauma hospitals, the postwar struggles of the burned and maimed—along with their triumphs and joys—the whole life cycle of war. Yet here he was, back at the beginning, in a fresh Army unit where only one out of 20 soldiers has been to war and fewer have been in an actual gunfight. “They told me they didn’t care who they fought, Russia or China, they just wanted to fight,” he recounted, clearly disturbed that nothing these young men and women had seen or heard in their lives—lives lived almost entirely during the span of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—had seemed to have made them skeptical about who might send them to battle and why.

GIs play cards between training exercises.Photograph by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos.

What’s strange, though, is that troops training for this style of warfare are likely to face a lot less actual combat than that young infantryman touting cultural effectiveness. Since the task of the Second Brigade Combat Team is to prepare for wars against countries with nuclear weapons, the balance of power will not be decided by the number of leafy branches you stick onto your Humvee. If a truly hot war with a nuclear-armed adversary comes, we have already lost—“we” meaning not just America but the whole human race. And even in a limited war, where both sides keep their nukes in reserve, the losses will quickly become staggering.

Colonel Edward Matthaidess, brigade commander at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.Photograph by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos.

“If China fought it out, it’d be the first war since the Civil War where the US mainland was threatened,” Gady maintained. “America’s wars are never coming home to you. You always have a safe haven, like those Norman Rockwell paintings, where Thanksgiving will always be served. But China will have to hit US critical infrastructure. There’s not going to be a safe haven.”

Soldiers waiting to board helicopters to “air assault” and take an “enemy town” by surprise during a training exercise.Photograph by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos.
Camouflage covers a Humvee during nighttime drills at Fort Campbell.Photograph by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos.

And so, training a brigade of soldiers skilled in the complex American style of warfare—where units maneuver flexibly and use a combination of arms, from tanks to artillery to light infantry to close air support, augmented by up-to-date technologies and strategies—is, secretly, all about ultimately not fighting.

Which is precisely why, after these training exercises, the brigade headed to Eastern Europe, where it was the closest American force to the ongoing war, just 13 miles from the Ukrainian border with Romania. The brigade trained alongside 18 allied partners, though the point of the deployment was as much to send a message as it was to build relationships and skills with other NATO militaries. “Many of these exercises drew a Russian response in the media,” Matthaidess said, “because they feared us in the region.” Perhaps. It certainly let Russia know that America was getting ready for a potential face-off against the Russian Army. And it signaled US support, and US capabilities, to the Eastern European countries whose lands would be the primary battleground in a broader war.

Soldiers of the 101st Airborne, soon to be deployed to Europe to help train other NATO forces, take “enemy fire” in a forest at Fort Johnson.Photograph by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos.

When he was preparing to fight Russian proxy forces in the Donbas a few years prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainian soldier and writer Artem Chekh described the impact of meeting American troops like the ones Matthaidess commands. Chekh looked around at the Ukrainian infantry of which he was a part, a motley group with poor weapons and equipment, resembling, he noted, the “homeless kids of the 1920s.” Chekh himself wasn’t even wearing boots but New Balance sneakers…and he was envied for his footwear. And then there were the Americans, the perfect image of how an Army should be and how it should be equipped. “Look at their Hummers,” he gushed to a fellow Ukrainian, “look at their ammo, look into the eyes of the African American soldier with the high-tech gear.”

A nighttime mock ambush exercise taking place at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.Photograph by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos.
Soldiers “air assault” a number of kilometers away from an “enemy town” during a training exercise.Photograph by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos.

The Americans didn’t go on to actually fight the Russians, though. The “homeless kids of the 1920s” did, while from the sidelines US troops and their NATO allies offered weaponry and training and assistance with operational planning, as well as assurance to the rest of Europe that their transatlantic brother was there to keep the alliance together. Chekh, who is better equipped now but still fighting, spoke to me in May about his fellow soldiers coming to terms with the very real possibility of their own deaths in the coming months and years. Those who make it through will have many more lessons about peer-to-peer combat to teach their stateside counterparts than the other way around.

Two decades ago, van Agtmael was not so different from the young soldiers he photographed. He was obsessed with war, eager to go into the teeth of it, even if he knew there were many things wrong about that impulse. When we connect with his images—impactful and ominously surreal but also ambivalent and even untidy—it’s not in judgment so much as through the lens of his own bewildered hindsight of two decades of combat photography. He knows how this works. To do their jobs the young men in these photos need to be ready, even eager, for war. But if we ever have to fight the kind of war for which they’re training, God help us.