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How US Army trains for a different kind of war

Counterinsurgency tactics put a big premium on winning hearts and minds. For soldiers undergoing training at Fort Polk, La., it seems to be sticking.

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– Ask Army Staff Sgt. Troy Sherlock how to win in Iraq and his unscripted response seems right out of the playbook for fighting insurgencies.

To succeed there, he says, US forces have to emphasize respect for the populace and Iraqi culture, engaging both to truly defeat the insurgency. "We're starting to realize that we're never leaving that country if we don't do it right," says Sergeant Sherlock.

Or as a junior officer summed up the training here from his perch in a Humvee beneath a stand of scraggly pines: "You have to be nice," he concedes in a sigh.

More than four years into the Iraq war, the US military's rank and file seems to have gotten the memo. Instead of kicking down doors, hard chargers like Sherlock know they must knock. This evolution is slowly changing military thinking about warfare and, if it's not too late, could change the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It all sounds so familiar, this notion that success over insurgencies comes not with guns but with soccer balls. But for many jaded Iraq war vets, the Vietnam-era "winning-hearts-and-minds" mantra was an impractical slogan in the face of roadside bombs and sniper attacks. And, with the exception of some notable military leaders, few on the front lines were known to actually believe it.

For the past few years, from less progressive generals on down to the most gung-ho privates, many in the military figured the insurgency was, as Vice-President Dick Cheney declared in June 2005, "in its last throes." So-called irregular warfare was only taking the military on a detour, and ultimately it would return to its conventional warfare roots.

Bringing up a new kind of soldier

But evidence is growing that the military's fundamental approach to warfare may be changing, perhaps for good.

At Fort Polk in any given month, thousands of soldiers undergo "force-on-force" training that trainers here say is as realistic as it gets. There are the usual scripted events that simulate car bombs and suicide bombs – and that teach must-have tactics to cope with the horrific violence that still ravages parts of Iraq.

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