YOU may have spotted a group of Army majors in Swindon the other week.
They’re on a course at the Defence Academy in Shrivenham, and were in town for a strategic planning exercise.
At first glance Swindon might seem an inappropriate location for people to practice skills they’ll eventually have to use in potentially hostile foreign environments, but I reckon it has its merits.
One of the first things a new commander on the ground has to deal with, for example, is disorientation. Now then, as anybody who’s had an out-of-towner over to visit for the first time knows, we specialise in disorientation.
If the roundabouts don’t get the newcomer, our tradition of assigning house numbers at random almost certainly will.
Who among us hasn’t had the frisson of sadistic pleasure that comes with gazing pityingly on some poor lost soul. “Oh, I see where you’re going wrong, mate. It’s number 26 you’re after, which used to be called number 31. It’s at the end of the cul-de-sac between number 19 and number 947a.
“Mind you, that’s not in this part of the street, which ends at number 12. You’ll have to go to the other part of the street, which resumes three miles across town.”
Our constant building of new housing developments helps us simulate the out-of-date paper maps and satellite plans that are the bane of senior officers’ lives.
As we like to say here, it ain’t Swindon unless your satnav’s crying for its mother.
All too often an officer will seek out a site shown on charts as a field or a village, only to be confronted by improvised shelters or even a chemical weapons stockpile.
If you substitute “semi-detached” and “ideal chance to get on the property ladder”, you can have pretty much have the same experience here.
In fact, if the new development is built on or near the site of something old and industrial, the “chemical weapons stockpile” aspect might be authentic, too.
Come to think of it, if the neighbourhood’s shops and schools have yet to be built because no-one’s quite got round to it, there should also be some authentically bewildered natives clamouring for chewing gum, nylons, books and whatnot.
Still on the subject of roads, the ones in foreign war zones often have cracks and holes. Sometimes these holes are caused by neglect, while sometimes they’re huge and manmade, the result of desperate, uncoordinated attempts to restore gas, electricity, telecommunications and other basic infrastructure.
Infrastructure in general often suffers because of widespread confusion among officials over who’s supposed to be doing what, when they’re supposed to do it and who they need to liaise with in order to get it done efficiently.
So plenty of authenticity there, then.
Another issue faced by soldiers in urban situations is the potential volatility of the locals.
What the occupying force usually finds is that the overwhelming majority of the population are kind, decent, intelligent, thoughtful and civilised, while a small, unpredictable minority will erupt for no apparent reason.
Obviously, it’s very difficult to simulate such a challenge in any British town in peacetime, but future expeditions from the Defence Academy might try attending certain pubs and clubs and then lightly bumping into people.