American soldiers fighting a counterinsurgency. The enemy using hit-and-run tactics. Troops struggling at times to determine who was an ally or an enemy.
But we’re not talking about Iraq. Try a century and a half earlier, when soldiers fought off attacks by Indians at Fort Steilacoom.
The similarities between the two conflicts drew 30 members of the 402nd Brigade Support Battalion, a unit of Fort Lewis’ 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, to the grounds of the old fort – today Western State Hospital in Lakewood – on Thursday.
"Believe it or not, the stuff they’re using here – counterguerilla tactics – is not much different," said Lt. Col. Steve Allen. "It’s history, but we can take this and apply what we’ve learned here today to the conflicts we’re facing today."
Thursday’s trip off post began with a tour of the grounds and talks about the history of the fort and the tactics the soldiers used to combat the Indians.
The blurred line between friend and foe resonated with Capt. John Louch.
"There are some examples of how they had to deal with not necessarily knowing who the enemy is," he said. "Not all the Indians were enemies; many of them were friendly to them. You go over to Iraq, and it’s the exact same scenario."
In the afternoon, the soldiers participated in the same sorts of drills a 19th-century soldier would undertake.
A few of the soldiers donned the bright blue uniforms adorned with gold buttons that was standard garb for troops of the day. They carried replicas of muskets while they marched in formation. Others practiced assembling and breaking down a pack howitzer, which earned its name because the ease at which troops could remove the cannon from its wheels and transport it on animalback.
"It’s good to see the Army back on post," said Gideon Pete, the president of the Historic Fort Steilacoom Association.
Many learned about the skirmishes with the Indians for the first time. Second Lt. Stephen Gardner grew up in Shelton, but apart from a state history course in high school, he hadn’t learned much about the history of Fort Steilacoom.
"That was just a course on the Pacific Northwest, and we didn’t really go over this too much," he said. "I thought this was really interesting. And it’s always good to read about something but then get out and see where it actually happened."
The soldiers seemed to relish a chance to get off post and do something different. Several tried to keep things relaxed, like First Sgt. Keith Taylor. He cracked up his colleagues during a formation march. When they were ordered to halt and shoot, he held his replica musket sideways.
Others in formation and some watching laughed, but none more so than Taylor.
"I’m from L.A., so I can get away with doing that," he said.
And they ate a lunch straight out of the 1850s – meat and potatoes, navy bean soup and hard tack bread.
"The bread was so hard, you could use it to build a house. Or maybe throw it up in the air and shoot it with your shotgun, like a clay pigeon," said Louch, adding that it became much softer when he dipped it in his soup.
Not that Army food has improved much since antebellum days.
"It still beats and MRE," Taylor said.