“The key terrain is the human terrain.” -- U.S. General David Petraeus, June 2010, during his Senate confirmation hearings to become top commander in Afghanistan.
OGDEN, Utah – Two years ago Weber State University anthropology professor Ron Holt spent a year with the U.S. Army including a tour in eastern Afghanistan. Now that experience has led to a new assignment with the military back in the States.
Holt is one of eight people nationwide hired by the Army to serve as culture and foreign language advisors. He will spend the next two years at Fort Benning in Georgia, working with military educators and developing a strategy for long-term culture and foreign language training for Army personnel.
In 2008, Holt deployed to Afghanistan with one of the Army’s Human Terrain Teams (HTT). These five- to nine-person teams, composed of anthropologists, translators and other social scientists, are embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to help bridge cultural differences and misunderstandings between native people and the military.
“In Afghanistan, when you deal with a counterinsurgency, the real center of gravity is the people,” Holt said. “How we deal with people is going to determine whether or not we are successful. As part of HTT, dealing with people in a culturally sensitive manner, we made some real friendships and averted some crises.”
After returning from Afghanistan, Holt taught some courses for the Army at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, the same base where he trained for his HTT assignment prior to deployment. The head of training at Fort Leavenworth thought that Holt’s field experience, coupled with his PhD in anthropology, made him an ideal candidate for one of the new advisor roles, and recommended Holt for the new culture and foreign language initiative.
Suddenly Holt was taking leave from WSU to pursue his new assignment at Fort Benning, which plays a key role in the war on terror and serves as one of the Army’s Centers of Excellence.
In approaching the new assignment, Holt plans to draw on his classroom experiences at WSU, as well as his stint as the director of the Honors Program, a program he helped create “from virtually nothing.”
While at Fort Benning, Holt will make short visits to other bases and military training facilities, including Fort Sill, Fort Knox, and the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, Calif. His goal is to create a strategy to heighten language learning levels and have teaching materials, websites, guest lectures and library materials in place to support the Army’s commitment to cultural awareness as a tool in maintaining the peace.
Holt said Human Terrain Teams are deployed now more than ever before.
“The Army views cultural understanding as a ‘force multiplier’ in military terms,” said Holt, who believes HTTs could avert future bloodshed. “HTTs might go to areas where open conflicts haven’t happened yet; places where problems exist but haven’t exploded. They could be very useful.”
Holt pointed out that the military has a history of being on the leading edge of things, such as desegregation and civil rights, and is constantly engaged in self assessment. He believes this latest endeavor will show how social scientists can be a powerful tool for peacekeeping.
“At the end of two years, I would like young and senior officers to have a deeper appreciation of how culture works,” Holt said. “I would hope they could go anywhere in the world and relate to situations more empathetically.”
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