WSU Professor Trades Classroom for War Zone

Feb. 20, 2008

OGDEN, Utah – At the start of this semester, when most of his colleagues were passing out syllabi, Weber State University anthropology professor Ron Holt was spending his days at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, preparing to be deployed with U.S. forces in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Holt is training with other anthropologists who will be part of Human Terrain Teams (HTT), a relatively new tool in the United States military’s war on terror.

First introduced in 2006, HTT are a response to the ongoing insurgency in Iraq. The 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 that often lead to unnecessary bloodshed.
 WSU Anthropology professor Ron Holt, seen here in training last fall,
is plannning to serve as a member of a Human Terrain Team.

The teams are attached to brigades and conduct field research. The teams assist brigade commanders by providing greater awareness of the social, ethnographic, cultural, economic and political elements of native people and provide commanders with non-lethal courses of action. The goal is to reduce the risk of civilian and military casualties by having a better understanding of local cultures and to support counterinsurgency efforts.

Preliminary data on the teams are promising. According to Holt, in the Afghani regions where HTT have been deployed, shooting incidents are down 60 percent.

“Counterinsurgency is tricky in that fewer people [enemies] killed can often be a benefit to winning the hearts and minds of local people,” Holt said.

The HTT are similar to a proposal Holt put forth in a paper during the 1980s, advocating for anthropologists to advise leaders on what to do to avoid disastrous decisions, such as those made by the U.S. in dealing with Iran during the early 1980s.

“I’ve continued to be a proponent for this kind of work,” Holt said. “Now that the military is looking for teams like this, I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t sign up.”

Holt said the key to success is meeting with and getting to know the local tribes to find out what’s important to them and what challenges they are dealing with on a daily basis. “You don’t go to the president to solve these problems; you need to connect with the tribes,” Holt said.

Holt anticipates that mediation will be an important part of this assignment, along with recognizing and understanding the cultural traditions of the region, some of which date back hundreds or thousands of years.

Holt doesn’t dwell on the possible risks associated with being in a war zone, instead focusing on the new perspectives he hopes to gain from the experience. Holt, who teaches Middle East studies and has done field work in Iran, Jordan, Turkey and Belarus, is on sabbatical this year.

After completing four months of training at Fort Leavenworth, Holt will travel to Fort Benning, Georgia, and then to one of the National Training Centers before deploying. He doesn’t know yet whether he’ll be sent to Afghanistan or Iraq, or whether he’ll be with a Marines or Army unit. He would prefer Afghanistan because of his fluency in Persian. The overseas assignment will last six months.

“We’re at a pivotal point in the conflict with Islamic radical insurgents,” Holt said. “It may sound old fashioned, but I feel like I’m doing my patriotic duty.”

Human Terrain Systems is planning to deploy 26-30 teams in the next two years. Eventually teams will be sent to other conflict zones outside the Middle East, in an effort to prevent future situations like the humanitarian crisis now occurring in Darfur.

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