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Professor Carroll Goes to War

by Sandy Smith No Comment

Katherine Carroll in Iraq as a civilian member of the military’s Human Terrain System team.

Katherine Carroll’s year in Iraq is bookended by distinctly different memories. In the first, she had been in Iraq for just weeks when an Apache helicopter killed two insurgents planting explosive devices (IEDs) outside the walls of the U.S. military base where she was quartered.

“The IED blew up and their van blew up too. It was just guns and missiles and explosives going off everywhere,” Carroll recalls. “I was standing in my Eileen West nightgown in a cement bunker, crying.”

The other event happened near the end of her year. Carroll was in the community of Abu Ghraib, attending a meeting with several sheiks. A suicide bomber dropped by but was too nervous to detonate. Instead he went to a nearby market and killed around a dozen people. After the explosion, Iraqi soldiers began shooting. The American soldiers were new to Iraq and jittery, too. “We didn’t yet know the full story, but we knew there was a big explosion and gunfire all around us, and my interpreter and I were sitting in the Stryker [armored vehicle] gossiping and talking about what we were going to have for dinner,” says the assistant professor of political science. “It’s amazing what you can get used to.”

Carroll with Iraqi children.

To say that a year deployed in Bagdad as part of the Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS) team was life-changing is selling it short. Not only did Carroll learn to confront fears head-on, she also began to understand the U.S. military, a topic she hopes to continue to study. While she has spent much of her career studying Middle East politics, the military was a foreign concept. That is, until a recruiter knocked on her Vanderbilt office door in June 2007 looking for professors to embed with a unit.

The program’s goal is to help the military understand the social and cultural environment of the community in which they work. Participants had to have the credentials—a doctorate in anthropology or related field—and the physical abilities, such as carrying 50 pounds of gear and enduring long work hours on very little sleep.

Carroll was intrigued, but at the time the surge had just begun and both Iraqis and the military had endured months of heavy casualties. By July, though, Iraq began to stabilize. “It wasn’t clear whether this was a real decline or just a blip,” Carroll says. “I wasn’t in a position to make a decision, but it stuck in my head that I wanted to do this. There was nothing standing in my way except being afraid.”

In her work as a social scientist, Carroll met with sheiks to learn about the political and cultural environment.

After several months of watching the attack figures decline, she felt Iraq had become safe enough, and by January 2008, she was training in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. There, with military reservists and other social scientists and researchers, she learned how to conduct social science in a war zone.

Carroll eventually separated from that team and deployed to Baghdad where she investigated various elements of Iraqi culture, society and politics at the direction of the brigade commander. “My typical day was to go outside the wire (the military base) to someone’s home and meet with political actors or leaders. Or I’d go to the Rasheed Hotel on the edge of the Green Zone and talk to Iraqis about who was who in their neighborhood, what they needed or how they viewed the political environment,” the social scientist says. “I spent a lot of time talking to sheiks and figuring out who did what and who was influential in what area, so that the soldiers would know who to work with to solve problems of security, service provision and reconciliation. Then I’d write and work on briefings until 11 or 12 at night.”

Carroll found the Iraqis understandably suspicious, but she eventually won them over, always offering a business card and sending them drafts of reports for input. After she returned to Vanderbilt, she stayed in touch by phone and email with many of the Iraqis she had met, updating them on what was occurring in her classes. “Maybe some of them initially thought I was in the CIA, I don’t know, but they came around to the view that I was who I said I was—an embedded professor—and that I really was there to help Americans understand them better as people,” she notes. “Then they’d say, ‘What a great idea.’”

Still it was a dangerous situation. Three HTS professors have been killed—two in Afghanistan, one in Iraq. Nicole Suveges, the social scientist killed in Iraq, trained at Fort Leavenworth with Carroll, and the two had become instant friends. “We were two peas in the pod. Same age, same interests. We talked on the phone every day,” Carroll says. Suveges had just been in Sadr City a month when a bomb exploded in the room where she was attending a meeting, killing 12.

The professor with her interpreter, Maha El Sadder, at a political rally.

“I fell apart,” Carroll says. “It was hard to stay after that.

My mother, who had been very nervous about the whole thing, pointed out, ‘If you leave now, the whole experience will be about Nicole dying. You will have lost your whole investment.

If you stay, it could be about something else.’”

She stayed, comforted by soldiers who knew what it was like to lose a friend instantly. “They were so supportive of me in this perfect, quiet, gentle way when Nicole died. That was a moment when I felt the military would accept me,” Carroll says.

Now she returns the favor, hoping that the Humanities 161 course opened the eyes of students. “I’m trying to help students understand how the military learns and operates so they can be more informed as citizens, patriots and/or critics,” she says. “That’s to get them more intellectually engaged with a major U.S. institution, but it’s also to say, ‘You need to learn about other cultures, too.’”

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