Home » FeatureSpring 2010

War in the Classroom

by Sandy Smith No Comment

The Iraq War wasn’t even over and Arts and Science students were studying it.

Imagine learning history, politics and international law from the very people who made it.

That’s what students enrolled in Humanities 161–The Iraq War experienced in a very tangible way.

Over the course of the 2009 fall semester, class speakers ranged from former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley to the retired Army officer and West Point professor who literally wrote the book on the counterinsurgency strategy. Students were captivated by details of efforts to keep detention facilities from becoming breeding grounds for insurgency and of a soldier’s fight to stay alive. They heard of new military strategies and major mistakes that provided future lessons.

But not all of the firsthand experience came via guest speakers.

The course was taught by Katherine Carroll, assistant professor of political science, and Michael Newton, professor of the practice of law at Vanderbilt University Law School, both of whom served in Iraq in two very different functions.

Newton, former military attorney and noted expert on international war crimes, helped establish the Iraqi High Tribunal, which was responsible for the trial of Saddam Hussein. He trained Iraqi jurists and assisted them during the trial. Enemy of the State, co-written with fellow expert Michael Scharf, is considered the definitive account of the events leading up to Hussein’s execution.

Carroll served in Iraq from 2008-2009 as an embedded civilian political scientist and part of the military’s Human Terrain System team.

Michael Newton (blue shirt)

Michael Newton (blue shirt)

Personal Accounts in Real-time

“In my opinion, this course is education in its highest form precisely because it allows students to bring their assumptions and their inferences and challenge them in light of experiential and empirical data that we have exposed them to,” Newton says. “This course tremendously broadens their understanding and experience.”

Katherine Carroll

It also offered students the opportunity to apply their understanding to media reports and stories as they appeared. “They’re hearing about Afghanistan in the news, but they’re thinking about the lessons of Iraq, which is exactly what the policymakers are doing, too,” Carroll says.

Carroll began formulating the class while still in Iraq. She proposed it as a Humanities 161 offering, which covers current events in a team-taught, interdisciplinary manner and presents guest lecturers. An endowment from an anonymous donor funds a budget each year to bring in speakers from around the world for the course. Previous topics have included the 2008 presidential election, Hurricane Katrina and Sept. 11.

The Iraq topic benefited, Newton believes, by being able to hear directly from key decision makers so soon after events happened.

“You have to study it close enough in time that you can do what we did, which is give students the actual participants,” Newton says. “If you teach it in three or four years, it’s much more difficult to get the firsthand sense of what really did happen.”

Munqith al-Faroun, the Iraqi deputy prosecutor at Saddam Hussein’s trial, with Newton.

Also adding to the value of the course is that Newton and Carroll were able to rely on personal connections to land the speakers.

“One of the most moving days for me was when we had some noncommissioned officers talk about staying alive and about changing how they operated over time to be more sensitive to the Iraqis,” Carroll says.

Change in Strategy

Six years into the war—and with a plethora of lessons learned—students also heard how tactics have changed since the early days.

“Rick Skidis had been in the Army for 22 years and speaking to the students at Vanderbilt was the last thing he did in his career in the Army. I hadn’t anticipated how great that day would be,” Carroll says.

General David H. Petraeus speaking to Vanderbilt students and visitors.

The veteran solider told students, “We used to raid houses this way: kick the door down, tear everything apart, then leave.” Then, Carroll relates, he talked about a change. “‘As we learned about the counterinsurgency, we folded the clothes up that we tore out of the cupboard and made the bed again.’ If you really want to know what the counterinsurgency meant on the ground, here was a guy telling you exactly how he worked to implement it.”

That direct knowledge made the course special, says Medora Brown, a senior French major. “I think it is easy for so-called armchair academics to investigate issues within a bubble,” Brown says. “And the most important thing we’ve learned in this class is that nothing can be understood without knowledge of the context—an observer can’t comprehend the workings of the current Iraqi government without understanding the Iraqi Constitution; the constitution can’t be fully understood without knowing the societal divides, which, in turn, require at least a cursory knowledge of the history of Islam.”

Former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley (center) with Vanderbilt Law School professors Ingrid Brunk Wuerth and Newton.

War’s End

Getting that broader view also has shifted opinions. From the outset, Carroll and Newton intended the class to focus on the military and legal perspective—not devolve into a political discussion of right and left.

“Before this class, I had literally no insight on the military’s experience in Iraq,” says Wyatt Sassman, a senior political science major. “All I had was the hearsay of friends and stories from the media, which can be rather misleading. While my political stance on the war has not changed, this newer, concrete source of information helped clarify any preconceptions I previously had and challenge any misplaced opinions.”

Carroll says that the course was designed not only to follow a natural progression of the war, but also to answer lingering questions that she had after she returned from her year there. “My main regret for this class is that we have not heard from any Iraqis,” Carroll says. “The speakers that we had planned fell through. It was hard to get them here from Baghdad and that’s too bad.”

Despite that shortcoming, having two professors with their own knowledge of the topic provided a rare credibility. “While it is good to study about a particular situation or event, it is somewhat rare to find people who have helped shape the outcome,” says Matthew Fillmore, a senior political science major.

Carroll and troops in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib region in 2009.


Main photo (top): Major Larry E. Porter Jr., public affairs officer, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), during a visit to The Iraq War class at Vanderbilt.

photo credit: Daniel Dubois, Joe Howell

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