A Professor’s Perspective: Dr. Katherine Carroll

VPR: First and foremost, what took you from Vanderbilt to Iraq?

KC: I came to Vanderbilt as an Assistant Dean to the College of Arts and Science in 2001. I didn’t teach in the beginning, but then it was the post-9/11 era and there weren’t a lot of political scientists who taught just specifically about the Middle East. I realized I had missed teaching and I wanted to go back to that.  However, there are a number of reasons I went to Iraq.  It made perfect sense for me to go, personally and professionally.  I was sitting in my office one day and a man knocked on my door and said, “We’re looking for people to come and join this program and go to Iraq to help teach the army about the culture.” He said, “I hope you don’t mind leaving town for a while, living with them, having an increased salary, and whatever you learn there you can use for future research.”

VPR: Regarding their culture, what were some of the specific things that you would teach them?

KC: There’s a lot that you need to know about Iraqi culture.  It’s really difficult to point out just one or two things. My concern was simply that the soldiers be constantly learning about it.  The more an American soldier knows about the environment he’s in, the more likely he’ll be able to make good decisions.  That makes him less likely to make the kinds of mistakes that have been going on. And that is crucial in Iraq.  Now, we tried to make our cultural information operationally relevant.  So what a soldier really needs to know about culture are things such as, on what day of this month are a million people going to march through my area of operations? And what are they going to be doing? And what should I look for? And how should I treat them? How should I treat people at checkpoint? When I enter a house to do a raid, what do I need to say to minimize the damage of that experience for the Iraqis? You’d think some of these things are obvious, but it’s not obvious.  For the Iraqis, when a soldier shows just a little bit of specific knowledge about their culture, it’s sometimes is met with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. That was a major aspect of my job. Helping the soldiers understand about culture, to understand their environment, but also to win over the population because the goal of the American soldier is to win that support.

VPR: It seems as though every time this discussion about Iraq comes up, someone asks, “Why did we invade in first place?” While you were there, did you ever really find out for yourself why it was or wasn’t necessary for the U.S. to invade?

KC: I don’t think it was necessary at all for the United States to invade Iraq. I had hopes at the initial invasion. Like everyone else in America I thought, “Well, I don’t know about WMD’s…maybe there’s something they know that I don’t know.” I didn’t have reason to mistrust their conclusions.  I knew that Saddam Hussein wasn’t a threat to the United States.  I could never see him align with Al Qaeda in any way. At the same time, I thought that if it turns out even just ok, perhaps the fall of the regime would be good for the Iraqis. When I went to Iraq I tried to talk to the Iraqis and see what they said about whether or not it was a good idea.  50/50 split.  Half of them felt it was a good idea, half of them told me it wasn’t.  But I’ve come away from Iraq thinking that what these people have suffered over the past 7 years…it just was not a good idea. We weren’t prepared to do it correctly, so we didn’t approach it correctly.  Their suffering and the damage that has been done to their society…it’s overwhelming.  Everyone lost somebody, in a horrible, horrible way and it will take so long to overcome the bad aspects.

VPR: Where did we go wrong? What were some of the initial mistakes, and are we still making them?

KC: Everyone agrees that we did not send enough soldiers to Iraq initially.  We failed to secure the population and they desperately needed us to do that.  When they needed us to be out among them, protecting them from each other and from militias and from Al Qaeda we were not doing that.  And, to the credit of the American army, many of them realized what we should be doing…especially the higher-ups and George Bush, to his credit.  He realized that in 2006 we couldn’t have been failing any more than we were in Iraq.  And so, he made a decision that was politically very brave, which was to increase the number of troops that we sent to Iraq.

We’ve also made errors in terms of our relationship with the population.  Our soldiers were very hard on the population and Abu Ghraib was not an unfamiliar incidence.  However, this has gotten a lot better.  While I was there, the Iraqis turned to me and said, “America’s going to leave! You’re going to pull out just when you started to figure out how to treat us properly…you’re leaving?”

VPR: Is President Obama’s plan to withdraw by 2011 feasible?

KC: I don’t think we’ll be out of there by 2011.  There will be some American soldiers left there as advisors.  My understanding is that the Iraqis need air cover.  They don’t have an air force so we will stay there for a long time.  We’ll also keep some troops there in case we need to come back again.  I don’t think we’ll need to go back in.  I think that there’s a consensus in Iraq that this is going to be one country, that they’re going to live together within these boundaries.  They pretty much agree on that.  How they’re going to do that, and how the government is going to work out is another story…but there has been a lot of progress. There has been great progress, and I was privileged enough to be there during a year when the fruits of our labor and the fruits of our exhaustion were starting to show.  It was a very peaceful year, a year when we started to turn the corner, April 2008 through April 2009. I still remember the day when we looked at the map of bad things that were happening in Baghdad and, for the first time, there was nothing.  It just kept getting better and better.

VPR: While you were there, did you notice anything that we at home are not seeing on the news?

KC: I don’t think we’re getting a good sense of the progress that the Iraqi security forces are making. America has stopped many attacks before they happened because we use forensic evidence to track down the bad guys and catch them before they carry out more attacks. We don’t see the progress that the army has made.  They have better relations with the people, even with the sectarian divide.  I also don’t think we have really grasped was exactly the soldiers are doing in Iraq.  They’re spending hours every day digging out where sewage pipes are leaking, and surveying the neighborhoods to figure out who doesn’t have electricity or clean water.  In this era of the war, they are picking the local governments and trying to connect them and make them work together.  In so many areas, that was the role of American soldiers. The incredible variation of what the American soldier does on a day-to-day basis…I think we at home have no idea.

VPR: What’s the best thing that President Obama can do for Iraq?

KC: I think Iraq needs an enormous amount of technical equipment at the local level. We need to airlift a bunch of Iraqi teachers and train them and develop technical expertise about society at the local level.  It’s not just about economic actions.  They would be political.  It would help people feel more confidence in their government and in each other. In the case of technical support to the army, that helps people understand the truth about who is a bad guy and who is a good guy.  Technology can help them see the truth and understand it and the truth can help them reconcile with one another.  This is a society that was kept in the dark.  They have no idea what’s true and what isn’t true.  We need to help them get through that. We now have a sisterhood with this country because they are our responsibility.  We did this to them, so now it’s our job to build them up.  They didn’t get a Marshall Plan.  They thought they were going to get one, but they really didn’t.  We threw a lot of money at them, but it just didn’t work out because we turned over sovereignty a little too early.

VPR: How has this war changed the way Americans view the Arab World?

KC: I think that, in terms of my students here, when they see that the army bebecame  comfortable with the Iraqis it makes them think, “Oh, I can become comfortable in the Arab World.”  There’s a wide variety of people who, for one reason or the other, now travel to the Middle East.  I think it’s a great thing that people are interested in the Middle East and Islam, because Iraq opened the door for them.  If Iraq becomes more and more successful, then we will begin to see the Middle East as a place where we can have a greater number of relationships with.  Travel, college exchanges, etc., etc.  I always told the Iraqis when they said, “America’s going to abandon us after this.  You came here, destroyed our government, we went through hell, and now you’re going to abandon us here.” I always tell them that I’m not aware of a history of any other situation in which thousands of young Americans became so familiar with the Middle Eastern culture and were so invested in the success in a country.  We had soldiers who were only about 25 years old who were literally mayors of small areas of Baghdad for a year at a time, who were familiar with all kinds of sheiks, business centers, government officials, and even what time of day the trash got picked up.  Those guys, when they come home, are going to be in business, they’re going to be in Congress, and be very successful partly because Iraq boosted their knowledge and leadership skills.  They’re not going to abandon Iraq.  There’s a generation in the military that invested in this country and knows a lot about it.  They’re going to keep interacting with the country because they’re familiar with it and understand it. I think that will make a difference for a long time.

VPR: Are Middle Easterners starting to notice the positive aspects that this war has brought or are they still fairly pessimistic about what happened?

KC:  It’s going to take a long time for the Arab World to acknowledge the benefits brought to Iraq.  That’s because, in balance, it wasn’t beneficial to Iraq.  But that doesn’t mean there weren’t benefits.  Nobody likes what happened, and nobody likes a foreign occupation.  Especially from a country that has such a bad reputation.  In general, though, Arabs like Americans.  And they would like to come over here and study, and they would like to have their society more like ours.  A vast majority of them agree with us in terms of democracy and other issues. In general, though, it’s going to take a long time for the Arab World to forgive us for this.  That being said, what I’ve learned is that the army is a learning organization.  It has the capacity to understand its mistakes and take action to correct them. Sometimes they don’t do so fast enough, or you can’t believe they made a certain mistake to begin with, but nevertheless, it was able to adjust to its environment.  I saw a lot of goodwill towards the Iraqis on part of the American military.  It was a great experience for me, as someone who doesn’t know that much about the military, to be there and try to help them towards these better relations with the Iraqis.

VPR: Will you ever go back?

KC: I’d love to go back to Iraq. The problem is that now all the jobs are in Afghanistan, which is just a little too scary (laughs).  I also don’t know anything about Afghanistan, so I don’t know what I’d bring to the table there.  But I’d certainly go back to Iraq even as a tourist in the next couple years.

VPR: As a tourist? Were you ever scared for your life while you were there? You were in a war zone, and yet you seem so comfortable with being there.

KC: I was really scared in the beginning.  But you just get over it.  If you’re going to be scared, you can’t function.  When I first went to Iraq there was another guy doing my job and he said to me right when I first got there that you have to accept your own death and then you can function there.  If you accept the inevitability that you’re going to die, once you’re ok with that then you’ll be able to function.  He was right. I went through this mental process early on, expecting that I was going to die.  Expecting it and being ok with it definitely helped me.  After I went through that, I never got scared again.  Well, I was a little scared of rockets.  For some reason that was something that I never got used to.  But besides that, I wasn’t scared.  And that both shocked and empowered me.

Interview performed by

Jadzia Butler


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