Military veteran: Knowing war zone’s culture important

Felix Moos, right, professor of anthropology at Kansas University, and Army Capt. Roya Sharifsoltani, of Fort Leavenworth, participate in a military-social science round table Thursday at the Dole Institute of Politics. The discussion centered on knowing the culture of the nations in which we wage war.

When Capt. Roya Sharifsoltani served a tour in Afghanistan last year, she found herself hanging out in medical clinics and schools and attending government meetings.

She visited with women’s groups and families.

Sharifsoltani, a medical officer who was attached to the 82nd Airborne Division, was a member of the first “human terrain team” of military analysts who study people and their cultures.

“We asked what their hopes and their dreams are,” she said. “We asked them, ‘What do you want us to know about you.'”

Sharifsoltani is one of several military veterans who recently returned from Afghanistan and are taking part in a military-social science round table at Kansas University’s Dole Institute of Politics. The veterans were paired with a university social science or anthropology professor who is studying their deployment experiences. The professors and the soldiers will eventually collaborate on research papers discussing how to interact with indigenous people.

By knowing the people, soldiers can better understand who their enemies might be in a war that has no front lines, social scientists say. The military also improves its chance of winning over the population from insurgents, they say.

Sharifsoltani, whose unit was deployed in provinces near the Pakistan border, had one big advantage most soldiers don’t have. She speaks Arabic.

“If we are going to be successful in separating people from the insurgents, then we better get busy learning languages and cultures,” said Felix Moos, a KU anthropology professor studying Sharifsoltani’s experiences.

Moos also noted that Sharifsoltani realized the importance of making contact with Afghans through their medical facilities.

“She was very successful in getting into the hospital setting,” he said.

The military and anthropologists need to develop more common language terms to better communicate and arrive at a common definition of how they are supposed to cooperate, Moos said.

Anthropologists also are frustrated with the constant turnover in U.S. leadership. After working with commanders and showing them how anthropology can help the military, the commanders rotate.

“We are continuously trying to play catch-up,” Moos said. “We are continuously trying to teach new people.”

Moos has been advocating better cooperation between academia and the military for decades. A renewed effort is under way at the Army’s Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth to build that cooperation, and it is supported by the fort’s commander, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell.

“What you all are doing is very, very important,” Caldwell said at the beginning of the round table. “We have the responsibility to teach officers to be adaptive leaders and to be culturally attuned.”

Caldwell also touted the opportunities for the fort’s military leadership students to take advantage of study opportunities at KU.

“KU just has a much greater density of professors with experiences we don’t have,” he said.

Final round-table discussions today will focus on foreign military officers and their experiences with the U.S. military.