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Humanities and the military

Middle Eastern Studies scholars trained soldiers bound for Afghanistan in a recent role-playing language and culture workshop at Camp Mabry.

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Sgt. Jeremy Couch and two fellow Texas Army National Guard soldiers enter the home of an Afghan family looking for information about escaped prisoners.

In one corner, they see a Quran and a prayer rug. In another, a pair of rifles.

Almost as soon as the soldiers sit down, they are besieged by demands for greater security. Thieves, the men of the house tell them, have been stealing their livestock.

The women hover anxiously, frequently nudging and whispering to the men. Couch, a stocky soldier with bright blue eyes, attempts to assuage the family’s fears while also trying to suss out information on the criminals at large. Neither group is satisfied.

The soldiers finally leave.

A spontaneous burst of applause jolts everyone back to reality: a low-slung cinder block building at Camp Mabry in Austin where the soldiers are participating in a training exercise for their upcoming deployment. The “Afghans” are Middle Eastern Studies students at The University of Texas at Austin. Members of the audience — faculty and staff members and several other soldiers — offer a critique of the soldiers’ behavior.

The role-playing sessions came at the end of an intensive weekend-long language and culture workshop conducted by the College of Liberal Arts’ Department of Middle Eastern Studies and Center for Middle Eastern Studies for soldiers who will soon be deployed to Afghanistan.

Christopher Rose, outreach director for the center, and Adi Raz, Clinical Assistant Professor in the department, worked with Texas Army National Guard leaders to facilitate the training for the 20 soldiers on topics as diverse as the languages of Afghanistan, Islamic law and safety concerns in Kabul.

The goal, Rose says, was to prepare troops for deployment and lay the foundation for future collaboration between the university and the military.


Soldiers observed the role-playing exercises. After each exercise, they would offer a critique. Photo: Brian Birzer

At a time when the study of humanities has been criticized as “being irrelevant fluff that has no real-world application,” Rose says the workshop demonstrated how valuable the university’s academic resources are.

“This is a good chance for us to be right at the forefront,” he says. “We take our mission as a resource for defense, national security, quite seriously. …This is probably the most direct way we can impact defense, and it’s a great example of how relevant we really can be.”

In the eyes of Maj. David S. Burger, Deputy/Joint Training and Exercises Chief, who helped coordinate the Camp Mabry training, the resources provided by the students and faculty are critical to the military’s mission in Afghanistan.

“In a profession that prides itself in mitigating risk and providing battlefield multipliers, this type of training gives both of these to our leaders,” Burger says. “By teaming up two of Texas’ elite organizations, The University of Texas and the Texas Military Forces, we have ensured that the best training will get to our state’s most precious resource and give them the best chance of success.”

The workshop, which took place on the first weekend in November, was coordinated with the National Security Education Program (NSEP). Rose also enlisted the help of scholar Alam Payind from Ohio State University’s Middle East Studies Center who provided insight from his recent trips to his native Afghanistan.

“UT language and area study programs, particularly the Department of and Center for Middle Eastern Studies, have a long standing collaborative relationship with NSEP when it comes to training in critical languages, broadly considered a national priority,” says Esther Raizen, Associate Dean for Research in the College of Liberal Arts and a former chair of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies.

The military would normally have to send soldiers to a training academy in Monterrey, Calif., or to Jordan to participate in such a program, says university alumnus Christian Glakas who worked with Raizen on a Department of Defense grant exploring collaborative training projects across Texas and acted as interpreter in the workshop’s role-playing sessions.

Military training exercise

A soldier shakes hands with a Middle Eastern Studies graduate student volunteering to help with role-playing exercises. Photo: Brian Birzer

“Although many of the participants had been exposed to Islamic culture during previous deployments to Iraq, only one had been to Afghanistan before,” he says. “All of the participants seemed intent on learning as much as they could about Afghani culture because they knew that this information might help them accomplish their mission more effectively.”

Such cultural understanding has sometimes been lacking, according to Rose. Even after 10 years of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, he says he hears about soldiers who “still have questions about what to do when entering mosques, what to do when entering homes — can you step on a prayer rug? Can you move a Quran?”.

The soldiers at Camp Mabry appeared to know the answers to those questions. They sought to balance cultural sensitivity with military protocol. After the first role-play session in which three soldiers entered the home of a Muslim cleric and removed their boots, as is custom in Afghanistan, the other soldiers watching express concern.

“We didn’t think the boots should have come off,” 1st Lt. Chris Yauger says.

“If you do that, you have to have a security force outside,” adds Couch.

A Middle Eastern Studies graduate student wearing a red and white keffiyeh and a black robe for his role, jumps in: “If you can’t take your boots off, what are you going to do?”

Yauger suggests avoiding the prayer rug. Everyone nods emphatically.

There are other lessons learned from role-playing: Make eye contact with the locals even when talking through an interpreter. Don’t refuse food — at least not the first time — and when you decline, put your hand over your heart. Be aware that some things get lost in translation.

After some discussion, Rose claps his hands and announces the next scene. The soldiers and students take their places and try again.