Beyond Basic Training

Political Science | In a conference room at Van Pelt Library, 17 U.S. Army officers paid careful attention to a soft-spoken man and his hard questions.

“Is it better to be right or to be lucky?” asked Dr. Brendan O’Leary, professor of political science and co-director of Penn’s Solomon Asch Center for Ethnopolitical Conflict.

Setting aside the debate over whether the United States was right to go to war in Iraq, O’Leary was speaking on behalf of Penn’s Middle East Center to help these officers, who have already served one tour of duty there, to be lucky when they are redeployed.

Through two days of training sessions in August and September, the Middle East Center sought to equip Army Reserve officers of the 358th Civil Affairs brigade with in-depth knowledge of Iraqi politics and society. As a government team, the brigade worked with local officials in Iraq to smooth the reconstruction. They dealt with the bare basics of food, water, and shelter, rebuilding roads, and putting children back in schools.

Because of the work’s sensitive nature, said Maj. Richard Roberts, this brigade is particularly top-heavy, stacked with senior officers who actively seek to learn more. “We get information and education through the military,” added Lt. Col. Gregory Doyle, but also want “perspectives other than what we get from government sources.”

This program gave them the benefit of four perspectives: O’Leary on Kurdish politics; David Farris, a doctoral student of political science, on regional attitudes; Deborah Harrold, professor of political science at Bryn Mawr College, on Iraqi family and tribal
structures; and Erik Gustafson, executive director of education for Peace in Iraq, on combating corruption.

These sessions are the Middle East Center’s first foray into educating the military, according to MEC associate director Kathy Spillman.

The officers sometimes stood when they wearied of sitting during O’Leary’s nearly three-hour presentation. But they remained engaged, asking questions on topics ranging from women’s rights to federalism, and answering a few posed by the professor.

O’Leary answered his first question himself: “I think it’s better to be lucky, because you get what you want even if you don’t deserve it. You can be right and still not get what you want.”

The United States, he went on to say, has been very lucky. O’Leary served as constitutional adviser to the Kurdistan government in Northern Iraq last year, and had a front-row seat to the ethnic group’s struggle for autonomy [“Hard Questions, Uneasy Answers,” September/October 2004]. “Iraq is not one nation,” he repeated. But despite flaws in U.S. policy there is still the possibility of a positive outcome, he argued. The U.S. could still get what it wants: look at the Draft Constitution, a document created by Iraqis, which promises democracy, federalism, and a republic instead of one-man rule.

Previously, O’Leary had educated other military personnel during the Northern Ireland and Somalia conflicts. “My experience with army officers is that they tend to be well-educated, but not necessarily about international relations,” he said, so he made that academic discipline his focus in this session. For a group with experience in Iraq, he was able to skip most of the basics. Drilling them on names and identities of Iraqi leaders would have been patronizing, a tone he was careful to avoid.

O’Leary also mentioned “personal codes of constraint” as one of the challenges unique to teaching army officers. Regardless of their personal feelings about the war, these officers are representatives of the military, he said, so “I can’t make cheap shots because they can’t come back” with any remarks of their own. Although O’Leary called the idea of going to Iraq to create democracy “a myth,” this self-described “pinko-liberal by American standards” reported no hostility from his audience.

The training sessions were jointly organized by Doyle, who chose four topics of particular interest to the brigade, and Spillman, who recruited professors and experts to speak about them. As a national-research center partly funded by the U.S. government, it is the Middle East Center’s duty to provide education to all who ask, be they academics, K-12 teachers, businesspeople, artists, or the military, Spillman said.

“Working with the military is part of my mandate to educate the larger public,” Spillman said. “I view this as a good use of taxpayers’ money.” She also has a personal interest—both her parents and her brother worked in the military.

Upcoming projects for the Middle East Center include a video-conference between Penn students and their counterparts in Iran and Iraq, and a visit from leaders of Iraqi non-governmental organizations for training on civil society.

Spillman said her colleagues at the center have been supportive of the military-training project. “Everyone has their own opinions about the war,” she said, “but all of us feel regardless that it is important to support our troops in this way.”

—Julia Yue Zhou C’06


©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 10/26/05


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