Point of View

UNC, Baghdad and reasons for post-war optimism

February 7, 2014 

In his new memoir, “Duty,” Robert Gates reflects on his experience while serving as secretary of defense for both President Bush and President Obama. While the book has received notoriety for its candor about infighting within Washington, I was most interested in his highly personal accounting of his experiences in Iraq and his thoughts on the future of the Middle East.

He states: “The absence of democratic institutions, the rule of law and civil society in virtually all Arab states – and the challenges facing secular reformers – do not provide much reason for optimism.”

Later, Gates adds: “ The challenge of the early 21st century is that crises don’t come and go – they all seem to come and stay.” As he points out, it is an echo of Gen. David Petraeus’ famous quote early in the Iraqi war, “Tell me how this ends.”

I was in Baghdad last week on my 10th visit to Iraq since 2004 to help initiate a two-year grant funded by the U.S. State Department and the Iraq Ministry of Health to strengthen medical education in Iraq. Building on our longstanding relationships with Iraqi colleagues, our objective is to improve their medical education system by recognizing that medical learning should be lifelong. Physicians will travel monthly from the United States and Great Britain to teach and demonstrate new surgical techniques made possible with newer technology. We will also teach staff from Iraq’s Ministry of Health to accredit these courses so that Iraq can conduct its own continuing medical education courses by recognized standards. It is very much a collaborative effort.

We all recognize that their best hope for a better future lies in their capacity to develop an improved civil society, one that has devolved over the last 40 years.

The second part of our grant is to reform the curriculum of their 23 medical schools. We are fortunate that here in North Carolina, the University of North Carolina School of Medicine has recently finished designing a new curriculum model, the first phase of which starts this fall. Dean Bill Roper likes to point out that the world has changed drastically since the current U.S. system of medical education was put into place in the 1960s. Simulation labs using computerized mannequins to practice surgical techniques, team problem solving and online learning are part of the innovative teaching processes UNC has adopted.


The timing is incredibly fortuitous for us, and so part of our mission this past week was to use part of our funding to facilitate a relationship between UNC School of Medicine and the University of Baghdad School of Medicine and to transport what we’ve learned to Iraq.

UNC faculty were kind enough to help with our presentation, which was enthusiastically received and approved in Iraq, and we are hopeful we can work out the logistics to allow the partnership to grow in a part of the world where the logistics are never simple.

The U.S. combat role in Iraq ended Aug. 31, 2010, but as Gates noted in a speech he gave on that day, “We still have a job to do and responsibilities there.”

So I guess the short answer to the question of how U.S. involvement ends is that we don’t know. But I do know that our striving to help Iraq and other countries in the Middle East is ongoing. We were reminded last week of the many consequences of conflict as our attention was directed to an outbreak of polio in Syria and fighting 35 miles away in Fallujah as both refugees and violence spill over from Syria into Iraq.

With all of our military bases, National Guard and Reserves, overseas conflicts inevitably involve troops from North Carolina. The most memorable impression of Robert Gates’ book is his love for these troops and his belief that all of us should do what we can where we can to prevent the sorts of crises that often take our soldiers far from home.

Randall W. Williams, M.D., is an ob/gyn in Raleigh.

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