The U.S. Army launched a program during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to have academics and scholars advise them. Did it work? John Kael Weston considers the evidence in Vanessa Gezari’s new book, The Tender Soldier. Plus: read an excerpt.
In early 2009, about midway through an assignment with the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, I received an unexpected message from a top military leader in the Pentagon. He had read my diplomatic cable sent to Washington detailing the situation, a street-level view, in Baghdad’s largest slum, Sadr City. I had briefly referenced the work of a deployed social scientist, part of a vast program designed to insert anthropologists and the like into the war zones to help commanders better understand local dynamics. It was called “The Human Terrain System.”
The officer wanted to know my blunt views on the program in order to share with others at headquarters. He seemed skeptical, asking me if forward-deployed academics were value-added. It was a loaded question with complicated answers.
Years later, there is now a welcome book that provides a fair and convincing assessment. My short reply at the time contained a mixed report card for the program based on only narrow interactions with frontline anthropologists.
Reporter Vanessa Gezari’s The Tender Soldier is an engaging and well-timed nonfiction account with tragedy at its core: a gruesome, unprovoked attack in Afghanistan that led to the death of an idealistic but conflict-zone-savvy Texan named Paula Loyd, whose story needs to be told, and the author deserves credit for seeking it out. While seeking to gain a better understanding of a district in Kandahar Province, an Afghan that Loyd had been talking to inexplicably doused her with fuel and set her body aflame, causing injuries that would prove fatal. The book explores whether experienced anthropologists or pseudo-social scientists recruited in a rush, many of them filled with good intentions, should be deployed alongside combat troops, and what happens when they are.
With a journalist’s discerning eye for nuance, Gezari brings readers into this controversial gray area, framed within the larger, just as murky, context that has come to define the distant wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By its final chapter The Tender Soldier addresses head-on the unrealistic expectations—and limitations—of a war-weary superpower. She shows how hard it became to disentangle tens of thousands of American troops from the countless dusty villages that thousands of us “over there” called home, at least for a while.
The book details how a well-intentioned and quixotic cadre of true believers hatched the program’s master plan. The group found key advocates in upper military echelons, where four-star generals almost always get what they want. And did. The anthropologists, some credentialed—a majority not so much—were hired in battalion-sized numbers, quickly trained, and deployed as commanding officers’ oracles of cross-cultural wisdom. That was at least the pitch, which went mostly unrealized, according to Gezari.
The main characters Gezari follows alongside Loyd include other expeditionary American civilians, including a former bodyguard for President Hamid Karzai and an ex-U.S. Army interrogator with a conscience. They too were employed in the Defense Department’s HTS program, which Gezari describes as “an anthropological undertaking, matching the audacity of Obama, the anthropologist’s son.” Once elected, this new commander in chief escalated troops and civilians into the Hindu Kush war zone, but alas, with limited lasting effect beyond yet more dead and wounded.
Gezari seamlessly knits together this backstory and highlights the dilemma and ultimate policy quicksand: troop commanders found themselves in the middle of two insurgencies at the same time fighting on behalf of a disconnected home front as opinionated members of Congress, who at least showed up in dangerous terrain, perfected fly-by war-zone visits demanding “victory.” So they sent out an SOS. Help us understand them, those Iraqis and Afghans, better ... and pronto. It will save American lives. Politicians, columnists, and op-ed writers deployed behind keyboards wanted “wins” and commanders wanted to reduce KIA and WIA counts as insurgent roadside bombs proliferated. While Iraqis and Afghans simply wanted basic security for their children as they walked to the new schools the Americans were building or repairing from battle damage.
Could those with doctorates in anthropology and other related disciplines from the academy, and particularly some of the most qualified, come to the military’s rescue? Was that even possible or desirable? The pool of Iraq and Afghanistan experts was small.
Colonels and generals made the case within the Pentagon, albeit amid some skeptics, but not Gen. David Petraeus, one of the program’s loudest cheerleaders. By then, his cultivated personal brand was at its mid-war peak and the media-savvy Army general helped redefine the U.S. military mission into broad counterinsurgency. COIN had become his sacrosanct realm. “P4”—as Petraeus was informally known and credentialed with his own Princeton Ph.D.—would tell Gezari in an interview, “If you don’t get it about this stuff, you don’t get it about counterinsurgency.” And so Pentagon-contracted private industry paid exorbitant $300,000-plus annual salaries for these new civilian recruits. They became part of another war ... another racket. (U.S. ambassadors and top generals make less than two thirds that amount.)
Gezari recounts how the fully-credentialed side of anthropology, led by those tenured at leading universities and their members-only professional association, pressed the “… but should they be over there?” question as teams of high-priced, applied social scientists shipped off to remote outposts. These doubters raised concerns about being co-opted by the military. They advocated that ethical boundaries within the profession be respected, even while often failing to concede that some eminent anthropologists had been awarded Pentagon research grants during prior wars.
Before long, there was a newly constructed bureaucratic HTS empire. Its total budget allocation would amount to over a half a billion dollars. The program began to teeter under the weight of its own outsized expectations, questionable staffing decisions, and naivete. One of the founders of the effort, Montgomery McFate, a Berkeley- and Yale-educated anthropologist, is described this way:
[McFate] would come to see anthropology as a ‘natural’ practice for soldiers, and to view war itself as a kind of anthropology. She was drawn to the paradoxical relationship between empathy and killing: that you had to know your enemy to fight him effectively, but that knowing him also made you love him. In her dissertation, McFate had asked whether ‘good anthropology’ might lead to ‘better killing.’ It was a dangerous question but, for her, a necessary one.
Much of the program’s money would be wasted, amid moments of legitimate insights—some military leaders point to improved understanding of Pashtun tribal dynamics, for example—but also MASH-like farce. Gezari’s recounting of a “medical” outreach visit among Afghans living near Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province is alone worth the price of the book. A preview: the scene involves cough drops, a bag of vitamin C tablets, and a tin of Carmex, among other things, that prompts an Afghan to ask: “That’s all I get?”
Gezari’s writing stands apart from other depictions of our post-9/11 wars. Shelves have been filled with bestselling reverential SEAL, Delta Force, and sniper tales sold as memoirs. Other books contain well-written, crafty (all hail Hemingway) fiction based on troops’ tours. A few additional authors have conscientiously penned the wars as researched or imagined or mythologized—but not as lived. It is the loud, gung-ho accounts among them that fall short most glaringly, pitted with inaccuracies or lessened by inflated hero-worship. Gezari perceptively writes that “in these books, as never in the real war, a reassuring morality guided the cosmos, a sharp and unmistakable line separated good from evil.” SEAL Teams and Special Operating Forces do not always only get the bad guys in the mud compound “kill houses” they raid in the midnight hours as silent drones overhead cross darkened “Pashtunistan” skies.
The image on the cover of the book—soldiers staggered and enveloped in gray mist—is the perfect visual preview. None of the usual answers are to be found in Gezari’s almost uniformly accessible chapters. One titled, “The Anthropology of Us and Them,” is particularly insightful. It explores anthropology’s connection to past wars and uses for intelligence gathering. For instance, the Bureau of Ethnology targeted Native Americans in the 19th century. Gezari also reminds readers about Washington’s ill-fated “Project Camelot”—a U.S. Army-funded program designed to assess the likelihood of revolts and insurrection in Latin America that became “a running joke among Latin Americans.”
Occasionally, the book’s flow is disrupted by an overload of tangential biographical tidbits that seem unnecessary, such as an aside on Nietzschean philosophy or the odd reference to the doomed pioneer Donner Party. The revolving flux of idiosyncratic secondary characters, caught up in counterinsurgency jargon, is also at times distracting. Such detours are rare amid fluid, precise prose. The truth is a blood-red fog bank rolled over all of us in Iraq and Afghanistan and never lifted. The Tender Soldier conveys this based on firsthand experience and a balanced thoroughness.
While Gezari writes a dominantly American-centric story, she incorporates key Afghan perspectives. Her book exemplifies the persistence of a war-wise reporter who filed from frontline locations, seeking out sources in sketchy areas, often unescorted by U.S. military personnel. One telling section describes a successful effort to speak to the family of the Afghan who attacked Loyd with fuel and a lighter, leading to the third-degree burns over much of her body, charring both cheeks—the wounds that ultimately proved fatal. The perpetrator was killed by one of her colleagues, a bullet to the head, on the spot. Gezari tracks down his father, who simply states, “That American did an illegal deed. When my son was handcuffed, he killed him.”
An American federal judge presiding in northern Virginia interpreted the act differently.
A final personal note: I met two of these frontline “anthropologists” charged with learning the Afghan and Iraqi “human terrain.” They were a couple of quiet Americans sent overseas in the middle years of the wars. By then, a Marine mindset had sunk deep in me, whereas they seemed vulnerable, and understandably so. It takes several close calls month-after-month to get truly hardened, or numb, in places like Fallujah, Khost, or Helmand. Neither fit in.
One of them, based in eastern Afghanistan’s Khost Province, sat in a corner chair during my weekly security meetings with the provincial governor, police chief, intelligence boss and Afghan army leaders in a former fort with two-foot thick stone walls. The bearded civilian, a Marshall Scholar and Oxford graduate, had the studious look of a pre-tenure professor, with ears tilted toward the Afghan side of the table, pen and notebook in hand. That was a good sign. We all noticed. The other lived in a barricaded outpost in Sadr City, a sprawling slum bisected by a concrete blast wall erected during heavy fighting between U.S. Army soldiers and Shia militia members. The slight, bespectacled 20-something knew the neighborhood better than I did or any diplomat at the American Embassy.
The anthropologist in Khost, Michael Bhatia, died in a roadside bomb attack on May 7, 2008, aged 31. I never heard what happened to the other.
Upon returning to Fallujah in early 2009 (where I lived for almost three years between 2004-07), a city-council member who had been close to the Marines and me asked a straightforward but unexpected question:
“Do you Americans remember us?”
He had lost a foot and lower calf to a “sticky” bomb attached underneath his vehicle a few months earlier. Insurgents attacked him because of his ties to us.
Paula Loyd, a one-time Wellesley College and Georgetown University student who drove a UPS truck on the side, knew the Afghan people well enough to remember them, so much so that she kept going back to the country. For most of us, however, we remained anything but anthropologists. Americans talked more than we listened, rushing around the war zones, looking for personal exits, alive and limbs intact, as our politicians broadcast a national departure, the hastier the better. Iraqis and Afghans, our collaborators, would be left on their own.
Loyd succumbed two months after the attack, in early January 2009, while being treated in the burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center in her native Texas. She was 36 years old. Gezari notes the Bexar County medical examiner’s office declared Loyd’s cause of death as “complications from conflagration.” The manner: homicide.
And what exactly was Loyd’s mission in Maiwand District in Kandahar Province while on anthropological foot patrol? (It coincided with the U.S. presidential election day in November 2008.) Gathering information about local goods for sale in order to develop a targeted Consumer Price Index (CPI). It was on this “frontline” near a streambed, on a dusty street, that she conversed with the Afghan who would ignite her body in flames.
The Tender Soldier is a testament to two women. The book’s main subject and its author both devoted themselves—like real anthropologists—to listening, recording, and understanding the stories of the “other.” Iraqis and Afghans have more in common with us than we might think. Let’s hope Vanessa Gezari is offered a full-time byline in a national newspaper or magazine, one that continues to send bold, talented, and committed reporters to places few others still venture.
More hidden war stories need to be revealed, retold, and remembered—more storylines about them, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, amid all the ones we rush to record about ourselves.