The Theory and Practice of War
Acclaimed Scholar Michael Bhatia signed up for the Pentagon’s controversial new Human Terrain program believing he could help the Army wage smarter battles. He also knew that in war, not everybody makes it home.
Tom Garcia wants to sleep. It’s hot inside 70 pounds of gear and body armor, and the Humvee rumbles a gruff lullaby, and the road—which isn’t much of a road, which makes it like every road they’ve bumped along this week—fills the air with sandy blond dust. Off in the distance are jagged peaks of the sort that redefines his concept of mountain-ness. Afghanistan, he thinks, such a beautiful ugly place.
Garcia wants to sleep, but the ugliness keeps him awake. Kept him up half the other night, too: One minute he and partner Michael Bhatia were sipping tea with Afghan soldiers just inside a limp ribbon of concertina wire; a few hours later they were crouched in the darkness outside their tent, rifles slung at their sides, ears bent to the whistle and thud of falling mortars, waiting under stars like gems for an attack that never came.
Now they’re in a column of four Humvees en route to conduct interviews in Sabari, a combustible sliver of Khost province. Khost’s being one of the more volatile regions of Afghanistan makes Sabari a kind of sore within a sore—a place where shit meets fan at alarming velocity. Normally Garcia rides in the lead truck, but this morning the mission’s commanding officer asked if Bhatia could ride point, said they had some stuff to go over on the drive. Garcia said it was Bhatia’s call, and Bhatia replied, Yep, no problem, ready to go. “No hesitation,” Garcia remembers.
So here they are. May 7, 2008, a Wednesday, around 11 a.m. It’s a short trip, no more than five kilometers, 20 minutes tops, and Bhatia is 50 meters out in front, riding with four soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne. In the back seat of the second truck, Garcia wonders if Bhatia is fighting the urge to sleep, too.
War had made unlikely buddies out of Garcia and Bhatia. Garcia had spent 16 years in Air Force intelligence, and he spoke with a mellow Texas twang. Bhatia was a hyperarticulate Ph.D. candidate with a fondness for argyle socks. But different as the two were, they’d bonded like brothers. In six months working together, Garcia had shown Bhatia how to carry himself in a war zone, and Bhatia had shared with Garcia, well, just about any thought that careened through his head.
The guy’s brain idled in fourth gear. A 31-year-old scholar from Medway, an honors graduate of Brown and a doctoral candidate at Oxford, Bhatia fused book smarts (anthropology, media studies, history, political science) with a decade of field experience in rough places (Western Sahara, Kosovo, East Timor).
And argyles notwithstanding, he was no stranger to Afghanistan. Five visits in the past six years—on research or consulting trips under the auspices of groups like England’s Overseas Development Institute—had made Bhatia an expert. He’d already interviewed some 350 Afghan combatants for his dissertation, a single chapter of which once clocked in at a book-length 70,000 words, and now he carried that unfinished opus on a keychain flash drive, hoping to find a few minutes at the end of his 14-hour days to chip away at it. Honestly, though, he could have rolled over it with a Humvee and not lost a word, seeing as how it was all crammed inside his head. “I mean, sit down and grab a six-pack,” Garcia says, “because you’re going to be there for a while once he gets going.”
Following 9/11, the American military had pulled off an impressive cakewalk in Afghanistan, routing the Taliban in a span of weeks. By 2004, however, Taliban fighters had returned, ambushes had spiked, and suicide bombers (once unheard of in Afghan culture) had begun pouring in. Two years later, illusions of stability were gone, deaths surged by a factor of four, and the same military found itself grasping for solutions to a war in which its prospects, most days, seemed ready to crumble like fine mountain shale.