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.

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Medway native Michael Bhatia in Afghanistan, where he was embedded as a social scientist with U.S. Army units operating in the volatile Khost province. (photograph courtesy of the bhatia family)

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.

Tom Garcia and Michael Bhatia were products of that urgent endeavor, deployed to Afghanistan to work for a new and controversial Pentagon experiment called Human Terrain System. Launched in 2006, the program embeds civilian academics (like Bhatia) and former military personnel (like Garcia) with combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan, the idea being that scholars might help soldiers resolve conflicts in ways not involving large-caliber projectiles. If some of those soldiers lacked cultural perspective—the sort of blind spot that can pancake an innocent Afghan’s house—Human Terrain would be there to educate them in real time.

From the outset, though, the program drew heavy fire from academia. Anthropologists in particular saw it as a violation of basic principles: You can’t study people at gunpoint, they argued. It just won’t work. Even the name, Human Terrain, felt ominous, capturing for its critics a militaristic delusion that culture can be charted like landscape on a map.

Bhatia appreciated these concerns, and his decision to join was no easy one. (“I am already preparing for both the real and ethical minefields,” he wrote in an e-mail before leaving.) But the way he saw it, Human Terrain was an effort—an attempt—to do less harm in a war that had caused so much of it, and that was something. “All the more reason to join up right now,” he wrote soon after he arrived in Afghanistan, in late 2007, “and support those commanders who are trying to change strategy.”

Bhatia understood the vicissitudes of war and had witnessed them up close. Three months after graduating from Brown, he’d flown to the tiny island of East Timor to observe a referendum on independence from Indonesia. Caught up in the fiery chaos that followed, he found himself one night on a darkened road. He saw a muzzle flash, heard bullets snap as they spiraled past, experienced the human body’s miraculous, cartoonlike ability to recoil from danger as if on springs. Later he watched a man die, his body stitched with bullet holes as he bled out on the concrete.

And he knew from past visits that Afghanistan was its own crazy rodeo. But even by the standards of a nation chewed up by decades of conflict, the contours of this new assignment were formidable: His post, Forward Operating Base Salerno, lay in a rugged sprawl of mile-high valleys and 11,000-foot peaks home to a murky nexus of warlords, drug traffickers, low-grade criminals, and hardened insurgents, all of whom were wired into tribal dynamics so complex they could make the average grunt’s head spin.

Along with the tan Army-issued field notebooks he was forever writing in, Bhatia carried an M4 carbine for protection. He’d also practiced how to slap on tourniquets under fire, how to evacuate a rolled-over Humvee, and how to breathe life into the man riding next to him.

With any luck, he’d only have to use the notebooks. But it could turn so quickly, this beautiful ugly place.

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  • Jeanne

    Rob Wiley's visual, beautifully written story of Bhatia and his job in Afghanistan as a soldier in the Human Terrain System leaves me grateful and sad all at once. Grateful that intellectual, brave young "soldiers' like Bhatia and Garcia are involved in the America effort in Afghanistan. I am grateful that a Human Terrain team exists. I am grateful for their efforts to understand and record the human complexity of the problems in Afghanistan. And I am sorrowful at the core for the sad ending that I knew would come as I read the opening lines of Wiley;s story. The tragic, violent loss of an exceptional person with an exceptional mind who chose to use his talents to do some good on this earth, rather that for his personal gain, leave me grateful, humbled and sad. Finally, before reading Wiley's story, I did not the Human Terrain effort existed. I am enlightened and thank Wiley for engaging, important story. I would like to see a book on this subject from this inspiring writer.

  • Jeanne

    Rob Wiley's visual, beautifully written story of Bhatia and his job in Afghanistan as a soldier in the Human Terrain System leaves me grateful and sad all at once. Grateful that intellectual, brave young "soldiers' like Bhatia and Garcia are involved in the America effort in Afghanistan. I am grateful that a Human Terrain team exists. I am grateful for their efforts to understand and record the human complexity of the problems in Afghanistan. And I am sorrowful at the core for the sad ending that I knew would come as I read the opening lines of Wiley;s story. The tragic, violent loss of an exceptional person with an exceptional mind who chose to use his talents to do some good on this earth, rather that for his personal gain, leave me grateful, humbled and sad. Finally, before reading Wiley's story, I did not the Human Terrain effort existed. I am enlightened and thank Wiley for engaging, important story. I would like to see a book on this subject from this inspiring writer.