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 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.
The dustup over Human Terrain isn’t the first time the question of scholars in war has sparked outrage. In 1919, a Boston blueblood named Samuel K. Lothrop was one of three Harvard-trained archaeologists rightly fingered by the leading light of American anthropology for spying on German interests in Central America. Lothrop, undeterred, returned for a World War II encore, using his status as an Andean-artifacts specialist with Harvard’s Peabody Museum to file invisible-ink dispatches on Axis sympathizers in Peru.
When those clandestine missions were later revealed, many anthropologists believed Lothrop and his cohorts had set a damaging precedent: Not only did they violate the trust of the people they claimed to be studying, but their actions made collusion with the military-intelligence complex seem permissible in times of war.
That precedent would reverberate for decades—from the Cold War all the way up to the ill-defined war on terror unfolding today—with anthropologists struggling to balance their ethics as scholars with their responsibilities as citizens, collectively searching for some impossible consensus. In 2006, after the CIA posted job listings on the website of the American Anthropological Association, that group formed a commission to navigate the ethical thickets of engagement with the military and intelligence communities. In March 2007, as controversy over Human Terrain erupted, the commission held a discussion at Brown University. Bhatia, who was spending the year on campus as a visiting scholar, was in the crowd.
While he understood the stakes, he also steered by his own pragmatic code. The thing that made all that information packed inside his brain worth gathering was the promise it would make a difference, not only in the halls of academia, where Bhatia’s scholarly prowess was already known, but also on the ground in lands so distant that their dire harshness can melt into abstraction. To him, Afghanistan—where poverty was the national currency and gunfire thumped like a heartbeat—looked like a place that could use all the difference it could get. Bhatia knew that by joining Human Terrain System he was cannonballing into a mighty fuss—not just a war, but an ethical tempest whose boundaries spanned the better part of a century. But he also knew himself.