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.
When Michael Bhatia was 15, he dressed in his Boy Scout uniform and went to the conference room of a bank branch in Medway to become an Eagle Scout. In scouting he’d found his niche: Some guys captain the soccer team; Michael could camp out in a snow cave and never let his water freeze. Through his weekly Scout meetings at the Medway VFW he’d come to admire men like Richard Keogh, a retired Army major, and John Larney—Mr. Larney, to the members of Troop 108—a good-natured ball-buster who treated Michael like one of his own. Larney had spent four years in the Navy, including a stint on a destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin, but he didn’t talk about it much. Every year when Memorial Day rolled around, he’d pin a few extra ribbons on his Scout uniform, and that was that. Major Keogh, on the other hand, might as well have had “Old Soldier” tattooed on his lips. He’d served for decades, and when the major spoke, you listened. One summer afternoon at Scout camp in Plymouth, Michael overheard Keogh talking about the war in Bosnia, and he listened until he couldn’t listen anymore. You could almost see it, Larney recalls, the bullshit detector in Michael’s adolescent brain rising toward its upper threshold like a thermometer about to burst. When Michael’s point-by-point rebuttal had finally ended, what else could the old soldier say except, “That’s one smart kid”?
Arriving at Brown in the fall of 1995, Michael decorated his room with a U.N. flag and a framed T. E. Lawrence quotation. “All men dream, but not equally,” it began. “The dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”
A few weeks into his first semester, Michael’s mother, Linda, drove down for a visit. God blessed you with an excellent brain, she’d once told him, and you are not to misuse it. As Michael barreled out to greet her, she saw those instructions brought to new life: her boy a young man now, so charged by his surroundings that he moved through them as though shot from a pistol. In the future, some people would mistake Michael’s headlong stride for rudeness, but in fact it was a symptom of industry: Why can’t ground be covered more quickly? Why can’t a chapter be 70,000 words?
His senior year, Michael borrowed his sister’s car and drove to New York to address the U.N. General Assembly on the plight of refugees in a contested swath of African desert. “What will happen in the Western Sahara?” he asked the room. “The lessons for success and failure are readily apparent; it is only your political willingness that may be in question.”
Maybe Michael needed to lighten up.
And yet here was only half his gift. Because for all his brainy ambition, his wonk’s weakness for words like “intertextuality,” his need to see terrible things up close so that others could know their dimensions, Michael possessed a jester’s knack for buffoonery, and he embraced that as well.
He was the originator of a basketball pass so singularly uncatchable—a buster of glasses and bloodier of noses—that in certain Medway driveways it was known as “The Bhatia.” He was the dude who accidentally rammed habanero peppers down a college friend’s garbage disposal, flooding her apartment with something like tear gas. And that car he drove to the U.N.? It was a pink Chevy Corsica, and the whole trip down he cursed its pinkness, cursed the passing truck drivers in their not-pink trucks, cursed the snickering parking attendant, even though, really, he had to admit, it was pretty damn funny, him in this ridiculous pink car going to tell a bunch of dignitaries how to manage their refugee crisis.
“With Michael,” a friend says, “everything was full.”