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.
In the fall of 2001, Bhatia arrived at Oxford on a Marshall Scholarship. Perhaps feeling insufficiently challenged by his pursuit of a master’s degree in international relations, he was also finishing his first book, War and Intervention.
At Oxford, Bhatia’s mind, which already spun faster than he could type, began to accelerate. Over the next several years he wrote or edited more articles and policy reports than friends could keep straight. By 2006, Bhatia, now 29 and pursuing his doctorate, was juggling his epic dissertation with a second book, Afghanistan, Arms and Conflict, which, true to form, merged exhaustive fieldwork with small mountains of survey data and scholarly literature. “One of these days I’m going to pick up the complete Michael Bhatia collection,” a buddy from Brown says. “Hopefully by the time I’m 60 I’ll have read half of it and understood a third.”
A few months before he flew off to join Human Terrain overseas, Bhatia published a three-part photo essay on Afghanistan in the online magazine the Globalist. Although he’d been writing for a decade, he’d never done anything quite like this. Gone were the chewy academic phrasings, the cool scholarly remove. Here he recalled the Afghan security guard who’d shoved a neatly folded poem into his hands, and the silk trader who’d shared his life story over green tea and molasses treats. He conveyed cruel entrepreneurship in the form of a young girl hauling engine parts through the Khyber Pass, getting beaten by a Pakistani border guard with rubber hoses, and then returning to Afghanistan for another piece of the engine. And he described how the country changes when you strap on a flak jacket and climb inside an armored SUV, the short hop to the airport suddenly feeling like a sprint through the same hostile territory that had repelled Persians, Mongols, Brits, and Soviets. “These stories and pictures say nothing conclusive about Afghanistan,” he wrote. But inconclusiveness was his point. These stories and pictures existed, and now others could see this place as he did: shattered by three decades of constant siege; often bleak and armed to the teeth; sometimes cruel, but also resilient; despairing, but also desperately hopeful.
Bhatia understood Afghanistan by now, understood its beautiful, broken, endless complexity, its violence and its sweetness. Understood he could never know such a place completely. Understood that he must try. After he was gone, these stories and pictures would help others understand why he’d left.