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.

On the Human Terrain team they called it “chasing butterflies”—the way Bhatia could glide off on a thought, so absorbed by his surroundings that he became oblivious to them. One day he and Garcia rolled out in separate Humvees to conduct interviews in a village. Their plan was to regroup before getting started, but when Garcia got to the rendezvous, Bhatia was already out talking to Afghans. When Garcia finally caught up with him, and after he’d ripped him a new one—this was a war zone, after all, and their uniforms were indistinguishable from the ones worn by soldiers, making them plum targets for any insurgents looking to squeeze off a few potshots—the only thing Bhatia could say was, “I just get so excited.”

But credit where credit is due: When it came to talking and listening and somehow filtering out the stuff that mattered, the guy was so dazzling that members of the team sometimes joked about changing the name of Human Terrain System to the Bhatia Mediation Service. Bhatia knew the country so intimately that it often seemed as though he and the Afghans were communicating on their own supple frequency.

He heard about a land dispute, kept listening, and learned how an argument over a ditch could evolve into a grudge that festers into such impotent rage that one day an Afghan decides to feed lies to the Americans so that soldiers with machine guns will go looking for his enemy. He heard a pharmacist complain about a shortage of cough syrup; Bhatia listened, and the pharmacist told him more: If a tribe does not have an elder they are like orphans. In a moment such as this, Bhatia could piece together how seemingly random murders—the killing of an elder, or the son of a former school principal, or three construction workers—were in fact assassinations designed to unravel whole communities.

He recorded the life histories of Afghan soldiers, their stories shards revealing the porcelain fragility of the national army, the one halfway-credible institution in a country rotted by corruption. (A lieutenant, griping about voluntary service and how hard it is to control sergeants without beating them: We will solve this when we separate the U.S.A. and the Afghan army.) He spoke to a district subgovernor, asked him to describe his job, asked about local power struggles, asked him to define “security” and “enemies,” asked how American soldiers might enter villages more respectfully. Then he asked the district subgovernor how many times he’d been asked these questions before: No one has done this kind of interview.

In late April, Bhatia’s outgoing brigade commander flew to Washington and informed Congress of the “exponentially powerful” impact of Human Terrain. Without the team’s insights, he said, “we would have lost double the lives.” While Bhatia might have preferred something more nuanced, something a tad less Be All You Can Be in its soldierly certainty, the gist of the commander’s testimony rang true. Bhatia was proud of his efforts in Afghanistan. And while the team’s work, yes, had been collaborative, his gift for it was often singular.

 

May 7, a Wednesday, and Tom Garcia is in the back seat of the second Humvee, wishing he could sleep, when the truck in front of him explodes.

The convoy shudders to a halt, Medevac calls go out, dirt and cordite flavor the air, and Garcia runs through the smoke thinking a million things, bracing for ambush fire that never comes. The violence passes so quickly that for a moment something like silence exists.

Garcia finds one of the Airborne guys and gets to work. Two of the others are already dead. The village they could almost see from the base where they began is now maybe three football fields away.

When the medic comes over, Garcia asks where Bhatia is. The medic just stares, so he asks again. The medic points, and Garcia goes.

“I screamed and was angry and full of hatred, certainly more hatred than I’ve ever felt in my entire life. And I leaned over and told him I was sorry,” Garcia says, “and that I was going to take him home.”

 

The news got there quickly. A soft right off Milford Street, a right and two lefts, it came to the olive house with the yellow trim at the end of a cul-de-sac in Medway. Steve Fondacaro, the director of Human Terrain, carried it himself. “He took care of everything,” Linda Bhatia says.

Nine days later, after the funeral had ended and several hundred mourners had departed the warm lavender light of the parish sanctuary, an unlikely convoy of soldiers, military contractors, and Brown grads steered onto 495 and headed straight to the Wild Colonial, Michael’s favorite bar in Providence. There they got drunk, because that’s what he would have wanted. Should the conversation have turned, though, should it have careened into the corners of a controversy that was still raw, well, Michael probably would have found tribute
in that, too.

Human Terrain System. The name negates itself. A system promises order and consistency, but a person can only try. Last fall, a Wellesley-educated Human Terrain contractor named Paula Loyd was talking with an Afghan about fuel prices when he doused her with gas and lit her on fire. A few months later, Paula Loyd was dead from her burns and her teammate, Don Ayala, was sitting in a Virginia courtroom charged with murder, having handcuffed the Afghan and shot him in the head. “I am optimistic that given the right participants,” Michael wrote the day he left, “the program has a real chance of reducing both the Afghan and American lives lost.”

The system promised what it could only hope for.

It’s been a year now, yet the house in Medway still feels alive with Michael Bhatia. He lives in his boxes of books behind the couch in the living room. The Fragmentation of Afghanistan. The Book of Military Blunder. Afghanistan. These enormous boxes of books, on which Linda now rests her binoculars, because sometimes a colorful bird will settle itself in the trees out back.

On the dining room floor are two storage crates. Here is a report he wrote for Human Terrain, a portrait of every mujahideen he’d ever interviewed, and a photo Linda keeps returning to: a swarm of Afghan boys playing on a bombed-out tank. “There’s just so much,” she says.

In his bedroom upstairs she keeps his tan waterproof Army notebooks and the watch he once wore, which still ticks on Afghan time. And there’s also a phone number stuck to her refrigerator door, 10 digits that connect her to Tom Garcia, who lives in Kansas now, not a mountain in sight, a world away from that beautiful ugly place he one day hopes to forgive. “I still feel a lot of that anger,” he says.

A few months ago, Michael’s laptop, which Linda now uses, chirped awake with an instant message. It was Jamal, Michael’s translator from an earlier trip to Afghanistan. He told Linda about the night he and Michael had spent outside in the freezing cold, how the Eagle Scout had given up his blanket, and how in the morning, when Jamal thanked him, all Michael could talk about was the incredible stars he’d seen.

Jamal hoped Linda would not hate Afghanistan, and Michael’s mother instant-messaged back: Of course not, how could I? And then she wished him peace.

 

Robert Willey is a New York–based writer.

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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.