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.