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.

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.


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.”

Oh, snap.

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.”


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.