The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other things, were stark reminders of how little Americans know about the rest of the world. A vast majority of recruits had never left the United States before deploying for combat, and even many field commanders were clueless about the people they were expected to live among, protect and kill.
Enter a multimillion-dollar Pentagon program to address the problem. With Iraq descending into civil war, and the Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan, the military began recruiting civilian social scientists to help commanders understand the tribal forces they were trying to pacify. With typical utilitarian inelegance, the Pentagon called it the Human Terrain System.
In her new book, The Tender Soldier, journalist and former Tampa Bay Times reporter Vanessa M. Gezari tells the tale of one of those frontline social scientists, a soldier turned anthropologist named Paula Loyd. Iconoclastic, adventuresome and abundantly idealistic, Loyd studied at Wellesley before stunning her friends by enlisting in the Army, where she developed a love affair with Afghanistan. After leaving the military, she continued working there as an aid official before landing what seemed like a tailor-made job, as an anthropologist on one of the military's new Human Terrain teams.
It is not giving away too much to say that Loyd was killed, and that her murder — she was attacked in Kandahar on the day that Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 — makes for a riveting first chapter. But that is just the entry point for a broader tale. As Neil Sheehan's Bright Shining Lie did with Vietnam, Gezari's deft if less sweeping narrative dissects the hopes, hubris and shortcomings of U.S. efforts to nation-build in Afghanistan while fighting a war there.
In Gezari's telling, the Human Terrain System started as one of the Pentagon's many stopgap attempts to counter the roadside bombs killing or maiming so many U.S. troops. But what began as an ethnographic database to track local tribes evolved into a $600 million network of teams embedded with the infantry to help commanders decipher rural Afghan culture by conducting copious field interviews.
Never mind that many of the social scientists had never studied Afghanistan or been in the country before. The concept dovetailed with the revival of counterinsurgency strategy, which had moldered in the Army's bin of discredited ideas until David H. Petraeus, then a three-star general, updated the field manual in 2006. That new doctrine became the infantry officer's bible for fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As outlined in the doctrine, counterinsurgency was to be a rigorously nuanced sort of warfare. Small-unit commanders were expected to become diplomats in dealing with village elders, and teenage soldiers were asked to show restraint in targeting the enemy. Ideally COIN, as it is known for short, called for a different kind of intelligence, not just high-tech eavesdropping but also a deeper cultural sensitivity to the people the soldiers were trying to defend, or hunt down.
In the Pentagon, the program experienced what Gezari calls "a hysterical growth spurt," from six teams to 26, in 2007. But in many corners of academia, the system was criticized as an abuse of social science. The small wars envisioned in the counterinsurgency doctrine are, after all, still wars. And to many social scientists, it was far from clear whether the information gathered by the teams was intended to build Afghan civil society, protect civilians or kill insurgents.
As Gezari points out, it was probably a mixture of all three.
"Cultural understanding was a tool that could be used for saving or for killing, like the knife that cuts one way in the hands of a surgeon and another in the grip of a murderer," she writes.
Loyd, however, remained firmly convinced that her work was helping Afghans. Her sensitivity, inquisitiveness and depth of knowledge about Afghanistan made her an ideal interviewer. But too many of the Human Terrain Team "experts" were anything but. One man, Gezari reports, had never heard of the Hazara, an Afghan minority group; a woman pretended to be a medic to gain villagers' trust.
"There were bright spots, but in the end, the Human Terrain System would prove less controversial for what it did than for its sheer incompetence," she concludes.
Gezari brings to life other important figures in the program, including a former Army Ranger who was assigned to help protect Loyd and whose fate became intertwined with her death.
More important, she investigates the Afghan who doused Loyd with gasoline and set her on fire. Taking no small risk in tracking down his family and neighbors, she punctures initial conclusions that he was a Taliban sympathizer. But in the end, like so many things in Afghanistan, his motives remain frustratingly unclear.
It is a testament to the book's strengths that it left me wanting more. Why, for instance, did Loyd — a punk-rock-loving, anti-establishment civil-rights enthusiast — enlist? Having covered the military for years, I found little in her background to suggest an answer.
The book also skims a bit too quickly over what Gezari calls "anthropology's tortured relationship with intelligence and war," which predates Margaret Mead's work supporting Army planning in World War II.
"I'm not a fan of war," one of Loyd's college anthropology professors tells Gezari. "But I also think the military is in a very difficult box, and people are trying to do the right thing." A deeper exploration of that ambivalence might have shed light on another tortured relationship: that between academia and the military in the post-Vietnam era.
But overall, Gezari's book powerfully humanizes the ways the counterinsurgency effort played out in Afghanistan. And it arrives at an important moment in the debate over the doctrine: As Iraq recedes in the nation's rearview mirror, and a final withdrawal from Afghanistan looms, the military again seems prepared to shrug off counterinsurgency as a distraction. Yet it does so at its own peril: Unconventional wars against insurgencies and nonstate entities seem certain to remain on the nation's threat horizon for years to come.