1. Life & Culture

An idealist's death by fire

Vanessa Gezari
Vanessa Gezari
Published Oct. 18, 2013

In 2008, on the day Barack Obama would be elected president, three idealistic American civilians joined a U.S. Army patrol in a village in southern Afghanistan. One member of that Human Terrain System team, an intrepid anthropologist named Paula Loyd, had a seemingly ordinary conversation with a young Afghan man — who suddenly doused her with fuel and set her on fire.

That terrible attack and its aftermath are the subjects of The Tender Soldier, the first book by journalist Vanessa Gezari. She also details the creation and deployment of the Human Terrain System, an effort spearheaded by Gen. David Petraeus and others to incorporate social sciences into the military's mission — to understand and perhaps win the hearts and minds of the populace in countries where U.S. forces fight.

Formerly a reporter at the Tampa Bay Times, Gezari, 39, has also written for the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and other publications during a reporting career that has taken her to four continents and many war zones. She now lives in New York and holds the James Madison Visiting Professorship at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She will talk about The Tender Soldier at the Times Festival of Reading on Saturday.

Of all the many compelling stories you have covered, why did this one become the subject of a book?

I had wanted to do a piece of book-length journalism for a long time. It took me a lot of years to find a story that screamed out for that deeper treatment. I knew it had to be a story I could live with for several years, because it takes such a long time to write a book. I had to find a story that I was gripped by, but also perplexed by. I knew this was it by knowing how much I had to learn.

What made the attack on Paula Loyd remarkable?

In all the time I'd spent (in Afghanistan), I had never heard of a Taliban attack that looked like this. ... What drove me was the reporting in the last chapter. Who was this guy? I was going behind the veil to see what really happened rather than dismissing it as a terrorist attack.

Did you feel a personal bond with Loyd?

Absolutely. Paula Loyd had a really good understanding of the risks involved in what she was doing. But she never would have expected something like this. I realized both initially and as I was working on the book how easily I could have ended up in that situation. With a few adjustments, I've been doing what she was doing for years in Afghanistan — wearing civilian clothes, traveling with soldiers and doing interviews. I think we think of the space of the interview as a safe space; there's a sense of exchange and trust, even in war.

Why did the Human Terrain System, designed to use social sciences to help the military understand both the people they're fighting for and those they're fighting against, become such an important part of the book?

The mistake after the Vietnam War was that the military thought, never again will we fight that kind of war. If we have satellites and cruise missiles, we won't have to. But the importance of language and culture don't go away. …

These wars are not going away, these smaller, more human wars, where we're not just shooting from a distance or from drones. We're down in the dirt, in these very political wars where you're actually getting to people face to face saying, this is why you shouldn't support these guys, this is why you should choose what we support.

America is being forced to confront its role in the world. Maybe we shouldn't go in and say, we'll solve your problem. But I don't think so. It's so deeply ingrained in what we are.

What was the most difficult part of reporting or writing The Tender Soldier?

The most difficult thing was the space between what I could see as the story and getting the book to say that, the structural challenge. I know that sounds kind of unglamorous compared to being in Afghanistan getting shot at, but I've been doing that for years. That's what I do.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at or (727) 893-8435.