'The Tender Soldier': Sending social scientists to a war zone

Vanessa M. Gezari's 'True Story of War and Sacrifice' details the Human Terrain System in Afghanistan

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Like its title, "The Tender Soldier" hints at oxymoron. It's about the Human Terrain System the U.S. Department of Defense deployed, first to Iraq and later to Afghanistan, and about how that noble, if naive, experiment has failed. It's a lean, troubling book about the chasm separating American aspiration and execution, a chasm harrowingly deep in Afghanistan.


By Vanessa M. Gezari
Simon & Schuster ($25).

The Human Terrain System was the Department of Defense's attempt to humanize military intelligence by inserting researchers trained in social sciences into the war zone, particularly around Kandahar, from 2007 on. In compact, vivid prose, Vanessa M. Gezari examines the interaction among independently contracted HTS teams, the U.S. military, the Taliban, and the war-weary Afghanis HTS was supposed to help.

Ms. Gezari effectively intersperses the specific and the general, alternating chapters about the psychology of HTS members with the history of and commentary on the deeper political backdrop.

Like the terrain Kathryn Bigelow explored in her similarly laconic and clear-eyed 2008 film, "The Hurt Locker," Ms. Gezari's is rugged and bleak. People expecting a bow tying the history of this obscure Afghanistan misadventure together with hope will be disappointed. But those seeking insight into the mindset of the U.S. military will be enlightened.

At the core of the book is a horrific event that occurred on the very day Barack Obama was elected president. On Nov. 4, 2008, Paula Loyd, a social scientist with HTS, was set on fire in Chehel Gazi, an Afghan village. Don Ayala, a member of Loyd's team, fatally shot Abdul Salam, who had doused Loyd. Loyd died two months later from the severe burns.

Salam was handcuffed at the time he was shot. Ayala was charged with murder and eventually sentenced to five years' probation. He served half that time but as a felon, Ms. Gezari writes, is worried he can't get full-time work.

By recounting that incident through numerous eyes, based on conversations with HTS personnel, the military and Afghanis, Ms. Gezari weaves a disturbing web that speaks to the question at the heart of her book: How can the U.S. wage a war and build a nation at the same time?

"Program development within the Pentagon is an exercise in circularity," she writes, explaining the rapid growth of HTS. "An idea needs money to develop into a program, but it can't get money without stating in the strongest possible terms what it hopes to accomplish. Overselling is pretty much required."

Later on that same page, she adds: "But the problem with the Human Terrain System was bigger than that. It had everything to do with the contradiction between the United States' self-image as a benevolent superpower and the realities of war and the economy that drives it."

In a key chapter, "The Devil You Don't Know," Ms. Gezari tells of her reporting on site. She wore a burqa to blend into a society in which women keep to the shadows and, accompanied by Pashtun journalist Muhib Habibi, interviewed various tribal elders in Maiwand, where the HTS team was based.

Their stories about Salam, Loyd's assailant, and his milieu varied in detail and approach, suggesting how hard it is to nail down the truth in Afghanistan.

"If people in modern, developed countries use stories to master the violence that occasionally disrupts their carefully ordered lives, imagine the power of stories in a place where the better part of reality is constantly open to interpretation.

"In Afghanistan, hard facts are exceedingly difficult to come by," she writes. "Official accounts are not written down and bound into books that say the same thing every time you open them. ... Afghan stories don't just order the world; they remake it."

A fine and fearless journalist, Ms. Gezari unmoors fiction from fact in "The Tender Soldier," a cutting, empathetic exploration of cultures clashing in a war that may never end.


Carlo Wolff is a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News (carlo.wolff@gmail.com).


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