In “The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice,” former Chicago Tribune reporter Vanessa M. Gezari looks at the Human Terrain System, an unusual program set up to help American soldiers understand the cultural context of information gathered as part of the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan over the past several years.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Gezari focuses on the case of Paula Loyd, a member of one of the civilian Human Terrain teams who was attacked in a village market while on the job. What motivated the attacker? The answers to that question turn out to be as complex as Afghanistan itself.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Gezari while she was in New York City, where she recently moved to take up a new position as a visiting professor of journalism at Columbia University. Here’s an edited version of our chat.
Q: Did you have the book planned out in advance, or did it just unfold organically as you did the reporting?
A: Nothing in my life is planned out ahead of time. (Laughs.) To give you a brief sketch: I went over to Afghanistan for the first time in 2002 as a young freelancer. I had moved to India right before Sept. 11, and I ended up staying in that region for about three years. I actually covered Afghanistan for the Chicago Tribune and other places. I had a chance to see the country at the very beginning of the war, and what the American effort looked like then. I then went away for a few years, lived back in the States, covered other things. And in 2007 I went back to Afghanistan for the first time in about four years.
Q: How had the country changed in the interim?
A: Everything that I could see was worse than I'd seen before. The insurgency was creeping back, though it wasn't at the level it has been for the last few years. The opium business was making a comeback. Earlier in the war, Afghanistan was stabilized, and there was a lot of optimism among Afghans that things could really turn around in the country.
But by 2007, a lot of those indicators had reversed. A lot of things were worse. The Taliban — we call them the Taliban, though it's a very inexact term — were taking over whole villages for weeks at a time. Opium growth was very high. And there was clearly this nexus that had developed between business people and drug dealers and politicians. And so I decided I would start paying a lot more attention to Afghanistan again, and try to figure out what went wrong.
Q: How did you land on the Human Terrain System as a subject?
A: In 2008, I left my job at the St. Petersburg Times and became a freelance journalist, moved to D.C. and wrote some pieces for the Washington Post. An editor there assigned me a story on this little program that had started recently called the Human Terrain System. It had seemed to me, the very first time I started hanging out with American soldiers in Afghanistan, that they didn't really understand the context in which they were operating. They didn't know how to read between the lines, culturally, to understand what Afghans were really telling them. And that wasn't surprising. They were infantrymen, and they weren't trained to be cultural experts. They were trained to destroy the enemy. And so they were having a tough time separating out who were the bad guys, as they called them, and who were not.
So I was very interested when I started learning about this Human Terrain program. The premise of the program was, "The Army is not very smart about the cultural context of Afghanistan, and they need to get smarter, and fast." These were civilians — social scientists, or people with social science backgrounds — who would go out with soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and would kind of operate as cultural translators. They taught the soldiers what you might call cultural etiquette. And they helped the soldiers understand, when they were getting attacked, that they shouldn't just assume that this was the Taliban out to get them. There's a lot of violence in Afghanistan that has more to do with the old arguments — between tribes, between families, even between neighbors — than it does with the Taliban versus the United States.
Q: But the story had an unexpected twist.
A: Yes. I started working on this story in 2008, and right about that time, an amazing and terrible thing happened. The first Human Terrain team was sent out into the field in Afghanistan, in west Kandahar. I was supposed to embed with them, spend some time with them, and then this terrible thing happened, which was that one of the team members, Paula Loyd, was attacked, very viciously, in a market where she was interviewing some villagers with the rest of her teammates. So I wasn't able to spend time with the team, because the military said I couldn't go anywhere near that unit for a while.
But I read about what had happened, and it struck me as a very unusual kind of attack. And I started asking questions about what had motivated this attack, and what happened, and why. And since that was a lot of what this program was set up to understand, I found it interesting that they didn't understand what had happened to one of their own. So I went to Kandahar and began trying to figure who this guy was, who had attacked Paula Loyd, and why he had done what he'd done. And in the process of writing the story for the Post, I realized that this program was such an interesting vehicle for talking about what America had tried to do in Afghanistan, and also what we had failed to do. I decided that it needed to be bigger than a magazine story, and that's how it became a book.
Q: The phrase "Human Terrain" is interesting, by the way.
A: General David Petraeus started using that phrase, "Human Terrain," in his speeches. He talked about the fact that it's the human terrain, the hearts and minds you want to win, in counterinsurgency. It's not so much about eliminating bad guys, although that's part of the equation. When I talked to him, he said you cannot fight a war without knowing what the economic situation is in the place where you're operating, what the tribal tensions are, who lives where, what the history is. And these were all things that the military hadn't been focusing on.
Q: I think some people might hear about the program and think it's kind of touchy-feely or New Agey.
A: Well, you're right, it is touchy-feely. But you have to put yourself back in the moment when this program was being developed. It was a moment of intense soul-searching for the Army, which had gone into Afghanistan and quickly ousted the Taliban and thought, "Well, we've won that conflict."
And then they invaded Iraq, and within a year, found themselves in a really horrific situation with insurgent attacks, soldiers getting killed. And they had no idea why it was happening at the time. They weren't even allowed to call it an insurgency; Donald Rumsfeld said it was a few bad apples or something. So it was a moment of second-guessing and second thoughts, for the United States and the military, particularly the Army. And Petraeus was looking for a way to make the Army more touchy-feely, to use your word. And there was an incredible surge of optimism about what the military could achieve if it could loosen up a little bit.
Q: I imagine some people didn't like the program.
A: It was very controversial among civilian social scientists, particularly anthropologists. Part of the problem for them was that the program had been developed by a cultural anthropologist who had moved away from anthropology and become more of a war theorist. Cultural anthropologists don't want to be involved in America's wars and have a lot of ethical concerns about going into the battlefield with the military to gather information about people that might be used in military operations. That's not why cultural anthropologists are doing their work. They don't do their work to further a particular policy. They do it because they don't understand the human condition.
Q: In the press release for your book, it's described as a "thriller." Is it a thriller? And how do you feel about that word in this context?
A: Well, I didn't write that copy. But the book is, in a way, a kind of murder mystery. Part of why I wanted to write it that way (is because that's how) it unfolded for me as a reporter. I also wanted to write it in a way that would draw readers who aren't necessarily experts on Afghanistan, and who may have been perplexed by our policy in Afghanistan and the shifts in that policy.
We've been very mercurial over there. I've watched it for over 10 years, and we have not maintained a constant policy at all. It's easy to be confused, because it's a complicated place and a faraway place. I fear that our journalism often hasn't conveyed the depth and complexity and intrigue of what's really going on over there, or what it means to us as a nation. I wanted to write the book in a way that people who don't know much about Afghanistan could be drawn to it on the basis of its story and the characters. I wanted to add to the conversation about the war, because this isn't the last time we're going to go to a place like Afghanistan and do the kind of things we've been doing there.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.
"The Tender Soldier"
By Vanessa M. Gezari, Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $25