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On November 4, 2008, Paula Loyd, an anthropologist embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan was killed when an Afghan man doused her with fuel and set her on fire.
A former Army Ranger working with Loyd, Don Ayala, handcuffed the Afghan, then shot and killed him.
It was the worst outcome imaginable for the so called human terrain teams, and the military push for making troops more culturally conscious.
Vanessa Gezari tells the story in her new book “The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice.”
It, Gezari also tells the history of anthropology and war, from Lawrence of Arabia and Margaret Mead to Montgomery McFate.
McFate was the child of San Francisco house boat hippies who asked, “Why can’t anthropologists study war?” She helped to start the modern day program.
Gezari says the program — called Human Terrain System — is problematic.
“The time to learn about people in the places we’re fighting is not in the middle of a war,” Gezari told Here & Now.
Sometimes the events of a single day tell the story of a war. On November 4, 2008, voters in the United States elected Barack Obama president, laying the groundwork for an expanded counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. On the same day, in the tawny flatlands west of Kandahar, a group of American civilians and soldiers set out on a hopeful mission that would change their lives and those of the Afghans they met forever. Among them was a brave and gentle woman with a Wellesley degree, a soldier’s devotion to her country, and a fierce curiosity about the world. Theirs was an anthropological undertaking, matching the audacity of Obama, an anthropologist’s son.
This book tells the story of what happened that day, and of the conception and rapid early growth of the Human Terrain System, a central tool in what was supposed to be a more culturally conscious way of war. It traces the first four years of this experiment, from its beginnings as a cultural knowledge database to fight homemade bombs in Iraq through its multimillion-dollar expansion. It follows the program through the height of American involvement in Afghanistan in 2010, when one hundred thousand U.S. troops were stationed there along with more than twenty Human Terrain Teams. For much of this period, the project’s senior social scientist was an anthropologist-cum-war-theorist raised in a radical squatters community in Marin County, California, and educated at Ivy League schools. She would become the most flamboyant evangelist for an evolving form of battlefield information known as cultural intelligence. Its director was a scrappy and unconventional career soldier who believed the Army could be cured of its ethnocentrism, and that this goal justified almost any means taken to achieve it. Yet he himself embodied a profoundly American worldview: that every problem has a solution, and that Americans can find it.
The Human Terrain System was born in the shadows of a revolution within an Army that had tried to bury the painful lessons of Vietnam. In Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers revived the low-tech practices of counterinsurgency, emphasizing the value of human contact for intelligence gathering, political persuasion, and targeted killing. The Human Terrain System was the Army’s most ambitious attempt in three decades to bring social science knowledge to the battlefield, but it was unwelcome to some American anthropologists, who believed their discipline had too often been hijacked for imperialist ends. They were right, but so was the Army.
In Afghanistan, context makes intelligence make sense. American soldiers could not possibly know where to build a school or vet tips about who was the enemy without knowing which tribe their informant belonged to, who his rivals and relatives were, where he lived, how he had come to live there, and a thousand other details that anthropologists or journalists might collect but that soldiers rarely thought to ask about. Yet here lay a difficulty. 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. The Human Terrain System wasn’t designed to tell the military who to kill. But a child could see that who to kill and who to save were questions that answered each other.
There are two kinds of military cultural knowledge. The first kind gives rise to directives that soldiers in Afghanistan should avoid showing the soles of their feet; that they should use only their right hands for eating; that they should accept tea when it is offered; and that men should refrain from searching women. The other kind of cultural knowledge, sometimes known as cultural intelligence, is what the military needs to make smart decisions about which local leaders to support, who to do business with, where to dig wells and build clinics, who to detain and kill, and when to disengage. Cultural intelligence is the textured sense of a place that helps soldiers understand how tribal systems work; how criminals, drug dealers, and militants are connected; the role of marriage in cementing business relationships and political alliances; and the way money and power move between families and villages. It was important for soldiers to understand Afghan culture so they wouldn’t needlessly offend people. But for a force with a mission to strengthen local government and kill and capture terrorists in a place with no working justice mechanisms, it was crucial, too, that Americans make informed decisions about who to protect, which lives to ruin, and which lives to take. They routinely didn’t.
The Human Terrain System was developed to help address these problems. What follows is the story of a hopeful moment when America, in the midst of two wars, sought to change the way it fights, and of a remarkable woman and her teammates, who risked everything to save the Army from itself.
Excerpted from the book THE TENDER SOLDIER by Vanessa Gezari. Copyright © 2013 by Vanessa Gezari. Reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Well, our conversation today is about how the military approaches other cultures; and the thinking, reintroduced in Iraq and Afghanistan, of embedding social scientists with soldiers. In 2008, Paula Lloyd, a young anthropologist embedded with troops in Afghanistan, was killed when an Afghan man doused her with fuel and set her afire. A former Army Ranger working with Paula handcuffed the Afghan, then shot and killed him
Now, many anthropologists had long objected to joining forces with the military, but this was the worst outcome imaginable for the so-called human terrain teams and the military's plan to make troops more culturally conscious. Vanessa Gezari tells Paula's story in her terrific new book, "The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice." But in it, she also tells the history of anthropology in war, from Lawrence of Arabia and Margaret Mead to Montgomery McFate, the child of San Francisco houseboat hippies who asked, why can't anthropologists study war? and then helped start the modern-day program.
Vanessa joins us now. Welcome.
VANESSA GEZARI: Thank you.
YOUNG: And remind us, Lawrence of Arabia, Margaret Mead, they did what?
GEZARI: Lawrence of Arabia, a very accomplished guy who had studied history and in the Middle East, walked across big chunks of that region and participated in an anthropological dig there before he became a military adviser. And Margaret Mead, in this country, and anthropologists of her era, very involved in the U.S. government's planning during the runup to and during World War II.
YOUNG: Lawrence of Arabia - Thomas Edward Lawrence - was seen as aiding an imperialist colonizer, although World War II anthropologists were seen as supporting a good war. And then came Vietnam. What happened in Vietnam that really ratcheted up this debate?
GEZARI: One thing is that the escalation of the war in Vietnam in the mid-'60s coincided with a huge growth in antiwar protests, and a lot of those took place on college campuses. There were teach-ins. And so a number of social scientists, even some who had previously worked with the government, became leaders in these antiwar demonstrations.
And there grew up this rift between - particularly, the field of anthropology and the U.S. defense establishment, although it's important to note there is some complexity there. There are some anthropologists even now working with the government and the military, and the Human Terrain System is only one way in which they do that.
YOUNG: Well, and you explain why and especially in this time that we're talking about. My question was who were planting all these roadside bombs? We don't know. There's no front lines. We don't know who's who. So who can help us know? Well, social scientists. And give us more of a sense of why this was needed, what the military didn't understand about going into people's homes, about talking to women.
GEZARI: It's important to note that this is about gathering intelligence. Programs like the Human Terrain System are about getting smarter about who is doing the killing, as well as getting smarter about things like where to dig a well or where to build a school.
So on one level there are problems of cultural etiquette, like soldiers would go into the homes of Afghans or Iraqis. How should they behave when an Afghan offers you tea? You should accept it because to not accept it can give offense, and this can create lots of problems for you. It may seem like a small thing to us, but very small things such as not taking off your shoes when you enter an Afghan home, it actually matters to the people there.
These are practices that everybody lives by, and there are reasons for them. So this is on the level of not offending people unnecessarily. There's a whole other level of kind of information gathering that this particular program was designed to address, which is connected to that, which is that if you - if the first thing you do is to not understand someone's language, not understand a person's customs, commit these breaches of etiquette, and then you begin to say, well, where are the Taliban, the likelihood is that that person's not going to take you seriously, not going to talk to you, not going to trust you.
There are all these ways in which these two kinds of information-gathering or cultural intelligence are related - cultural knowledge and cultural intelligence.
YOUNG: So it seemed like such a good idea. Why wouldn't we want the U.S. military to better understand the people that they're interacting with? But in 2007, the American Anthropological Association declared its opposition to the Human Terrain System. They felt that anthropologists were supposed to be morally and politically responsive to the people that they were observing, not to the military that might then kill some of those people when they discovered who's who.
Into this picture comes Montgomery McFate. What a fascinating woman she is. Tell us a little more about her.
She's an anthropologist, trained as a cultural anthropologist, had a very interesting, chaotic childhood; grew up in a houseboat community near San Francisco and sort of lived a wild life as a young person; but very, very smart, very good at school and was really stabilized by her success in her school; did her undergraduate work at Berkeley and then went to Yale to get her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, but didn't stay in anthropology.
She did do a dissertation for her Ph.D. on the British and the IRA. So she was already thinking about issues around conflict and war and also the relationship between anthropology and intelligence, which is something that is kind of off-limits, at least in academic anthropology, to talk about. And she was really frustrated by that.
She went to law school, and then she actually got married to an Army captain and started to think really hard as she became more a part of this military world about how what she know about anthropology could help a military that she thought was making all kinds of mistakes, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Again incredibly well-intentioned, thinking maybe I could save lives of Afghans, Iraqis and Americans if everybody better understood everybody else. But tell us more about - isn't all anthropology intelligence? The question is whether or not an anthropologist should actually work with the military because they could certainly go take your book out of the library.
GEZARI: Well, that's something I think McFate would really agree with, that all anthropology in some way can at least be used for whatever purposes the military wants to put it to. And it has been used that way historically, as she was at pains to point out in lots of articles that she wrote during the time she was building up this program.
But, you know, anthropologists would say what we do is very different. The reasons that we're gathering this information - we're not gathering this for operational reasons, and their research is often directed at asking and answering vastly different kinds of questions. So it's sort of a case of can all anthropology be used for intelligence, perhaps; but are anthropology and intelligence the same thing, not exactly.
YOUNG: Well, and another thing is that anthropologists in the field, instead of in a book, can be misconstrued as military and can be killed, as Paula Lloyd was on one of the teams that Montgomery McFate created. Up next, Vanessa Gezari will tell us Paula Lloyd's. Vanessa's book is "The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice."
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
And coming up later on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, why did former President Bill Clinton give a speech today about the Obama health care law? That story and more later on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. We'll be back with more of Robin's conversation with Vanessa Gezari next, HERE AND NOW.
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YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW, and we're hearing today about the civilian anthropologist who worked with the military in Iraq and Afghanistan to try to bring more cultural consciousness to troops. But as we heard before the break, many anthropologists were worried that they would be seen as spies for the military or be killed.
We reported on the death of anthropologist Paula Lloyd. A young Afghan man she was speaking with doused her with fuel, set her on fire. Vanessa Gezari tells her story in her new book, "The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice." Vanessa, Paula Lloyd, a Bachelor's degree in anthropology, a Masters in diplomacy and conflict resolution, experience in Afghanistan because she joined the Army after graduating from Wellesley in 2002.
Her Reserve unit was called up, deployed to Kandahar. In many ways she was just the person the military needed.
GEZARI: Paula Lloyd had an amazing background, an amazing set of experiences that made her really perfect for this job. She, as you mentioned, had an undergraduate degree in anthropology. She had served as a soldier in Afghanistan and had worked in civil affairs there, which is the military reserve unit that does nation-building when the military acknowledges doing that, which it does more and more.
So she had a lot of experience working with people in southern Afghanistan and working specifically on aid and development-related things with them through the military. She then spent several years working with NGOs and development organizations in Afghanistan.
And one of the reasons that I wanted to write about her is that their team, which was the first to go into southern Afghanistan, the first Human Terrain Team to work in that part of the country, which is the heartland of the Taliban, their team in some ways represented a best-case scenario, I think, for some of the kinds of experience and background of people you could get in a program like this.
And yet they still found themselves very quickly in the midst of some pretty terrible stuff.
YOUNG: Well, you're one of the few journalists who's been able to talk to the people behind the Human Terrain teams, the people that were on her team. You also retraced the team's steps, went to that village, went to that spot where she was doused, where her attacker was assassinated. And even you - it's still hard to put together the story of what happened because this is exactly why the military wanted anthropologists.
People will accuse others of being Taliban when they're not, maybe they're just settling a score. You have people who are corrupt. It's as if everyone you spoke to, it's that old proverb, had their hand on a different part of the elephant, and it was very hard to figure out exactly what had happened and why.
GEZARI: Yeah, that's absolutely right. And one of the things I really wanted to do in this book and one of the reasons I wrote it the way I did was I wanted to make the reader feel just how complicated and confusing that situation is and to imagine being, you know, a soldier or an aid worker or a member of one of these teams trying to figure out what's really going on in this place.
I mean in the - in one of the chapters in the book I take the reader through a series of interviews in which a number of people tell contradictory stories about why that man attacked Paula Lloyd that day. Some readers might find that confusing, like why did I put in all of these different stories and these different accounts that give different reasons for why he behaved the way he did.
Well, I did it because that's at the very heart of why the military thought it needed these teams and perhaps what people can contribute who don't come into a situation thinking like a soldier but more come into thinking like a reader or an interpreter of stories.
YOUNG: Well, in the end it's just a terrible loss of just a shining human being, Paula Lloyd. Also the members of her team that were involved in this day were in different ways destroyed. You tell their personal stories. But what happened to the terrain teams? Because you tell anecdotes of seeing teams later that didn't have the people who were trained the way she was, and they were doing things like asking why are we posting letters to communities, why don't we just drop flyers in everybody's mailbox when they don't even know that people in that community don't have a mailbox.
So the sense that the reader gets is that the Human Terrain Teams now don't even have the accomplished people that they once had.
GEZARI: Yeah, so the Human Terrain Teams are really a mixed bag. They have had some people, very few I would say, who are as qualified as Paula Lloyd, but they certainly have had people on the teams who know something about Afghanistan, who might have been to the country before, who might have some relevant experience, might even have language skills.
Those are the better teams. I mean I spent time with probably four or five different teams, often weeks at a time, and I talked with numerous other members of the program. And I was really shocked and saddened to find how few people had anything like that level of experience.
I will say that I looked for the teams that had the best experience. I asked the program to send me to the best teams, and so what I write in the book, you know, appalling as some of that may be in terms of the lack of expertise, those were some of the teams that were - that I was sent to by the program.
YOUNG: Well, you write towards the end of your book that the Human Terrain System grew - was grown too fast. Though there were bright spots in the end, it would prove less controversial for what it did than for its sheer incompetence. As you just said, it didn't have as many people, access to as many people who lived up to Paula Lloyd. There just weren't that many people with sociocultural knowledge of Iraq and Afghanistan in the U.S., and many had already taken jobs in the defense industry.
But it also sounds like incredibly well-intentioned. You meet people who still would say I think we can make war better through combining social science and the military. What do you conclude?
GEZARI: I think there are a tremendous number of problems with the Human Terrain System as it is currently constructed, not the least of which is that it flies in the face of what anthropologists and other social scientists can do in terms of the ethical guidelines of their jobs. So there are ways to I think get these people to help the military be smarter. I just don't think those ways involve sending social scientists out into the field with soldiers.
So I think this program was developed too quickly and without the right safeguards. The moment to learn about people in the places where we're fighting is not in the middle of a war. We really need to look at what we do in terms of military cultural knowledge and have some forethought and address this in a long-term way because in the next conflict, which may already be upon us, I mean look at what's happening in Syria, we're going to have exactly the same problems, and we're not going to have a good way to deal with them.
YOUNG: In other words, you're saying make it an ongoing part of the military that we know more about people around the world just as a matter of course.
GEZARI: Yes, and that we develop the programs that work and get rid of the ones that don't. And I really think this is a good moment, as we're winding down in Afghanistan, for military and political leaders to take a look at the Human Terrain System and really ask themselves: Is this the way we want to go forward?
Look, we developed this thing in the middle of a war. So now we have a moment to re-evaluate it and decide do we want to keep this, do we want to get rid of it and what other kinds of programs can we develop to have a long-term, sustained cultural knowledge base within particularly our army because we're going to need it.
YOUNG: That's Vanessa Gezari. Her new book is "The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice," a story of the military's Human Terrain System. Vanessa, thanks so much for talking to us about it.
GEZARI: Thank you.
YOUNG: Oh, and we'll have an excerpt from her book at hereandnow.org. Take a break. When we come back, we'll go beyond the soundbite in the Senate debate over Syria, after the news, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.