Book review: The Tender Soldier, by Vanessa Gezari

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 September, 2013, 10:18am

The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice
by Vanessa Gezari
Simon & Schuster
4 stars

James Dao

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other things, were stark reminders of how little Americans knew about the rest of the world. A vast majority of recruits had never left the US 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 programme 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, journalist Vanessa Gezari tells the tale of one of those front-line 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 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 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 US 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 US troops. But what began as an ethnographic database to track local tribes evolved into a US$600 million network of teams embedded with the infantry to help commanders decipher rural Afghan culture by conducting copious field interviews.

As the programme underwent what Gezari calls "a hysterical growth spurt" - from six teams to 26, in 2007 - it was criticised 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. Loyd, for one, was firmly convinced her work was helping Afghans. Her sensitivity, inquisitiveness and depth of knowledge about the country made her an ideal interviewer.

Gezari brings to life other important figures in the programme, including a former Army Ranger who was assigned to help protect Loyd and whose fate became intertwined with her death. She also provides a fascinating profile of Montgomery McFate, a colourfully quirky anthropologist reared in Marin County in California and educated at Yale, who helped create the Human Terrain System.

More important, she investigates the Afghan who doused Loyd with petrol and set her on fire. Taking no small risk in tracking down his family and neighbours, Gezari punctures initial conclusions that he was a Taliban sympathiser. 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 for The New York Times, I found little in her background to suggest an answer.

The New York Times