The Tender Soldier

August 25, 2013

The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice
Vanessa Gezar
(Simon & Schuster, $25)

The military’s Human Terrain System operates on the seemingly irrefutable premise that soldiers need to understand the enemy and its culture. But the implementation of such a program is problematic in places like Afghanistan, where its difficult to discern friend from foe.

ows_1376599673268On the day Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, a social scientist named Paula Loyd, while on patrol in an Afghan village, approached a local man, Abdul Salam, who was carrying a jug of gasoline and attempted to engage him in a conversation about the price of fuel. It seemed like a fairly routine part of her mission.

But Salam, who was considered friendly to American forces, suddenly splashed gas on Loyd and set her ablaze; while she was burned horribly, the rest of her team acted quickly, immediately submerging her in a nearby stream. She was quickly evacuated by helicopter and attended to by a burn specialist, leading to some initial optimism, she died two months later in a San Antonio hospital.

Salam was immediately handcuffed, but when it became apparent that Loyd’s injuries were life threatening, he was shot dead by Don Ayala, a US military contractor and former Army Ranger. (In 2009, Ayala pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges in connection with the killing; he was fined and given probation.)

And while the Taliban — which has a history of immolating women they deem immodest (Loyd was blond and American, which may have been enough) — claimed responsibility for the attack, Salaam seems not to have been connected to them. His family insists he was simply crazy.

Loyd’s tragic story bookends Vanessa Gezari’s The Tender Soldier, a history of HTS and its activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gezari questions the efficacy of the program, which grew out of a collaboration between “an obscure Navy anthropologist” with the Dickensian name of Montgomery McFate and Hriar S. Cabayan, a physicist serving as the Pentagon’s liasion with the scientific community. Cabayan had been assigned the task of combating the plague of improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan, and thought that one way to do so was to educate officers on the ground in local customs and culture.

In 2005, Army Col. Steve Fondacaro and McFate devised the idea of a five-member team —a leader, two social scientists and two research managers — that would be attached to a military units undertaking counterinsurgency operations.

While like a lot of books about the U.S. military and its supporting bureaucracy, reading The Tender Soldier requires a bit of patience and possibly a cheat sheet to keep track of the acronyms, yet at its heart Gezari raises some important and deeply intriguing questions about the way knowledge translates into power and its potential for weaponization. It operates both as a case study of a anthropological endeavor and anthropology itself.

It’s also a welcome and empathetic portrait of the well-meaning people at the heart of the Human Terrain System and their difficult and dogged attempts at resolving what are often dismissed as intractable conflicts.


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