The Foreign Service Journal - April 2014 - page 66

April 2014
the foreign Service journal
Exploring Unknown
Human Terrain
The Tender Soldier
Vanessa M. Gezari, Simon & Schuster,
2013, Kindle Edition/$12.04, 368 pages.
Reviewed by Jim DeHart
On Nov. 4, 2008, in a village not far from
Kandahar, an Afghan attacker doused a
promising 36-year-old American named
Paula Loyd with gasoline and set her
afire. A teammate, Don Ayala, helped
subdue the man and rescued him from a
beating, then changed course and put a
bullet through his brain. Nine weeks later,
as Ayala awaited trial for second-degree
murder, Loyd died of her wounds.
One American life was lost, a second
changed forever, on the same day that
American voters half a world away elected
their next president. Vanessa Gezari tells
Loyd and Ayala’s stories, and assesses the
controversial program that brought them
to that Afghan village.
As members of a U.S. Army Human
Terrain Team, Loyd and Ayala were
participants in an ambitious effort by the
Pentagon to bring social science knowl-
edge to the battlefield. Gezari’s thoughtful
account of the program and its members
is founded on insights gleaned from her
time as a reporter in Afghanistan (2002-
2004) and a half-dozen return visits while
researching the book.
Ayala, a former Army Ranger and one-
time contract bodyguard for President
Hamid Karzai, was a good guy to have
at one’s side in dangerous times. Gezari
describes his journey from Afghanistan to
a federal courthouse in Alexandria, Va.,
where (spoiler alert!) he is spared a prison
sentence for manslaughter and sentenced
to five years probation.
But the heart of the book is Paula
Loyd. Gezari recalls her life with sympa-
thy and affection, hailing
her as “a brave and gentle
woman with a Wellesley
degree, a soldier’s devo-
tion to her country, and a
fierce curiosity about the
world.” After graduating
fromWellesley in 1995
with a degree in anthro-
pology, Loyd enlisted in
the U.S. Army. “Morally
and politically,” explains Gezari, “her
sympathies lay with the grunts.”
Following a deployment to Kanda-
har, Loyd earned a master’s degree in
diplomacy and conflict resolution from
Georgetown University, then returned to
Afghanistan in 2004. She first worked for
the U.S. Agency for International Devel-
opment in Zabul province, then for the
United Nations in Kabul.
When the U.S. Army launched its new
Human Terrain System program in 2007,
this remarkable young woman seemed
the ideal recruit. In counterinsurgency,
the taking and holding of physical terrain
is ephemeral; the real battleground is the
local population—the “human terrain” in
In Afghanistan, U.S. commanders were
tasked with bringing the locals closer to
their government. In the process, some
Afghans would need to be killed and
captured, and others given support. To
distinguish between the two groups, U.S.
commanders needed help untangling
complex loyalties and relationships at the
local level. Trained anthropologists like
Paula Loyd were expected to
furnish the “cultural intelli-
gence” needed for this effort.
But while Loyd had spent
most of her brief professional
life in Afghanistan working for
aid and development organiza-
tions, a startling number of her
colleagues had never before set
foot in the country. “Instead of
offering cultural expertise,” Gezari
says, “the Human Terrain System
was training recruits to parachute into
places they’d never been, gather informa-
tion as quickly as possible and translate it
into something that might be useful to a
military commander.”
While researching this book, Gezari
was dumbfounded to meet one social
scientist wholly unfamiliar with the dis-
tinctions between Pashtun and Hazara—a
most basic level of cultural knowledge
that any reader of
The Kite Runner
possess. Across the board, few of Loyd’s
counterparts seemed up to what was
indeed a profoundly challenging assign-
In Gezari’s telling, the Human Terrain
System programwas hyped from the start.
Without funding, no Pentagon program
will get off the ground; and to get fund-
ing, the benefits have to be stated in the
strongest possible terms. “Overselling is
pretty much required,” she observes. It
was never going to be easy to find scores
of Americans both steeped in Afghan cul-
ture and willing to pull war-zone duty.
The author finds deeper meaning
in the imbalance between our civilian
and military institutions. “The military
was America’s all-purpose tool: war was
America’s foreign aid; war was America’s
international diplomacy. Contractor-run
programs to help the armed forces under-
stand their new sphere of influence grew
faster than summer weeds.”
Loyd and Ayala were
participants in an ambitious
effort by the Pentagon
to bring social science
knowledge to the battlefield.
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