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Bridging the gap

Wednesday, April 8, 2009 | 5:00 p.m. CDT
Personal effects once belonging to Michael Bhatia are seen in the Bhatia family home in Medway, Mass. Bhatia, an academic, was killed in Afghanistan in May 2008 while working for the Human Terrain System program. The personal effects, including a notebook with entries from Afghanistan, background, and two identification patches, were sent to the Bhatia family by the U.S. Military following Bhatia's death.

MEDWAY, Mass. — On the overcast New England morning Michael Bhatia came home, nearly 400 of his colleagues, family and friends turned out to meet him.

Seven months had passed since Bhatia, a 31-year-old scholar in international relations from Brown University, hefted his pack across the tarmac at Fort Benning, ready to begin his sixth journey to Afghanistan.

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Every trip had come with risks, but this one was the toughest to explain. No one questioned Bhatia's commitment to Afghanistan, but many disagreed sharply with the way he'd chosen to pursue it.

"I am already preparing for both the real and ethical minefields," he e-mailed friends, hours before boarding.

Bhatia was joining the Human Terrain System, a Pentagon experiment to re-engineer the battle against Afghan and Iraqi insurgents by teaming soldiers and scholars. Human Terrain set off a war of its own in the academic world: Critics, particularly anthropologists, argued that Human Terrain researchers could not serve two masters — that they risked betraying the people they studied by feeding information to the military.

Bhatia disagreed. But the only way to know, he told friends, was to see for himself.

Even skeptical colleagues looked forward to the conclusion of his journey: If anybody could thread the ethical minefield, it was Mike.

Now, after months of waiting, Bhatia had brought colleagues from campus and the combat zone together in the same room.

They filed slowly from the oak pews of St. Joseph Church, out into the midday chill.

On the front steps, they stood shoulder to shoulder as a lone bugler sounded Taps.

The bespectacled "Professor" was home, but the gray silence offered none of the answers he'd promised. Instead, there was only the ache of the unanswerable: Why?

'An idealist and a realist'

In the fall of 1995, during his first week at Brown, Bhatia hung a United Nations flag across his dorm room wall. That winter, he and friend Chad Stockham took a road trip to Dartmouth College, where Bhatia — who was studying Russian — spent a weekend pretending to be a Kazakh exchange student.

"He created the Borat character 10 years before Sacha Baron Cohen did," Stockham said.

There weren't many students quite like Bhatia. Friends admired his smarts, the way he'd run his hand back through dark, wavy hair while discoursing on the Middle East or the military. They were amused by his eccentricities, the way he'd walk around with sandals in the wintertime.

Walk past a used bookstore with Mike and there was no escaping a trip inside that could last for hours. This was a man who once wrote a 180-page report when the assignment called for 20.

"On the one hand he was very much an  intellectual, very much an academic," friend Seth Resler said. "On the other hand, he'd come over and we'd drink beer and play Halo until 2 o'clock in the morning."

On a campus with clashing factions of students backing Israel and Palestine, he was one of the only people who had good friends in both. At Brown's Watson Institute for International Studies, director Jarat Chopra was taken with the young man whose interest in international conflict went beyond wanting to do research.

"There are many intelligent students, but he was someone who already clearly was going to be able to connect an intellectual environment with a practical environment," Chopra said. "He was an idealist and a realist."

When Bhatia graduated in 1999, he traveled to newly independent East Timor with Chopra as UN observers and to Kosovo, to supervise elections.

Inside his first book, published in 2003, Bhatia thanked his family "for their tolerance of long absences and distracted residences."

The defining absences were spent in Afghanistan, where Bhatia first traveled a month before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He kept going back, logging one to four months at a stretch. Sometimes he walked alone, observing life in streets and marketplaces. Other times, he hired a translator for interviews with 350 combatants, the centerpiece of his research on the roots of the nation's long history of conflict.

From inside their Humvees, American soldiers too often saw Afghans as threats. But in his wanderings, Bhatia discovered Afghanistan's "daily life next to and within conflict."

"There are, in fact, many different Afghanistans," he wrote.

Years later, Chopra would recall Bhatia's passion. Once, his protege gave him a photo of Lawrence of Arabia; an all-too-telling quotation was printed inside the frame.

"The dreamers of the day are dangerous men," it read, "for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible."

"Indeed," Chopra wrote, "Bhatia had the makings of a most dangerous man."

A new kind of war

In December 2005, the Pentagon sent Col. Steve Fondacaro a new and unlikely tool — a heavy-duty laptop on which experts had attempted to map Iraq's human landscape.

Fondacaro was the commander in Iraq for the military's Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization — a bid to fight deadly insurgent bombings with new types of intelligence and tactics. And this new computer was the work of a former Rand Corp. anthropologist named Montgomery McFate who argued that war against hidden insurgents demanded an understanding of local cultures.

The Pentagon dispatched the laptop to Diyala Province, where a brigade combat team from Ft. Carson, Colo.'s Fourth Infantry Division, confronted a rising Sunni insurgency. But Fondacaro quickly rejected it, concluding that the computer alone was essentially worthless.

Sending in the laptop was "like handing the brigade commander a whole library full of books. He needs answers. He doesn't need books," Fondacaro said. "It was just a tool. ... Only humans can solve this human problem."

The Pentagon was arriving at much the same conclusion.

In 2006, the military ordered a new test, assembling five teams pairing military specialists with civilian social scientists and deploying them to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Human Terrain teams would work like anthropologists, interviewing tribal leaders and villagers in war zones to decipher the tensions, fears and needs that might build support for enemy fighters.

The program — which has so far deployed 27 teams — mirrored a shift in military thinking, reinforced by two prolonged wars.

Fondacaro, who retired from the Army in 2006, was recruited to lead the program, trying to win the skeptical hearts and minds of academics and military leaders.

Fondacaro says McFate warned him in advance to prepare for a different kind of battle.

"Get ready," he recalls her telling him. "You're trying to bring together the Hatfields and the McCoys."

The tipping point

The Defense Department's interest in social science renewed long-held suspicions among academics. Those misgivings date back to at least World War I and revelations that the Office of Naval Intelligence recruited four U.S. archeologists as spies to aid in its search for covert German submarine bases.

The divisions deepened with the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and elsewhere in southeast Asia, as it became clear the U.S. military had combed through the writings of anthropologists, without their knowledge, for insights it might use to counter insurgents.

When the Central Intelligence Agency began advertising job openings in the American Anthropology Association's newsletter in 2005, it dialed up the skepticism.

"Now is arguably the most dangerous and critical moment in history," AAA President Alan Goodman told members at the group's annual convention the following fall. "If anthropology is to collectively figure out its role in building a more just world, it needs to act fast."

Mike Bhatia walked straight into that debate. In July 2006, he returned to Brown's red brick campus above downtown Providence, assigned as a visiting scholar to an office on the third floor of the Watson Institute. That fall, Bhatia's research partners asked him to attend an Air Force University conference examining the military's newfound interest in the social sciences.

Talk at the conference, in a hotel near Alabama's Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, made clear the military's interest in culture was "coming to a tipping point," said Tracy St. Benoit, an anthropologist who had already signed with what would become the Human Terrain project.

The universe of people working in military social science is small. St. Benoit had heard about Bhatia's work in Afghanistan and sought him out. They talked for nearly four hours over dinner, adjourning to the hotel bar to discuss the idea of defusing insurgency by putting social science to work in the war zone.

"Why don't you come and do the same thing I'm doing?" — he could pursue professional and personal goals, and make a difference, St. Benoit recalled telling Bhatia.

Back in Providence, Bhatia talked enthusiastically about the conference. But at Brown, as at other campuses, professors like Catherine Lutz thought the military's attempt to harness academic brainpower threatened to cross a line.

Lutz — daughter of a Navy veteran and a researcher on cultural training in UN peacekeeping missions — was outspoken in her criticism of the Bush administration's approach to war and attempts to make scholars part of the military's campaign.

"One cannot help a mistaken mission and make it better, it it's wrong from the get-go," Lutz said in a recent interview, when she declined to speak about Bhatia.

But Bhatia, sifting through the information he'd heard about HTS, was following a different line of thinking.

In late January, he called Fondacaro about the Human Terrain program.

"He just knew about Afghanistan ... about how complex it was. He was flat brilliant," Fondacaro recalled.

From the beginning, Bhatia and other Human Terrain social scientists were told explicitly that they would be going out on patrols, and that the missions could be dangerous, McFate said.

But when a recruiter from BAE Systems — the contractor that staffs civilians for Human Terrain teams — contacted Bhatia, he offered a job with limited risk, "embedded with the Brigade Combat Team but not accompanying the BCT on patrols."

"The HTS team would stay in the 'Green Zone' and collect information from returning BCT patrols," the recruiter wrote in a Feb. 14, 2007, e-mail to Bhatia. McFate said that job description was wrong, and that Bhatia knew that.

On a long walk around Providence's East Side, Bhatia tried to reassure his sister he'd be safe. He left the impression, Tricia Bhatia said, that he wasn't going to be leaving base all that much. "I think when he got there it became a very different story."

A few weeks later, an anthropological association committee examining the military's attempt to add culture to its arsenal held an open hearing on the Brown campus.

If academics refused to work in the war zone, "is there a risk that you become somewhat ethically pure but intellectually improvised?" one of Bhatia's colleagues, James Der Derian, asked.

Bhatia, stroking his beard thoughtfully, answered with his own question.

"If you are involved, to what extent can you dictate the freedom or an ability not to provide information" to the military, he asked. "Or is that just naive?"

 

Declaring sides

By late 2006, Human Terrain, based at Kansas' Ft. Leavenworth, was training its first recruits. The plan called for quick deployment of two teams to Afghanistan and three to Iraq.

Bhatia kept his interest in Human Terrain hidden from most of his colleagues. But in quiet conversations, a few confidants posed tough questions.

"We spoke pretty frankly about the dangers to him," Robert Rubinstein, an anthropologist at Syracuse University whom Bhatia admired. "One of the things that Michael wanted to know was could it do good? Could it save people?"

Over five or six phone calls in March 2007, the two men dissected the ethics of working with the military. If you're wearing a uniform and carrying a weapon, will Afghan villagers really have a choice of whether to talk with you, Rubinstein asked Bhatia. How do you steer a course between scholarly inquiry and coercion?

Bhatia replied with his own question: How will we know if we don't engage?

The academic drumbeat against Human Terrain, meanwhile, grew ever louder.

By summer 2007, Lutz and a group of other professors started the Network for Concerned Anthropologists, calling on scholars to oppose the program.

In November, the Anthropologist Association issued a statement saying that Human Terrain raised "troubling and urgent ethical issues."

Criticism of the program broadened to charges that, in its rush to field teams, Human Terrain was hiring people without the right qualifications and not training them adequately. Zenia Helbig, a sociologist hired for a Human Terrain team headed for Iraq and then fired, said the program was mismanaged, staffing teams with people who did not speak the language of the region they'd be working in, and whose expertise was sometimes unrelated.

"They were really just on a mission to hire warm bodies," said Helbig, who still supports the program's concept. "I think it was partly making it up as they go along."

Human Terrain leaders acknowledged working under tight time pressure. The job was complicated by the very limited pool of social scientists with research experience in Iraq or Afghanistan, language skills and experience working with the military.

"If we were looking for those people we would still be waiting for the phone to ring," McFate said. "We were being asked to field teams during the middle of the war ... something that had never been done before, was very experimental and for which there was no model of how to do that."

It is difficult to assess the program's effectiveness. Fondacaro acknowledges frustration with recruiting efforts, and says the program has worked to hone its approach and define its mission. But he defends the expertise of the Human Terrain teams and their work.

The prime example, he said, was Michael Bhatia.

By July, Bhatia's mind was made up. He drove to a family gathering in upstate New York and explained to his mother, Linda, that he felt an obligation to use his unique knowledge of Afghanistan. Why should U.S. soldiers be doing all the work on the ground while he escaped responsibility?

He left for Ft. Leavenworth that September.

Two months later, he finished training — just as St. Benoit, the anthropologist who introduced him to the program, returned from Afghanistan. Bhatia would replace her on AF-1, the first Human Terrain team.

St. Benoit said she needed two weeks to brief Bhatia about the very different Afghanistan he was about to encounter, but he was going on leave before deployment. They had just 48 hours.

Afghan civilians "are going to look at you differently than they did before," St. Benoit told Bhatia. "You're now in a uniform and that carries symbolism. That lets the other person know that you're not neutral anymore. You've declared a side.

"Please recognize that when you're downrange — that when you tell them you're social scientist, they won't always see it that way."

The nutty professor

After seven nights sleeping on the ground and seven days without a hot shower, Master Sgt. Rachael Ridenour was beat.

But when the Blackhawk helicopter touched down at Forward Operating Base Salerno, Ridenour and teammate Tom Garcia headed straight for the plywood hut that served as the Human Terrain team's office. It was time to meet their new colleague.

They expected a jet-lagged and lost-looking newbie. But the man who rose to shake their hands talked in overdrive. He used vocabulary that made clear he was no soldier. In the two days he waited for them to return from their mission, Michael Bhatia had already begun two research projects.

Heading to the barracks, Ridenour and Garcia assessed the new guy.

"He needs to hurry up and get tired or it's going to be a long year keeping up with him," she said.

The AF-1 team would need that energy. The last rotation had left the team without a social scientist as it sought to establish its role at FOB Salerno, a U.S. Army beachhead within a dozen miles of Afghanistan's mountainous border with Pakistan.

The addition of Bhatia — soon nicknamed "The Nutty Professor" — brought the team to five. But it remained a tiny add-on to a large and highly structured military operation.

Bhatia would have to make a place for himself. But from the moment the academic returned to Afghanistan, it was clear he was on new and treacherous ground.

"Hard day for the 82nd, yesterday a company commander and driver were killed by an IED in Paktika," Bhatia e-mailed his mentor, Jarat Chopra, on his first morning back. "I don't think I'm expected to duck, but to protect myself."

'No one has ever asked me those questions'

In November of 2007, FOB Salerno was home to the 82nd Airborne Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team.

In Khost and surrounding provinces, the 82nd, hailing from Fort Bragg, N.C., was devoting much of its manpower to patrols and reconstruction of schools and roads, trying to build support in areas that might otherwise be lost to insurgents.

The Human Terrain team found its place by asking questions about subjects soldiers normally overlook.

Garcia, an "East Texas country boy," was making himself an expert on theft from military convoys.

Ridenour, a career military policewoman, was tracking the price Afghan locals paid for cooking oil, flour and other staples.

A week before Thanksgiving, Bhatia joined them in his first mission, to neighboring Paktika Province.

Team leader Lt. Col. Pat Cusick had served in Paktika as deputy commander of a reconstruction team. It was not an easy place to read, Cusick knew. In meetings, the villager who spoke was frequently acting as mouthpiece for a silent elder.

But it became clear Bhatia already understood that. Villagers, initially skeptical, opened up to the new arrival who spoke to them of Paktika's history.

"I wish I knew this two years ago," Cusick told himself, as he listened to the conversation between elders and Bhatia.

Bhatia zeroed in on his own research gauging the insurgency by tracking attacks on local leaders who were the combatants' rivals for power.

One afternoon, Garcia and Bhatia sat across from a district commissioner. Which village elders had been assassinated in the area, Bhatia asked the man. What religious leaders had been threatened?

"No one has ever asked me those questions before," the official replied. "These questions should've been asked a long time ago."

Becoming a family

By January, Bhatia's colleagues had confirmed an amusing and occasionally worrisome contradiction in the Professor's character.

He certainly knew his stuff. At times, though, he could be remarkably oblivious.

On a mission in the village of Zormat, Garcia watched with admiration and alarm as Bhatia's marketplace interviewing drew a crowd of nearly 50.

"Whoever was out with Michael, that was part of our job, to bring him back in. Hey, don't forget we're out here in the middle of the combat zone," said Garcia, who recalls scanning the crowd for lumps that could have signaled a bomb.

Bhatia and Garcia, who had logged 16 years in the Air Force, didn't seem to have much in common. But they forged an unlikely bond. Garcia was part American Indian. Bhatia's father was from India. They became unlikely brothers. Bhatia called his colleague "feather, not dot." Garcia called his partner "dot, not feather."

Bhatia wore fatigues and sometimes carried an M-4 carbine. But teammates teased him when they spotted red argyle socks peeking out of his combat boots. They laughed harder when he failed to see what was funny about that.

Ridenour tried to school him. In the military, she explained, once you're accepted as an expert, just boil down your findings to three or four bullet points. But Bhatia — who had once written a 70,000-word draft chapter for his eight-chapter doctoral thesis — was ever the scholar.

Over time, his quirks and those of other team members generated tension.

Workdays stretched to 14 hours. Bhatia and Garcia slept four feet apart and right next to the rear door of a bunkhouse filled with soldiers. Garcia got annoyed when Bhatia snored. Bhatia got annoyed because Garcia woke up at 5 a.m.

Finally, the team's irritation boiled over. At a meeting in the team's makeshift office, Ridenour passed out copies of a Myers-Briggs personality test. They would come to terms with each other by filling out the questionnaire.

"We figured out how to become a family," Garcia said, "and after that, that's what we did become."

'Mercenary anthropologists'

On one wall of their shack at the base, the team stapled articles sent by colleagues stationed back at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan.

Critics were not letting up in their condemnation of the Human Terrain project. The team kept score, posting what they considered the most outrageously off-base characterizations of their work.

"Mercenary anthropologists," one critic called them. "The Army's new secret weapon," another said.

Ridenour, Bhatia and the others read them aloud with frustration and laughter.

"Our school of thought was 'come work with us for a week,'" Ridenour said. "If you really think I'm a mercenary, come see what we do."

Still, Bhatia bridled at the criticism. Before leaving, he had told his family and friends of his irritation with academics who claimed to know a country, without ever leaving the capital city.

But the team members were almost too busy to dwell on the criticism.

Winter had set in. On a mission over the New Year, they'd worked in temperatures that dropped to 20 below. Now, in February and March, they stayed put. When the 82nd rotated out, the team waited for instructions from the new command of the 101st Airborne.

"It was kind of frustrating because we all wanted to be out," Cusick said.

But there were reasons to look ahead. Come July, Bhatia told friends, he'd be back for two weeks of home leave.

Before that, though, there was work to do.

On April 30, Bhatia and Garcia got long-awaited clearance. The next morning, they would finally get out from behind the wire.

'It should've been me'

The Sabari District lies less than 10 miles from FOB Salerno. But by Humvee, the journey took Bhatia and Garcia four hours, rumbling over the rough tracks that pass for roads and into volatile territory.

Less than two months earlier, insurgents had detonated a vehicle packed with explosives in Sabari's district center, killing two U.S. soldiers. This was to be Bhatia and Garcia's first stop.

The other team members remained on base. By Tuesday night, May 6, Bhatia and Garcia had reached Zambar, a distant village built of mud bricks, and met with a group of about 20 tribal elders.

"Michael was very psyched," Cusick said. Bhatia and Garcia were unearthing details of a long dispute between tribes over which had rights to the timber covering a nearby mountainside.

The following morning, the last full day of the mission, they joined a patrol of 17 soldiers in four up-armored Humvees. Garcia was traveling in the lead Humvee, together with the convoy commander. But the lieutenant called Garcia over. Could Bhatia ride up front today?

The convoy set out for a bazaar called Makhtab, less than two miles east.

The vehicles threaded down a hard, chalky riverbed. Makhtab came into sight and the patrol swung out of the riverbed to enter by a rear portal.

The day was hot, the Humvee's engine emitted a numbing drone, and Garcia was feeling drowsy.

A deafening thump jolted him wide awake. Air shot down the Humvee's turret.

Garcia squinted into a cloud of smoke.

Soldiers spilled from their vehicles. Garcia grabbed his M-4 and bolted into the smoke.

As he ran, the settling dust revealed Bhatia's Humvee, spun around 90 degrees by the bomb's force, its doors blown off.

The body of Spc. Jeremy Gullet, a 22-year-old father from Greenup, Ky., lay in the dirt, well clear of the wreckage. Staff Sgt. Kevin Roberts, 25, of Farmington, N.M., lay dead nearby.

"I've got to find my brother," Garcia said.

When he reached Bhatia, the academic's bearded face was frozen in a smile.

Garcia crouched beside his friend and colleague as rain began to fall. He placed his palm over the dead man's still-open eyes and smoothed the lids closed, then brushed the dirt off Bhatia's uniform.

"It should've been me," the veteran soldier told the scholar. "I'm going to take you home."

The legacy left behind

At Michael Bhatia's funeral on May 16, 2008, Tom Garcia and Rachael Ridenour wore red argyle socks in honor of their fallen teammate.

Human Terrain manager Steve Fondacaro presented Bhatia's parents and sister with the Defense of Freedom medal awarded to the scholar.

"Because of Michael Bhatia's superb contributions to his team's mission, significant numbers of American soldiers and Afghan civilians, who would have otherwise been casualties of war, are alive and together with their families today," the citation reads.

That evening, back in Providence, friends from both sides of the wire gathered at The Wild Colonial and raised pints of Guinness to bid Bhatia farewell.

In the weeks afterward, Bhatia's circle struggled with his death.

Professor Keith Brown returned to his desk, across the atrium from the office that used to be Bhatia's, and weighed the meaning of his colleague's sacrifice.

It wasn't until late July, while serving as lay leader of his church in Providence, that Brown found, if not an answer, then perhaps a route to one.

At the pulpit that Sunday, Brown spoke about the ripples of the war on terrorism and about Bhatia. Then he asked congregants to join him in reading a poem by Archibald MacLeish, "The Young Dead Soldiers."

"Whether our lives were for peace and a new hope, or for nothing, we cannot say; it is you who must say this," Bhatia's colleague read.

"We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning," the worshipers answered.

"We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us."

 

 

 


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