Having discovered (again) that superior firepower does poorly against guerrillas, America’s military adopted its current counterinsurgency doctrine, an object of almost universal praise. Not all was deserved, writes journalist Gezari (Narrative Nonfiction and War Reporting/Univ. of Michigan) in this insightful but disturbing account of the Human Terrain System, a program designed to bring social science to the battlefield.
Launched in 2006, each HTS team ostensibly consists of a scholar to gather data on an area’s culture, politics, demographics and needs. Other team members integrate this information and pass it on to the local American military unit, allowing it to resolve disputes, identify problems before they turn violent, and avoid causing needless offense. Gezari begins with one team’s disastrous experience. A young woman anthropologist, dedicated and popular, was talking with a young Afghan when he suddenly doused her with gasoline and set her afire. He was captured, and a distraught team member killed him. The team member was convicted of the murder. Attempting to comprehend the offender, the author interviewed his fellow villagers. All denounced the crime, but their explanations were oddly contradictory. Understanding foreign cultures is difficult. Gezari points out that America contains too few scholars familiar with Afghanistan, so many teams are clueless. Members often serve for the wrong reasons, since the civilian contractor earns $250,000-$350,000 per year. The Defense Department remains enthusiastic, but few claim that matters in Afghanistan are going well.
Although his subject was Iraq, Peter Van Buren covered the same ground in his hilarious We Meant Well (2011). Gezari eschews humor but delivers a gripping report on another of America’s painful, surprisingly difficult efforts to win hearts and minds.