American involvement in the war in Afghanistan is winding down with no real victory in sight. In the midst of the war a new program called the Human Terrain System was introduced, intended to aid soldiers on the ground by helping them understand the cultural nuances of the Afghan and Iraqi people. The program had good intentions but fatal flaws, said journalist and author Vanessa Gezari.
"The idea was to send civilian social scientists out into combat with soldiers to help them understand people both in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Gezari. "I was excited about it, a lot of people were excited about it, including General David Petraeus, who at the time was head of central command. What I wanted to do was to follow this program and see how it turned out. And the results were not great."
In her book The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice, Gezari writes in-depth of the Human Terrain System and of one team of social scientists in particular who met with violence and tragedy while in Afghanistan. Paula Loyd, a graduate of Wellesley and a former soldier who had previously served in Afghanistan, was caught on fire by an Afghan man she had been interviewing.
One of the problems with the program, said Gezari, was a lack of qualified social scientists. The team made up of Loyd, a former bodyguard and a former interrogator were among the most qualified. The original contractor hired people without face-to-face interviews and offered a $300,000 salary. All told, the government has spent $600 million on the program.
"The problems had to do with a lack of forethought, an abundance of ambition, and the complications of putting something like this in effect in the midst of two wars," said Gezari.
The program also has had a lot of mixed reaction among anthropologists, many of whom were initially furious, said Gezari. They were of the opinion that "never should anthropological knowledge be used in a war or to further America’s imperialist goals."
As Gezari writes in the prologue of The Tender Soldier, “Cultural understanding was a tool that could be used for saving or for killing, like the knife that cuts one way in the hands of a surgeon and another in the grip of a murderer. The Human Terrain System wasn’t designed to tell the military who to kill. But a child could see that who to kill and who to save were questions that answered each other.”
St. Louis County Library's 'Westfall Favorite Author Series' Presents Vanessa Gezari
Wednesday, August 14, 2013 at 7:00 p.m.
St. Louis County Library Headquarters, 1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd.
For more information, call 314-994-3300 or go to the St. Louis County Library website.