Saturday, Apr 21, 2018
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Writer navigates human terrain of war against terror

Ex-Blade reporter examines cultural aspect of U.S. strategy

  • Village-elders-interview

    Vanessa Gezari, center, interviews elders in Zormat, Afghanistan, during her work in that nation.

    U.S. ARMY




Vanessa Gezari, center, interviews elders in Zormat, Afghanistan, during her work in that nation.

U.S. ARMY Enlarge

Vanessa Gezari’s career plans 12 years ago were audacious.

After three years as a reporter at The Blade and a year-long internship at the Chicago Tribune and still in her mid-20s, she was headed to India to explore life as a foreign correspondent. Her parents were nervous, but she figured she would wait out a sluggish job market by spending three months traveling and chasing stories.




Her timing was both fortuitous and frightening.

“I didn’t really know what I was getting into, and in any case it turns out I had booked my ticket for Sept. 10, 2001,” the Yale University graduate said in a telephone interview from Ann Arbor, where she lives.

During a layover in London, she learned about the terrorist planes hitting the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon and she was confronted with a tough decision: Go forward or go home.

She spoke to her mother on the phone and she said what any mom would say: There would soon be war in Afghanistan, so you’ve got to come home. And she spoke to a colleague and mentor, Sam Roe another former Blade reporter who was at the Tribune, and he said you’ve got to keep going.

Career aspirations won out and 12 years later, Ms. Gezari’s work in Afghanistan and Pakistan has yielded a book that should be an important entry into the canon of post-9/11 journalism.

The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice looks closely at an obscure government program called the Human Terrain System that is a key element of the controversial counterinsurgency strategy promoted by former Gen. David Petraeus.

The book will be released in August, and Ms. Gezari will read from it Tuesday at the Michigan League of the University of Michigan campus.

‘Nuts and bolts’

Ms. Gezari, who teaches journalism at UM, said that if you plan to be a foreign correspondent, there is no better opportunity than plunging into a huge international story.

“The timing was really critical for me because it was a great time to be there. I mean, it was really awful what happened in New York and Washington but a great time to be a real free-lancer coming into this new place with all this excitement and demand for stories,” she said.

Her training in covering various beats, including police in Toledo and Chicago, prepared her for the “nuts and bolts” street level work she was doing in India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and later Liberia: cultivate sources, develop stories, and keep your eye out for danger.

“The thing I learned pretty quickly is that reporting is not that different wherever you do it,” she said.

An advantage overseas is that the reporters generally all look out for each other.

“When you’re working in these kinds of situations, journalists really have to depend on each other. It was much less competitive than I saw in local journalism,” Ms. Gezari said.

‘Are you American?’

A key logistical difference was navigating the sometimes dramatic cultural divides between Western countries and the Near East. Ms. Gezari shared a story of how certain assumptions can lead to embarrassing faux pas.

While living in India, she learned at the last minute that she could get into Pakistan and do some work there. So she hustled to get her papers in order, managed to get a plane ticket through the help of a consulate official, and went shopping for what she thought would be proper clothing.

The next day she showed up clad in all black, wearing elaborate head covering, and dressed as conservatively as possible in “the baggiest, loosest, darkest most somber clothes I could get, thinking, ‘I’ll blend in well with this garb.’”

When she nervously took her seat on the plane, a man sitting nearby looked at her and said: “‘Excuse me, are you American?’” she said, laughing. “So my disguise clearly hadn’t worked.”

It got worse. Her colleague from the consulate boarded the plane, took one look at her and said, ‘You look like Osama bin Laden’s sister. Take off that head gear.”

She was suitably chagrined, but it taught her another important lesson in trying to understand the culture she was covering. Imagine someone trying to blend in when visiting Ohio by dressing like an Amish person.

“I was essentially dressed like a Shia pilgrim and first of all [Pakistanis are] not Shia. They’re Sunnis and they don’t like the Shia. So I looked like an Iranian, which is not the way to look in Pakistan.”

Cultural catch-up

Her personal experience mirrors the larger lessons that the United States would learn in the intricate and often clumsy process of foreign intervention when the outside power has virtually no cultural experience with the country where the war is being fought.

The Human Terrain System was first deployed in Iraq in 2007 to address that problem. Anthropologists, political scientists, psychologists, and civilian academics would be teamed with soldiers to promote counterinsurgency by better understanding the intricacies on the ground in Iraq and later Afghanistan.

The Tender Soldier traces the first four years of the program, which she writes was “supposed to be a more culturally conscious way of war.” Most of the book is focused in Afghanistan where Ms. Gezari went on many patrols with the Human Terrain teams in various regions of the country, including Kandahar and Khost.

“American soldiers were getting killed at a rapid rate in Iraq and the Army was suddenly very interested in trying to figure out who these people were that were doing the killing, because they certainly weren’t operating like a traditional military,” Ms. Gezari said.

The problem was especially complex in Afghanistan, where tribal loyalties, rugged mountainous geography, religious nuances, and other subtle but important differences can mean life or death.

The Tender Soldier details the background of the Human Terrain operation and is told through the stories of one particular group for whom things went wrong in a deadly way. What looked like a good idea on paper was dramatically more difficult in practice, Ms. Gezari said.

“The program came to be quite problematic for a number of reasons,” she said.

Her book grew out of a 2009 Washington Post story that she wrote about the program. She said the true believers in the effort were idealistic Americans who felt that the United States could do a better job of understanding the Afghan culture. The civilian social scientists went out on patrols with frontline soldiers, meeting local citizens to check on their needs, build goodwill, and, as Ms. Gezari writes, “act as cultural translators” for the soldiers. They also became mired in violence and strained relations with the Afghan people because on one hand they were befriending them, but on the other they were gathering information that could be used against the insurgents.

At the heart of the Human Terrain System was an awkward reality: American social scientists were trying to learn about a culture that was in some ways at war against the United States and already skewed in an unnatural way. This was one element that made the program highly controversial among anthropologists, she said.

Also built into the concept was the uncomfortable dichotomy that goes like this: If the United States wants to be more successful fighting in foreign countries, then soldiers need to better grasp and understand the cultural background of that place. And if that’s the case, then the social scientists should be going in years before hostilities start.

So imagine if American anthropologists showed up in your country, poking around and asking question on the pretense that someday U.S. soldiers might be there by the tens of thousands fighting a war. How much incentive is there for the locals to cooperate?

“What would you think if a bunch of Chinese anthropologists showed up in your town and started asking questions?” Ms. Gezari said. “There’s something a little funny about people showing up in your town gathering information for some future potential later military purpose.”

A conversation

She hopes the book promotes conversation about Afghanistan and its people and draws attention to the enormous sacrifices made by American soldiers and the people who worked on the Human Terrain System.

Because, as she noted, it is safe to assume that the United States and its military will again be on the ground fighting in a foreign land they don’t understand very well. “We’ve got to do a better job at this. Obviously I think this is incredibly important, otherwise I wouldn’t have written this book about it,” she said.

“I don’t think that counterinsurgency is something that never works ... I think it takes a tremendous amount of time and effort and intelligence. And I question as a nation whether we have what it takes. I question our engagement with these places we go into. We need to have a conversation about this.”

Vanessa Gezari will speak Tuesday at 5 p.m. at the Michigan League, 11 N. University Ave., on the University of Michigan campus. She will speak in the Hussey Room. Her talk is titled Storytelling at the Tip of the Spear: Fact, Meaning, and Metaphor in Afghanistan.

The photo of Vanessa Gezari that accompanies this story was taken by Deborah Copaken Kogan.

Contact Rod Lockwood at: or 419-724-6159.

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