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The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice

The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice

by Vanessa M. Gezari

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In this gripping story of three tough-minded American civilians carrying out the most audacious military social science experiment since Vietnam, acclaimed journalist Vanessa Gezari shows how their humanity is tested and their lives are changed forever when a lone Afghan attacks one of them in an open market.

On the day Barack Obama was elected president


In this gripping story of three tough-minded American civilians carrying out the most audacious military social science experiment since Vietnam, acclaimed journalist Vanessa Gezari shows how their humanity is tested and their lives are changed forever when a lone Afghan attacks one of them in an open market.

On the day Barack Obama was elected president in November 2008, a small group of American civilians took their idealism and experience to Afghanistan. They were part of the Pentagon’s most daring attempt since Vietnam to bring social science to the battlefield, a program called the Human Terrain System that is driven by the notion that you can’t win a war if you don’t understand the enemy. Developed by an eccentric anthropologist raised by hippie squatters in San Francisco and a patriotic ex-soldier who wanted nothing more than to help the army change the way it wages wars, the field team in Afghanistan that November day included an intrepid Texas blond, a former bodyguard for Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and an ex-military intelligence sergeant who had come to Afghanistan to make peace with his troubled past. But not all goes as planned.

In this military thriller, veteran war reporter Vanessa Gezari follows these three idealists from the hope that brought them to Afghanistan through the events of the fateful day when one is gravely wounded, an Afghan is dead, and a proponent of cross-cultural engagement is charged with his murder. Through it all, these brave Americans ended up showing the world just how determined they were to get things right, how hard it was to really understand a place like Afghanistan where lying has been a major tool of survival, and why all future wars will involve this strange mix of fighting and listening.

Gezari is the only reporter who has been given such open access to the lives of the people inside the Human Terrain Program, to the brilliant, ambitious, and mercurial figures who conceived it, and to the top military brass who believed in it. The Tender Soldier is the first and only account of a historic, little-known mission. It is a true story of war and sacrifice, in the best tradition of Horse Soldiers and The Good Soldiers.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - James Dao
As Neil Sheehan's Bright Shining Lie did with Vietnam, Ms. Gezari's deft…narrative dissects the hopes, hubris and shortcomings of America's efforts to nation-build in Afghanistan while fighting a war there…Ms. Gezari's book powerfully humanizes the ways the counterinsurgency effort played out in Afghanistan.
Publishers Weekly
In 2007, the Department of Defense rolled out a program called the Human Terrain System in Afghanistan. Its goal was to embed social scientists with military units in the hopes that understanding the people of the occupied country would enable the military to more effectively engage the enemy. Here, Gezari, a professor of narrative nonfiction at the University of Michigan, tells the fascinating story of the innovative mission—which she describes as “a cosmic expression of the national zeitgeist, neatly encapsulating both a justification for war and the intoxicating belief that war could be less lethal, more anthropological”—and its dedicated participants, one of whom, Paula Loyd, is terribly burned early on in a senseless act of anti-American violence. Readers get a sobering feel for the difficult task of waging a war on foreign soil, as well as the travails of hardworking and often brilliant individuals struggling to change enormous political and social systems for the better. Nuanced, readable, and utterly engrossing, Gezari’s exposé is a revelatory and unique look at the war in Afghanistan. Agent: Gail Ross, Ross Yoon. (Aug. 13)
Toledo Blade
“Engrossing and important…. a gripping tale that exposes the strange mix of idealism and political calculation that can drive U.S. policy in other countries. Gezari writes crisply and with a clear sense of purpose while maintaining a journalist’s objectivity about her subject… .An important piece in the growing canon of historical works about the war in Afghanistan. [The Tender Soldier] should be considered essential reading to anyone interested in understanding the war and its effect on the people who had to fight it.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“A fine and fearless journalist, Ms. Gezari unmoors fiction from fact in The Tender Soldier, a cutting, empathetic exploration of cultures clashing in a war that may never end.”
Charlotte Observer
“Blending strong in-depth reporting with a narrative writing that lets readers experience life in the war-torn nation, Gezari has written a military thriller, but also much more, as she tells the social scientists’ story.”
David Finkel
"Bravely reported and beautifully told, The Tender Soldier is a crushing story of good intentions and war. Vanessa Gezari is an unflinching journalist, and she has written a great, angering, and heartbreaking book that in its many layers is as damning as it is honorable."
Doug Stanton
“Part history, part war story, part critique, Gezari writes with a stonecutter’s brilliance, snapping into focus a part of the world, and a chapter in American history, that we don’t fully comprehend. Citizens will read The Tender Soldier in a few nights and come away feeling smarter and enriched. This is brilliant reading and is a kind of road map by which to understand other wars, and other news reports breaking daily around us.”
Jon Lee Anderson
“The story running through the heart of The Tender Soldier is a searing reminder that wars may be waged with good intentions, but they are built upon tragedy. Vanessa Gezari explores this grim paradox with an admirable lucidity and a sharp eye for the kind of telling detail that make her account of the U.S. war in Afghanistan a moving, unforgettable read.”
Dana Priest
"The Tender Soldier takes readers on an eloquent journey back through one tragic American death in Afghanistan. But its larger point is a hard-fisted critique of the U.S. military's chronic inability to understand the larger world in which it operates. It is a book worth memorizing, and repeating to U.S. decision-makers, when the next Iraq or Afghanistan presents itself—as it surely will."
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro
"Gezari's gripping tale of American idealism gone wrong is vital reading for anyone interested in America's decade of war in Afghanistan. Beautifully told, the book illuminates one of the most interesting and little known programs in recent U.S. military history."
Kirkus Reviews
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.
The New York Times
“As Neil Sheehan’s Bright Shining Lie did with Vietnam, Ms. Gezari’s deft if less sweeping narrative dissects the hopes, hubris and shortcomings of America’s efforts to nation-build in Afghanistan while fighting a war there…. It is a testament to the book’s strengths that it left me wanting more…. Ms. Gezari’s book powerfully humanizes the ways the counterinsurgency effort played out in Afghanistan.”
The Daily Beast
“With a journalist’s discerning eye for nuance, Gezari brings readers into [a] controversial gray area, framed within the larger, just as murky, context that has come to define the distant wars in Iraq and Afghanistan….Gezari’s writing stands apart from other depictions of our post-9/11 wars….Her book exemplifies the persistence of a war-wise reporter who filed from frontline locations, seeking out sources in sketchy areas, often unescorted by U.S. military personnel….The book’s main subject and its author both devoted themselves—like real anthropologists—to listening, recording, and understanding the stories of the ‘other.’ Iraqis and Afghans have more in common with us than we might think.”
“A sharp-eyed look at the complexities of war.”

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Tender Soldier

  • Sometimes the events of a single day tell the story of a war. On November 4, 2008, voters in the United States elected Barack Obama president, laying the groundwork for an expanded counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. On the same day, in the tawny flatlands west of Kandahar, a group of American civilians and soldiers set out on a hopeful mission that would change their lives and those of the Afghans they met forever. Among them was a brave and gentle woman with a Wellesley degree, a soldier’s devotion to her country, and a fierce curiosity about the world. Theirs was an anthropological undertaking, matching the audacity of Obama, an anthropologist’s son.

    This book tells the story of what happened that day, and of the conception and rapid early growth of the Human Terrain System, a central tool in what was supposed to be a more culturally conscious way of war. It traces the first four years of this experiment, from its beginnings as a cultural knowledge database to fight homemade bombs in Iraq through its multimillion-dollar expansion. It follows the program through the height of American involvement in Afghanistan in 2010, when one hundred thousand U.S. troops were stationed there along with more than twenty Human Terrain Teams. For much of this period, the project’s senior social scientist was an anthropologist-cum-war-theorist raised in a radical squatters community in Marin County, California, and educated at Ivy League schools. She would become the most flamboyant evangelist for an evolving form of battlefield information known as cultural intelligence. Its director was a scrappy and unconventional career soldier who believed the Army could be cured of its ethnocentrism, and that this goal justified almost any means taken to achieve it. Yet he himself embodied a profoundly American worldview: that every problem has a solution, and that Americans can find it.

    The Human Terrain System was born in the shadows of a revolution within an Army that had tried to bury the painful lessons of Vietnam. In Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers revived the low-tech practices of counterinsurgency, emphasizing the value of human contact for intelligence gathering, political persuasion, and targeted killing. The Human Terrain System was the Army’s most ambitious attempt in three decades to bring social science knowledge to the battlefield, but it was unwelcome to some American anthropologists, who believed their discipline had too often been hijacked for imperialist ends. They were right, but so was the Army.

    In Afghanistan, context makes intelligence make sense. American soldiers could not possibly know where to build a school or vet tips about who was the enemy without knowing which tribe their informant belonged to, who his rivals and relatives were, where he lived, how he had come to live there, and a thousand other details that anthropologists or journalists might collect but that soldiers rarely thought to ask about. Yet here lay a difficulty. 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.

    There are two kinds of military cultural knowledge. The first kind gives rise to directives that soldiers in Afghanistan should avoid showing the soles of their feet; that they should use only their right hands for eating; that they should accept tea when it is offered; and that men should refrain from searching women. The other kind of cultural knowledge, sometimes known as cultural intelligence, is what the military needs to make smart decisions about which local leaders to support, who to do business with, where to dig wells and build clinics, who to detain and kill, and when to disengage. Cultural intelligence is the textured sense of a place that helps soldiers understand how tribal systems work; how criminals, drug dealers, and militants are connected; the role of marriage in cementing business relationships and political alliances; and the way money and power move between families and villages. It was important for soldiers to understand Afghan culture so they wouldn’t needlessly offend people. But for a force with a mission to strengthen local government and kill and capture terrorists in a place with no working justice mechanisms, it was crucial, too, that Americans make informed decisions about who to protect, which lives to ruin, and which lives to take. They routinely didn’t.

    The Human Terrain System was developed to help address these problems. What follows is the story of a hopeful moment when America, in the midst of two wars, sought to change the way it fights, and of a remarkable woman and her teammates, who risked everything to save the Army from itself.

  • Meet the Author

    Vanessa M. Gezari teaches narrative nonfiction and war reporting at the University of Michigan. She has written for The Washington Post, The New Republic, Slate, and others. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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