Tender Soldiers in Afghanistan?

Vanessa Gezari wrote The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice. I was intrigued to read a true story of war and sacrifice. The main title, The Tender Solider, struck me as oxymoronic. I do not usually think of trained killers as tender.

There are three main protagonists, as described on the inside jacket: “an intrepid Texas blonde, a former bodyguard for Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and an ex-military intelligence sergeant.” Some might consider that quite sexist, the woman being a function of her hair color while the men are described by their occupational history.

The Tender Soldier describes itself as “a tale of moral suspense.” I describe it as a piece of transparent propagandic fluff.

The three “brave” “idealists” are “bottle-blonde” Paula Loyd (with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a masters in diplomacy and conflict resolution); Don Ayala, the muscular former bodyguard; and Clint Cooper, the “rougishly handsome” former military intelligence officer and interrogator who spoke Pashto, the major language of south Afghanistan and Balochistan province in Pakistan.

These three are part of the Human Terrain System (HTS) whose purpose is to help soldiers understand the local culture. Basically, they would go out amongst the locals and interview them to gather information and soldiers would use such information, “military cultural knowledge,” to conduct themselves favorably, i.e., winning hearts and minds. Gezari exposes many flaws within HTS. John Stanton, in his book, US Army Human Terrain System 2008-2013, is more scathing; he describes it as “the program from hell.”

The Tender Soldier points to cultural intelligence as helping guide decision-making, as one example, on “who to detain and kill.” The “who” being referred to as “militants,” Insurgents,” and “terrorists.” Using such labels is based upon the premise that the invaders of Afghanistan, the US (and NATO), had done so legitimately.

Writes Gezari, “It was important for soldiers to understand Afghan culture so they wouldn’t needlessly offend people.” I couldn’t help but find such a notion to be boilerplate preposterous. What could be more offensive to a people than invading, bombing, killing, torturing, occupying, setting up checkpoints, interrogating, and detaining them? Would any intelligent person expect that observing cultural niceties afterwards could win over the people?

Gezari notes that HTS failed: “… too often, they [the US soldiers] detained and killed the wrong people, alienation others and fueling the insurgency.” This wording assumes the American soldiers are the “good guys” and that there are a right people to kill. Furthermore, it implies that the government under an occupation is legitimate. This is another example of the propagandic language the flows through the entire book.

Another piece of blatant propaganda was Gezari describing the invasion of tiny Grenada “in Operation Urgent Fury, [as] one of the Cold war’s most celebrated combat missions.” Really? Isn’t this akin to a high school bully hailing his knock out of a kindergarten pupil?

Gezari also misses an obvious case of cultural insensitivity when she writes of the murder of a Red Cross staff member, noting the Red Cross’s “commitment to neutrality.” However, the cross is not a neutral symbol, and it especially will not be viewed as such in a predominantly Muslim country.

Loyd is a tragic victim of The Tender Solider. She was “not opposed to the war, but neither was she blind to the shortcomings of the U.S. Military.” Shortcomings? Isn’t that an extremely euphemistic way to describe massacres elsewhere acknowledged in the book? Gezari does not hide some of the “shortcomings” of the US military, but her wording throughout the book points sharply to contradictions in her work.

The Human Terrain Team (HTT) advised soldiers: “Don’t treat the locals badly…. You’re just going to make enemies.” My only response to that piece of sagacity: Duh! Nonetheless, Gezari writes, “The soldiers listened, trying to get their heads around this.” Man, oh man, this sounds excruciating. Nonetheless, the whole notion of winning hearts and minds after slaughtering so many people seems so in-your-face certain to stir up hatred or, at the very least, ill will that very idea of HTS to curry favor among the remaining people seems futile.

The Tender Soldier seeks to humanize the HTT members, but Gezari also shows empathy for the suffering of the Afghan people. The HTT – for all their education and training – seem way out of their depth. That they would expect Afghanis to open up to them and answer their questions just seems so far-fetched. Gezari gets this, but her sympathy is focused elsewhere.

“American soldiers in Afghanistan watched their buddies get killed and were ordered not to shoot back unless they were sure the area was clear of civilians.” The author contradicts this by writing a few sentences later that “many civilians had been killed in the [air] strikes.”

Another seeming contradiction of US militarism was the order to soldiers to “demonstrate proportionality.” This flies in the face of the Powell Doctrine to use overwhelming force. I submit that demonstrating proportionality and using overwhelming force are at epistemological loggerheads.

Gezari blames the insurgency, which she says is rooted in Pakistan: “Foreign fighters and outside moneymen were understandably more interested in promoting jihad and killing Americans than in prospects for meaningful reconciliation, and Afghan lives meant little to them.”

“[F]oreign fighters”? Surely Gezari must be aware that the borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan are an imperialist device that separated Pashtuns from each each other. And surely the criticism applies even more strongly to US (and NATO) forces in Afghanistan.

tendersoldier_DVThe back jacket of The Tender Soldier, which came out in August 2013, claims, “Gezari is the only journalist to have gained access to the lives of the people inside the troubled Human Terrain System, including the brilliant, ambitious figures who conceived it.” This is not factually accurate, as John Stanton’s US Army Human Terrain System 2008-2013 came out in July 2013, although this mightn’t have been known to Gezari. Stanton talks with over a hundred HTS insider sources and is much less obsequious to those figures who conceived HTS.

The Tender Solider baffles me. I do not know who the tender soldier is. There is no war. If war implies two sides with some ability to fight each other, then surely this was nothing of the sort. It was a mass invasion by the US military machine against Afghanistan. Why? Because Afghanistan wouldn’t extradite Osama bin Laden without the US providing evidence of bin Laden’s involvement in 9-11. Was this an unreasonable request? Was it worth obliterating a country? I also am left wondering as to what the sacrifice was. The HTT members were extremely well paid for their service in the face of danger.

The Tender Solider is just propaganda.

Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at gmail.com. Read other articles by Kim.