Book Review- “The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice” by Vanessa M. Gezari

Simon & Schuster sent me a copy of The Tender Soldier by Vanessa M. Gezari to review.

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On the day Barack Obama was elected president in November 2008, a small group of American civilians took their optimism and experience to Afghanistan, then considered America’s “good war.” They were part of the Pentagon’s controversial attempt 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 and his culture. The field team in Afghanistan that day included an intrepid Texas blonde, 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. – from The Tender Soldier by Vanessa M. Gezari

My Thoughts:

Due to my experiences as a U.S. Army public affairs specialist in Afghanistan, I’m already familiar with Human Terrain Teams and aware there is controversy surrounding them. Yet, I didn’t know the full story or understand exactly what the issues are from an anthropological view…until now.

I first heard about Paula Lloyd’s death in 2009 from the Soldiers who worked with her and her team. I could see the horror in their eyes and hear the pain in their voices. The story stuck with me these several years. I researched about Lloyd when I returned home in 2010, but I could never find much information about her. She died in service of her country, but seemed to make little impact in the media.

The Tender Soldier opens with the ill-fated story of Paula Lloyd, Don Ayala, and Clint Cooper. Gezari drew me in with this tragedy, and I wanted to know more. Why was this team there? What events led to this horrific conclusion? What happened afterwards? After the opening, the book goes back in time by a few years and discusses the different men and women whose influence led to the creation of the teams. Then Gezari goes on to recount personal experiences and conversations she shared with such teams while in Afghanistan. Annamaria Cardinalli is one such social scientist who influenced Gezari. I met Cardinalli in 2009 on Forward Operating Base Ramrod:

U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Elisebet Freeburg
Human Terrain Team senior social scientist, Annamaria Cardinalli
U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Elisebet Freeburg/RELEASED

This book was fascinating. It’s almost an information overload. You probably won’t sit down and read the entire book in one sitting, at least I didn’t. The characters are hard to keep track of, and there are a great deal of moving pieces. I did feel that it was organized, though; each piece of information was in its logical place, and the book flowed.

It’s easy to say this book criticizes the Army. But I think the bigger picture here is an intent to expose a serious flaw in past military and political thinking that the U.S. has tried to remedy. We pluck men and women from suburban Texas and inner city New Jersey, send them overseas, and expect them to be 18-year-old diplomats.

If you’re interested in learning more about U.S. military culture, counterinsurgency operations, the war in Afghanistan, and Human Terrain Teams, I recommend picking up a copy of The Tender Soldier. Find it here:

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“17 beheaded in Afghanistan for dancing”

I woke up in a fairly good mood this morning, but when I turned on my computer to check the weather, I saw the above headline.

When I think of Afghanistan, I have a heavy heart. Not just for the American and coalition lives lost in that country, but for the people that live there. All those children. Afghanistan has the highest infant mortality rate in the world. Their maternal mortality rate is one of the highest in the world as well, and Afghanistan was recently determined to be the most dangerous country in the world for women.

I read news articles regularly about U.S. deaths in Afghanistan, and they anger me. Yes, I loathe hearing about U.S. troops being killed, especially when they’re murdered by those working with them on a daily basis.

It’s so easy to say “drop a bomb on them” or “wipe them out” or “leave them to kill each other off.”

But then I think of what I saw:

I remember this little boy who lost his left leg when he stepped on an anti-personnel mine. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and when the last Russian soldier left a decade later, Afghanistan was one of the most heavily-mined countries in the world. In 2008, more than 62,000 anti-personnel mines were destroyed. As of 2010, there are still at least 6,000 land mine or unexploded ordnance (UXO) sites, let alone individual mines. His father brought him to the local base for treatment. He came running up to the gates, carrying his bleeding little boy.

If you click on this, you can read a story I wrote in 2009 about a young Afghan woman I remember. She finally discovered she was pregnant after several years of marriage. That woman was so happy that day, that she let me photograph her without her veil. I’ve never uploaded that photo to the Internet, for fear that someone might recognize her, and punish her for “exposing” herself. (Highly unlikely, I know, but some of my writing -completely twisted- was featured on a pro-insurgency site, so they have looked at my work before).

I remember this little girl, living on the side of the rugged Hindu Kush mountains. Her father brought her in to have her burned leg treated at a small American-run forward operating base. Most villagers in the area are afraid to come here for treatment (there’s a lot of insurgent activity). I remember this father held his little girl close when she was frightened and in pain, and he looked at her with love and gentleness in his eyes.

I remember the young female English teacher, probably around 23 or 24 years old. Her dream was to move to American one day. She told me, proudly, that she never intended to marry. Very feminist words indeed for an Afghan woman!

I remember these girls and many like them. Forbidden during the Taliban reign, these girls now attend school.

I know the media rarely shows it (everyone has a boss, and everyone has an agenda), but there are good things happening there with our presence. These are just a few snapshots of many wonderful things I witnessed, especially for the women.

But I also remember the young Soldier, barely a legal adult, with a bullet hole in the front of the vest that saved his life.

I remember the wiggly, black body bags carried on stretchers to the helicopter.

I remember the silent ranks of infantry Soldiers staring at the just-unveiled memorial.

There will always be countries in dire need of saving. But can we really?

As a continent, Africa really burdens me. The Congo is a horrific place for women and girls to live, because rape is commonplace. In Somalia, about 95% of girls between the ages of 4 and 11 experience female genital mutilation (FGM). Many of you have probably heard of the Invisible Children in Uganda. The recent riots and killings in South Africa tell us of the country’s deep-rooted troubles.

It’s been estimated that more than 20 million people at one time are victims of human trafficking…most of them women and girls.

I’m not saying that it’s worth it for us to be the world’s policeman. I’m not saying that it’s worth the 2,000+ American lives that Operation Enduring Freedom has cost us (so far). But I am saying that to me, there are faces in this equation. Afghanistan is not just an evil country somewhere far away.

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