I've been reading blog notes on the death of Michael Bhatia, an Oxford PhD candidate working with the US Army in Afghanistan. He was just killed in a roadside bombing incident. He was affiliated with the Watson Institute at Brown, which had this to say:
In Memory of Michael Vinay Bhatia '99
May 08, 2008
Michael Vinay Bhatia ’99 died yesterday in Afghanistan, where he as working as a social scientist in consultation with the US Defense Department.
In addition to graduating magna cum laude in international relations from Brown University, Michael was a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute from July 2006 to June 2007. At the Institute, he was involved in a research project on Cultural Awareness in the Military, while also writing his PhD dissertation.
Over several years, Michael’s research and humanitarian work took him to such conflict zones as Sahrawi refugee camps, East Timor, and Kosovo, in addition to Afghanistan.
Of his work in Afghanistan, Michael wrote in November: “The program has a real chance of reducing both the Afghan and American lives lost, as well as ensuring that the US/NATO/ISAF strategy becomes better attuned to the population's concerns, views, criticisms and interests and better supports the Government of Afghanistan.”
Michael had recently published some of his research on Afghanistan.
His co-authored book on Afghanistan, Arms and Conflict: Armed Groups, Disarmament and Security in a Post-War Society was just released by Routledge in April. It assesses small arms and security-related issues in post-9/11 Afghanistan.
His edited book on Terrorism and the Politics of Naming was published by Routledge last September. Stating that names are not objective, the book seeks the truth behind those assigned in such cases as the US hunt for al-Qaeda, Russia’s demonization of the Chechens, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In August, his personal three-part photo essay, “Shooting Afghanistan: Beyond the Conflict,” was published by the Globalist. In it, he wrote:
“Afghanistan will soon reach a desperate milestone – the thirtieth anniversary of ongoing conflict. … Though I have spent the majority of my time there researching the wars and those involved in it, conflict is not my primary memory and way of knowing it. I am compelled to write about experiences and ideas that cannot be placed into analytical paradigms, which do not speak to theories of war or peace, to destruction or to reconstruction, but instead to daily interactions that occurred in the course of research.”
His love of photography is revealing. In the Globalist piece, he also wrote:
“Building on Robert Capa’s statement that "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough," James Nachtwey, the preeminent photo-realist and conflict photographer, once indicated that the primary characteristic of a good war photographer was proximity, closeness and involvement.”
Michael was a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. He was awarded a George C. Marshall Scholarship in 2001 and a Scoville Peace Fellowship in 2000 supporting residence at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, DC.
He was working on his dissertation, titled “The Mujahideen: A Study of Combatant Motives in Afghanistan, 1978-2005,” based on 350 interviews with combatants throughout Afghanistan, as well as archival and media research. He has also conducted research in Afghanistan for the Overseas Development Institute, the Small Arms Survey, the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, the UK Department for International Development (via the International Policy Institute, King’s College, London), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Before his fellowship at the Institute, he was a sessional lecturer on the causes of war in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University in Ottawa.
He is the author of War and Intervention: Issues for Contemporary Peace Operations (Kumarian Press, 2003); and of articles in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Global Governance, Review of African Political Economy, The International Journal of Refugee Law, International Peacekeeping, and Middle East Policy. He was the guest editor of The Third World Quarterly Special Issue: “The Politics of Naming: Rebels, Terrorists, Criminals, Bandits and Subversives,” which was then released as a book by Routledge. He received his MSc in international relations research from the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford.
“It's a terrible loss of someone so young, who had already accomplished a great deal, but had so much more to contribute,” said Institute Professor Thomas J. Biersteker, who advised Michael in his studies over the years.
Details about services will be made available.
Read Michael's personal photo essays here.
There are more personal write-ups here and here. The Watson write-up was actually offline, and I had to pull it from cache here. Ghosts of Alexander has a thoughtful write-up, citing a report in China News here and a Reuters report here.
I thought this was remarkable for more than the obvious reasons: I'm unaware of any prior human terrain team casualties or other military-employed social scientists killed while on duty. This is a first. Let's hope it's the last.
More detail was later posted at the Small Wars Journal here. I'm reposting the content below.
From the Human Terrain System,
It is with deep sorrow that we must inform you of the tragic death of Michael Bhatia, our social scientist team member assigned to the Afghanistan Human Terrain Team #1, in support of Task Force Currahee based at FOB SALERNO, Khowst Province.
Michael was killed on May 7 when the Humvee he was riding in was struck by an IED. Michael was traveling in a convoy of four vehicles, which were en route to a remote sector of Khowst province. For many years, this part of Khowst had been plagued by a violent inter-tribal conflict concerning land rights. Michael had identified this tribal dispute as a research priority, and was excited to finally be able to visit this area. This trip was the brigade's initial mission into the area, and it was their intention to initiate a negotiation process between the tribes.
Michael was in the lead vehicle with four other soldiers. Initial forensics indicate that the IED was triggered by a command detonated wire. Michael died immediately in the explosion. Two Army soldiers from Task Force Currahee were also killed in the attack, and two were critically injured.
During the course of his seven-month tour, Michael's work saved the lives of both US soldiers and Afghan civilians. His former brigade commander, COL Marty Schweitzer testified before Congress on 24 April that the Human Terrain Team of which Michael was a member helped the brigade reduce its lethal operations by 60 to 70%, increase the number of districts supporting the Afghan government from 15 to 83, and reduce Afghan civilian deaths from over 70 during the previous brigade's tour to 11 during the 4-82's tour.
A copy of Colonel Schweitzer's comments can be found at the Human Terrain System web page.
We will remember Michael for his personal courage, his willingness to endure danger and hardship, his incisive intelligence, his playful sense of humor, his confidence, his devoted character, and his powerful inner light. While his life has ended, he has not disappeared without a trace. He left a powerful effect behind, which will be felt by his friends and colleagues and by the people of Afghanistan for many years to come.
Senior Social Science Advisor
Human Terrain System
US Army TRADOC
“The program has a real chance of reducing both the Afghan and American lives lost, as well as ensuring that the US/NATO/ISAF strategy becomes better attuned to the population’s concerns, views, criticisms, and interests and better supports the Government of Afghanistan.”
--Michael Vinay Bhatia, November 2007
FORT MONROE, Va. (TRADOC News Service, May 9, 2008) – Michael Vinay Bhatia was killed Tuesday by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) strike in the vicinity of Sabari District in the Khowst Province of Afghanistan. He was a civilian contractor employed by BAE Systems, assigned to 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Division in Afghanistan and working as a social scientist supporting the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS) program.
While assigned to the 4th BCT, Bhatia brought a critical skill and wealth of knowledge to his support of the mission in Afghanistan. He developed this knowledge, not only as an academic, but also as a humanitarian and researcher in areas such as East Timor, Kosovo and the Sahrawi refugee camps of western Algeria.
HTS is a program run by the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). Its purpose is to improve brigade and division commanders’ level of understanding of the highly complex local socio-cultural environment in areas where U.S. Army troops are deployed.
“Our deepest sympathy and heartfelt prayers go out to Michael Bhatia’s family and friends,” said Gen. William S. Wallace, TRADOC’s commanding general. “Michael is a hero. The Army didn’t go looking for him to ask him for his service – he came looking for us because he was committed to make things better. Our nation is better, as are the people of Afghanistan, because of his devotion and brilliance. He will not be forgotten.”
Bhatia was a leading academic and lecturer in conflict and international relations who realized that his vast experience and cultural knowledge could be a critical asset to the Army in operations surrounding Afghan villages and provinces. A 1999 doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford and a George C. Marshall Scholarship recipient in 2001, his hope was providing assistance in creating a better quality of life for the local population while decreasing the level of lethal operations within the 4th BCT area of responsibility.
“Michael Bhatia’s efforts empowered the achievement of peace and stability among local populations without a reliance on force alone as the principle means,” said Steve Fondacaro, HTS project manager. “He didn’t merely write about it or talk about it, he just did it. And there are very many Soldiers and civilians who are alive today and together with their families because of it.”
As a civilian and as an academic, Bhatia lived the Army values of personal courage, loyalty, duty and respect. His accomplishments and contributions will be felt for many years to come.
Armed Forces Journal has a nice write-up of Michael Bhatia's contribution to the Human Terrain System, and to debate over the program among academics and bloggers. The author, Christopher Griffin, concludes in "A Human Tragedy: A Dedicated Anthropologist's Death Sparks Controversy," that
It seems unlikely that Bhatia’s death will inspire the American Anthropological Association to change its assessment of the human terrain system. But as William Francis Butler observed, a nation that insists on separating its soldiers and its scholars will likely find its fighting done by fools and its thinking by cowards. Bhatia was neither — he was a hero who died bridging that gap.
Response: 'Human Terrain' Social Scientist KilledAny death notice is sad. But it's particularly saddening to read that Michael V. Bhatia, a social scientist who was working in Afghanistan on the U.S. Armyâs Human Terrain System, was killed by a roadside bomb...