Warrior-scholar falls

Last week the nation lost Michael Vinay Bhatia to the war in Afghanistan (an IED of course). To say he was a unique breed of “soldier” would be an understatement:

Michael Vinay Bhatia, 31, was serving as a social scientist embedded with troops in the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain Systems program.

HTS program manager Steve Fondacaro said, “He was an example of a brilliant scholar who could have made his job and done well in the U.S., but who of his own accord discovered our program and volunteered to participate as a team member fully understanding the risks. This makes him a hero three, four times over…”

A magna cum laude graduate of Brown University, Bhatia was a doctoral candidate at Oxford University. “He had a lot of integrity as a scholar in terms of studying conflict and its impact on civilians and he was willing to take that into an operational field,” said Sarah Havens, a former Brown classmate. “He was adamant that that was the right thing to do.”

Bhatia’s dream of making a difference also took him to war-torn East Timor. But friends said they believed Bhatia was looking forward to a peaceful life back home. “I got the sense this was the last hurrah for him,” Havens said. “He was building his nest egg and looking for academic positions in the States for when he came back…” [Link]


p>I first heard about the Human Terrain Systems Program in an NPR story a few months ago (worth listening to). The idea is quite brilliant, the type of idea that our disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq could use more of if we want to see a real turn around. The basic purpose of the HTS teams is to learn about the people and customs of a region so that they can advise the military on how to win hearts and minds, not through bluster, but through mutual understanding:

  • HTS was developed in response to identified gaps in commanders’ and staffs’ understanding of the local population and culture, and its impact on operational decisions; and poor transfer of specific socio-cultural knowledge to follow-on units.
  • The HTS approach is to place the expertise and experience of social scientists and regional experts, coupled with reach-back, open-source research, directly in support of deployed units engaging in full-spectrum operations.
  • HTS believes that achieving national security objectives is dependent on understanding the societies and cultures in which we are engaged. [Link]


p>Among the outpouring of grief and remembrance that arose on various blogs in the past week was this one by a classmate of Bhatia’s at Brown University:

“I wish to pass on some bad news: Michael Bhatia was killed in Afghanistan.”

For twenty minutes, I managed to push it out of my mind and finish my meeting. As soon as I left The Landing, I fell apart.

As the day went on, I talked to other friends and colleagues of Mike’s and gathered more information. Apparently Mike was killed by a roadside bomb in Khost. He was stationed at FOB Salerno and advising the 82nd Airborne Division as part of the Human Terrain program. It was a controversial program and Mike told me he faced some criticism from colleagues for his decision to participate, but ultimately he believed he could do some good.

Mike and I were classmates at Brown, but we didn’t know each other well then. He came back to Providence in 2006 to become a visiting professor at the Watson Institute at Brown and we reconnected. If you google Mike, you’ll read a lot about his scholarly work around the world, especially in Afghanistan. Mike was a true academic, but in many ways he was more like Indiana Jones. Mike didn’t sit around and do research. He spent his time in the field: in Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan and more. Mike was a genius. He was an Oxford scholar, his book The Gun in Afghanistan was just published and there’s no doubt he knew his stuff when it came to international relations. You can find academics and experts around the globe who will sing his praises. They can do a far better job than I can explaining exactly why Mike’s research was so important.

I knew Mike in a far different capacity. To me, he wasn’t an author or a professor or a scholar. To me, he was a friend. For about a year Mike and I hung out on an almost daily basis. Last summer, Mike would come over to my place and we’d drink scotch and play Halo 2 until three in the morning (he’d routinely kick my ass). I would listen to him complain about his job and he’d endure my endless moaning about the trials and tribulations of starting a new company. We would go to the Wickenden Pub with our friend Chris and debate religion or head to the Wild Colonial to commiserate about women. We watched Entourage and Firefly together. Mike was a guy’s guy, a partner in crime. The kind that you could call any day of the week and he’d be down to go out at a moment’s notice. [Link]


p>Coincidentally, the author of the blog entry above was one of my closest friends growing up.


p>The best way to understand Bhatia’s work, and the reason why people are mourning the loss of his intelligence as well as his friendship, is to read this photoessay of his published last year.


p>Another one of his friends wrote in to SM as well:

A scholarship fund was established in Michael’s memory. The purpose of the fund will be to provide opportunities for undergraduates to obtain experiences working abroad similar to those Michael was able to undertake. Although the precise contours of the scholarship will be developed in the coming months, a fund already exists in his name. Those who would like to contribute to this fund may do so by writing checks payable to Brown University, clearly indicating that the gift is in memory of Michael Bhatia, and mailing the contribution to the following address:

Brown University

Gift Cashier

P.O. Box 1877

Providence, RI 02912

13 thoughts on “Warrior-scholar falls

  1. From the HTS website:

    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: http://humanterrainsystem.army.mil/index.htm.


  2. You know I considered enlisting back in 2002. I wanted to make a difference, and perhaps I also wanted some adventure. Not your typical soldier since I am too short, too old,too educated and have two X chromosomes. But in Afghanistan, at least, my skin color would have been about right and I could have moved around incognito. Of course I didn’t go. I had neither conviction nor nerve in sufficient quantities.

  3. My thoughts go out to Vinay. But I have to say this …’Human terrain’ sounds very dehumanizing, very brown blob. Who comes up with these terms?

  4. My condolences to his family and friends on their loss. I offer my respect and admiration for his service, his courage and his work as some small measure in appreciation of his life. Rest well.

  5. Pretty sad that he lost his life.

    However, as Bridget Jones points out, for a variety of reasons, most social scientists are not too excited about scholar-warriors….

  6. Bush expresses his solidarity.

    Allen: “Mr. President, you haven’t been golfing in recent years. Is that related to Iraq?” Bush: “Yes, it really is. I don’t want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander-in-chief playing golf. I feel I owe it to the families to be as — to be in solidarity as best as I can with them. And I think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal.” Allen: “Mr. President, was there a particular moment or incident that brought you to that decision, or how did you come to that?” Bush: “No, I remember when de Mello, who was at the U.N., got killed in Baghdad as a result of these murderers taking this good man’s life. And I was playing golf — I think I was in central Texas — and they pulled me off the golf course and I said, it’s just not worth it anymore to do.”

    As always with Bush, though, reality tells a different tale:

    Not only is it a hollow, trivial sacrifice at best, Bush’s story doesn’t hold water. While he dates his decision to abjure golf to Aug. 19, 2003 — the day a truck bomb in Baghdad killed U.N. special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello and more than a dozen others — the Associated Press reported on Oct. 13, 2003, that he’d spent a “cool, breezy Columbus Day” playing “a round of golf with three long-time buddies. “Bush played at Andrews Air Force Base with Clay Johnson, Office of Management and Budget deputy director, Richard Hauser, Department of Housing and Urban Development general counsel and another friend, Mike Wood.” On that outing, he was typically full of what passes for good humor at the White House. The AP reported: “‘Fine looking crew you got there. Fine looking crew,’ Bush joked to reporters. ‘That’s what we’d hope for presidential coverage. Only the best.’ “He hit a couple of practice balls before flaring his tee-off shot into the right rough.”

    Well, I know one American who will be happy that Bush ever got to become president.

    As for human terrain systems, does this count?

  7. I lived in the same building as Michael during my freshman year at Brown. He was a funny, thoughtful guy who went on to fulfill one of the many Brown mantras of trying to save the world after you graduate. My prayers go out to his family.

  8. It is always a shame when someone dies prematurely, but let’s not forget that however noble his stated motives, Mr. Bhatia was serving alongside an army of occupation, and thereby chose to make himself a legitimate target for resistance.

  9. Hi Abhi,

    I just discovered your post about Mike. I think you would have liked him a great deal. After the mass for Mike last Friday, I had an opportunity to talk to several of the members of the military that worked with him. It was very eye opening for me. I put my thoughts about it here. Hope you’re well.