When a roadside bomb exploded earlier this month in Afghanistan, it killed an American academic embedded with U.S. troops and also delivered a blow to the controversial U.S. military program in which he served.
Michael Bhatia had been working as a social scientist with the Army for seven months when he was killed, along with two American soldiers on May 7. The Humvee he was riding in was struck by an improvised explosive device.
Bhatia had been teaching at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies as well as working on a doctoral degree from Oxford University when he decided to enroll with the military's Human Terrain System. The program, run by the U.S. Army's Training and Doctrine Command, hires social scientists to collect and share information abut Afghani culture with U.S. troops. Bhatia is the first civilian in the program to die.
Although some argue that social scientists should not be advising military units in war zones, Bhatia saw the Human Terrain System as a way to reduce Afghan and American casualties.
Ready to Debate
At 31, Bhatia's passion for Afghanistan had already led him to publish two books, teach at the Watson Institute, and study politics and international relations at Oxford.
At the Watson Institute, colleagues remember him as smart, thoughtful and ready to debate. Looking at a photo of Bhatia that hangs in the hall, Karen Lynch, the school's communications manager, remembers how much he enjoyed discourse. The photo shows Bhatia "engaged in a to and fro with someone in the audience," Lynch says. "We thought that captured him quite well."
Bhatia's sister, Tricia, says that as much as he loved an active discussion, talking about the war was never enough.
"When I think about us having conversations about anything he would sort of bring it back to, 'Well, Trish, you can complain about this, but what are you going to do about this?'" she says.
Tricia Bhatia says it was her brother's need to put his studies into action that led him to join the military's Human Terrain System.
She was skeptical of the program. It was less than a year old when Bhatia enrolled in it, and at the time, it was already causing some controversy.
For example, the American Anthropology Association discouraged its members from being a part of the program over concerns that information gathered by social scientists might be used by the military to cause harm.
Bhatia says her brother was aware of this concern but thought it was important to join anyway.
"I had deep, deep faith in Michael's humanitarian ideal leading him there, that he felt he could really make a difference," she says.
'A Light in His Eyes'
James Der Darian, Bhatia's professor and colleague at Brown University, said he didn't get a chance to advise Bhatia about his decision to work for the military. But if he had, he says, he'd have been less concerned with the ethics of Bhatia's work and more concerned with his safety. No matter what measures are put into place, Der Darian says, they'll never be sufficient.
So for most people, he says, it's not worth the risk.
"But Michael isn't most people," he says.
Army reservist Rachel Ridenour was on the Human Terrain team with Michael in Afghanistan.
"Even now, going through photos of the team, every single photo, the man just had a light in his eyes and a grin on his face," Ridenour says.
She says Bhatia's academic background sometimes helped the team rethink its work. For example, when the troops wanted to research roadside bombs in a village, Bhatia discovered through talking with local business owners and residents that they were very concerned about a ban on motorcycles. So he brought local government officials together and helped to overturn the ban.
"Michael just had great rapport with the elders and the locals. Many occasions after meetings, the elders would come out and point their finger at him and say, 'You are very smart. You ask all the right questions,'"she says.
The conversation continues about the safety and ethics of putting social scientists in war zones, and Bhatia's life has become part of the discussion. His friends say if Bhatia were here, he would continue to defend his work, but also lean forward and enjoy the debate.