HTS Researcher Killed in Afghanistan

Despite my repeated criticisms of the Human Terrain Systems work that involves social scientists, anthropologists included, in counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, I am linking to this news merely for the record. Some of my criticisms were also posted in the AAA news blog. I neither wish to cheer this death, nor to indulge in the kind of pious sanctimony I have encountered in readers’ comments on some of the sites below, with their unscrupulous and quick little promotional plugs for the “good” of HTS. As far as I am aware, this is the first HTS researcher to have been killed as a result of combat, and for as long as the program continues one can expect that there will be additional fatalities, both for HTS members and even more so for the subject populations they are monitoring.


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. …

ROCKVILLE, Maryland – BAE Systems has announced the identity of an employee who died Wednesday in Afghanistan. Michael V. Bhatia, 31, a social scientist working for the company in Afghanistan, died in an IED attack in Khowst on May 7.

Doug Belair, president of the company’s Technology Solutions & Services line of business said: “We are deeply saddened by the loss of Michael Bhatia. He was a well-respected and important member of our team who served his nation in the face of great danger. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and colleagues.”

Mr. Bhatia had been working in Afghanistan as part of the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain Systems program team since November after joining the company in September. He was from Medway, Massachusetts.

About BAE Systems

BAE Systems is the premier global defence and aerospace company delivering a full range of products and services for air, land and naval forces, as well as advanced electronics, information technology solutions and customer support services. With 97,500 employees worldwide, BAE Systems’ sales exceeded £15.7 billion (US $31.4 billion) in 2007.

May 08, 2008

Michael Vinay Bhatia ’99 died yesterday in Afghanistan, where he was 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, writing his PhD dissertation, and teaching a senior seminar on “The US Military: Global Supremacy, Democracy and Citizenship.”


Additional coverage:

‘Human Terrain’ Social Scientist Killed in Afghanistan
WIRED Blog Network, May 9, 2008

Human Terrain Team Member Killed in Afghanistan
Small Wars Journal, May 9, 2008

Social Scientist in Army’s ‘Human Terrain’ Program Dies in Afghanistan
Chronicle of Higher Education, May 9, 2008

7 thoughts on “HTS Researcher Killed in Afghanistan

  1. Laura McNamara

    “I neither wish to cheer this death, nor to indulge in the kind of pious sanctimony I have encountered in readers’ comments on some of the sites below, with their unscrupulous and quick little promotional plugs for the “good” of HTS.”

    There is something profoundly wrong with your thinking if you’d even consider ‘cheering a death,’ no matter how you feel about HTS. Most of the comments about Michael’s death are about Michael, not about HTS – he was very loved. Obviously you never had the pleasure of knowing him. How dreadfully self- righteous and sanctimonious. What happened to your humanity?

  2. Maximilian Forte

    “I neither wish to cheer his death” clearly means I am not considering cheering his death — I know how easy it can be to misunderstand someone, but should misunderstanding come so easily, even when my language is this plain?

    I am accused of sanctimony, by someone who pointedly asks me about my “humanity” (as I presumably lack it?). My question is: when did double-think become so incredibly prevalent? My second question is: when did the one-sided mourning of invaders and occupiers become the standard by which “humanity” is measured?

    My point that readers of other blogs and news stories used the opportunity to make statements about heroism, and about doing “good” in the context of HTS, still stands. And no, I have no idea who Michael was, and it is totally irrelevant to my post, which was written neither as a eulogy nor as a personal condemnation. If only someone like you would post such warm personal comments each time an Afghan or Iraqi is killed by US forces, then I might be better prepared to actually take your “humanity” seriously.

  3. Maximilian Forte


    “As an organizational anthropologist, McNamara conducts field studies with groups that are attempting to develop and/or integrate modeling and simulation tools into their work processes. She has worked with the Missile Defense Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the nuclear weapons programs at Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories to identify both the limitations of, and leverage points for, the effective use of modeling and simulation technologies in interdisciplinary research and development projects. Her research interests include expert knowledge elicitation, knowledge representation, distributed cognition, collaboration, uncertainty quantification, and verification and validation for social and behavioral modeling and simulation technologies. In addition, Dr. McNamara is a member of Sandia’s Human Studies Board.”

    “McNamara lives on five acres in east central New Mexico with her husband, Paul Johnson, four German shepherds, and four llamas.”

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