Social Sciences in War: The Cost of Being There

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

Michael Bhatia

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.

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4 thoughts on “Social Sciences in War: The Cost of Being There

  1. I participated in a workshop on media and terrorism at the Watson Institute at Brown last week and learned about this cost of being embedded with the military–in this case on the part of a social scientist. However shocking this loss is, we also have to be aware that the scholarship of social scientists in this area is equally as important (and perhaps more so) than the reporting of journalists.

  2. Relatives and friends are invited to attend Michael Bhatia’s funeral Mass on Friday, May 16 at 10 a.m. at St. Joseph’s Church, 151 Village St. in Medway, Massachusetts 02053, USA. Calling hours will be held on Thursday from 4- 8 p.m. at the Ginley-Crowley Funeral Home, 3 Barber St. in Medway, Massachusetts 02053, USA. Burial will take place at the family plot at the Valley View Cemetery in Ticonderoga, NY.In lieu of flowers, donations in Michael’s memory may be made to the Michael V. Bhatia Memorial Fund c/o Rockland Trust Company, 288 Union St., Rockland, MA 02370.For the complete family placed obituary and guest book, go to: pass the word along.

  3. All:Please go read the touching tribute at the above URL. Reasons – not that explanation is really necessary: 1) it´s about Michael Bhatia, and 2) it´s written by Jarat Chopra.Mike

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