To a degree that other mere scribblers can only envy, Robert Kaplan is a writer whose views command attention among movers and shakers. For Clinton-era officials grappling with the crisis of a disintegrating Yugoslavia, Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, published in 1993, served for a time as holy writ. The essays collected in The Coming Anarchy, released in 2001, offered a bleak but influential depiction of the disorder roiling the planet after the cold war. Restlessly trolling the world for stories, Kaplan has become much more than a reporter; he is a public intellectual who happens to live out of his rucksack.
With his new book, Kaplan turns from describing the world’s ills to proposing a remedy. The antidote to anarchy is empire, policed by American soldiers holding an assault rifle in one hand and offering candy bars with the other.
Kaplan began Imperial Grunts intending to “take a snapshot for posterity,” recording what it was like to be a GI “stationed at remote locations overseas at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” The result, however, is less a snapshot than an album of impressions collected during the course of travels that take Kaplan from the jungles of Colombia to the deserts of Iraq, with forays in between to the Philippines, Yemen, Djibouti and Mongolia. At each stop along the way his subject is the American soldier, whom he observes, interviews, explains and venerates.
A journalist who displays his contempt for phonies and frauds like a badge of honor, Kaplan wants above all for his readers to accept his snapshot as genuine and truthful. He prides himself on reporting that is immediate, personal and even intimate. In this case, tracking US troops across various hot spots obliged Kaplan to endure any number of indignities, all of them carefully enumerated: He subsisted on combat rations, went without showers, jostled around in drafty cargo planes and cramped Humvees and slept on dirt floors using a helmet for a pillow. So this purports to be the real deal.
Among the effusive endorsements adorning Imperial Grunts is one by Bing West describing Kaplan as “America’s Kipling.” Like Kipling, Kaplan is smitten with barracks rooms, mess halls and the “world of beer, cigarettes, instant coffee, and chewing tobaccos” that soldiers ostensibly inhabit. In a nation crowded with charlatans, soldiers–“people who hunted, drove pickups, employed profanities as a matter of dialect, and yet had a literal, demonstrable belief in the Almighty”– retain for Kaplan an authenticity otherwise fast disappearing from American life.
Authenticity in this context connotes masculinity and self-abnegation. In an age redolent of sham and corruption, soldiers–having “taken a veritable monastic vow of poverty”–retain an “unapologetic, literal belief in God…tempered and uplifted by the democratic experience.” As a consequence, they are compassionate as well as brave, rough around the edges but also refreshingly honest.
If Kaplan is a romantic, he is also a populist and a reactionary. He dotes over the career sergeants who come out of rural America and the “generic working class,” in Kaplan’s eyes “the Great Preserver of the oldest, simplest virtues.” He endorses the muscular Protestant fundamentalism that over the past thirty years has tacitly established itself as the quasi-official religion of America’s armed forces, its abiding theme not love thy neighbor but smite thine enemy. He notes approvingly that in today’s military the spirit of the Old South lives on, with the very best captains and majors finding their role models in “the gleaming officer corps of the Confederacy.” Indeed, Kaplan locates the “true religious soul” of present-day professional soldiers in “the martial evangelicalism of the South.”