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.”
Reactionary populists idealize the past because they loathe the present. Kaplan proves no exception. Fawning over soldiers as a virtuous remnant of a lost, better age, he misses no opportunity to express his contempt for his contemporaries who do not share in the austere existence of the classic man-at-arms. The targets of his wrath include, but are by no means limited to, narcissistic intellectuals, risk-averse politicians, micromanaging generals, bean-counting bureaucrats, wimpy journalists who have never visited Djibouti or Mongolia, the entire “policy nomenklatura in Washington and New York–in its cocoon of fine restaurants and theoretical discussions,” and all manner of effete civilians, especially those residing in New England, which Kaplan, who makes his home in Massachusetts, describes as awash with pacifists.
Why are such people worth defending? How is it that a warped and decadent society manages to produce such sturdy warriors? Hovering in the background of his snapshot, these questions do not interest Kaplan. He prefers to focus on the American soldier in the field, where the order of the day has less to do with defending the country per se than with managing a global empire.
On that empire Kaplan is bullish. He views the global war on terror as an opportunity to push out its boundaries–if the policy-making twits in Washington will simply give dirty-boots soldiers the latitude to do so. “To be an American in the first decade of the twenty-first century,” he writes, “was to be present at a grand and fleeting moment.” The events of September 11, 2001, inaugurated what Kaplan calls America’s “Second Expeditionary Era”–the first had begun with the expansionist surge of 1898–in which US forces once again sally forth to take up “the white man’s burden,” a phrase that he employs without irony or apology.
Kaplan laces his narrative with ostentatious references to emperors and adventurers, proconsuls and viceroys, ranging from T.E. Lawrence to “Ligustinus, the Roman centurion.” The cumulative effect is to suggest that the United States today is simply doing what empires throughout history have done: shouldering “the righteous responsibility to advance the boundaries of free society and good government into zones of sheer chaos.” To imply that other, less exalted considerations just might enter into the equation–power? profit?–becomes unseemly. For Kaplan, the essence of empire is helping those unable to help themselves, creating order out of anarchy and uplifting the downtrodden.
In this sense, as Kaplan sees it, 9/11 returned the US military to its nineteenth-century roots when advancing the boundaries of free society meant removing any obstacles impeding the westward march of the young Republic. Today’s war on terror is “really about taming the frontier,” with the frontier now literally without limits. According to Kaplan, the vast swath of Islam, stretching from Africa across the Middle East to Southeast Asia, now qualifies as “Injun Country.” The “entire planet” has now become “battle space for the American military.”
Buried in all of this chest-thumping jingoism and celebration of soldierly virtue is an argument of sorts. The essence of the argument is as follows: America’s unconventional warriors hold the key to governing its global imperium. On the outer rim of empire, cultural sensitivity and familiarity with the local languages matter more than firepower. The efforts of the guy on the ground sipping tea with the local warlord count for more than airy pronouncements issued by the Pentagon or the White House. Quality outweighs quantity. Rather than the large, fixed installations favored by what Kaplan contemptuously refers to as the “Big Army,” better to establish a small, austere footprint. Only the US military has the ability to run the American empire, but “the fewer troops that policed it the better.”
According to Kaplan, the world’s sole superpower doesn’t especially need tanks and fighter-bombers, artifacts from a military age now past. Instead, it ought to be investing in something akin to a “Peace Corps with guns.” During the course of his travels, he discovers that the nation already has this capability in its Special Forces and Marine Corps–elite organizations optimized for imperial policing. All that’s required is to turn them loose and to get out of the way. After all, as Kaplan explains in an assertion sure to come as news to the Air Force and the Northern Alliance, a mere handful of special operations troops “conquered Afghanistan by themselves.”
Kaplan’s reporting, however, belies his thesis, both as to the imperial past and the military imperatives of the present. Two examples will suffice to make the point.
Kaplan’s chapter on the Philippines details his stay in Zamboanga, where Filipino authorities have been engaged in a never-ending struggle against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. After 9/11 Washington classified the Moros as part of the global terrorist conspiracy and dispatched a contingent of military advisers to assist the Filipino army. For the Pentagon the southern Philippines became, in Kaplan’s words, “a laboratory for drying up an Islamic insurgency, as well as for small-scale nation-building.”
This is not, to put it mildly, the first time that American soldiers have undertaken such an enterprise. For well over a decade during the “First Expeditionary Era,” Zamboanga had been the headquarters for khaki-clad Americans tasked with pacifying what was then called the Moro Province. US Army forces, under a succession of famous commanders such as Leonard Wood, Tasker Bliss and John Pershing, employed the “Peace Corps with guns” approach, combining naked coercion with ambitious programs of political reform, social engineering and economic development. Although the phrase “humanitarian intervention” had yet to be invented, the American officers sent to deal with the Moros had no doubt that their own intentions were humane and high-minded.
The effort yielded a meager harvest. Although the Americans killed plenty of Moros, including notoriously large numbers of women and children, resistance to US rule proved to be inextinguishable. Imaginative and energetically implemented nation-building programs had a negligible impact. Several decades of colonial tutelage produced a present-day Philippine nation that Kaplan himself describes as “dysfunctional, intractable, and poverty-stricken,” not to mention “pathetically corrupt.” Indeed, Kaplan observes–correctly–that “from 1902 to 1913, America’s attempt to impose democracy had led to a more militant Islam.” Why will present-day attempts to dry up this perpetual insurgency yield a different result? He does not say.
Kaplan conceived of his visit to Iraq as an opportunity to witness US Marines, tapping their rich history in “small wars,” winning Iraqi hearts and minds. But unforeseen events intervened. When insurgents murdered four American contractors in Falluja on March 31, 2004, priorities changed: Cultural sensitivity suddenly mattered less than brute force. Battering Falluja into submission saw Marines resorting to the “Big Army” methods that Kaplan had earlier disdained, complete with tanks, fighter-bombers and an abundance of firepower. The assault on Falluja was the “classic, immemorial labor of infantry” reminiscent of Vietnam and World War II. It wasn’t tea with warlords; it was a bloodbath.
On whether the effort advanced the boundaries of free society and good governance, Kaplan remains silent. But certainly the successive battles for Falluja–indeed, the mess that is present-day Iraq–calls into question Kaplan’s contention that scattering Special Forces teams hither and yon will enable the United States to bring the Injuns to heel. There will always be recalcitrants willing and determined to fight.
Kaplan introduces Imperial Grunts with this typically bold assertion: “By the turn of the twenty-first century, the United States military had already appropriated the entire earth, and was ready to flood the most obscure areas of it with troops at a moment’s notice.” Whether such an assessment of US military power was ever accurate is doubtful. By 2005, however, it had become demonstrably false. Hard-pressed to hold on to the new provinces to which today’s architects of empire have laid claim, America’s armed forces are in no position to appropriate more. As for the Pentagon’s ability to flood additional obscure quarters of the earth, the troops required to do so simply do not exist.
The real story of the present-day US military, which the peripatetic Kaplan somehow has managed to overlook, is one of power squandered–lives lost, dollars wasted, a glittering reputation sullied. It’s enough to suggest that a militarized empire might not be such a great idea after all.