Commentary Magazine

Imperial Grunts by Robert D. Kaplan

Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground
by Robert D. Kaplan
Random House. 421 pp. $27.95

Is America an empire, and, if so, is that a good or a bad thing, either for the U.S. or for the world? This question has been kicked around in recent years by polemicists from Noam Chomsky on the far fringe Left to Patrick Buchanan on the rabid Right and, more reflectively, by numerous scholars and intellectuals nearer the center. As the title of his new book suggests, Robert D. Kaplan is among those who believe America is indeed an empire. And as his subtitle makes clear, he means to grasp the nature of this empire by surveying the military forces and personnel that exert power on its behalf.

Kaplan’s preferred literary form is the travelogue, but here, as in his numerous previous works, he does much more than describe the scenery—although he does that exceedingly well. In Balkan Ghosts (1993), Kaplan wrote about some of the most venomous ethnic hatreds of the last century, while in The Coming Anarchy (2000), set in West Africa and other desolate locales, he laid out an apocalyptic vision of the post-cold-war era. Both books asked and answered fundamental questions about the world in which we live.

To produce this latest volume, Kaplan spent months as a reporter embedded with small units of the American armed forces, descending into desert gullies and jungle swamps with the “grunts” and the men who command them. Using as a road map the Pentagon’s division of the world into five regional commands, Kaplan journeyed to destinations in each. The result is a series of telephoto snapshots of how the U.S. military operates, not only in the hottest of hot spots like Iraq but also in other, far less familiar strife-torn corners of the imperium—if an imperium is what it is.



Two such corners are the Philippines and Colombia. In the former, Kaplan gained a bird’s-eye view of American efforts to combat Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic guerrilla movement and al-Qaeda affiliate that, from its base on an archipelago of southern islands, has been engaged in an insurgency against the government in Manila. The Philippine army is a study in weakness, its fear of the guerrillas more than outweighing its willingness to fight them. Since a transformation of the army is unattainable, the essential American task has been, instead, to help the government in Manila “win hearts and minds.”

The phrase is redolent of Vietnam. But these days, Kaplan notes admiringly, it is uttered by American military officers, and practiced by their troops, without a smidgen of irony. He describes a medical-aid program run by the U.S. Marines in the high mountain village of La Paz:

I saw that several pockets of Marines had secured a perimeter. Rain and sunlight sprayed simultaneously through a fine mother-of-pearl mist. In long lines in the rain, people waited to have their teeth pulled, their eyes checked and treated for cataracts, their children examined, and to get medicines for a variety of minor ailments. I overheard a U.S. Navy doctor sadly tell a man that he could do nothing for his daughter’s three-chambered heart. But every child was treated for worms and vitamin A deficiency.

In short order, more than 1,800 villagers had their ailments ministered to, garnering good will not so much for the U.S. (which kept a low profile in the operation) as for the central Philippine authorities.

Colombia, the “kingdom of cocaine,” sitting astride vast untapped fossil-fuel reserves, is a country wracked by a four-decade-long war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a narco-Marxist guerrilla movement. Although U.S. interests there are immense, Congress, fearful of “mission creep,” has imposed a “force cap” of no more than 400 U.S. troops at any one time—this, in a country of 40 million.

Kaplan spent a portion of the winter of 2003 with U.S. Special Forces: elite army soldiers with expertise in counterinsurgency. Far too few to make a difference in combat operations, they play the primary role of training the ineffectual Colombian army to fight the cocaine-trading guerrillas on its own.

Kaplan devotes some attention to the function of weapons, tactics, and strategy in this struggle. But here and elsewhere in the book—besides the Philippines and Colombia, he covers Yemen, Mongolia, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and Iraq—these are not what engage his interest most passionately. In his tour of America’s faraway military outposts, his central focus is, rather, on the personalities, the beliefs, and the character of the individuals who serve at the pointy end of the spear, laying their lives on the line to carry out America’s imperial objectives.



Kaplan’s love for this subject is wholly undisguised—the burden of “imperial maintenance,” he writes, is “genuinely inspiring” when experienced up close and at first hand. To it, he brings an ear and a pen eager to absorb and to convey the feel of everyday life in the field. He regales his readers with the vocabulary of “militaryspeak” and numerous useful tricks of the trade, including such items as survival tips for walking through the minefields of Afghanistan. (“Stay on the goat trail,” one of his interlocutors explains. “Goat shit means we’re safe from mines.”)

What emerges most sharply from Imperial Grunts is a portrait of soldiers who are highly disciplined, refreshingly well educated, committed to serving their country, and striving hard to stay within the rules of engagement set by higher-ups in the chain of command, no matter how incomprehensible these might appear from the perspective of the trenches.

In his visit to Afghanistan, for example, Kaplan finds himself in the Gardez firebase, a small and primitive American installation well to the southeast of Kabul, in the midst of a merry band of self-described “Guard bums,” members of their states’ National Guard. These men signed up for service out of ardent patriotism mixed with a hearty appetite for adventure—“we’re like tourists with guns” is how one of them puts it.

Most of the soldiers in this particular unit are from northern Florida. Typically, they are the sons of Vietnam veterans and in private life policemen or firemen—heavily tattooed, avid NASCAR fans, completely gung-ho about their mission of fighting the remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda. Accompanying them on patrol, Kaplan offers a gripping account of military operations in the murky battlefield of post-Taliban Afghanistan. Pointedly, he writes of them: “While the media was full of lugubrious stories about the great sacrifices being made by reservists in Iraq and Afghanistan, these guys were having the time of their lives.”



In attempting to make sense of what he has seen, Kaplan reflects back on the Vietnam war. Drawing on an old essay by James Fallows about those who served and those who escaped service in that war, he recollects a scene at the Boston Navy Yard in which a busload of Harvard draftees came “armed with carefully manipulated medical records to show their lack of fitness for duty, while another busload of working-class kids from Chelsea went smoothly through the induction process.” Today, in the age of the volunteer army, the axis of division within American society remains the same. Those willing to spill blood for their country come primarily from the working class, while soldiers recruited from Harvard and similar citadels of enlightenment are few and far between.

What accounts for this intractable gap? Kaplan does not say, but he does note the ways in which the attitudes and ideas of the working-class cohort differ from the conventional wisdom among “porcelain shitters,” as those of us not enduring the hardships of the battlefield are referred to by one of Kaplan’s Marines. Among the soldiers, an “unapologetic, literal belief in God” is common. So are an “unblinking courage and straightforwardness . . . both revealed and obscured by [their] profane language.” Above all, these are young people secure in the view that America must play an active role in the world, and cannot run from its obligations even in the face of casualties. As one of Kaplan’s interviewees puts it, “If five firemen get killed fighting a fire, what do you do? Let the building burn?”

Kaplan manages wonderfully to bring into view the character of these young men and women (actually, mostly men) who now serve in the U.S. armed forces. As a short course on existence inside the American fighting machine at the turn of the 21st century, Imperial Grunts is undoubtedly the next best thing to getting embedded as a reporter oneself. But how well does it stack up as an analysis of its ostensible subject: America’s allegedly imperial role in the world?



In a brief introductory chapter, and in intermittent comments later on, Kaplan sketches the contours of the American empire as he sees it. Even before the surprise attacks of September 11 propelled us into a series of distant wars, he writes, the U.S. had bases or base rights in 59 lands and the Army was conducting operations in some 170 countries every year. By 2000, the U.S. military had “appropriated the entire earth, and was ready to flood the most obscure areas of it with troops at a moment’s notice.” To get a sense of what this means, he suggests a visit to the Philippines, “where the white baronial U.S. Embassy fronting Manila Bay occupies the most beautiful downtown real estate in the same way as British and French embassies in their former colonies.”

That, at least, is one of Kaplan’s main claims. But as we have seen in the case of Colombia, the picture he paints of the American empire on the ground is rather different. In fact, the average size of the Army’s 170-country deployments, we learn, is a mere nine soldiers. In some places, like Mongolia, a tiny handful of officers collect intelligence and do good works while showing the stars and stripes. Much of our military involvement in little-heard-from countries is what Kaplan himself characterizes as “protean,” only beginning to take shape and highly limited in scope.

Kaplan attempts to reconcile these contradictions by describing America’s dominion as something historically unique, an imperium “without colonies, suited to a jet-and-information age in which mass movements of people and capital [have] diluted the meaning of sovereignty.” But to invoke these shapeless terms only thickens the analytical fog, especially since elsewhere in his book Kaplan defines imperialism rather categorically as a quest “for absolute, undefiled security at home [that] leads one to conquer the world.”

Nor are these the only knots in which Kaplan becomes entangled. At various junctures, he appears to criticize the U.S. for using insufficient force in carrying out its objectives—arguing, for instance, that the failure to insert Special Forces along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the search for al-Qaeda fugitives reveals a “feckless” reluctance to offend General Pervez Musharraf. But in the very next sentence, Kaplan lays out the evidence suggesting that Washington is doing precisely what he recommends, only covertly, employing the “ ‘black,’ or secret, side of Special Forces, as well as the Army’s Delta Force and the SEALs” for cross-border infiltrations into Pakistan.

Kaplan similarly faults the Bush administration for “fecklessness” in Iraq, where American hesitancy in reclaiming the city of Falluja from Sunni insurgents in the spring of 2004 is said to have demonstrated “the weakness of nation-states against the thundering new forces of a global media.” Writing in a hawkish vein on one page, Kaplan calls the hesitation part of a “classic American syndrome: an aversion to sustained engagement overseas that leads to more carnage rather than less.” Writing in a dovish vein on another page, he tells us that the lesson of Falluja “was clear; the more subtle and cautious its application of power, the greater would be America’s sustaining impact.”

This back-and-forth and up-and-down mode is either a sign of intellectual confusion or a dodge by a writer unwilling to commit himself. Either way, it induces vertigo. In the end, Imperial Grunts remains a collection of coherent and wonderfully rendered anecdotes, woven together with another collection of reflections and assertions, much less coherent and some of them highly debatable.


About the Author

Gabriel Schoenfeld is senior editor of COMMENTARY.

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