by Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
Rather, he writes, "these men saw their charge in terms of developing a cadre of Westernized officers and useful contacts in both the Christian and Muslim communities who could be influential even in the event that the state broke up...Colonel Wilhelm does everything from overseeing new aid programs (like a dental mission that treats an average of a hundred patients a day in small border towns) to visiting remote military outposts...
"Welcome to Injun Country."
This is the refrain Robert D. Kaplan says he kept hearing from American troops in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Colombia and in the Philippines, as he researched his uneven but often gripping new book, "Imperial Grunts."
To continue the metaphor, he adds, "For many of those professional troops the 21st century looked strikingly similar to the middle and latter half of the 19th, when volunteer cavalry and dragoons subdued a panoply of mobile guerrilla forces, composed of different North American Indian tribes, operating throughout the new American empire west of the Mississippi River." He compares the panoply of Indian tribes in 19th-century America to the multitude of "warring ethnic and religious militias spread throughout Eurasia, Africa and South America in the early 21st century." And he compares the multifronted global map on which the United States now finds itself fighting terrorism to the "Hobbesian world" the American military once faced on the Western frontier where "internecine ethnic warfare, motivated by the competition for territory and resources, was the primary fact of life."
For "Imperial Grunts," Mr. Kaplan - a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and the author of such earlier books as "Balkan Ghosts" - traveled the globe, talking to middle-level commissioned and noncommissioned officers stationed at dangerous outposts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Colombia and the Philippines. He came to the conclusion that "by the turn of the 21st century the United States military had already appropriated the entire earth" - a vast empire best policed, his sources argue, by "small, guerilla-like groups of men, armed with linguistic and cultural expertise." Because Al Qaeda "was a worldwide insurgency," Mr. Kaplan writes, the United States "had to fight a classic worldwide counterinsurgency," modeled less on World War II, Korea or the Persian Gulf war, than on the actions of O.S.S. units in Nazi-occupied France and the Green Berets in El Salvador.
While Mr. Kaplan's larger, theoretical arguments about the future of the military often read like an unconvincing hodgepodge of talking points lifted from people like Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Max Boot (the author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power"), his on-the-ground reportage makes for riveting reading. He provides vivid and highly chilling accounts of the dangers faced by members of the American military in places like Falluja in Iraq and Colombia's Arauca Province, even as he leaves the reader with a keen appreciation of the expertise and versatility of Special Forces units, who are as adept at executing emergency commando raids as they are at the long, frustrating work of training indigenous armies and pursuing narco-terrorists.
For these "grunts," as Mr. Kaplan calls them, the mission is everything. Political implications and larger strategic thinking they leave to others. As Mr. Kaplan writes of the Green Berets in Colombia: "They lived for the particular technical task at hand, and were willing to die, provided there would be someone behind them to pick up the task where they had left off." Or as Bob Innes, a veteran of the United States Coast Guard, says of Vietnam: "I learned that honor and integrity are personal qualities, not institutional ones, not ones we should expect the state to always have. If you don't like the policy, tough. Bad things happen in this world. You do the best you can in your job, and let the crybabies write the books."In fact, most of the noncom and middle-level officers Mr. Kaplan meets in the Philippines do not speak in terms of "saving" or "improving" the country. Rather, he writes, "these men saw their charge in terms of developing a cadre of Westernized officers and useful contacts in both the Christian and Muslim communities who could be influential even in the event that the state broke up. None of the Americans were cynical, yet all of them were aware of America's limitations amid vast and roiling cultural and political forces. But they persevered, finding deep personal meaning in their jobs."
Perhaps the best example in this book of one soldier's versatility and influence is Col. Thomas Parker Wilhelm, who trained as an Army Ranger and melded the roles of soldier and diplomat in his capacity as an Army foreign area officer stationed in Mongolia. In an effort to "make the descendants of Genghis Khan the 'peacekeeping Gurkhas' of the American Empire" and give the United States a presence near the Chinese border, Colonel Wilhelm does everything from overseeing new aid programs (like a dental mission that treats an average of a hundred patients a day in small border towns) to visiting remote military outposts, where he gives Mongolian military officers the benefit of the knowledge he's acquired from earlier postings in the former Soviet Union, Bosnia, Tajikistan and Macedonia.
Throughout this book, Mr. Kaplan draws pointed contrasts between the quickness and adaptability of Special Forces units and the lumbering military bureaucracy, and his portraits of individuals like Colonel Wilhelm serve as potent illustrations of the argument that in the 21st century, "Economy of Force" is the way to go. Look for "the right hinge - the fragile axis upon which political developments in a given country can turn," he writes. In other words: "Don't try to fix the whole society. Rather, identify a few key pivotal elements in it, and try to fix them." But while Mr. Kaplan's theory that "small light and lethal units of soldiers and marines, skilled in guerrilla warfare" could "accomplish more than dinosauric, industrial age infantry divisions" clearly applies in some cases - for instance, the opening days of the American campaign in Afghanistan - it's equally clear that it doesn't always work as a general principle. In the case of Iraq, Mr. Rumsfeld's advocacy of a similar theory contributed to the failure to establish law and order after the fall of Saddam Hussein and the failure to contain the continuing insurgency there. Toward the end of this volume, even Mr. Kaplan concedes that "130,000 American troops in Iraq were simply not enough to deal with a fraction of that number of insurgents." "Imperial Grunts" is pockmarked by other questionable generalizations as well. Mr. Kaplan contends that those Americans who haven't seen military service are missing out on "the American experience," something he describes as being "exotic, romantic, exciting, bloody and emotionally painful, sometimes all at once." And describing the experience of soldiers serving in Iraq, he cheekily writes that "it was ironic to keep reading stories about unhappy over-deployed reservists, because those in the Special Operations community whom I had met here and in eastern Afghanistan were having the time of their lives."
This romanticized and blinkered view of combat clearly colors - and decidedly slants - the perspective of "Imperial Grunts," though in the end, even it cannot diminish the vigor of Mr. Kaplan's dispatches from among the grunts.
Posted September 23, 2005