Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground
by Robert D Kaplan
The Cowboy Culture
A review by David Rieff
The French writer Jean Larteguy is largely forgotten now, but in the late 1950s
and early 1960s his novels chronicling and celebrating the French paratroopers'
fight against Vietnamese and Algerian revolutionaries, first for empire and then
for a metropole stretching from Normandy to the Sahara, were immensely popular.
These books, which were very skillfully written, had titles such as The Mercenaries,
The Centurions, and The Praetorians, all evocative of the comparison
that was central to Larteguy's vision: the French troops as latter-day Roman centurions
holding the line against the barbarians, exactly as their Roman ancestors had
done along Hadrian's Wall. Larteguy's books extolled the self-sacrifice of commando
soldiers who were unappreciated or even reviled at home, but were nonetheless
the bulwark between la patrie and anarchy.
It was hardly surprising that rootless Paris cosmopolitans, homosexuals, self-serving politicians, and traitorous leftists tended to be the villains in Larteguy's books, and far more so than the revolutionaries whom his commandos were fighting. But even the regular French army did not escape his scorn. "I'd like to have two armies," he once wrote,
one for display, with lovely guns, tanks, little soldiers, staffs, distinguished and doddering generals and dear little regimental officers, who would be deeply concerned over their general's bowel movements or their colonel's piles; an army that would be shown for a modest fee on every fairground in the country. [But] the other would be the real one, composed entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage uniforms, who would not be put on display but from whom impossible efforts would be demanded and to whom all sorts of tricks would be taught. That's the army in which I should like to fight.
In the case of Larteguy's heroes, those "tricks," as he called them so disingenuously, included the lavish use of torture. Indeed, one of the principal characters in The Centurions, Captain Boisfeuras, was loosely modeled on Brigadier General Pierre Aussarresses, a hero of the French Resistance and a career officer who became one of the leading torturers in what came to be known as the Battle of Algiers, and whose frank defense in his memoirs of the crimes he and his comrades committed caused a scandal in France in 2001. In the case of Robert D. Kaplan, there is no question of any defense of torture. If anything, the elite soldiers whose actions he chronicles in his new book view human rights as what he calls "a tool of counterinsurgency." Still, the book is in large measure an updated if unwitting recapitulation of Larteguy's themes: the nobility and the necessity of the Western imperial vocation; the contrast between the valorous, self-sacrificing, can-do young commandos at empire's edge and the careerist, conventional bureaucrats of the risk-averse regular army; the belief that empire -- not just the American one, as Kaplan adamantly describes it, but Rome, Venice, Britain: in sum, all the great European hegemons of the past -- "were the most morally enlightened states of their age." But what Larteguy lived as a paratrooper in Indochina, Kaplan experiences as a journalist reporting from almost every part of the world where American forces are active -- which, as he himself points out, means a lot of the planet.
Kaplan's many books have won him a wide following within the United States military: Imperial Grunts comes festooned with praise from retired senior officers such as Anthony Zinni and Barry McCaffrey, and an acknowledgements section in which the military theorist and pundit, retired Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Peters, is credited with the idea for the book. One of Kaplan's critics, Thomas P. M. Barnett, a professor at the Naval War College, once accused him of accepting without question the views of the Pacific Command about China in an article that Kaplan wrote in The Atlantic Monthly about the coming confrontation between the United States and China.
This is not to say that Kaplan's views are uncontroversial. To the contrary, his basic contention -- that the heart and soul of the American military is now its expeditionary component, above all the Marine Corps, and its commando component, the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) -- is one that many senior officers and military intellectuals within the War Colleges and Service Academies would repudiate. But they would do so at their peril, since, as Kaplan himself notes, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's implementation of the Global War on Terrorism has made SOCOM "a war fighting command in more than name only," and, however imperfectly (Kaplan blames this on turf battles within the Department of Defense), "the executive arm for the War on Terrorism." (General Eric Shinseki discovered, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, that speaking before Congress in opposition to Rumsfeld's opinions resulted in forced retirement.)
Kaplan is a man with whom Rumsfeld would be hard pressed to find fault. Like Rumsfeld, he has no patience with what he calls "the formalized rigidity" of cold war-era military institutions unsuited for the wars and the counterinsurgency operations of the early twenty-first century. Like Rumsfeld, he believes that military successes during the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 demonstrated the viability of "deftly combining high-technology and low-tech unconventional warfare." And, perhaps more enthusiastically even than Rumsfeld, Kaplan sees the tactics being developed in the field by U.S. Special Operations forces as those that America "would employ to manage an unruly world."
Such a sentence only hints at the kind of hero worship to which Kaplan is prey. Major General Sidney Schachnow, a retired Special Forces senior officer, puts him in mind (shades of Larteguy again) of the Roman centurion Ligustinus, who was "rewarded for bravery thirty-four times." In Iraq, he travels into combat with a Marine unit and marvels at their "unpretentious willingness to die," which he attributes to "their working class origins." There is a good deal of right-wing, blog-style bashing of alleged liberal elites in Imperial Grunts, as well as cheap asides contrasting the selfless faith and patriotism of the soldiers, who "saw themselves as belonging to one country and one society only: that of the United States," with the egomania of America's "global cosmopolitans." For him, the American military not only fights America's wars, it has also become "the guardian" of America's working-class values and traditions. These are the people "who hunted, drove pickups, employed profanities as a matter of dialect, and yet had a literal, demonstrable belief in the Almighty." They inhabit "a world of beer, cigarettes, instant coffee, and chewing tobaccos, like Copenhagen and Red Man."
When the soldiers he meets do not remind him of Roman legionnaires, Kaplan is apt to compare them to Lewis and Clark or other early heroes of America's push westward, or else to what he calls "the gleaming officer corps of the Confederacy, without which the nation would not have been able to fight its later wars quite as well as it had." I wonder what the African American officers of today's U.S. military would make of that. The abdication of critical faculties implicit in such a historical comparison is startling in a writer as historically minded as Kaplan. The "gleaming" tradition to which he alludes helped to keep the military segregated until 1949, while its integration was a first step in the desegregation of the South. Indeed, the rise of a new American military that is probably the most intelligent, creative, and successful institution with regard to race relations in the United States represents a victory for the military tradition that looks back to the 54th Massachusetts and the Tuskeegee Airmen, not to Nathan Bedford Forrest's terrorism or to Stonewall Jackson sucking on his lemons at the First Battle of Manassas.
But this is not the most significant of Kaplan's many analogies between the American armed forces of today and its predecessors. The one that is most central to his argument views today's soldiers' fight against Islamists and terrorists as something very close to the Indian-fighting army of the nineteenth-century American West. Those wars too, Kaplan argues, were imperial in nature, and he refers without any further elaboration to "the new American empire west of the Mississippi River." His travels seem to have hardened him in this view: "As I traveled from continent to continent with the American military in the first years of the twenty-first century, my most recurring image would be the one that Remington himself might have painted: singular individuals fronting dangerous and stupendous landscapes."
This is breathtaking. Here is a serious writer in 2005 admiring the Indian wars, which in their brutality brought about the end of an entire American civilization. But then Kaplan goes to some lengths to describe the peoples who lived in North America when white settlers began to arrive as virtually without any civilization worthy of the name. "The North American Indians," he writes, "were a throwback to the nomadic horse peoples of the Eurasian steppe ... They [also] invited comparison with another imperial nemesis: the nineteenth century Pushtuns and Afridis of the Northwest Frontier of British India." And he concludes: "Beyond the Mississippi or Missouri rivers, the American military found a Hobbesian world in which internecine ethnic warfare, motivated by competition for territory and resources, was the primary fact of life."
The primary fact of life? Whatever else one can say about American Indian life in the nineteenth century, the primary fact was the arrival of the white settlers and the military forces that accompanied them, who drove the native peoples off their land, massacred tens if not hundreds of thousands of them, and deported the others to reservations far from arable land or the plains on which they had hunted. Kaplan may claim that a figure such as Remington -- whom he admires as the American Kipling -- stood for America's "righteous responsibility to advance the boundaries of free society and good government into zones of sheer chaos, a mission not unlike that of post-cold war humanitarian interventions," but the assertion is obscene. I doubt very much that many Indians would share Kaplan's enthusiasm for "Remington's mythic universe [in which] those early imperialists, the cavalry officers and the pathfinders, appropriated the warrior ideal of their Indian enemy, which was marked by bravery and steadfastness." Kaplan has been watching too many John Ford movies. Has he never heard of the Trail of Tears? Does he really think that describing Geronimo as having "lived out the last years of his life" at Fort Sill, Oklahoma adequately conveys what took place? Is describing the streets of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas as being named for the various "North American Indian tribes with which the US Army negotiated truces" really a historically licit way of accounting for what took place, or how those truces were made? And what on earth does it mean for Kaplan to claim that the habit that American soldiers now have of referring to their postings in Afghanistan, Iraq, Djibouti, Colombia, or the Philippines as "Indian Country" and, in Kaplan's view, that, like the Indian Wars, the war on terrorism is "really about taming the frontier," should not be understood as a "slight" against Native North Americans?
The problem with all this is that Kaplan is influential, and not just within certain segments of the American military and with right-wing bloggers such as talk-show host Hugh Hewitt. Bill Clinton famously, and in the event disastrously, claimed that Kaplan's book Balkan Ghosts convinced him that the United States should not intervene in Bosnia. Tom Brokaw, who is certainly a member in good standing of what people such as Hewitt deride as the "Mainstream" or "Legacy" liberal media, has given Imperial Grunts a blurb in which he described the book as an account of "the new warrior-diplomats who use weapons, imagination, and personal passion to protect and advance the interests of the United States."
So where to begin? Perhaps by injecting a little historical reality into Kaplan's mythical universe. When historians talk about the British taming the Indian frontier, they mean dominating it politically and militarily, not conquering it outright, and expelling its inhabitants, and settling the land with their own people. Despite several disastrous attempts to conquer Afghanistan over the course of the nineteenth century, the principal strategy of the British along the northwestern frontier of the Raj was to impose a status quo that did not threaten British interests in India proper. If they bowed to that, Pushtuns and the Afridis could do what they liked. But the phrase "taming the frontier" when applied to the American West meant something entirely different. It meant driving the Indians out by any means necessary. It was a murderous, zero-sum game, and not at all, to put it mildly, an ideal for contemporary American policy.
Of course, Kaplan knows this perfectly well. Late in his book, in a consideration of whether enough American troops had been sent to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, he muses in an aside that "the Sioux and their allies were ultimately vanquished not because the US Army fully adapted to the challenge of an unconventional enemy -- it didn't -- but because of the flooding of the Old West with settlers, who were, in turn, aided by the railroad." Somehow Kaplan can write this sentence and yet feel no obligation to revise his ludicrous analogy between British imperial policy on the Indian-Afghan frontier and the settlement of the American West.
There are many important things to say about the Indian Wars and the western migration of white settlers in nineteenth-century America, but Kaplan says none of them. Instead we get from him boneheaded nonsense about the Indian Wars being exercises in exporting democracy, order, and good government. There are more respectable ways to make the neo-imperialist argument -- one could make the case, as Niall Ferguson, Hugh Thomas, and Deepak Lal have done, that the British Empire did more good than harm for the peoples it subjugated; but it is impossible credibly to make such an argument about the subjugation of the native peoples of North America.
Too romantic and sentimental to be called analysis, too ideological to count as reportage, and yet too journalistic to be a straightforward polemic, Imperial Grunts is a disorganized and in many ways an incoherent book. Just when Kaplan the reporter is exercising his considerable talents to their best advantage, Kaplan the ideologue interrupts with his doctrine. As a result, there are times when Kaplan's narrative seems like an extended exercise in free association. In one representative passage, Kaplan is on the front line with a Marine unit moving into Fallujah during the first, abortive assault on the city in the spring of 2004, and splendidly describes the "grunts''' slow advance under fire. But then his attention shifts away from the battle and toward geo-strategical speculation and imperial history. Staring at enemy snipers a few hundred meters away in one paragraph, he opines in the next that "the third world urban environment was like the Old West." A few hundred words later, having briefly doubled back to a description of the fighting, then left it again, Kaplan is cantering from his belief that the martial spirit of "the Old Confederacy [still inhabits] the soul of the American military," to comparing the U.S. military's fight in Iraq to the British army's suppression of the Indian Mutiny, to a meditation on the role of the media on the conduct of military operations in the early twenty-first century. Then, after a space break, Kaplan is back to being a reporter again.
The American military deserves better than this kind of hagiography, just as it deserves better than to have to carry out the thankless and even hopeless missions that Kaplan would like to assign it -- missions that, if the experience in Iraq proves anything, will fall clumsily short of any Kiplingesque grandeur. In fairness, Kaplan was never especially enthusiastic about the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. "The American empire of the early twenty-first century," he writes, "depended on a tissue of intangibles that was threatened, rather than invigorated, by the naked exercise of power." For Kaplan, the real success story of America's commitment to policing the planet (which he calls the "battle space for the American military") is the work of small units of elite U.S. troops, and sometimes even individual soldiers, controlling the world quietly in countries ranging from Yemen to Mongolia.
It is unclear if Kaplan has any conception of the fact that his account of the role of the American military abroad is chilling, or should be, especially to believers in the fundamental benignity of American power. Kaplan's outlook cannot finally be described as interventionism, or imperialism, or anything larger exercised by moral and strategic objectives; it is just plain old militarism. To take the most obvious example: if it is true, as Kaplan contends, that "even as elites in New York and Washington debated imperialism in grand, historical terms, individual marines, soldiers, airmen, and sailors were interpreting policy on their own, on the ground, in dozens upon dozens of countries every week, oblivious to such faraway discussions," then civilian control over the military -- one of the most fundamental arrangements separating democratic societies from undemocratic ones -- is in grave danger. After all, the role of the American military is to carry out the commands of a civilian national command authority, not to make policy on its own.
Soldiers like to grouse; and some of the commando officers or officers on secondment to various units of the Special Operations Command (though not the Marines) have a weakness for dismissing civilian leadership and, indeed, the leadership of what they (and Kaplan, echoing them) view as the chair-bound bureaucrats of the "Big Army" and "Big Navy." They do not enjoy the tendency of senior leaders in the uniformed services to put limits on their freedom to operate as they see fit. Not long ago some SOCOM soldiers grew their hair and beards and dressed in a combination of U.S. military issue fatigues and local costume during the war in Afghanistan, and seeing this in a magazine, one Army three-star made it his business to see that these men conformed to military regulations. Among SOCOM people in the field, one still sometimes hears complaints about this, and, more broadly, complaints about how, despite the new importance of special operations, a more "by the book" mentality remains dominant in the military.
But they are just that: complaints, grousing, letting off steam, by men whose sworn duty is not just to kill but to die, and risk death every day. They are entitled to their venting. But Kaplan has no such excuse when he promotes their grievances into some romantic Rambo-like non-conformist heroism -- when he contrasts "conventional thinkers inside the Pentagon [who were] aghast" at this kind of improvisation with SOCOM commanders and erstwhile commanders whom he dubs "unconventional warriors," and portrays as just the kind of freethinkers the American empire needs. When he approvingly quotes Major General Schachnow, who answered his question about how the United States could "infiltrate and police the world" with the retort that "you produce a product and let him loose," he is in effect arguing for a relinquishing of civilian control over the military, since what Schachnow meant by "product," or at least what Kaplan takes him to mean, is not just "smiling" and "understanding" when SOCOM people shed their uniforms and grow Afghan-style beards, but rather letting these elite warriors loose and giving them the latitude to advance their country's interest pretty much as they see fit.
But this is precisely the authority that the American republic, as a constitutional matter, has not granted to its military. To be sure, there are many criticisms that may be made of the American military, operationally and doctrinally; but the cowboy culture of Rumsfeld's Pentagon, and of members of the SOCOM establishment who are on his staff or whom he has favored to a degree unheard of in the practice of any previous secretary of defense, must not be allowed to hide behind the spirit of criticism. It has something else in mind. Off the record at least, many officers express considerable anxiety over the SOCOM-izing of the military on Rumsfeld's watch. They point to the fact that General Peter Schoomaker, the current Army Chief of Staff (Rumsfeld brought him out of retirement to replace Shinseki), was one of the originators of Delta Force, the elite commando unit in which Lieutenant General William "Jerry" Boykin -- the man who once said that he knew he would successfully hunt down a Somali warlord because "my God is bigger than his God" -- also distinguished himself before becoming the deputy of the current undersecretary of defense for intelligence. There were also numerous, if less well-publicized promotions of SOCOM veterans to flag rank.
When he speaks of a "bureaucratic straightjacket," Kaplan sounds as if he is channeling Rumsfeld and his outside-the-box inanities. When he criticizes the failure of the American military to "power down to the level of small units and expand their activities," he sounds like a spokesman for SOCOM. But when he approvingly quotes an Alabama National Guard Lieutenant Colonel named Marcus Custer who told him that "you can't be effective in the War on Terrorism unless you break the rules of the Big Army," and that maybe in the future American special forces would be "incorporated into a new and reformed CIA rather than into the Big Army," Kaplan, whether he knows it or not, is attacking the heart of what the army of a democratic country is supposed to be. Whatever Kaplan may choose to imagine, or whatever some maverick SOCOM extremists may fantasize, it is the task of the American military to carry out American policy, not to make it.
Kaplan has muddled up the general and the particular in the formulation and the implementation of American foreign policy. He may think he is scoring a telling point when, during his time with U.S. forces in Colombia, he muses that "while policy specialists argued general principles like nation-building in Washington and New York seminars, young middle-level officers were the true agents of the imperium." Leaving aside Kaplan's sneering anti-intellectual tone -- he seems to have forgotten that writers are also armchair strategists, and that a good deal of strategic wisdom has been discovered in armchairs -- it would be almost impossible for his assertion to be more wrong-headed. If post-Saddam Iraq has proved anything, it is that the United States needed more of those seminars, and that the Department of Defense needed to get off its plinth and make a real attempt to think through the implications of the policy recommendations that State Department and other Iraq and post-conflict specialists offered before the invasion got underway.
As a result, the mid-level officers on the ground in Iraq did not respond well to the looting of Baghdad, nor plan adequately for what would happen if Baathists or terrorists mounted a real insurgency. In no sense was this their fault. Their duties were tactical; those of the senior leaders back home strategic. Again, Kaplan can hardly be unaware of the distinction, and yet he wrote this whole book without ever addressing it seriously. The reality is that though the planning failures in Iraq were the responsibility of senior officials in the Bush administration, and not of the "iron majors" who so impressed Kaplan during his travels, this does not mean the majors should have had the last word. The chain of command as it exists is the only one that a democratic society can possibly accept. The problem was not that there was civilian and bureaucratic control of the military. The problem was that the civilian and bureaucratic control of the military was incompetent.
Kaplan declares that he wished to see American troop deployments from one end of it to the other through the eyes of the soldiers themselves -- "from their perspective," as he puts it, "not from mine." Are those really the only two perspectives available? Perhaps the explanation for Kaplan's confusions and misunderstandings is that he spent too much time with his beloved grunts. A writer who boasts that he wanted "to cut myself off from civilians as much as possible" may not be in a particularly good position to think through seriously the problem of empire, which is a general question, not a particular one, a subject that may be illuminated by historical and moral analysis, not by reportage, no matter how vivid and valiant. At the end of Imperial Grunts, as Kaplan leaves for Kuwait, heading home, a Marine general tells him, "Go home and rest a few weeks in the world of porcelain shitters. Then come back for more." A fine expression of a certain soldierly parochialism; but Kaplan seems to consider the remark elevating and enlightening.
The real question is, for more what? The general probably meant more experience of battle. And Kaplan has gone back. Imperial Grunts is only the first in what he promises will be a multi-book treatment of what he calls "imperial maintenance on the ground." But while enjoying those porcelain shitters, he would have profited from asking himself the kind of hard questions about the American empire that are best answered away from the front lines, and making the same commitment to the intellect that he made to the field. Presumably, Kaplan will be true to his word and Imperial Grunts will only be the first of his love songs to the American military.
The paradox is that he has written anything but a triumphalist book. The oddest thing about this odd book is its insistence on the transience of the American empire, even as he leaves no stone unturned in his effort to glorify it. "To be an American in the first decade of the twenty-first century was to be present at a grand and fleeting moment," he observes in his first chapter, "Injun Country." It was "a moment that even if it lasted for several more decades would constitute but a flicker among the long march of hegemons that had calmed broad swaths of the globe." He then goes on to enumerate various empires and their lifespans, from the Achaemenids to the British, by way of the Chinese, the Vandals, the Hapsburgs, the Ottomans, and of course the Romans.
But then he teaches that "a liberal empire like America was likely to create the conditions for its own demise, and thus to be particularly short-lived." So this is not Kipling, it is Spengler. Kaplan is tragically wrong-headed even within his own frame of reference. Put the case, debatable as it is, that the United States is an empire in the same sense that Britain, or Portugal, or Spain, or Rome were empires. Further put the case, as Kaplan also does, that this empire will be gone in no more than several decades. Why on earth would any American patriot, "a believer in the essential goodness of American nationalism," as Kaplan puts it, or anyone who just wishes America well, condemn the country to what, on his own account, will be a not-so-long march toward a bleak and broken future? Why not strive, in this case, to create a multi-lateral international order that, taking into account the inevitable rise of new hegemons such as India and China, organizes the international system as favorably as possible toward the interests of the United States?
The Kipling of "The White Man's Burden," whom Kaplan goes to such lengths to defend, was not beseeching the United States to become an imperial power with all the eloquence at his command, while simultaneously holding in his head the vision of the proximate dissolution of that empire. But this seems to be Kaplan's vision, insofar as anything consistent can be extrapolated from his breathless dithyramb to the boots on the ground. Or are we back to Larteguy's lonely centurion, acutely conscious that back in Rome everything is going to hell even as he faithfully carries out his duty on the forward ramparts of the empire -- SOCOM in swords and sandals? The good news is that this may describe Kaplan more accurately than it describes his grunts. He reports that "the grunts I met saw themselves as American nationalists, even if the role they performed was imperial." He does not explain the distinction, but it seems to be a sign at least of good sense in these American soldiers. So there is hope for the Republic yet.
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