When Robert Kaplan writes, American leaders take notice. While prosecuting the war in Kosovo, President Clinton was seen with a copy of Kaplan's "Balkan Ghosts." After the 9/11 terror attacks, reports said the hot book among the Bush administration was Kaplan's "Warrior Politics."
But Kaplan is no stuffy think-tank type; he's more Kipling than Kissinger, more Ernie Pyle than Dan Rather. His reporting in "Imperial Grunts" is up close and personal, giving an intimate portrait of the American fighting man while educating the reader on the broader implications of worldwide deployment.
In Kaplan's mind, it starts with The Map, in which the Pentagon divides the whole world into sectors. Kaplan decides that the United States may not be a colonial power and people may flinch at the use of the word "empire," but a country that has interests in every corner of the globe has all the problems of an empire and should learn from empires of the past. The fact that America seeks allies, not colonies, makes little difference in how we should act, Kaplan argues.
Kaplan notes that the most successful imperial militaries had a highly professional class of non-commissioned officers. The voluntary U.S. military has been steadily gaining a reputation for developing such a professional cadre, and Kaplan decides to see it for himself.
He lives with Green Berets at a Forward Operating Base in Colombia, travels to Mongolia with an officer who is single-handedly reforming that country's military and building a U.S. ally on the Chinese border and witnesses the success the Special Forces have had in devastating al-Qaida in the Philippines.
Kaplan also heads to the Horn of Africa with Marines serving in Somalia and visits a quirky Army Special Forces team doing armed Peace Corp work in a coastal town that once was a plush resort before terrorism and piracy drove the tourists away; tours Afghanistan with various units; and, finally, accompanies Marines into tough combat in Fallujah, Iraq.
By traveling the world and living with soldiers and Marines for months at a time, Kaplan learns that the blow-dried, Northeastern and impossibly cosmopolitan U.S. reporters understand little about the heavily Southern, Evangelical Christian nationalists who make up the "point of the spear" of America's foreign policy. Because of that, he writes, they have missed several huge stories.
First is the unbelievably high morale among the professional military. While a soldier's prerogative is to gripe, most of the complaints Kaplan hears are about restraints on the use of force.
"Despite news reports of low morale in the armed services because of overdeployment, with Army Special Forces and Marines," he notes, "I had met only two kinds of troops: those who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those who were jealous of those who were."
The biggest complaint from Marines and Special Forces is not about being put in harm's way - rather, Kaplan writes, they sneer about "the tyranny of the single casualty" that makes politicians so risk-averse that it actually increases danger in the long run. "Force protection is force projection," is the soldiers' refrain.
And while the media focus on casualties and goad President Bush to show he cares, the troops beg for the opposite, saying every fuss made by the media - and especially a politician - makes Americans more appealing targets and their job even tougher, Kaplan reports.
Another misreported story is the overdeployment of the National Guard. Kaplan finds that many Special Forces non-coms choose to join the National Guard because they don't like the politics and routine of the peacetime Army. They have no interest in promotions, but they but want to fight in their country's wars. The Guard gives them the ideal combination of a warrior and civilian life.
Kaplan is sympathetic to the argument many of them make that the Guard Special Forces units are the most effective.
"You can't be effective in the war on terrorism unless you break the rules of the Big Army," as one soldier puts it, and Kaplan's tour of Afghanistan seems to bear this out.
In the early days, the Special Forces model worked to perfection, but success brought old habits.
"The way that the Big Army - that is, Big Government - does things. … It was standard Washington 'pile on,'" Kaplan reports. "Every part of the military wanted a piece of Afghanistan"
Operations that once were approved in minutes now take days as higher-ups obsess about making the operation casualty-free.
Kaplan finds that both the force structure and the history of the Marines make them more suiting to modern low-intensity warfare than the Big Army - but not even the Marines are immune from bureaucratic and political pressure.
He is not uncritical of the military, but he undoubtedly loves the warriors he is embedded with in every part of the globe. Their acceptance of him and their common intellectual ground makes him start to think he is one of them - then he goes to combat in Fallujah.
"Running into the fire rather than seeking cover from it goes counter to every human instinct - trust me …" Kaplan writes. "I had started deluding myself that they weren't much different from me. They had soft spots, they got sick, they complained. But in one flash … I realized they were not like me; they were marines. It is no exaggeration to say that Capt. Smith and Bravo literally RODE TO THE SOUND OF THE GUNS."
Kaplan has written yet another indispensable book for policymakers, but it deserves a far broader audience. The way he gets readers get to know the American fighting man is what makes "Imperial Grunts" a bracing, entertaining and rousing read for anyone who cares about the U.S. military.