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Taming the global frontier

Stephanie Giry is the senior editor at Foreign Affairs magazine.

ROBERT D. KAPLAN, the Atlantic Monthly’s globetrotting correspondent, spent much of the 1990s predicting the advent of global chaos. In his books “The Ends of the Earth” (1996) and “The Coming Anarchy” (2000), he predicted that environmental degradation, ethnic conflict and population booms in poor countries would endanger the international order. In “Imperial Grunts,” the first of two planned books recounting the several years Kaplan spent with U.S. soldiers in hotspots around the planet after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, his bleak vision gives way to a quiet confidence in the stabilizing power of America’s military empire.

It’s still chaos out there. “The problem for the American military [is] less fundamentalism than anarchy,” Kaplan writes. “The War on Terrorism [is] really about taming the frontier.” But the cavalry is coming, he suggests, in the form of the Army’s Special Forces and Marines dispatched in small units, sometimes to fight but mostly to train local fighters and bring humanitarian aid to civilians. These U.S. troops’ goal isn’t nation-building, but gathering intelligence and creating goodwill while leaving a light American footprint -- the winning tactics, the author argues, for contemporary conflicts.

Kaplan is at his best when he captures the intimacy of troop life, relaying tips on how to escape from kidnappers and force cows out of airplanes, or turning a soldier’s riff on AK-47s into a meditation about Russian culture. One scene from Afghanistan is a sharp commentary on military benefits: soldiers in the field report that a sergeant has been “seriously hurt” (in fact, he was killed on the spot) in the hope that he’ll be retired before he’s declared dead, so his widow can get a pension and benefits for their children.

The book’s most satisfying chapter may be the profile of polyglot soldier-diplomat Lt. Col. Tom Wilhelm, a lone American cowboy who crisscrosses Mongolia, drinking camel’s milk with locals and establishing dental clinics while sizing up China’s activities in the region.

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Part ode to the armed forces’ “great middle,” the foot soldiers Kaplan claims the mainstream media have ignored out of a prejudice against the working class, “Imperial Grunts” is also a treatise on how U.S. forces should be deployed in the future: empower mid-level field officers and emulate tactics used in the Philippine-American War in the early 1900s and in El Salvador in the 1980s.

He writes approvingly that the 5th Special Forces Group operating in Afghanistan in 2003 “had become a veritable corporate spin-off, commissioned to do a specific job in its very own way, in the manner of a top consultant.” When Kaplan criticizes Washington, which is rare, it’s for not letting the troops loose; his grunts are brave, savvy and practiced at negotiating the baffling complexities of local power plays.

But “Imperial Grunts” is an uneven book, its irregularities highlighted by its chronological structure. Not all dispatches are as compelling as those from Afghanistan and Mongolia; after a few chapters of tagging along, you wish Kaplan had worked harder to tie his vignettes together. When he tries, he’s given to grandiloquence, which makes the book read like a patchy travelogue punctuated by flights of abstraction.

The book’s central metaphor -- that the world today is like the Wild West of 150 years ago -- seems at odds with its basic assumption: that the United States is a benevolent power. (Wasn’t the march across what Kaplan calls “Injun Country” one of brutal conquest?) At times, he sounds grand but is only obscure: “The Global War on Terrorism ... represented merely the current phase of American imperialism. But terrorism was both a cause and a symptom of the political weakness of states like Yemen. So, in a sense, the U.S. was fighting the unwieldy process of modernization itself.”

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Kaplan’s principal failing is extrapolation; he is too quick to see anecdotal evidence as emblematic of great trends. In the past, selection bias took him to ailing Third World countries and, once there, made him see what he was looking for. (A reviewer of “The Ends of the Earth” argued that if Kaplan had followed a slightly different trajectory through the developing world, he might have drawn very different conclusions about its prospects.)

In the 1990s, Kaplan warned that the crime waves ravaging West Africa’s squalid cities would contaminate the rest of the world, but he overlooked the embourgeoisement of China’s vast middle class. The governments of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire have collapsed since then -- although Mali’s has not -- but those certainly weren’t the most significant events of the last decade.

“Imperial Grunts” is less hyperbolic and alarmist. But it too can be unreliable. Leaving aside some questionable positions -- such as Kaplan’s unchecked trust in U.S. intentions or in Washington’s involvement in El Salvador’s bloody civil war -- the book is unclear about the effectiveness of the tactics it praises.

Take Kaplan’s simplistic discussion of U.S. operations in the Horn of Africa, run out of a base in Djibouti. “Americans in the Horn were interacting with indigenous peoples in small numbers, making various deals of mutual self-interest, and killing a few of them when necessary,” Kaplan writes. “But because progress was often imperceptible, it was unclear how much defense officials in Washington appreciated the significance of what was going on here.” In fact, the significance of what’s going on in the Horn is unclear, partly because the threat of terrorism in the region is too. Recent reports by the International Crisis Group and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University suggest that Somalia hasn’t become an Al Qaeda retreat, as was once feared: The country may be too dysfunctional to serve as a logistical base, and its traditional preference for Sufism, a mystic form of Islam, seems to have checked the popular appeal of radical Islamism.

To the extent that terrorism in the Horn is a legitimate worry, it’s partly for reasons that Kaplan ignores. He says nothing of Washington’s failure to ease tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia, even though they have paralyzed trade and exacerbated poverty in the region. Given this context, what U.S. troops do in the Horn of Africa probably isn’t as decisive as Kaplan suggests.

Kaplan may be overstating the troops’ significance simply because he’s had enviable access to their exclusive world -- much like a historian who assumes that classified information is inherently more important than public documents. That’s understandable but unfortunate, because it clouds his judgment as a would-be political analyst. So does a nagging romanticism that leads the author, a self-professed hardheaded realist, to glorify a certain macho ethic:

“Lying awake as Indian Ocean breezes raced through my mosquito net and the lovely white stucco work, I thought that if you were a male of a certain age during World War II and had not served in some capacity, you would have been denied the American Experience. Now I realized that many of my own generation had been denied it as well, however unwittingly, however unaware of it we may have been. Perhaps it was a safer, more enriching global experience that we were having, but whatever it was I knew now that it was not fully American.”

Too bad the bombast backfires. Kaplan thinks and writes best when he stays close to the ground and lets the grunts he so admires do most of the talking. *

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