The news of military intervention comes in incessant waves of TV talking heads, daily body counts, and political spinning this way and that...
The news of military intervention comes in incessant waves of TV talking heads, daily body counts, and political spinning this way and that. It’s all at a safe distance, disconnected and confusing.
So it is nice to see veteran correspondent Robert D. Kaplan attempting ambitious cohesion with “Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground” (Random House, 448 pp., $27.95). The author gets down and dirty with the men and women implementing this country’s tangled world policy. This isn’t just a quick-hit ride-along like we got used to in the 24-hour news networks’ assault of Iraq.
He has produced a provocative, if not essential, book for anyone trying to peer behind the headlines. “Imperial Grunts” is an example of exhaustive first-hand reporting, great on-the-ground access and a measure of courage. Kaplan lets soldiers vent, mixing their short-term goals and concerns within the context of the morphing U.S. global strategy.
A longtime contributor for the Atlantic Monthly and author of “Balkan Ghosts,” Kaplan spent two years with troops and much of his professional life reporting and researching the U.S. military, wars and insurrection. He gets close long enough to zoom in on the lives and thoughts of the soldiers carrying out myriad tasks. With his knowledge of military tactics, history and geopolitical nuance, he also provides context to the patchwork.
Kaplan breaks down his book the same way the Pentagon breaks down the planet: into geographic and strategic sectors: SOUTHCOM, PACCOM, CENTCOM and so on. He visits each, taking us, showing the particular challenges from a U.S. strategic point of view and how the soldiers must try to carry out those missions. Those missions are hardly as neat as they were drawn up to be. They take place far from the headlines and in some places the typical American would be hard-pressed to find on a globe.
“Empires are works in progress,” Kaplan writes, “with necessity rather than glory the instigator of each outward push.”
He writes a thrilling account of the Marines’ assault on Fallujah, but much of the soldiers’ work is mundane, frustrating and unnoticed. We see U.S. Special Forces training reluctant armies in the Philippines and trying to thwart narco-terrorists in Colombia. The reader rides along as a dynamic lieutenant colonel schmoozes with tribal chiefs and leads the way on the ground to protect U.S. interests in Mongolia. We watch National Guardsmen performing public works in Somalia and Marines fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Robert D. Kaplan will discuss “Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground,” 7 p.m. Tuesday University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com). He will also appear at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Eagle Harbor Book Co., 157 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge Island; free (206-842-5332 or www.eagleharborbooks.com).
Kaplan likes and respects his subjects (he served in the Israeli military). “Grunts: cannon fodder,” he writes. “The word best applies to Marine combat infantrymen. But in a sense, even Army Special Forces sergeants belonged in this category because of their willingness to subject their own identity into that of the unit.”
Kaplan spends part of one chapter outlining what he perceives as outdated thinking and destructive turf warfare within the U.S. military in the face of a dangerous and volatile world. He mixes grumblings from noncommissioned and middle-level officers with his own urging to protect the original intent of Army Special Forces (so instrumental in the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Iraq war); improve linguistics training; break down walls facing women; be more adaptable with the changing world.
In that same chapter, he takes on criticism that embedded reporters become too close to see clearly and objectively. He notes that he is not your typical journalist. He does not hang out with journalists. He never goes to the office. He has no interest in breaking news.
“I want people to think of me as a traveler in the old-fashioned sense,” he writes. “A traveler accepts the people around him and whatever happens to him.”
Richard Seven is a writer for the Seattle Times’ Pacific Northwest Magazine.