Interviews November 2005

Warriors for Good

Robert Kaplan talks about his new book, Imperial Grunts, and his extensive time on the ground with the soldiers of the U.S. military
book cover

Imperial Grunts
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Robert Kaplan
Random House
448 pages

From Yemen to Colombia, Mongolia to the Philippines, Afghanistan to Ethiopia, and finally to Iraq, veteran Atlantic Monthly correspondent Robert Kaplan followed the U.S. Army Special Forces and the U.S. Marines into some of the most inhospitable areas of the world. His accounts of these journeys, collected in Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground, focus on individual soldiers and reveal a different military than Americans are accustomed to seeing.

Most of the soldiers he follows are engaged in "unconventional war"—a kind of counterinsurgency which Kaplan describes as "win[ning] without firing a shot"—where soldiers act as aid workers, making small changes in a community so that larger political changes might follow. He immerses himself in their world, spending weeks and months living with soldiers in their quarters, joining their missions, eating, drinking, sweating, freezing, and sometimes starving, side-by-side with them. This close encounter distinguishes Imperial Grunts from typical embedded journalism, which tends to give the public only quick snapshots of soldiers, and mainly when they're in battle. Kaplan gains the trust of the "men on the ground," and thereby develops an understanding of these soldiers who fuel the creeping progress of American imperialism.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Our Imperial Imperative" (May 25, 2004)
Niall Ferguson, the author of Colossus, laments the emasculation of American imperialism.

In Kaplan's eyes, America is engaged in building and maintaining a global military empire—an empire that he argues is a necessary and undisputable fact of the twenty-first century. Yet despite the similarities American imperialism may have to that of empires of the past, in this case the underlying mission is a softer one. Instead of the oppressive colonial domination that characterized other empires, Kaplan describes America as spreading its imperial influence through humanitarian aid efforts such as well-digging, medical care, and school construction. These days, imperialism means that soldiers seek to adapt to the mores of the places where they're stationed, rather than forcing those places to knuckle under to imported ideas. Green Berets in Afghanistan wear keffiyas and grow beards; they drink tea with tribal leaders and take time to know both people and place. Instead of fierce generals or conquest-hungry marauders, Kaplan found thoughtful, caring, and disciplined soldiers who everyday face the impossible task of "making countries out of places that were never meant to be countries."

The challenges of nation-building become acutely clear through Kaplan's storytelling and extensive research. His accounts delve into historical and geographical details that help explain why some parts of the world are fraught with poverty, tribal warfare, and oppression. Nomadic warriors from previous millennia shaped modern Mongolia. Spanish colonialism continues to influence the Philippines. An insanely rugged landscape fragments Colombia:

Colombia was less a country than a series of fortified city-states, perched eight thousand feet up in the Andean Cordilleras, surrounded by ungovernable, fast-buck tropical lowlands. In those sweaty forest tracts, loyalty to the elected government in Bogotá was, as one Army officer at Fort Bragg told me, "about twentieth on the inhabitants' list of priorities."

Kaplan readily admits his reverence for the soldiers in his accounts. "I was beginning to love these guys," he writes of his stint with U.S. Army Special Forces in Colombia. "They had amassed so much technical knowledge about so many things at such a young age. They could perform minor surgery on the spot." Kaplan wants the public to know more about these soldiers, who not only represent America throughout the world but also turn American policy into reality, step by step. Through this book, Kaplan tears down the barriers between Americans at home and soldiers abroad. "These [soldiers] don't have a voice," he told me. "I'm their voice."

He introduces his stories with an acknowledged cliché. "A few good men"—that is what Imperial Grunts is all about.

We spoke by phone on September 12.

Elizabeth Dougherty

Robert Kaplan
Robert Kaplan

You've described your writing as a kind of travel writing which considers both the landscape and the history of a place. Can you talk about how landscape affects the way people, particularly those on the periphery, can be governed?

The landscapes everywhere affected me very deeply. What I set out to do in this book is write a nineteenth-century travelogue where my characters happened to be U.S. troops on the ground. If there was one kind of generalization I could make about landscape, it was that the capital cities tended to be on the tops of mountains. Sana'a in Yemen is about six to seven thousand feet high. Bogotá and Medellin are on the tops of mountains, on top of the Andean Cordillera in Colombia. Lower down, you enter into an ungovernable countryside. In many places I went with the U.S. military, we were involved in a situation where the host country's government controlled the major cities but there was a guerrilla insurgency of one form or another in the countryside. While these places were officially countries on the map, the U.S. Marines and Army Special Forces found that they were defending city-states that were trying to extend their power out into the provinces.

In the Philippines, it was different because you had this imperial entity that was governed from the island of Luzon, which was mainly Roman-Catholic. Disconnected from that were the Muslim southern islands. If you're a poor Muslim in the south of the country it doesn't matter whether you had the dictator Marcos or elected democrats like President Arroyo in power. It's the same Christian Roman-Catholic Mestizo oligarchy in Manila ruling over poor Muslims in the south, not building a road for them, not building a school for them, not digging a well for them. What matters is not that the governments are elected but that many of these places are not countries, that the people who live there are not citizens, they're subjects.

Presented by

Elizabeth Dougherty was recently an intern for The Atlantic Online.

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