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
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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.

I've read that Osama bin Laden escaped from the mountain caves of Tora Bora on horseback on trails built and used by the C.I.A. Sitting here in Boston, it's hard to imagine how such an escape was possible. Can you help me understand the landscape and the difficulties of a counterinsurgency in such a place?

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "The View From Inside" (November 2, 2001)
The foreign correspondent Robert D. Kaplan talks about his days among the mujahideen, the killing of Abdul Haq, and why the U.S. must not be afraid to be brutal.

In Afghanistan, the country was so riven by mountains that in each region you needed to have a different kind of attitude towards the local tribal militia. Weak communications and a very mountainous geography had created a very, very weak central government. I've hiked the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan on and off for decades. In the book there's a whole chapter where I describe being with National Guard Special Forces troops patrolling that border. One day we drove about fifty miles to see if a school was being built properly. It took us five hours to go fifty miles because a flood had washed out the road. The maps were useless.

People in America think everything is solved by GPS and good roads and that you can get everywhere fast. But it takes hours upon hours to get the smallest distance in a place like Afghanistan. Then you see one vast mud-walled fort after another that would take you hours upon hours to search properly. People can hide out in a fort right across from a National Guard base and you might never know they were there.

You describe a military transition in this book, from large deployments to small teams...

In the book, I wrote that the military transformation has already happened. It happened in the weeks after 9/11, when the Fifth Special Forces group out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, was basically given total independence. The leash was cut. The only orders were, "Bring down the Taliban government, and figure it out along the way." The men grew beards, rode on horseback, and linked up with indigenous forces in Afghanistan and fought the way the British fought a hundred years ago. You had master sergeants calling in B-52 air strikes. You had operations approved in seconds over satellite phones. That's why it took just a few hundred Army Special Forces, with the help of the Air Force, to take down an entire regime.

But as soon as the Taliban fell, big Mother Army came back, large numbers of Marines came in, Washington and the Pentagon took over, and you got this new vertical layer of bureaucracy. Now it takes days upon days to approve the most conservative military missions. Even when we get a good tip, what we search is already usually a dead hole by the time we get there.

You described a mission in Afghanistan where a boy gave you a tip, but the team had to wait for permission to act. How did that feel knowing you couldn't take the step that you really needed to?

Well, I wasn't thinking about how I felt, because the book's not about me. It's about stories of individual soldiers and Marines—not generals and colonels, but sergeants and corporals. They don't lose morale, they don't get discouraged. On the ground, American soldiers and Marines speak a common language where they communicate very directly without nuance. It's a world of practicality, of mechanics, of doing things. It's not about thinking or imagining, it's about doing. What I've found is, never ask a sergeant what he feels; ask him what he does and he'll talk for hours.

This book is a series of exotic stories and profiles of soldiers and Marines who see themselves neither as victims of bad policies nor as war criminals, but as warriors for good who switch from being fighters to humanitarian relief workers not in the course of a day but in the course of an hour. One of the things that propelled me to write this book is that, without it, the silent ones in the barracks would not have a voice. It's the silent ones in the barracks that are the key to public opinion within the unit, and reporters often don't get to talk to them much because they don't spend enough time with the same unit.

How critical are the individual soldiers, and can a military be dependent on such intangibles as good character?

More and more, a military has to be dependent upon intangibles. Mass-infantry warfare is dying, and the battlefield is dispersing and emptying out. Instead of large formations, you have small clusters of troops hunting down small clusters of terrorists. The decisions of sergeants and of corporals are going to be increasingly vital. The more highly trained and linguistically adroit these lower-level non-commissioned officers are, the better we're going to do around the world. The action is no longer with generals and colonels. The real heart and soul and cultural center of the military is the non-commissioned officer corps.

You wrote, "All too often the overall effect of the media is to foster impatience on the home front." What is behind that statement?

Whenever the media writes about problems, even if it does so in the most responsible, analytical way, the effect on the public is, "Are we there yet? Why don't we have a solution yet?" Often these problems don't just take days and months, they take years to solve. It took the British a decade to win a counterinsurgency in Malaysia. It took the United States almost a decade to win a counterinsurgency in El Salvador. The best thing the media can do, if you're looking from a long historical view, is to ignore something. What I've seen around the world is that the smaller the number of troops we have in a place, and the more hidden from the media radar screen they are, the more progress tends to be made, and the more the U.S. taxpayer gets out of it.

What about the prospect you raise of never-ending war, where the military is present in small numbers everywhere all the time. How do you think the American people will respond to that prospect?

The American people respond very well. We've had troops all over the world for many years without any criticism. We've had troops in the Sinai for decades and troops in the Balkans for over a decade now, and there's never been any criticism. We've accomplished a lot over the years in the southern Philippines and Colombia without pressure to get out. As long as the number of casualties is zero or relatively low, I see no evidence that the public cares how long we are in a place. In most cases where we are deployed, the United States military is either training host-country troops or performing what would be considered humanitarian-relief operations. Iraq and Afghanistan are exceptions.

We've had a global military presence continually around the world since World War Two, and it's costing us less, budget-wise, than it ever has. The total Pentagon budget—and this is with all of the wastage and all of the mismanagement—is about three or four percent of GDP. During the Vietnam War and the Korean War it was up to fourteen or fifteen percent. We can easily sustain a global military because—again, outside of Iraq and Afghanistan—you have small, bare-bones missions manned by specialist troops. They act as force multipliers who can tip U.S. foreign policy in the right direction in a given country with just a few special-operations teams.

I spent the summer before this one with U.S. forces in sub-Saharan Africa, where the U.S. military is acting in an imperial fashion. Yet they are doing so in a way that no liberal could ever be opposed to, because they are training a much-needed pan-African intervention force that can intervene in future Darfurs.

Speaking of liberal versus conservative viewpoints, when you first went to Afghanistan, the soldiers were suspicious; they expected you to be "another fucking left-wing journalist." But there was one Green Beret team that didn't react that way. Why was that the case?

This is a very interesting story, because it shows how these so-called "unsophisticated," high school-educated sergeants are extremely sophisticated, far more so than some diplomats in the State Department. I have seen diplomats in embassies abroad tell me that when a journalist comes in, his take on things is a crap shoot; there's no way you can know what he's going to write.

With this Green Beret combat team, everyone was being nice to me. I found this strange, because normally when I embed with the military, for the first week or so I'm given very cool, tough treatment because they generally have a very bad attitude towards journalists, at least in the beginning. In this case people were very friendly and I asked why. They said, "Well, we Google every journalist that comes into our midst. You know, because we can just go online for a few minutes and get an accurate, statistical kind of profile of what this guy's views are, what he's written in the past, what he's likely—all things being equal—to write in the future." These are just high school graduates and they figured out what the State Department couldn't.

Why do you think they were immediately friendly toward you?

Well, I think the divide is this: you read a lot in the media about this and that soldier or Marine's disenchantment with the war. Yet all of the polls indicate that seventy to eighty percent of all active-duty personnel and National Guard reservists voted Republican in the last presidential election. In terms of the combat units, where I've been embedded, that statistic is probably in the nineties. Statistically, the overwhelming majority can't be too unhappy with the way things are going, because the last election was sort of a referendum on it. You're always seeing these profiles of this or that officer who is disenchanted. What about the others?

The truth about non-commissioned officers is that they don't sit around and complain or argue about "should we or should we not intervene?" They're too busy doing their job, taking the policy directive and reducing it to practical consequences.

The media intellectual class thinks too much. It's always concerned with issues. The bedrock of this book is not abstract issues, it's about individuals against exotic landscapes. It's about the Marine machine gunner who is surrounded by insurgents but would not take a shot because he didn't have a clear view without civilians. It's about the Green Beret who invented a way to fight dehydration in infants by giving them what he calls a "Gatorade enema" as a last resort. It's about the homeless kid for whom the Marines in Iraq constituted his first home. Now he's planning to go to school. He just wants to be a good citizen. It took combat in Iraq to make him grow up.

At one point in the book you mention that Hollywood has the Green Berets all wrong. Is this public perception a problem?

That brings up an interesting point. Older people have kind of a stereotypical view of a sergeant. I say sergeant because almost all Green Berets are sergeants. There's one captain and one warrant officer on every twelve-man Green Beret team. The rest are all sergeants. America's perception of the sergeant was formed in two Hollywood stereotypes. One was Sergeant Bilko from the 1950s, played by Phil Silvers, who was always scheming and scamming. The other was Sergeant Carter in a TV series of the 1960s called "Gomer Pile: U.S.M.C." He was a sadistic screamer.

The reality of today's sergeant, and especially Green Beret sergeants, is very different. The average sergeant in the military these days is a middle-level corporate-style manager who, in more than a few cases, can speak several exotic languages fluently and is quite a sophisticated person. Sophisticated in a very practical way, not in an abstract intellectual way. In other words, the average American sergeant, particularly a Green Beret, is probably the perfect humanitarian relief worker you can imagine. In fact, the task of Green Berets is often not so much to fight, but to train host-country forces to do so. Green Berets use a variety of techniques to practice what's called "unconventional war," which sounds sinister but can often mean humanitarian relief work. This work helps them win over a local population, get intelligence on terrorist activity, and then, by training the host-country army, have that country's army do the hunting down and killing.

You're planning another volume or volumes...

Yes, this is just the first volume. This book focuses on messy counterinsurgency on the ground in, more or less, the greater Middle East, aside from the chapter on Colombia. Volume two is in no way going to go over the same ground. Volume two is going to focus more on the sea and the air—on the Navy and the Air Force. And it will focus mainly on the challenge presented by China and Asia. But it will be done the same way. The emphasis will not be on the generals, it will be on the middle and lower ranks. And it will be written as a travel book.

You've done an enormous amount of research for this volume. Do you do that before you travel or after or both?

I try to read as much history and geography about a place as I can before I go somewhere new. But the military is very intellectually curious. Once you're in the barracks, you always find out about books you should have read. Somebody's always got a copy of something you should read.

In the chapter about the Horn of Africa, you called the military the "American Experience," which you described as "exotic, romantic, exciting, bloody, and emotionally painful, sometimes all at once." I'm wondering—do you sometimes wish you had chosen a U.S. military career?

Look, once we're fifty, all of us wonder, What would it have been like if we had done something different? That's very normal. I've been very satisfied with being a freelance writer for the last third of a century. I've had a great life. But if I were forced to choose an additional life, being a career soldier certainly would be something that would appeal to me. I think I would have enjoyed it better as a non-commissioned officer.

In Algeria, I met a master sergeant who's been in the military for twenty-five years, has been deployed in about forty countries, speaks several languages, and is the master sergeant of a Green Beret A Team. He's never had to do staff work, he's always out in the field. I think a guy like that has had a great life.