College Quarterly
Fall 2005 - Volume 8 Number 4
Reviews Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground
Robert D. Kaplan
New York: Random House, 2005

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

The effort to make sense of American imperial policy is seldom rewarding. Critics regularly do excellent work when they focus on the inconsistencies in rationalizing, the incompetencies in executing and the injustices in pursuing foreign policy goals that appear to have been developed irrationally or at least in undue haste and the absence of clear thought and planning.

The ideological blinders, the administrative errors and the faith-based enthusiasms of President Bush and his colleagues are plain to see. So is the host of material motivations that lie, in some sort of order, beneath the rhetoric. The United States has been more or less at war with “evil” empires for over half a century and seems permanently in thrall to the “military-industrial complex” that cold warrior Dwight D. Eisenhower famously identified as he was leaving office. War and preparation for war has made many American “defense” contractors rich and they, in turn, have made the White House safe for defense contractors. The reconstruction after battle can also be lucrative, as Vice-President Cheney’s Halliburton corporation well knows. And, of course, there is oil.

To itemize all that is wrong with American imperial strategy is, however, insufficient. To deal with the symptoms is not to comprehend the disease. So, it is worthwhile examining what is in the minds of imperial apologists as they set out their case. This exercise is best avoided when the minds in question are still in office or even when they have taken their leave to enjoy their luxurious “golden years” and to construct their memoirs that, they hope, will locate them among the heroes of history. Liars in office are seldom apt to come clear in retirement.

The best subjects of inquiry are the articulate but unofficial chroniclers of current events. One pertinent example is Robert D. Kaplan whose recent book, Imperial Grunts sets out a lively brief for America, its current role and its ultimate mission in global affairs.

Kaplan is not new to the analysis of international events. Following the implosion of the Soviet Union, he wrote a cautionary article in the Atlantic Monthly that ran counter to the triumphalism of those who imagined that the end of the “Cold War” would bring prosperity and peace. Kaplan was prescient in noting that international stability was not the inevitable outcome of American hegemony; he predicted instead a coming era of global anarchy. He extended this theme in his book-length treatment of the southeast Europe (Balkan Ghosts, 1993) and generalized it in Warrior Politics (2002), a tome that was among the first of recent volumes to accept and embrace the destiny of the United States as singular world leader and protector of “civilization.”

Kaplan is a working journalist who plainly has the trust of the American military and repays this kindness by providing a refreshingly candid explication of the purposes and principals of US troops “on the ground” and often “in harm’s way.” In doing so, he allows us to gain vital insights into why the American invasion and occupation of Iraq (and coming adventures in Latin America?) that are not wholly explicable in terms of the public utterances of political officials. Kaplan, in the alternative, spends his time with junior officers and non-commissioned officers and is particularly delighted with Special Forces personnel.

These soldiers, he declares, are ardent patriots and who see themselves as defending the American way of life and exhibiting all the naïve virtues of unreflective nationalism. They think and act like the iconic American heroes of the wild west, the members of cavalry units who tamed (exterminated?) the natives who inconveniently posed an obstacle to progress. His opening segment is tellingly entitled “Injun Country” and explains that the “Injuns” are no longer in the Carolinas or Kansas or California, but are holed up on the frontiers of civilization where unfamiliar customs and languages flourish and incalculable wealth is there for the taking.

It is hard to reconcile the civilizing “mission” of imperial America with the refrains about liberty and democracy, but this does not deter Kaplan. The two can, however, be conflated in the commitment to winning the “war on terror” and its consequence, the emergence of “insurrections.” By basing an aggressive foreign policy in an illusory concept of America under attack, introverted nationalism can segue into global war without the inconvenience of actually having to engage in the difficult task of nation-building. Of course, such a contradictory approach to world domination is also unlikely to work. There are too many “Injuns” for the “cavalry” to conquer.

What makes the American project especially difficult is its inability to engage (and lack of interest in actually engaging) with the societies it seeks to “liberate” and subsequently exploit. No thought of “rebuilding” Iraq seemed to enter the minds of men like Cheney and Rumsfeld and no thought of taking up permanent residence seems attractive to the “light and lethal” commandos that Kaplan reveres. To be sure, Kaplan is highly critical of American elites—especially the prosperous cosmopolitans, effete intellectuals and the nit-picking media who undermine the American enterprise and the brave women and men who are doing the dirty work in support of the peculiar combination of transparent power lust and utopian dreams.

It does not matter that Kaplan’s argument is partly repugnant, partly absurd and entirely misguided; it does succeed in shedding light on the reasons why so many young Americans display “an unpretentious willingness to die” in the interest of an incoherent but fiercely believed “greater good.” It also does not matter that these foolish deaths are in vain. Kaplan presents a compelling portrait of patriotism which is not merely, as Johnson said, “the last refuge of a scoundrel” but rather the sustaining myth of the sons and daughters of what are stereotypically called the “red states.”

How long it will take for that myth to dissolve remains an open question.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at <howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca>.

Reviews

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2005 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology