Politics, Foreign Policy, Current Events and Occasional Outbursts Lacking Couth

Sunday, May 27, 2007

On Imperial Grunts

A blurb on this books cover uses the term "gritty" to describe it. I concur completely. Anyone looking for an in depth look at America's global military presence should start here. Kaplan seems to write almost entirely off the cuff and his writing here divides itself from his usual prose in both the Atlantic articles I've read and the collective The Coming Anarchy. In short Kaplan's prose here possesses an urgency he captures in it's final pages upon returning to America and I'll paraphrase (as I loaned the book out directly after finishing it to a man whose opinions I greatly respect: my father) "I didn't want to talk to anybody. I just wanted to write." And write he did.

Kaplan lays a thin line of philosophy throughout the book, as suggested by the title, that entails the US presence abroad as one that is imperial in nature. To this I disagree. Perhaps America is laying the seed (however inadvertent) for a hegemony but imperialism suggests a larger control than America possesses over it's "satellite" states (the exception being Iraq, perhaps) than we project. Given this premise Kaplan could have made a more convincing effort had he "redefined" imperialism to meet his ideology or taken the tack of hegemony.

Another criticism: Kaplan seems to possess an inadvertent (perhaps) want to paint all of the soldiers he meets in a crisp and generally positive light. Given that a voluntary military will likely contain people from all walks of life it's hard to imagine that Kaplan didn't meet a complete asshole or two in his travels. Yet every soldier is described in nearly glowing terms. It's an easy criticism to make from the safety of my home as opposed to wading into al Fallujah unarmed, no doubt, but a cogent one the same.

Which brings me to this:

In reading this book I've gained a new respect for Kaplan as a man. Anyone willing to walk intentionally into the hot bed that Fallujah entailed, armed or (as Kaplan was) especially unarmed earns my respect. And the best part is that there are more volumes to come. I'm looking forward to them.


Anonymous said...

Good review. I've read the book as well, and concur with what you say. Imperialism is a pretty big word to use in the US context, and not one that I would necessarily have chosen, given its loaded and contested meaning. Trouble is, I'm not sure if there is another term which captures the complexity of US overseas engagement.

I thought that the chapters on Iraq and Mongolia were up there with the best of Kaplan's writing. The end of the Mongolia chapter, where the US officer says "We don't need to build anything but relationships" is brilliant.

Younghusband said...

strategist said " Trouble is, I'm not sure if there is another term which captures the complexity of US overseas engagement."

Exactly. No one seems to like the word "hegemony" either. Whatever term you use to label it "dominance" is a relational concept that will always be loved and hated at the same time.

Tequila said...

As a Marine grunt, let me just say that Kaplan falls into the same trap that Tom Ricks did w/regards to his section on the Marine Corps. He buys fully into the Parris Island gift shop mythology. We do too, to an extent, but since we live the reality instead of just parachuting in, we also know how the Corps actually works when the rubber meets the road. Kaplan is a tourist and gets way too much wrong in hilarious ways. For a far better picture of the USMC in action, read Bing West or Evan Wright.

Jay@Soob said...


The conversation between a Marine Captain (I think) and a Fallujah resident in which (paraphrasing here)

"If you know any of the Ali Baba's please tell them to attack us as quickly as possible so that we can kill them and begin rebuilding your (infrastructure.)


Well said. Personally I have no aversion to the concept of American hegemony (or Kaplan's imperialism) just thought it could have been better defined.


Thanks for the insight and the suggestions. I wonder if you could provide some examples in where Kaplan gets it wrong?

Anonymous said...

"The Mission" remains a better read because it captures the worldwide commitment and challenge of US forces far more than Kaplan does. It also gets into geopolitics and military dilemmas far more than Kaplan's book, and keep in mind she also was "on the ground" everywhere she went, from Kazakhstan to Kosovo, Nigeria to Colombia.

To be honest, as much as I enjoy Kaplan's writing and his viewpoints, "Imperial Grunts" is more like a love letter to the US military whereas "The Mission" is a no-holds barred wide vision of the internal and external challenges of the US military and more broadly, the US government. The problems she identifies in the Clinton era continue through to the Bush era, that of a government and people that believe the military can and should "do more" and take the place of ineffective civilian leaders and agencies.

Ymarsakar said...

I think there's a slight difference between Imperial and Imperium. Empire is too centralized a word for the US, simply because all the countries that the US occupies runs their own affairs more or less. Barring any Status of Forces agreements.

Hegemony doesn't work either precisely because the US doesn't really pay attention to much of the local concerns and affairs. How do you create influence or lead other nations, when half of the time the US doesn't even pay attention to most nations?

Or better yet, if the US is the supreme leader in a hegemony, why do we keep having leadership pissing matches with the French, Russians, and so forth?

Seems like the hegemony thing is still in doubt these days. Or it still has some bugs to be worked out.