Imperial Grunts

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

In the fall of 2005, as the United States was conducting active combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American media carried two stories of operations involving American military in the mountainous region that forms the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In September, American soldiers were seen delivering relief aid to Pakistanis suffering from the devastation of a major earthquake. Sound bites of grateful Pakistanis filled the airwaves; many expressed their gratitude toward a country they had hitherto distrusted, or even hated, for its treatment of their fellow Muslims. Less than a month later, however, those same media outlets featured the story of a group of American soldiers in Afghanistan burning the bodies of two Afghan rebels and taunting their comrades. Any goodwill built up among Muslims by the relief efforts in Pakistan was sure to evaporate in the face of such an atrocity.

These two scenes highlight the problem discussed at length by veteran journalist Robert Kaplan in Imperial Grunts. While American executives such as President George Bush may speak passionately about the importance of freedom, and while members of Congress may debate the necessity of extending the United States’ reach around the globe, the success of U.S. efforts to spread democracy rests on the shoulders of the people who are, to use a common military expression, “in country.” The ways young privates and sergeants behave, Kaplan argues, and the leadership provided by lieutenants, captains, and majors will do more to decide the fate of U.S. efforts than any platitudes spouted by politicians in Washington.

In Kaplan’s view, these soldiers, sailors, air personnel, and marines are serving a political agenda that links the United States with nations of ancient times such as Greece, Rome, and England: builders of empire. Kaplan sees the United States as an imperial power spreading its ideology through its military and diplomatic efforts. Whether fighting to oust insurgents or capture drug traffickers, helping to build wells or distribute medicines, men and women in uniform are functioning in much the same way as did their predecessors in regimes that had stamped their ideologies on, and extracted resources from, countries they had conquered by force or entered by treaty.

To determine how successfully the United States has been carrying out its imperial mission, Kaplan embarked on a two-year journey to see how American influence and power worldwide is being maintained by the men and women who work directly with people in other countries around the globe. Kaplan takes as his blueprint for the journey the map of the world fashioned by the U.S. military, which has divided the planet into separate spheres: NORTHCOM, the northern American hemisphere; SOUTHCOM, the southern half of the hemisphere; EUCOM, a region stretching in an arc from the southern tip of Africa up half the continent across the Mediterranean and over Europe and Russia to the Pacific Ocean; CENTCOM, a segment of Africa and Asia including troubled spots such as the Middle East and Afghanistan; and PACOM, the largest area, covering all the Pacific islands, the Asian subcontinent, China, and Mongolia. For each there is a military commander tasked to evaluate and manage conflict and promote American interests; in each there are American military serving either in small, specially trained units or larger, conventional forces representing those interests on the ground.

Kaplan’s journey took him to faraway locales such as Yemen and Mongolia, to the jungles of Colombia and the Philippines, into the mountains of Afghanistan and to the Horn of Africa, and ended in Iraq, where he participated with U.S. Marines in combat operations that put his life in danger. On trips back to the United States, he visited training sites at Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, where soldiers and marines are trained for the tasks they will perform. Wherever he went, he found the troops with whom he came in contact to be dedicated, knowledgeable, and deeply committed to their missions; they are proud to represent their country and eager to talk about the advantages of...

(The entire section is 1696 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

The Atlantic Monthly 296, no. 3 (October, 2005): 84.

Booklist 101, no. 22 (August, 2005): 1987.

Business Week, October 31, 2005, p. 112.

Commentary 120, no. 4 (November, 2005): 89-92.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 12 (June 15, 2005): 672.

National Review 57, no. 17 (September 26, 2005): 59-60.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 25 (June 20, 2005): 70.

Washington Monthly 37, no. 9 (September, 2005): 45-47.