The American Military on the Ground

By Robert D. Kaplan

Random House. 421 pp. $27.95

Robert D. Kaplan is a traveler, he insists, not a journalist -- or if he is a journalist, his heroes are the great battlefield correspondents of World War II, not the self-consciously skeptical, hair-styled anchors of the evening news. He has now written a book about several years of visiting with the troops at the far corners of the American Empire, and -- like Richard Tregaskis in Guadalcanal Diary or, better yet, Ernie Pyle -- he identifies keenly and unabashedly with the troops. The author's note at the end of the book sums it up: "Rarely have I so thoroughly enjoyed the company of a group of people as much as I have Americans in uniform." Not the generals, mind you, but the sergeants and captains who are the rough-hewn centurions working in the hard -- sometimes beautiful but more often simply unlovely and dangerous -- margins of the developed world.

Kaplan has his loathings too. He notes more than once how much he despises the academic, journalistic, diplomatic and wonkish elites. Staying at a Comfort Suites outside Camp Pendleton, Calif., on the coast between San Diego and Los Angeles, he cheerfully munches prepackaged muffins and drinks bad coffee with Marines and contractors. "In its own small and sterile way," Kaplan writes, "the morning ritual underscored how far removed the policy nomenklatura in Washington and New York -- in its cocoon of fine restaurants and theoretical discussions -- was from the frugal necessities of those who actually manned and maintained the Empire." And he takes on many of the other dislikes of the men (he encounters very few American women in this book) with whom he lives: diplomats, bureaucrats, most Army general officers, lumbering regular-army units, and all REMFs (an acronym unfit for printing in a family newspaper whose first letters stand for "rear echelon").

After a while, these sentiments begin to look more like a chip on the shoulder than an argument; they are, in any event, a distraction from the purpose of the book, which is to depict elements of the U.S. Army (Special Forces soldiers, above all) and some units in the Marine Corps in the front lines of the awkwardly named "global war on terror." Kaplan devotes separate chapters to his visits to Yemen, Colombia, Mongolia, the Philippines, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and Iraq, introducing each trip with potted history and anthropology.

The soldiers, many of them from the U.S. Special Operations Command, are mostly trainers and liaisons with local forces -- developing local capabilities to fight insurgents and often chafing to get into the fight themselves. In other places (as in Mongolia), they are simply building cooperative relationships with militaries interested in being tied to the United States. These troops are quite different, for the most part, from the soldiers of line units of the so-called Big Army -- the army that tends to think of thousands of soldiers rather than dozens, of fortified bases rather than inconspicuous huts, and of soldiers dressed and equipped to uniform standards rather than the raffish and individualistic kit of the Special Forces.

As befits such a global tour, Kaplan is a very good travel writer indeed. He superbly describes bazaars and rainforests, brothels and junkyards, hootches and bases, M-4 carbines and M-240 machine guns, heat and dust. He captures in a few pages what it takes to train a moderately competent sergeant or plan an assault on Fallujah.

He is also an acute observer of soldiers. His is a picture of perhaps the most experienced and able military the United States has ever had, led by junior and mid-level officers and NCOs who are versatile, self-reliant and quick-witted. It is also a military that is culturally distinct from the stateside groups that make policy -- the latte-swilling cultural elites at whom Kaplan periodically thumbs his nose. His aversion to that elite sometimes leads to silliness, as when he denounces the "bent toward pacifism" of New England, going back to the War of 1812. The notion of such a tradition would have surprised the sailors who manned the broadsides of the USS Constitution, the soldiers from the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment who held the left end of the line at Gettysburg or the Boston Irish Marines who fought in Fallujah.

If Kaplan's history is sometimes shaky, though, his contemporary sociology is not. American soldiers are, as he insists, predominantly working- or lower-middle-class folk, the products (with the exception of West Point and Annapolis) of state schools and part-time degree programs. He describes the culture of guns and NASCAR, chewing tobacco and Budweiser, and writes affectionately of the "oldest, simplest virtues: unblinking courage and straightforwardness, which was both revealed and obscured by the profane language they used." More than once, he comments on the power of evangelical Christianity in the American officer corps and the rise of a religiously devout segment of the military -- the Church Militant in battle-dress uniforms. This last is a subtext worth a book in itself, for it gives the American military great strengths but also, perhaps, some limitations, particularly in a conflict saturated with religion.

Kaplan also captures the tremendous versatility of these men -- grunts who have seen the world and can, from first-hand experience, compare the quality of Nepalese mercenaries and Afghan militias, Singaporean officers and Colombian militias. They often lack formal expertise in the countries in which they operate, but they get by with a cheerful eagerness to plunge into unfamiliar cultures, a willingness to speak difficult languages badly and an ever-optimistic spirit. These Special Forces troops (and remember, this is not Big Army, the world of armored divisions and paratroop brigades) are indeed intensely admirable people. Occasionally, Kaplan romanticizes them, but not always. "One shouldn't expect soldiers to be interesting," he writes. "War is work, and like all work it is for the literal minded." As a tough paratrooper colonel friend of mine (and a very interesting man) once put it, "War is a lot like plumbing. The pipes all have to fit for something to happen." What Kaplan does not do is reflect on the implications of having the plumbers serve so frequently as the effective end of U.S. foreign policy. All too often, America's face abroad is not the diplomat in the expensive suit but the Special Forces grunt in trainer's fatigues.

Kaplan sometimes asserts and sometimes tries to argue for the inevitability of an American Empire. And here, in his strategic analysis -- an enterprise that he thinks is usually done by sissy elitists -- his views are less certain. While the tone of Imperial Grunts is generally as optimistic as that of the can-do sergeants and majors he describes, a more somber tone occasionally intrudes when he considers the vastness of their nation-building mission: "The task that the U.S. appeared to have in both Yemen and Colombia was similar. And it was similarly impossible: to make countries out of places that were never meant to be countries." Indeed, the most successful stories that he has to offer are also the most limited: the maverick lieutenant colonel who has learned how to fit in with the Mongolian military, the major who thought that the post-Sept. 11 training mission in the Philippines was to develop Westernized officers in that country's military and make some useful contacts among its elites.

The most ambitious mission -- the attempt to bring order to Iraq -- is the most frustrating. Kaplan acknowledges why, in a passage that unfortunately he does not extend: "In a world where nineteenth-century-style colonialism was simply impractical and where the very spread of democracy for which America struggled meant that it could no longer operate with impunity, an approach that merged humanitarianism with intelligence gathering, in order to achieve low-cost partial victories, was what imperialism demanded in the early twenty-first century." Not much of an empire, a British viceroy would probably think, and rightly so. In fact, the United States exercises a kind of uneven hegemony in the world, sometimes exerting overpowering force, sometimes tripping on the incoherence of its aims, often stumbling over the complexity of its bureaucracy, usually interested not in ruling territory but in fending off misfortune.

Kaplan has made a career of bravely covering the ungoverned parts of this world. Until Sept. 11, 2001, when the consequences of allowing al Qaeda its Afghan base became clear, most Americans did not think they had to care very much about them; some would argue that we still should not. But chaos exercises its compulsions even upon reluctant imperialists. There are many instruments of national power other than the military, some of which Kaplan unfairly ignores -- think of the diplomats and activists who helped secure the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, for instance. Nor should one be as comfortable as he is with having the military assume foreign-policy-making roles; plumbers should not be architects. But for better or worse, the grunts Kaplan describes so brilliantly will be out there representing America in the chaotic zones of a dangerous world, and to understand them one is well advised to read this book. *

Eliot A. Cohen is Robert E. Osgood Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and the author of "Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime."

U.S. Special Forces near Kabul in 2002