Customer Reviews of Imperial Grunts: On the Ground with the American Military, from Mongolia to the Philippines to Iraq and Beyond
Most excellent -- I heartily recommend this book
This was my first exposure to Robert Kaplan, on the recommendation of a history professor at Northern VA Community College. He steered me right, on this selection. I would call this book a must-read for anyone trying to understand the current state of American military and foreign policy.
Kaplan narrates his travels, over the course of a few years, to several trouble spots around the globe. From freezing in Iraq and Afghanistan, to roasting in Colombia and the Philippines, to drinking antelope blood in Mongolia, the man gets around. He also renders an excellent picture of the Legionnaires (in the Roman sense), laboring to establish a Pax Americana.
My Army hitch ended twenty-five years ago. I served at a time that was probably the nadir of the US military, the last of the 1970s. By the time I was a Sergeant and getting short, we were getting functionally-illiterate privates assigned to my rather technical job specialty - Artillery fire direction geek. Contrast that with today's Army, Navy, and Marines. The Air Force has always been able to attract brains, so they haven't changed all that much.
Kaplan, in Afghanistan, gets a historian's treat. The commander of a forward Special Forces base opens the captured-weapons locker, and takes the author and some goodies to the firing range. Between rounds with a century-old Lee-Enfield rifle, the officer gives him a cultural-anthropology lecture on what the innards of an AK-47 can tell about Soviet culture.
In Kuwait, about to go into Iraq with the Marines, our correspondent hops up in a Humvee, and introduces himself, mentioning that he's a journalist. The Lance Corporal on the machinegun turns out to be an aspiring author who writes haiku and science fiction. This marine is not unique in his level of intellect. The book illustrates very well the point that today's military is the smartest, best-trained, and toughest of any in the past 50 years, and possibly even in American history.
Besides painting an excellent picture of today's military, this book is also a whacking good story. I had trouble putting it down, when I had to do something else. Get the book. Read it. You'll be glad you did.
Admiring of Grunts, Deep Between the Lines Slam on Washington
Most important in this book is Kaplan's documentation of the fact that transformation of the U.S. military is NOT taking place--Washington is still enamored of multiple layers of rank heavy bureaucracy, the insertion of very large cumbersome task forces in to every clime and place; an over-emphasis on technology; and a lack of appreciation for the urgency of providing security, food, water, and electricity IMMEDIATELY so as to start the cycle of counter-insurgency information collection from volunteers. The author is brutal in his indictment of the bureaucracy for failing to provide the linguistic skills, four years after 9/11, that are far more important to transformation than any weapons system. He is also brutal on the delays in approving operations in the field that are associated with layered bureaucracies that come with joint task forces, and completely detrimental to fast moving tactical success at the A Team level.
Key here is the conclusion that American power can only be exercised in a sustained way through discreet relationships at every level from neighborhood and village on up to provinces and tribes. The emphasis here is on discreet, humanitarian, tangible goods and services including security. When America introduces major forces, it spikes resistance and delays the achievement of its very objective. What jumps out is the need to change how the US achieves its presence around the world. The author recommends a change in the State Department model of embassies focused on countries--State tends to be co-opted country by country and loses sight--if it ever had it--of regional or tribal nuances. The author also recommends a sustained peaceful presence at the provincial and village level around the world, through a combination of modern civil affairs and humanitarian assistance cadres and retired military given leave to choose a place they get to know and stay there to finish out their careers and then be "on tap" for retired reserve plus up.
A third theme in this book, one that Ralph Peters also makes in "NEW GLORY," is that a lot of these countries are NOT countries and should not be countries. Many borders imposed by colonialism are simply lunatic when taking into account historical and geographic and related ethnic realities. It *makes sense* to have regional summits that re-locate borders in a manner that respects historical, geographical and cultural realities, and to do so with a massive Berlin Airlift/Marshall Plan application of the benefits of peace. Ceding southernmost Thailand and the insurgent southern part of the Philippines to Malaysia, and establishing an Indonesian-Malaysian Muslim Crescent, makes sense. Similarly, in Africa and in the Middle East, there is good that could come of a deliberate recalculation of borders.
A fourth theme, and I share his admiring view of Special Operations and the Marine Corps, is that of the separation of the military ethos of service and dedication to mission, from that of the Nation at large, where Tom Friedman in "The World is Flat" declares that we are suffering from a new generation that is, in a word, apathetic. We need to return to universal service, with options for serving in the Peace Corps or the local constabulary at home. America has lost its civic integrity.
A fifth theme, one that corrected a misimpression I have shared, was of the rather special nature of the National Guard elements of the U.S. Special Forces and the Army civil affairs teams. They come out in this book as being among the best of the best.
Sixth, I found the author's field appreciation of citizen militia in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, and elsewhere to be quite illuminating. Washington is wrong to rush the transition to a centralized Army in places where tribes and militia still hold sway and can be used to provide provincial stability. We ignore the possibilities of unconventional indigenous forces at our peril.
Seventh, as on page 230, the author highlight those occasions when our unconventional warriors point out that Toyotas are better than Humvees, commercial cell phones are better than military communications alternatives. Across the book, a few good men and women with independent authority and cash resources to do instant compensation and instant aid authorization come across as vastly superior to Washington-style contracting and major joint force insertions.
Eighth, throughout the book, force protection mania is killing us and gutting our counter-insurgency potential. This comes out especially strongly in Colombia, where A Teams are forbidden to go tactical with the forces they are training, and are limited to training within safe encampments only. Force protection is a modern variation of the Soldier's Load-we are so nuts about force protection and heavying up that we are shackling our troops and our small unit leaders and completely avoiding the military value of "fast and furious."
Ninth, national and military intelligence are not meeting needs of front-line grunts. Bottom-up intelligence collection, including passive collection from observant civil affairs teams and foot patrols, is what is really working. We appear to need a whole new concept of operations and a whole new doctrine for field intelligence, one that floods areas with non-official cover and overt personnel, one that puts analyst and translators heavy-up into the front lines.
Sidenotes include great admiration for SOUTHCOM, accustomed as it is to getting along with the short end of the stick; and derision for PACOM, "twenty years behind the times, afraid of messy little wars and of a transparent humanitarian role for SF." The author regards the Global War on Terror (GWOT) as a convenient "set up" for a future war with China, not something I agree with but evidently a perception within the military that has specific outcomes from day to day. Other side notes include a brutal indictment throughout of "Big Army" and also of the US Air Force which is obsessing on more super-bombers and unwilling to fund what really works well, long-haul transports, AC-130 gunships (Puff the Magic Dragon), and more air controllers in the field with the grunts.
Super book! NOTE: I have the sense that some in the SF community have taken an intense dislike to Kaplan, and vote against the review as a way of voting against Kaplan. Fair enough, but for what it's worth, the review is a good summary intended to be helpful to all in appreciating what I take to be some pretty useful themes.
Fascinating fieldwork, credible conclusions
Kaplan starts with the premise that the US is de facto an empire, and he argues that we can best understand the outlines of this "ambiguous process" by observing the beliefs and actions of soldiers in the field. Some may disagree with this opinion or may distrust Kaplan's admiration for the military people he encounters. But few of us are likely to grab a backpack and head out into the field the way Kaplan does. We can learn a great deal by following him in his travels.
And he takes the reader on a tour of some very tough and distant places, like Yemen, the Horn of Africa, Columbia, the Phillippines, Afghanistan, and the China/Mongolian border. The narrative concludes in Iraq, where the author follows a Marine battalion into combat as it attempts to expel insurgents from the town of Fallujah.
Along the way, we learn something about the people and culture of the US military. Among the Green Berets, Kaplan meet a succession of tough, smart, and dedicated individuals. We discover something about the influence of Christian fundamentalism and southern culture in their ranks. It is clear that Kaplan respects them. But he is critical of what he perceives as an excess of gung-ho attitude and a shortage of linguistic and cultural skills.
We also learn something about the intractable problems of fighting terrorism in third-world countries: the deep hold of tribal politics, the prevalence of corruption, poverty, the sway of vicious criminal organizations, like FARC, which kidnaps children for its ranks threatening to kill their families if they run away. Or the impossible geography of places like the Phillippines, Yemen, or Columbia, where central governments cannot physically project power much beyond the capital. Much of the world falls under a "Hobbesian state of affairs."
As a result of his travels, Kaplan comes to certain conclusions about the application of military power. He is critical of the bureaucracy of the US military, which appears "still organized for World War II and the Korean War, with too many chiefs at massive rear bases and too few Indians at the edges." He comes to this conclusion after visiting the posh facilities of the Bagram support base in Afghanistan, then finding special forces operators held back from aggressive patrolling tactics by multiple layers of oversight. Rather than nation-building, Kaplan also favors narrow objectives and an "off camera" strategy, i.e., quietly training and developing relationships with indigenous soldiers (the traditional Green Beret mission).
I devoured the book in two days, completely enthralled by the exotic and dangerous landscapes through which the author journeyed, the interesting personalities he encountered, and the deft weaving of his narrative together with an explanation of the history and current affairs of these regions. As I closed the cover, I thought to myself that, whether we think of the US as an empire or not, we ought to be very careful in choosing the missions for our dedicated military people. The threat is endless, but our resources are not.
Great insight on special ops.
Robert Kaplan spent the second half of 2003 touring with special ops counterinsurgency US military teams in the Philippines and Afghanistan. Given their under cover nature, these special ops interventions are not covered by the press. Thus, Kaplan brings a huge amount of intelligence and insight on this nearly mysterious subject.
The book is fascinating on a couple of levels. The first one is that the U.S. military contrary to what everyone believes has a rather effective counterinsurgency apparatus. Since 9/11 we have all read about the ineffectiveness of our lumbering military complex. Many have recommended the military develops small, flexible teams that could be rapidly deployed where they are needed at a much lower cost than sending aircraft and tank fleets. But, these experts are recommending something that already exists: our nearly unknown counterinsurgency teams. And, these teams will play an increasingly important role in fighting the Islamic insurrection and terrorism.
The second insight that is most interesting is the strange profile of the men who staff these teams. They look like buffed up thugs. But, they are well educated with college and occasional masters degrees in engineering, linguistic, and political science. They are anti-establishment and love their independence from the Pentagon bureaucracy. They have beards, and do not wear soldier's helmets, but caps instead. They feel the helmets don't protect them anyway, so they would rather be comfortable. Finally, they are Christians. They explain their maverick profile by stating that in general the more educated the more risk averse one becomes. This is unless one has religion. Their religion allows them to have a sense of mission greater than themselves and to take on risk that secular people would not take. Finally the beard thing is to fit in with the local Muslim population. This is because their goal is to befriend the local population, assist them in building infrastructure including schools and hospitals. And, by doing so attempt to isolate the violent fundamentalist elements.
Not all is perfect with these teams. Kaplan mentions they suffer from lack of linguistic skills that hinders their integration with locals. That's not a surprise. Pashto, Persian and Arabic dialects are not readily taught in the U.S. Nevertheless, after reading this book you feel that the political return on investment on these special ops is far greater than in investing in more tanks.
If you liked this book, I also recommend Robert Kaplan's "The Coming Anarchy," Thomas X. Hammes's "The Sling and the Stone," and van Crevald's "The Transformation of War." All these books focus on the changing nature of military conflict in the 21st century. Of the three books, van Crevald's is especially prescient as it was written nearly a decade before 9/11. While the others were written after.
Praise from a Screaming Eagle
I am a soldier in the US Army. I served in 2ID in Korea and I am now with the 101st airborne(aaslt).
I saw this book at Borders while I was home on leave from Iraq. I needed something to read on the flight back, and the title seemed interesting, so I bought a copy.
I loved this book. Kaplan was able to articulate all the things I was never able to explain properly to my civilian friends and family. He really was able to capture what real soldiers and marines are like, not like the stupid Hollywood stereotypes. If anyone has family serving overseas, get this book.