Robert Kaplan is a writer in the mold of young Winston Churchill, marching towards the sound of the guns and reporting from where the action is. His "Imperial Grunts" follows the wide-ranging activities of US elite troops--the "special forces," the "green berets" and in the last part, the Marine Corps in Iraq. If the US has taken on the role of a global police force--the way the British Empire once tried to do--here are the cops on the beat.
In addition to Iraq, he visits Yemen, Colombia, the Phillipines, Afghanistan, Somalia and Mongolia, as well as home bases in the USA. A common theme underlying all of Kaplan's book is his deep admiration for those "imperial grunts" and for the ones who lead them. American soldiers around the globe should appreciate what he has written, because it pays tribute to their determination, resourcefulness and courage, a tribute rarely heard for the simple reason that few members of the regular press go to where Kaplan has gone. These soldiers' job is dangerous, conditions are rough, pay is skimpy--and at the same time, the camaraderie is genuine, personal responsibilities are often enormous and the demands one one's "people-skills" can be staggering. This is most evident where American soldiers operate in small teams, training and inspiring local counterparts to give stability a chance, in societies on the edge of chaos.
Take the rain forests of Colombia, where rival militias subsist off the drug trade, while bullying and exploiting locals, often with help from across an unfriendly border. Colombian soldiers are brave and tough, and the fact that many US soldiers speak their language is a great asset--but Colombia's politicians and the majority of the population, comfortable in the highlands, do no sense the same urgency, so that the situation smolders on.
Yemen is a volatile tribal society, a medley of clans armed to the teeth, often supplementing their income from illegal levies at roadblocks. Whatever hold the central government has is maintained largely by judicious bribes and by playing clan leaders against each other. Later Kaplan discovers that much of Iraq is just as fragmented, and that Saddam's rule was maintained by similar means; the situation there has got worse since his visit. The clans, the weapons, the religious extremism--also, an expanding population subsisting on limited means--all these are enough to make the reader pause and wonder: are these the places for promoting democracy?
Indeed, I fear that with all the valor of US troops, chaos will ultimately prevail in most places he describes--followed by oppression, the only realistic alternative to chaos. The fighting men are first rate, dedicated and patriotic, but their orders often come from the rear echelon "REMFs," a different breed. Kaplan's book ends with a gripping first-hand account of the battle of Fallujah, in which the Marines prevailed, only to be ordered back at the moment of victory. Being disciplined, they pull out.
Maybe on the long run all that makes little difference. As one reads Kaplan's reports, one is struck by a feeling of futility--valor and resourcefulness are great assets, but in the face of world-wide disorder, of corruption, poverty, exploding populations and religious zealots, any hope for order may be doomed. Those societies were never stable to begin with, and now their edges are unraveling. Tomorrow the stakes will be higher, life more precarious and any hope for exporting our prosperous orderly democracy even more remote.
For the time, however, a few brave young men stand as a thin barrier between our world and the chaotic one. They do their utmost to give those embattled societies a chance, to maybe--just possibly--find a way to a better, more orderly life. More power to them, and great credit to Kaplan for trying to show the view from their side.
Author and Curator: Dr. David P. Stern
Mail to Dr.Stern: david("at" symbol)phy6.org .
Last updated 24 February 2006