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SAIS Review 26.1 (2006) 201-204
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Voices of Soldiers, Echoes of Empire
Nikos E. Tsafos
Robert Kaplan defies categorization. As herds of journalists bought one-way tickets to Kabul in the winter of 2002, he traveled to Yemen to write a book on the American military. As American troops converged on Baghdad in 2003, Kaplan was spending time in Mongolia, gauging the future from this landlocked American ally. Unlike many of his colleagues who live for the next byline, Kaplan confesses that he has "little interest in breaking news"; it is in the timeline of history that his narrative acquires true meaning. And while the pundits debate the media's objectivity, Kaplan admits that he is "not concerned about crossing a professional boundary"; he writes that his intent in this book is "to see the world and their [troops] deployments from their perspective, not to judge them from mine."
Imperial Grunts is Kaplan's travelogue with the American military to the world's frontiers: not just Iraq and Afghanistan, but Yemen, Colombia, the Philippines, the Horn of Africa and Mongolia. It is there that Kaplan found his story: the "taming of the frontier," as he calls the war on terror. It is there that he unfolded the core of the American imperium– the men on the periphery, nudging the boundaries of empire, often without orders, sometimes against them. Imperial Grunts is a profile of these men on the periphery, America's own imperialists—the story, their preoccupations, and their dreams.
Kaplan's Cast of Characters
Kaplan's honesty about his favoritism towards the troops is disarming. In his acknowledgments, Kaplan writes: "rarely have I so thoroughly enjoyed the company of a group of people as much as I have Americans in uniform," a conclusion that any reader would have reached much sooner than the book's final pages. Kaplan's admiration for all things military is often distracting, especially when followed by denigration for everyone else such as the "nomenklatura" in Washington and New York, or the armchair strategists who "can be academic superstars without having a day's experience inside the crucible of government." When he describes the ritual of showing off with an assault rifle, he quips that, "adolescent it may be, but at least it is honest." Kaplan's disdain for the literary is thinly veiled; he listens approvingly to Bob Adolph, [End Page 201] a retired lieutenant colonel, who says: "the books I read never mentioned that to improve a society you have to give money to women, never to men," an observation that hardly does justice to the burgeoning development literature which investigates such links. Kaplan's frequent hyperbole reveals his slant. As a lieutenant colonel briefs him on the parts of the AK-47 rifle, Kaplan writes: "I realized that you might learn as much about a culture from its weaponry as you could from its literature," a nonsensical statement for someone as well-read as Kaplan, and a phrase which reveals the extent of his indulgence in writing this book.
The problem with the persistent praise for the military is that it offers the reader an escape route, a way to dismiss the book without giving it serious thought. And yet this bias is as necessary as it is counterproductive. Whatever the reader thinks of Kaplan's cast of characters, they are not eccentric; he did not seek out an odd group of people to write about. Rather, he traveled to places where the American military is deployed and he wrote about the people he met in the process. It is hard to disdain Kaplan's admiration for the simplicity of the military's thinking without becoming scornful to the troops themselves. This is an unsettling thought, to be sure, but it is better that it springs in the reader's mind sooner rather than later; only then it becomes possible to consider the more profound questions—who does America's fighting; are...