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Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground Hardcover – September 13, 2005

4.1 out of 5 stars 101 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

It is the dawn of the 21st century, and the United States has appropriated the entire Earth. So journalist Robert Kaplan writes in his paean to the American fighting man and woman, Imperial Grunts. The U.S. has quietly--with little public debate--forged an empire that is "ready to flood the most obscure areas of it with troops at a moment's notice," writes Kaplan, a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly magazine who has written 10 earlier books on foreign affairs and travel, including the acclaimed Balkan Ghosts. Imperial Grunts is Kaplan's account of his travels to the frontiers of the U.S. imperium. From the dustbowl of northern Yemen to the coca fields of Colombia and the insurgent hotbed of Fallujah, Kaplan takes readers to the war-torn edges of the U.S. empire and visits with front-line grunts who guard it and try to expand its reach.

"Welcome to Injun Country," is the catchphrase Kaplan hears from all the U.S. soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors we meet. In the view of American troops, they are taming an "unruly" frontier in the tradition of General George Custer. We all know what happened to Custer and, later, to the Native Americans whom the 7th Cavalry was sent out to pacify. But far from criticizing that mission or finding in the analogy any cautionary lesson, Kaplan is an enthusiastic cheerleader for what he baldly calls "American imperialism." He sees it as "humanitarian" and "righteous" and seems to never meet a Green Beret or marine he does not idolize. To Kaplan, U.S. imperialism is unquestionably selfless and heroic, trying only to bring a little taste of freedom to the huddled masses of the world. Imperial Grunts works well as a travelogue but fails to provide deeper insights--or opposing views--about the complex and fascinating places he explores. --Alex Roslin

From Publishers Weekly

America is no less an imperial power than Britain and Rome in their times, claims veteran journalist Kaplan (Balkan Ghosts, etc.)—one that is backed by the same sort of enforcers. To illustrate, he travels to seven nations and describes how American troops are, if not ruling the world, working to persuade it to follow our lead. The author joins elite units (generally marines or special forces) sent to shore up friendly governments, win people's hearts, train security forces and defeat terrorism—an increasingly vague term that includes narco-guerrillas, local warlords, unruly tribes and criminal gangs. Living among working soldiers, Kaplan makes no secret of his admiration for their camaraderie, practicality and rational if politically incorrect views. All roll their eyes when our leaders proclaim that defeating terrorism requires democratic governments; according to Kaplan, they believe this is nonsense in Colombia, Kenya, Yemen and the Philippines—all democracies. Forbidden to fight in these countries, Americans are building infrastructure and gathering intelligence as they instruct local units, hoping American-trained leaders will eventually rise to positions of authority. Military buffs will prefer the chapters on Iraq and Afghanistan, where the soldiers are slugging it out. Stabilizing all these nations may take decades, these men and women say—except in Iraq, where it may take longer. (On sale Sept. 13)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First Edition edition (September 13, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400061326
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400061327
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 1.4 x 6.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (101 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,097,359 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Robert David STEELE Vivas HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on October 3, 2005
Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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