Some Thoughts on Kaplan’s “Imperial Grunts”
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Some Thoughts on Kaplan’s “Imperial Grunts”

Yeehaw! Kaplan wants readers to think about paintings like “Coming and Going of the Pony Express” by Frederick Remington (1900)

Robert D. Kaplan, Imperial Grunts: On the Ground with the American Military, from Mongolia to the Philippines to Iraq and Beyond. Random House: New York, 2005 (Reprinted Vintage Books, 2006)

One night while cleaning an old Lee-Enfield rifle on a Bukhara carpet, Custer provided me his theory on the problem with the War on Terror as it was currently being waged in Afghanistan. … It wasn’t really his theory so much as everybody’s- that is, when people were being honest with each other.

Imperial Grunts p. 225

I wanted something silly to read in December, and Imperial Grunts delivered. This book is like a glimpse into an alternate universe, a world where steely-eyed, Protestant soldiers wander the world bringing order not chaos, where US military inventions are hindered only by journalists, metropolitan intellectuals, and the backwardness of the people they operate among, a world where Apple is a has-been and Microsoft is an important company (pp. 262, 263) It is based on the author’s travels as a reporter embedded in various US military units around the world from late 2002 to early 2004 (Yemen, Columbia, Mongolia, the Philippines, Afghanistan, and Iraq). But a considerable part comes from the author’s library and neo-conservative ideology. As I read it, I noticed a way of thinking which I have also seen in writings about the Achaemenids.

If you come to this book looking for trustworthy statements you will be disappointed. Several times Kaplan says something in the main text (“this many US soldiers come from Texas and Florida”) then admits in a footnote that what he said was incorrect (“actually, that is where they declare residence for tax purposes”). And how can a grownup pronounce that “there were now clandestine guerrilla cells of young men and occasional women working to wreak greater destruction than most of the armies of history ever had”? 9/11 killed a few thousand people, which is a bad day in a war, but the killing in wars goes on for years; terrorists might get one atomic weapon, but states have thousands of them. Its too bad that nothing in this book can be trusted, because Kaplan traveled many places and met many people. He reveals some astonishing things, such as that in the first battle of Fallujah the US proposed to conquer a city of 285,000 people with just two battalions of marines (less than 2000 infantry; pp. 245-248). And I like his observation that US military bases are ugly, and US marine bases are even uglier (pp. 265, 266). While some people speak of the timeless placeless universal soldier, soldiers before the 20th century went to war with shining metal, shimmering silks, and brightly painted lances not black rifles and olive drab. And Kaplan was literally a military tourist (he also writes travel books), so if you have trouble understanding men like Xenophon or Sir John Smythe who used their money to follow the wars, this book might help you understand.

But if you have an aesthetic sense and a love of the absurd, this book is a treasure. It has straight-talking truth-tellers who say pithy and controversial things so the author does not have to stand behind them. When the author wants to disparage academics and their questions, his soldiers “do not become entangled in exquisite subtlities” (p. 166); when he wants to defend US involvement in tortures, rapes, and murders in Latin America, we learn that “though many Americans categorized such interventions as failures and moral disgraces, the Marines knew that the history of these interventions was complex … actions of positive moral consequence, and of negative consequence.” (p. 310) Both the author and his informants provide stereotypes of the “to Asiatics, life is cheap” sort (pp. 231, 232) to help readers understand the various people their representatives may have to kill while admitting that US forces have a severe lack of knowledge of the languages spoken where they operate (p. 235, 264).

This book loves to explain mysterious foreigners with the words “tribal” and “tribalism” while not using those words to explain rivalries between different services in the US military or regions or classes within the US civilian population. It makes sure that readers understand that for US forces to kill women, children, and passersby is “tragic” but necessary (p. 136-140, 234, 324, 359, 360, 366), but for Communist forces to kill prisoners or scatter the landscape with mines is an act of inexplicable evil (pp. 62, 63, 74, 236, 350, 351). A different book would have asked how the Christian ideology of many of the grunts and the Communist ideology of the Red Army can both justify horrible acts (and noticed that FARC planted IEDs in pairs, one to get attention and the other to kill the first responders, just like US paramilitaries ‘double tap’ a second drone strike when people are gathering to save survivors of the first, p. 86). Kaplan is honest that he identifies with US soldiers (p. 257), especially macho special forces and marines, but he can’t apply the same standards to those he identifies with and those he identifies against.

This book is full of romantic nostalgia out of Frederick Remington paintings, Rudyard Kipling stories, and western films. It is scattered with references to antiquity and hints of timeless backwards chaos with the occasional mention of a CIA drone attack or the War on Drugs which seems much more relevant to the current situation. To Kaplan, fighting for Uncle Sam in a distant land is the one true American Experience (p. 300). Kaplan’s good soldiers are like “the most innovative global corporations” but even better (p. 226). They survive unscathed or die quickly offstage, but don’t suffer life-altering physical or mental wounds like Cyril M. Kornbluth, Jordan Goudreau, or a friend who suffered a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan. This book is gloriously, tragically mad, but it does connect to the Achaemenids.

Kaplan’s US military embraces its history of small wars (despite the sinister influence of “big army” which keeps killing their buzz by asking “would that work against anyone with an air force and an armoured division”?). That is different than most pictures of the US military I have seen, like the new West Point History of Warfare which focuses on wars between European and settler states. And Kaplan’s military can’t decide whether it is the cowboys or the Indians. The world outside their bases is “Indian country” (p. 100) or “the wild west” (p. 342), but they shriek war-whoops out of the film Last of the Mohicans (p. 280) and give themselves call signs such as Red Cloud and Little Wolf (p. 315, 354, 365) They have “powwows” and suffer from “too many chiefs and too few Indians.” (pp. 353, 367). If you know the Roman army of late antiquity, which borrowed trousers and weapons from barbaricum as it slaughtered barbarians by the thousand, this will sound familiar. I have noticed that people telling stories about the Achaemenids get confused the same way. They want the Persian Wars to be between a mighty professional army and a ragtag insurgency, but can’t decide who should play each part. Highly educated people behind a desk think in the same confused way as the young and sleep-deprived.

This is not a book which helped me understand the armies which fought and lost the struggle to control Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I don’t know which parts are based on experience, and which are written to please an audience or inspired by too many Zane Gray novels. But its laugh-out-loud funny if you can step back and not think too hard about what people who thought this way did to people I know. And to understand the strange things people say about Achaemenid armies, we need to understand the ideologies which inspire those strange words. Kaplan’s book is a beautiful expression of some of them.

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(scheduled 26 December 2021)

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2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Kaplan’s “Imperial Grunts”

  1. Military Ethnography – Book and Sword says:

    […] my post on that hilarious book on US soldiers overseas under the second President Bush, I mentioned that its full of pithy ethnography of the people Americans fight with or against (or […]

  2. Books Read in 2022 – Book and Sword says:

    […] D. Kaplan, Imperial Grunts (2005) Review […]

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