Imperial Grunts

Last night I finished Robert Kaplan's Imperial Grunts, a book about American Special Forces deployed throughout the world. It describes American "imperialism" as led, practiced and manged by Army and Marine Special Forces units. But it is mostly about the exceptional individual character of the men who are the face of America in the world's most troubled places.

As can be imagined, Kaplan's doesn't see American imperialism as would your average college prof or European pundit. He uses the term to describe America's efforts to integrate failed or failing states into the global economic community. As such, US Special Forces units are deployed in various countries to marginalize a host of thugs, despots and terrorists who rule by force, restrict freedoms, and keep peoples trapped in poverty.

US policy in these places is designed to produce security and stability so that the rule of law, capitalism and (eventually) democracy can bloom. The ultimate goals is to connect all countries to the global economy so that political stability is established and Americans can go home.

But Kaplan's focus is less on global, strategic issues than on the men who are doing the hard work at the point of the spear of America's imperial duty. These people are not, as was the case with the British Empire, a well educated elite trained for international diplomacy.

Rather, they are in large part working class Americans, men from a Southern military culture who tend to have long traditions of military service in their families. They are often autodidactics with high levels of personal accomplishment and who, unlike America's coastal elites, focus on outcomes rather than processes. Kaplan clearly likes his subjects and describes them in ways that make them easy to admire.

The author traveled the globe to observe first hand the US military in action in the major global hot spots. Starting in Yemen, he then went to Columbia, the Philippines, Mongolia, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and finally to Iraq. At each place the reader sees the difficult work of training local militaries, providing security to fledgling governments friendly to the west, or conducting ferocious combat in an effort to beat back narco or Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.

In some places the effort faces seemingly insurmountable obstacles. In others, our own military or political bureaucracies tend to be the special forces' worst enemy. And in most countries, knowledge of the local language and culture is the biggest challenge (with the notable exception of Colombia, where Hispanics Americans are a huge asset). Yet in every place that Kaplan visits, it is the very nature of the American character, its can do spirit and tendency to reward initiative, that enable the special forces to have a positive impact.

Despite the contributions of each of these exceptional men, one is left to wonder if the job wouldn't be easier if American society contributed more. Yes, these are wonderful people doing this hard work. But imagine if America could draw on its whole population for military service, as it did in World War II, rather than only those of the "Confederate tradition".

Imagine if the US education system unabashedly supported the goal to integrate failed states into the global economy, instead of maintaining common, knee jerk and uninformed prejudices about "globalization" and "imperialism". Surely, many more bright young men and woman would see military service as honorable, and the language and cultural skills needed so badly today could be found.

Thomas PM Barnett, a leading "grand strategist", has said that the US will not win the Global War on Terror until the sixties generation leaders are gone, and today's youth aren't taught to disparage American strength. I think that is correct and would hope that one day, an Arabic language trained Harvard graduates might see three years of military service in the Horn of Africa as a noble pursuit, in the manner that he might today consider a two year stint in Mali with the Peace Corps.

Until then, the people doing most of the hard work will continue to be self-taught, rural southerners from humble backgrounds who have enlisted in the Army Special Forces or Marine Corps. And given that most Americans know little about them or what they are doing, Imperial Grunts is a rare and useful description of the men who know more about what it takes to fix a country than the entire faculty of your average university.