Imperial Grunts
Robert D. Kaplan
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Buy *Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground* by Robert D. Kaplan online

Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground
Robert D. Kaplan
Random House
448 pages
September 2005
rated 5 of 5 possible stars
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"I was not concerned about crossing a professional boundary. My goal as a writer was simple and clear. I wanted to take a snapshot for posterity of what it was like for middle-level commissioned and noncommissioned American officers stationed at remote locations overseas at the beginning of the twenty-first century: a snapshot in words that those sergeants and warrant officers and captains and majors would judge as sufficiently accurate, so they might recognize themselves in it. It should be something, I hoped, that they could give to their grandchildren, saying, 'That's sort of like it was, and like those countries were.' It did not mean that I ignored tough issues and problems. It did mean that I wrote about their problems and frustrations, informed by their perspective." (Imperial Grunts, p. 258)
Robert Kaplan's phenomenal book Imperial Grunts is a thorough examination of life on the ground for the American military in faraway lands. The first in a series, the book’s research took him to Yemen, Columbia, extremely isolated Mongolia, the Philippines, the Horn of Africa, and the two current "hot" war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. He lived with the men for months, listening to them, socializing with them, and going out on missions as well. In essence, he became them, at least to as much of a degree as a civilian can. In return, they provided him with a wealth of information and the experience of a lifetime. Kaplan did get some articles out of it, too (he writes for The Atlantic magazine), but most of it was for this book. This is a must-read for anybody interested in what life is like for those far from home, just doing their jobs and loving every minute of it.

Kaplan writes from the point of view of these men, getting across all of their frustration when diplomacy won't allow them to do their jobs (such as when a CIA plane goes down in Columbia and the Special Forces unit there is denied the ability to secure the site until well after the rebels are able to take everybody away), as well as the sheer joy some get out of what they're doing. The most amazing chapter in the book is on Mongolia, where one lone Special Forces officer (Lt. Colonel Tom Wilhelm) is the glue holding the relationship between the United States and Mongolia together, said relationship being partly responsible for the deployment of a small contingent of Mongolian troops to Iraq. He is the man on the ground, making decisions based on the knowledge gained from his time there. While he has the support of American diplomats, it is Wilhelm who has done much to earn the respect of the Mongolian military, and this relationship also makes great strides in keeping an eye on Russia and China, making his job extremely important. This chapter is fascinating stuff as Wilhelm takes Kaplan on a tour around some of the border crossings, introducing him to Mongolian officers, showing him their customs, and immersing him in what Wilhelm has to do here. While there, Kaplan learns much about Wilhelm's history in the Special Forces, and readers learn a lot about the conflicts in Bosnia and Macedonia, as well as his experiences during the unrest in Tajikistan.

Things like this enable Imperial Grunts to rise above a "snapshot of daily life on the ground" that it could have been (not that that would have been bad). Not only do we see things as they currently are (currently as of 2004, of course), but we get an excellent history of the role Special Forces have played in conflicts for the last twenty-five years or so as Kaplan gets these soldiers to tell him about their life. We learn about the places he visits, but we also hear about Bosnia, Peru, and other areas where Special Forces keep a low profile, going on missions of importance to American interests. These men have led fascinating lives, and Kaplan really seems to have bonded with everybody he meets; they tell him everything.

This includes the frustrations they sometimes feel, and Kaplan does not hide any of it. Those in Colombia chafe at the Rules of Engagement that keep them out of the actual fighting. They are training Colombian troops in counter-insurgency tactics, but their RoE are so strict that they would have to be in imminent danger before they could actually do anything. In Afghanistan, the soldiers Kaplan meets are doing their best in a sticky situation but continually lament the top-heavy planning that won't allow them to do what they feel their jobs are: to get the bad guys. A couple of times, Kaplan does point out that the men he is with do not necessarily have the big picture and that their feelings might be in the wrong, but most of the time he sympathizes with them. Then again, the outlook of the men often overcomes this frustration.

"I learned that honor and integrity are personal qualities, not institutional ones, not ones we should expect the state to always have. If you don't like the policy, tough. Bad things happen in this world. You do the best you can in your job, and let the crybabies write the books." (Pp. 27-28 quoting Bob Innes, a Vietnam Vet and contractor in Yemen, on what he learned in Vietnam)
After numerous chapters with Army Special Forces, Kaplan spends time with Marine units, both in the Horn of Africa, and then in the capstone to this first book: the first battle of Fallujah in April, 2004. Marines are a whole different ball game, and Kaplan illustrates the differences clearly. While the Horn of Africa chapter interested me because I am not familiar with the area, the Fallujah chapter is the crowning glory. Kaplan lays out the differences between the actual invasion of Iraq and the aftermath (the unit that Kaplan is embedded with took part in the invasion, was pulled out, and was now going back), the frustration with higher-ups who don't give them enough to do their jobs, the extremely disciplined manner in which Marines conduct themselves, and the valor of these men as they just do what they are supposed to.
"Despite news reports of low morale in the armed services because of overdeployment, with Army Special Forces and the marines I had met only two kinds of troops: those who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those who were jealous of those who were." (Pp. 323 [Kaplan does go on to say that, since the time of that writing, subsequent events had tempered this problem somewhat])
Honestly, the only fault I can really find in this book is that the map of Iraq at the beginning of the Fallujah chapter has many cities on it, but none of the cities Kaplan actually talks about are on the map. Otherwise, Imperial Grunts is an outstanding book for anybody wanting to get beyond American foreign policy to see what the men who are implementing that policy think. Some of it will surprise you, and some of the locations will, too. I would never have thought of Mongolia, but it is the best chapter in the book. I'm proud to have read it, and Kaplan shows his pride in these men by giving a wonderful portrait of them. The Marines told him that he could write whatever he wanted, report on everything he found out, "warts and all." They had nothing to hide. Kaplan does that. And he does it admirably.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Dave Roy, 2006

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