Friday, March 14, 2014

Belated review of Imperial Grunts: On the Ground with the American Military

In the past, I used to count and post about every book I read in this space. I did not read Imperial Grunts this year, so there is no number, but it is the book I wanted to write about. Imperial Grunts: The American Military On The Ground was written in 2005 by Robert Kaplan, a journalist I know best from The Atlantic. I found it surprisingly interesting as an explanation of what the American military does best and what it doesn't do so well, strangely comparable with Financial Times' Richard McGregor's The Party, as an explanation of one of the world's most powerful organizations about which I knew surprisingly little.

You may not know about all the places where the American military has a presence that are mentioned in the book, such as Mongolia and Kenya. Whether it's a small presence in those countries or a much larger one in Iraq or Afghanistan, Kaplan makes the case that the American military works best as a small, light and autonomous force that isn't weighed down by Washington bureaucracy. Kaplan makes a convincing case, pointing to countless cases where the sheer size and bureaucracy governing the army hamstrung its goals, but he can sometimes sound like a politician advocating small government as the solution to any economic problem, or a football fan who thinks the coach should "open the offense up" to allow the players to succeed.

Kaplan is probably right in arguing that two large government armies will never again face each other in a land battle. This is not to say that military strength is not needed, the sheer number of flags found on this page is evidence to the contrary, as is the number of flags that could have easily wound up on this page over recent tensions. Rather, the sort of military strength that is needed is profoundly different from what has been needed in the past, a cliche of which everyone is aware, but the American military was simply unable to put into practice until David Petraeus was put in charge of the multinational force in Iraq. The trend in all organizations towards increased formalization and bureaucracy, the US military being no exception, also works against the the need for a small, responsive, fighting force.

Kaplan is a very good writer, but we could have easily done without some of the cliches in the book as a Jewish intellectual from the US Northeast marvels at grunts, a very large percentage of whom are Christians from the South who never went to college, and reminds the reader over and over that they're different. This is something that the book could have done without, to be replaced instead with a more critical look at whether the presence of the United States military in more countries than just about anyone realizes is good for all those countries, the United States included.

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