Kaplan's Imperial Grunts
December 7, 2005 8:58 AM   Subscribe

Imperial Grunts: With the Army Special Forces in the Philippines and Afghanistan—laboratories of counterinsurgency. Robert Kaplan's new book has been excerpted over the last while in the Atlantic Monthly, and it's an amazingly relevant and enthralling book. It draws several parallels that are perhaps underrepresented in the media, such as the the similarities between the Iraqi and Afghani insurgency and the the Philippine-American War. It's also an incredible look at the logistics and tactics involved in fighting wars, both at the forward-operating Special Forces level and within the macro "Big Army" bureaucracy. The focus of the book is the status and abilities of American "empire", its use of power and its goals.
posted by loquax (58 comments total)
 
Here are several reviews, from Foreign Affairs, the New York Times, military.com, and a blog or two. His other books have been amazing as well, including Balkan Ghosts, Eastward to Tartary, Warrior Politics, The Coming Anarchy and the Ends of the Earth. I can't speak highly enough of his work. Go buy it all!
posted by loquax at 8:58 AM on December 7, 2005


That's Praetorian Grunts to you, citizen!
posted by Smart Dalek at 9:11 AM on December 7, 2005


This is a FANTASTIC book. I read the original excerpts in The Atlantic, and immediately bought this when it came out.

I think my favorite chapter is the one on the Army officer in Mongolia.

Excellent journalism.
posted by timsteil at 9:17 AM on December 7, 2005


Mark Twain's thoughts on the war in the Philippines.
posted by caddis at 9:26 AM on December 7, 2005


I have not read the Kaplan book. I have looked at a number of the reviews here listed. I find that most--I have not read them all--simply do not address what seems to me a central issue: is America now an imperialistic nation or not? Now, that the troops here and there have a high morale is nice to know--this was true of the Athenians during the war with Sparta (30 years!), but the issue of most importance is Why we have our military scattered in over 200 bases worldwide.

Again, I do not "take sides"> on this issue so much as wonder why this imperialism implication is not addressed. Or am I missing something?
posted by Postroad at 9:34 AM on December 7, 2005


Great collection of links, loquax, thanks.

Kaplan goes to places where the world is falling apart, proclaims that the world is falling apart, and that we've got to be prepared to be brutal to deal with it. It's worthwhile reporting, but in his outlook and conclusions, he's the other side of the Robert Wright coin.

The above-linked Times review is an entertaining critique.
posted by ibmcginty at 9:36 AM on December 7, 2005


Wasn't this already published as the last five chapters in Cryptonomicon?
posted by bukvich at 9:40 AM on December 7, 2005


With his new book, Kaplan turns from describing the world's ills to proposing a remedy. The antidote to anarchy is empire, policed by American soldiers holding an assault rifle in one hand and offering candy bars with the other...

According to Kaplan, the world's sole superpower doesn't especially need tanks and fighter-bombers, artifacts from a military age now past. Instead, it ought to be investing in something akin to a "Peace Corps with guns." ...All that's required is to turn them loose and to get out of the way. After all, as Kaplan explains in an assertion sure to come as news to the Air Force and the Northern Alliance, a mere handful of special operations troops "conquered Afghanistan by themselves."

Kaplan's chapter on the Philippines details his stay in Zamboanga, where Filipino authorities have been engaged in a never-ending struggle against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. After 9/11 Washington classified the Moros as part of the global terrorist conspiracy and dispatched a contingent of military advisers to assist the Filipino army. For the Pentagon the southern Philippines became, in Kaplan's words, "a laboratory for drying up an Islamic insurgency, as well as for small-scale nation-building."

...The effort yielded a meager harvest. Although the Americans killed plenty of Moros, including notoriously large numbers of women and children, resistance to US rule proved to be inextinguishable. Imaginative and energetically implemented nation-building programs had a negligible impact. Several decades of colonial tutelage produced a present-day Philippine nation that Kaplan himself describes as "dysfunctional, intractable, and poverty-stricken," not to mention "pathetically corrupt." Indeed, Kaplan observes--correctly--that "from 1902 to 1913, America's attempt to impose democracy had led to a more militant Islam." Why will present-day attempts to dry up this perpetual insurgency yield a different result? He does not say.

Kaplan conceived of his visit to Iraq as an opportunity to witness US Marines, tapping their rich history in "small wars," winning Iraqi hearts and minds. But unforeseen events intervened. When insurgents murdered four American contractors in Falluja on March 31, 2004, priorities changed: Cultural sensitivity suddenly mattered less than brute force. Battering Falluja into submission saw Marines resorting to the "Big Army" methods that Kaplan had earlier disdained, complete with tanks, fighter-bombers and an abundance of firepower. The assault on Falluja was the "classic, immemorial labor of infantry" reminiscent of Vietnam and World War II. It wasn't tea with warlords; it was a bloodbath.

On whether the effort advanced the boundaries of free society and good governance, Kaplan remains silent. But certainly the successive battles for Falluja--indeed, the mess that is present-day Iraq--calls into question Kaplan's contention that scattering Special Forces teams hither and yon will enable the United States to bring the Injuns to heel. There will always be recalcitrants willing and determined to fight.

Kaplan introduces Imperial Grunts with this typically bold assertion: "By the turn of the twenty-first century, the United States military had already appropriated the entire earth, and was ready to flood the most obscure areas of it with troops at a moment's notice." Whether such an assessment of US military power was ever accurate is doubtful. By 2005, however, it had become demonstrably false. Hard-pressed to hold on to the new provinces to which today's architects of empire have laid claim, America's armed forces are in no position to appropriate more. As for the Pentagon's ability to flood additional obscure quarters of the earth, the troops required to do so simply do not exist.

The real story of the present-day US military, which the peripatetic Kaplan somehow has managed to overlook, is one of power squandered--lives lost, dollars wasted, a glittering reputation sullied. It's enough to suggest that a militarized empire might not be such a great idea after all.
Andrew Bacevich
posted by y2karl at 9:50 AM on December 7, 2005


To The Person Sitting in Darkness by Mark Twain
(This is what I was really looking for when I posted the link above.)


Having now laid all the historical facts before the Person Sitting in Darkness, we should bring him to again, and explain them to him. We should say to him:

"They look doubtful, but in reality they are not. There have been lies; yes, but they were told in a good cause. We have been treacherous; but that was only in order that real good might come out of apparent evil. True, we have crushed a deceived and confiding people; we have turned against the weak and the friendless who trusted us; we have stamped out a just and intelligent and well-ordered republic; we have stabbed an ally in the back and slapped the face of a guest; we have bought a Shadow from an enemy that hadn't it to sell; we have robbed a trusting friend of his land and his liberty; we have invited our clean young men to shoulder a discredited musket and do bandit's work under a flag which bandits have been accustomed to fear, not to follow; we have debauched America's honor and blackened her face before the world; but each detail was for the best. We know this.

posted by caddis at 10:02 AM on December 7, 2005


"that the troops here and there have a high morale is nice to know"

Except, of course, that it's not true. If US soldiers deployed in far-flung regions outside of Iraq and Afghanistan have any morale, it's probably because they're not deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

I'm not asking you to take my word for it, either.
posted by insomnia_lj at 10:03 AM on December 7, 2005


He writes--with amazing chutzpah--this:

It would be difficult to fight more cleanly than the Marines did in Fallujah. [???] Yet that still wasn't a high enough standard for independent foreign television voices such as al-Jazeera, whose very existence owes itself to the creeping liberalization in the Arab world for which the U.S. is largely responsible. For the more we succeed in democratizing the world, not only the more security vacuums that will be created, but the more constrained by newly independent local medias our military will be in responding to those vacuums. From a field officer's point of view, an age of democracy means an age of restrictive ROEs (rules of engagement).

... As the thunderous roar of a global cosmopolitan press corps gets louder -- demanding the application of abstract principles of universal justice that, sadly, are often neither practical nor necessarily synonymous with American national interest -- the smaller and more low-key our deployments will become. In the future, military glory will come down to shadowy, page-three skirmishes around the globe, that the armed services will quietly celebrate among their own subculture.


Yes, right there, in that small fragment that I italicized, we have the crux of his admission: that the "abstract principles of universal justice" are "sadly ... often neither practical nor necessarily synonymous with American national interest". And if Americans have to choose between the universal principles and (Kaplan's version of) the "American national interest"-- he is quite confident that they (we) will choose the latter.

No, Robert, I don't choose that.

In fact, I think you're quite unhinged. Why would any body of citizenry that comprises just 4 percent of the world's people thinkit can run rampage over the will of the other 96 percent-- simply by acting as though it's in "Indian country"??

It's not only deeply unethical to advocate that. It's also quite implausible to think that approach could ever succeed.

'Just World News' by Helena Cobban

posted by y2karl at 10:07 AM on December 7, 2005


I used to like Kaplan - in fact I have a signed copy for "The Ends of the Earth" on my bookshelf ... I think he has become to enthralled by the military and the "grunts".

Where are his "grunts" and American values right now while there is genocide going on Sudan?


He needs to take a break from his buddies in the pentagon ... and look at world that will leave his beloved US and Israeli Military in the history books.
posted by specialk420 at 10:15 AM on December 7, 2005


Well I agree that Kaplan appears unhinged. But it isn't impossible for it to succeed. What it would require though is nothing short of a huge modern cargo cult. If suicide bombing can catch on why not cargo cults?
posted by bukvich at 10:21 AM on December 7, 2005


That's a pretty hollow definition of success.
posted by prostyle at 10:22 AM on December 7, 2005


This is a classic example of the negative side of embedding reporters. The reporters start to identify with the subjects, and lose all perspective. I bet Kaplan would've acted in a similar way had he been embedded with the insurgents too.

Just because you're riding along with soldiers doesn't make you one of them, and doesn't mean they'll view you as one or will talk to you about the same things that they talk about with other soldiers. Take away the reporters and the threat of commanding officers and these soldiers would have no end of complaints to discuss.

To them, reporters are a potential enemy, and something to be feared... not because of what they will do personally to those in the unit, but because of all the shit that comes down from above when an article goes out that makes a unit look bad, or makes the mission look like less than a shining success.

It's important to realize that while Kaplan is living out his fantasies of a second childhood like a man with a middle-age crisis, the soldiers he is with have been trained to be on their best behavior, and have been given specific training (and even, in some cases, issued card-like guidelines) on what and what not to say, and how to address certain issues or questions. When in doubt, refer them to Public Affairs... that kind of thing.
posted by insomnia_lj at 10:33 AM on December 7, 2005


When he approvingly quotes Major General Schachnow, who answered his question about how the United States could "infiltrate and police the world" with the retort that "you produce a product and let him loose," he is in effect arguing for a relinquishing of civilian control over the military, since what Schachnow meant by "product," or at least what Kaplan takes him to mean, is not just "smiling" and "understanding" when SOCOM people shed their uniforms and grow Afghan-style beards, but rather letting these elite warriors loose and giving them the latitude to advance their country's interest pretty much as they see fit.

But this is precisely the authority that the American republic, as a constitutional matter, has not granted to its military. To be sure, there are many criticisms that may be made of the American military, operationally and doctrinally; but the cowboy culture of Rumsfeld's Pentagon, and of members of the SOCOM establishment who are on his staff or whom he has favored to a degree unheard of in the practice of any previous secretary of defense, must not be allowed to hide behind the spirit of criticism. It has something else in mind. Off the record at least, many officers express considerable anxiety over the SOCOM-izing of the military on Rumsfeld's watch. They point to the fact that General Peter Schoomaker, the current Army Chief of Staff (Rumsfeld brought him out of retirement to replace Shinseki), was one of the originators of Delta Force, the elite commando unit in which Lieutenant General William "Jerry" Boykin -- the man who once said that he knew he would successfully hunt down a Somali warlord because "my God is bigger than his God" -- also distinguished himself before becoming the deputy of the current undersecretary of defense for intelligence. There were also numerous, if less well-publicized promotions of SOCOM veterans to flag rank.

When he speaks of a "bureaucratic straightjacket," Kaplan sounds as if he is channeling Rumsfeld and his outside-the-box inanities. When he criticizes the failure of the American military to "power down to the level of small units and expand their activities," he sounds like a spokesman for SOCOM. But when he approvingly quotes an Alabama National Guard Lieutenant Colonel named Marcus Custer who told him that "you can't be effective in the War on Terrorism unless you break the rules of the Big Army," and that maybe in the future American special forces would be "incorporated into a new and reformed CIA rather than into the Big Army," Kaplan, whether he knows it or not, is attacking the heart of what the army of a democratic country is supposed to be. Whatever Kaplan may choose to imagine, or whatever some maverick SOCOM extremists may fantasize, it is the task of the American military to carry out American policy, not to make it.

Kaplan has muddled up the general and the particular in the formulation and the implementation of American foreign policy. He may think he is scoring a telling point when, during his time with U.S. forces in Colombia, he muses that "while policy specialists argued general principles like nation-building in Washington and New York seminars, young middle-level officers were the true agents of the imperium." Leaving aside Kaplan's sneering anti-intellectual tone -- he seems to have forgotten that writers are also armchair strategists, and that a good deal of strategic wisdom has been discovered in armchairs -- it would be almost impossible for his assertion to be more wrong-headed. If post-Saddam Iraq has proved anything, it is that the United States needed more of those seminars, and that the Department of Defense needed to get off its plinth and make a real attempt to think through the implications of the policy recommendations that State Department and other Iraq and post-conflict specialists offered before the invasion got underway.

As a result, the mid-level officers on the ground in Iraq did not respond well to the looting of Baghdad, nor plan adequately for what would happen if Baathists or terrorists mounted a real insurgency. In no sense was this their fault. Their duties were tactical; those of the senior leaders back home strategic. Again, Kaplan can hardly be unaware of the distinction, and yet he wrote this whole book without ever addressing it seriously. The reality is that though the planning failures in Iraq were the responsibility of senior officials in the Bush administration, and not of the "iron majors" who so impressed Kaplan during his travels, this does not mean the majors should have had the last word. The chain of command as it exists is the only one that a democratic society can possibly accept. The problem was not that there was civilian and bureaucratic control of the military. The problem was that the civilian and bureaucratic control of the military was incompetent.


The Cowboy Culture
posted by y2karl at 10:41 AM on December 7, 2005


*closes small tag
posted by caddis at 10:45 AM on December 7, 2005


...In one aside he notes: "Indeed, America's imperium was without colonies, suited to a jet-and-information age in which mass movements of people and capital diluted the meaning of sovereignty." Whoa! So, in other words, we live in an age that has diluted the very meaning of empire as well? This is mighty stimulating but leaves more questions open than it answers:

I would argue strongly that this is not just a matter of dry academic interest. As near as I can tell, ask most Americans if they want to be part of an empire and they will say, decisively, no. How well I remember an excellent commentary by my Newsweek colleague Christopher Dickey, who described sitting in the bar of the Raleigh-Durham Airport shortly after President Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech and noting that all the TVs had been turned back to golf and NASCAR. As Dickey wryly observed, "They were tired of the war, even tired of winning it." How right he was--and that was the late spring of 2003. What about now? Kaplan would presumably respond that the Roman mob was happy with its bread and circuses, too, leaving the legionaries to do the heavy lifting.

I don't think it's that simple, though. Nowadays, unlike Roman times, it's taxpayers that foot the bill of expansion. So, what about the paradox of an empire that no one wants to pay for? As Kaplan notes in passing, despite all the patriotic effusions and heady talk of global destinies, defense spending as a percentage of GDP is at its lowest level in historical memory (3.3 percent--compared to 9.4 percent during the Vietnam War or about 40 percent during WWII). Economics doesn't interest him particularly, either, though you'd think it would play much more of a role in a book on geopolitics. Here, for example, all we get is a few dark mutterings about containing burgeoning Chinese influence, and Kaplan has recently written, in The Atlantic Monthly, about the threat of a coming "Cold War" with China. Well, I guess that's certainly possible. But I will be interested to hear how we plan to conduct a war, Cold or otherwise, against a country that owns a sizable chunk of our Treasury debt.

And what about the conundrum of an empire without soldiers, as recruitment levels collapse? Our magnificent all-volunteer, all-professional army may be doing a little bit better in recent weeks, but the very idea is looking shakier than it has since we started it after Vietnam. I observed firsthand the disastrous effects of the Pentagon's stop -loss policy during my own time in Iraq, as reservists and National Guardsmen watched in rage as their terms of deployment extended far beyond what they had been told to expect. It would seem that our empire-builders are hell-bent on destroying our army.


In the imperial weeds: in his travels with special forces on the frontier of America's empire, Robert Kaplan captures the gritty realities, but not the paradoxes
posted by y2karl at 10:59 AM on December 7, 2005


postroad: Or am I missing something?

Well, if he's using the word "Imperial" in the title, it leads me to beleive that he thinks we are. If he's not addressing or discussing it, it leads me to think he approves.
posted by lodurr at 11:32 AM on December 7, 2005


This Kaplan chap -- he reminds me of Rudyard Kipling.
posted by lodurr at 11:37 AM on December 7, 2005


I agree with y2karl: the man is unhinged. His writing is just smooth and plausible enough to fool people into thinking he knows what he's talking about, which had disastrous results in the Balkans and will doubtless have more, since he's exactly the kind of Big Thinker politicians love (Tom Friedman is another).

I join ibmcginty in recommending the Times review, which wields a sharp scalpel:
And the book goes to pieces immediately. The first problem is headgear. Kaplan's got both his hats on at the same time, and the travel writer (who likes flavors and vistas) keeps barging in. "Who here was Al Qaeda? I asked myself, licking my fingers after devouring a greasy chicken in a sidewalk restaurant filled with armed youngsters." The next one is my favorite: "We were suddenly going out on a nighttime hit of a compound just outside Gardez. There would be no time for the steak and shrimp dinner that had been prepared." And it's a shame such well-traveled eyes are welded between numb ears: Details are "grisly," murders are "gruesome"; you hear "faint" echoes but "shrill" cries; "chiseled" bodies cross "manicured" landscapes; troops become "hardened," resemblances grow "uncanny." Kaplan is trying for fine writing - literary special effects - but he doesn't resist the old grooves, and if a writer can't avoid stock expression, it suggests imprisonment at the conceptional level. Kaplan keeps getting into scrapes at the keyboard. "I wanted a visual sense of the socioeconomic stew in which Al Qaeda flourished." You smile in admiration, as at something rare, like a triple play; it's a double mixed metaphor.
"Imprisonment at the conceptional level"—I like that.
posted by languagehat at 11:56 AM on December 7, 2005


postroad: Or am I missing something?

He makes a number of arguments across his books - some major ones as I understand them:

- The United States is an empire, but an empire in a non-traditional way, one not concerned with acquiring direct control over territory, subjugating indigenous people, etc. Instead, it is almost an empire by default, in a time without any serious challenges to it, but a wide variety of minor challenges, each of which, if left unattended could be nationally, regionally or globally disastrous.

- The stage of empire that the US is in can be compared to Britain in the mid-19th century, after the Indian revolts, after which Britain used the power of their empire in much more subtle ways than before (for the most part), and primarily focused on economic and trade related tools rather than military tools. His argument is that American empire can last for another 100+ years following the same model, subtle exertions of pressure in key areas at key times to prevent major conflagrations that would threaten the US position. Special Forces, he argues, as opposed to the US army are key to this policy, in terms of establishing low-key presence in far-flung regions of strategic importance, while acting as "force-multiplyers" among local allies and indigenous militaries (Mongolia being a prime example, along with Columbia).

Why we have our military scattered in over 200 bases worldwide.

- His argument would likely be that some are necessary, and some are not, and it looks like the US military is coming around to that conclusion as well. His belief is that China will be the major threat to American "empire" in the coming decades, and that the US must wage a "cold war" against them in order to prevent China from achieving a position of global dominance (for a variety of reasons). To that end, forces are being strengthened around Japan, the Korean peninsula, South-East Asia, Mongolia and the 'Stans (especially Afghanistan, and Iraq for that matter). In addition, bases and troops are being moved from Western Europe to Eastern Europe and all over Africa, including Djibouti, notably, an endeavor that France is cooperating with the US on. His belief is that the large bases house tens of thousands of troops are essentially useless, and at worst harmful to efforts in the regions that they're in (he singles out the thousands of troops in Baghdad doing nothing while undermanned SF troops and Marines are engaged in combat in the rest of Iraq). He has a deep distrust of military big brass and often returns to the axiom "too many chiefs, not enough indians". He is strongly in favour of small forward operating bases where specialized troops can train local armies, conduct humanitarian projects, drive wedges between insurgents and the local population and maintain a very small footprint. If anything, he'd prefer 1000 tiny bases to the 200 large bases that exist today.

Overall, I would say that Kaplan does not advocate a particular ideological position as much as he is a realist. I think he's far more intelligent, well-traveled and aware of the actual situation in the places he's been that the vast majority of commenters, and he mostly reports this straight up, within a historical context. When he does veer into prognostication and problem-solving, he tends to avoid moral judgements, and readers tend to read too much into what he's saying. For example, after he wrote Balkan Ghosts, about post-communist Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania, it was said that Clinton based his decision not to intervene in Bosnia on his book, which outraged Kaplan. It was a historical travelogue, not a policy directive. He's not writing a manual for how to run the world, he's writing about his observations of people, places, and what works and what doesn't. In my opinion anyways.
posted by loquax at 12:01 PM on December 7, 2005


Wow you guys really don't like him. Unhinged? Really? Living out a second childhood? He doesn't know what he's talking about? You may disagree with him, but I think you're being a bit harsh in your critiques. Many of the articles posted (thanks y2karl) pick and choose a few key phrases or points to lambaste, but don't come close to analyzing the full breadth that went into a book that had him in Columbia, Mongolia, Djibouti, the Philippines, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iraq, with notes on Nicaragua, Korea, Ethiopia, the 1980-1989 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (which he was present for), the Iran-Iraq war (which he was present for) and Vietnam. It's also difficult to read this book in isolation and draw conclusions about his personal politics and global-level analysis. This book, was broad in terms of the historical and political background provided, however was quite narrow in terms of the first person narrative, and tactical and logistical analysis of US operations abroad. I'm not sure some of the reviewers got that.
posted by loquax at 12:27 PM on December 7, 2005


I agree with y2karl: the man is unhinged.

Actually, you are agreeing with the very well traveled, highly intelligent and acutely aware Helena Cobhan. That was a quote I failed to italicize, blockquote or shrink. But here is more from her review:
Now, he has gone even further in showing us his real colors. Taking the idea of a globalized "manifest destiny" role for the US to its logical extreme, he has now started calling openly for the US military to act in the rest of the world as though it were in "Indian country".

What does this mean? As he tells us in this Sept. 21 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, it means this:

in a world where mass infantry invasions are becoming politically and diplomatically prohibitive -- even as dirty little struggles proliferate, featuring small clusters of combatants hiding out in Third World slums, deserts and jungles -- the American military is back to the days of fighting the Indians...

The range of Indian groups, numbering in their hundreds, that the U.S. Cavalry and Dragoons had to confront was no less varied than that of the warring ethnic and religious militias spread throughout Eurasia, Africa and South America in the early 21st century. When the Cavalry invested Indian encampments, they periodically encountered warrior braves beside women and children, much like Fallujah. Though most Cavalry officers tried to spare the lives of noncombatants, inevitable civilian casualties raised howls of protest among humanitarians back East...


Be aware that Kaplan is not merely noting or commenting on this "Indian-fighting" approach; he is openly advocating it.

..And nor does Robert Kaplan ever let the mere logic (or illogic) of an argument get in the way of his schoolyard bravado. At the end of that piece he argues:

The Plains Indians were ultimately vanquished not because the U.S. Army adapted to the challenge of an unconventional enemy. It never did. In fact, the Army never learned the lesson that small units of foot soldiers were more effective against the Indians than large mounted regiments burdened by the need to carry forage for horses... Had it not been for a deluge of settlers aided by the railroad, security never would have been brought to the Old West.

Now there are no new settlers to help us, nor their equivalent in any form. To help secure a more liberal global environment, American ground troops are going to have to learn to be more like Apaches.


Well, he's certainly right that, at the global level, there are "no new settlers to help us"... .
This book, was broad in terms of the historical and political background provided, however was quite narrow in terms of the first person narrative, and tactical and logistical analysis of US operations abroad. I'm not sure some of the reviewers got that.

From above:

...It would seem that our empire-builders are hell-bent on destroying our army.

...I will be interested to hear how we plan to conduct a war, Cold or otherwise, against a country that owns a sizable chunk of our Treasury debt.

...The assault on Falluja was the "classic, immemorial labor of infantry" reminiscent of Vietnam and World War II. It wasn't tea with warlords; it was a bloodbath.

..As for the Pentagon's ability to flood additional obscure quarters of the earth, the troops required to do so simply do not exist.

...The chain of command as it exists is the only one that a democratic society can possibly accept.


Oh, they got it, alright.
posted by y2karl at 12:43 PM on December 7, 2005 [1 favorite]


Kaplan may not be unhinged, but he comes darn close. Anybody who truly believes that the US military has the will, know-how, and resources to police and "impose peace" on the entire world is living in la-la land. It's not the neocons and loons like Kaplan; after Gulf War I and Afghanistan there were a lot of officers who really believed the army could do anything in half the time expected. Vietnam was the past. This sort of "militant optimism" will one day be shown to explain a lot of the bad choices made in Iraq. Unfortunately, the truth is only now just starting to settle in. All the Special Forces and in the world will not change the fact that "low-key" armed conflicts are the very worst kind and are fantastically messy. In such conflicts, the US will always have a lot more to lose than it has to gain.
posted by nixerman at 12:46 PM on December 7, 2005


Not only do I despise these inane wordsmiths for spreading the message of hatred and destruction, but for their wanton disregard for logical discourse. We don't agree with you or your favorite author of the month, so we must not get it... right? Because we're too simple, we must not be able to grasp your manical concepts of the world?

I don't think so. These folks are so hollow that it's the only thing they know how to beleive in - another delusion, that of their superior mental conditioning. Unhinged, indeed.
posted by prostyle at 12:55 PM on December 7, 2005


Oh, they got it, alright.

I'm not sure how those quotes invalidate what I said.

Addressing them specifically:

...I will be interested to hear how we plan to conduct a war, Cold or otherwise, against a country that owns a sizable chunk of our Treasury debt.

What does one have to do with the other? In addition, his discussion of a cold war with China (in another book) was not a plan for how to go about, it was an expression of his belief that he thought it necessary, the mechanics of it are fairly irrelevant at that level, and don't invalidate his assertion that it's necessary.

...The assault on Falluja was the "classic, immemorial labor of infantry" reminiscent of Vietnam and World War II. It wasn't tea with warlords; it was a bloodbath.

That's one opinion. I believe it to be wrong. So does Kaplan. He was there. He describes much of it in his book. Describes it as comparable to the Marine counter-attack on Hue during the Vietnam war.

..As for the Pentagon's ability to flood additional obscure quarters of the earth, the troops required to do so simply do not exist.


They sure do. I'm not sure why making such a statement means it's true. Can the Pentagon send 100,000 troops somewhere instantly? No. Can force be projected easily with smaller teams, rapid response Marines, air power and rapid forward base building? Yes.

...The chain of command as it exists is the only one that a democratic society can possibly accept.

...It would seem that our empire-builders are hell-bent on destroying our army.


Not sure what the point or context of these two are.

And what exactly is the problem with the "Indian Country" analogy? You seem to think it's flawed on its face, but don't mention why.

Thank you for adding value to the site Prostyle, your words are as relevant as they are beautiful.
posted by loquax at 12:59 PM on December 7, 2005


It's also difficult to read this book in isolation and draw conclusions about his personal politics and global-level analysis.

From the above linked Andrew Bacevich's review:
Among the effusive endorsements adorning Imperial Grunts is one by Bing West describing Kaplan as "America's Kipling." Like Kipling, Kaplan is smitten with barracks rooms, mess halls and the "world of beer, cigarettes, instant coffee, and chewing tobaccos" that soldiers ostensibly inhabit. In a nation crowded with charlatans, soldiers--"people who hunted, drove pickups, employed profanities as a matter of dialect, and yet had a literal, demonstrable belief in the Almighty"-- retain for Kaplan an authenticity otherwise fast disappearing from American life.

Authenticity in this context connotes masculinity and self-abnegation. In an age redolent of sham and corruption, soldiers--having "taken a veritable monastic vow of poverty"--retain an "unapologetic, literal belief in God...tempered and uplifted by the democratic experience." As a consequence, they are compassionate as well as brave, rough around the edges but also refreshingly honest.

If Kaplan is a romantic, he is also a populist and a reactionary. He dotes over the career sergeants who come out of rural America and the "generic working class," in Kaplan's eyes "the Great Preserver of the oldest, simplest virtues." He endorses the muscular Protestant fundamentalism that over the past thirty years has tacitly established itself as the quasi-official religion of America's armed forces, its abiding theme not love thy neighbor but smite thine enemy. He notes approvingly that in today's military the spirit of the Old South lives on, with the very best captains and majors finding their role models in "the gleaming officer corps of the Confederacy." Indeed, Kaplan locates the "true religious soul" of present-day professional soldiers in "the martial evangelicalism of the South."

Reactionary populists idealize the past because they loathe the present. Kaplan proves no exception. Fawning over soldiers as a virtuous remnant of a lost, better age, he misses no opportunity to express his contempt for his contemporaries who do not share in the austere existence of the classic man-at-arms. The targets of his wrath include, but are by no means limited to, narcissistic intellectuals, risk-averse politicians, micromanaging generals, bean-counting bureaucrats, wimpy journalists who have never visited Djibouti or Mongolia, the entire "policy nomenklatura in Washington and New York--in its cocoon of fine restaurants and theoretical discussions," and all manner of effete civilians, especially those residing in New England, which Kaplan, who makes his home in Massachusetts, describes as awash with pacifists.

Why are such people worth defending? How is it that a warped and decadent society manages to produce such sturdy warriors? Hovering in the background of his snapshot, these questions do not interest Kaplan. He prefers to focus on the American soldier in the field, where the order of the day has less to do with defending the country per se than with managing a global empire.
--He endorses the muscular Protestant fundamentalism that over the past thirty years has tacitly established itself as the quasi-official religion of America's armed forces, its abiding theme not love thy neighbor but smite thine enemy. He notes approvingly that in today's military the spirit of the Old South lives on, with the very best captains and majors finding their role models in "the gleaming officer corps of the Confederacy." Indeed, Kaplan locates the "true religious soul" of present-day professional soldiers in "the martial evangelicalism of the South."

Oh, conclusions about his politics are not all that difficult to draw.
posted by y2karl at 1:03 PM on December 7, 2005


...The chain of command as it exists is the only one that a democratic society can possibly accept.

...Not sure what the point or context of these two are.


Once again, from above:

But when he approvingly quotes an Alabama National Guard Lieutenant Colonel named Marcus Custer who told him that "you can't be effective in the War on Terrorism unless you break the rules of the Big Army," and that maybe in the future American special forces would be "incorporated into a new and reformed CIA rather than into the Big Army," Kaplan, whether he knows it or not, is attacking the heart of what the army of a democratic country is supposed to be.

All you have to do is read.

And think.
posted by y2karl at 1:08 PM on December 7, 2005


loquax, I can't speak for them, but I found the "indian country" analogy pretty offensive because of, well, you know, the Indian Wars. Spilt milk and all, but still, they are kind of a shameful aspect of our history, don't you think?

BTW, I seriously recommend that you read the Kipling link I posted, above; you'll probably find it apt. It's one of Orwell's trademark contrarian essays on iconic British characters.

I'm kind of troubled by comparisons with Hue; don't you think they betray a certain loss of perspective? Everythign I've read about the battle for Hue suggested that it was a desperate, clawing affair that we had no great assurance of winning. If we hadn't "won" Fallujah, it would have been pretty embarrassing, by comparison. Too, the criteria for victory were different: At Hue, we had to liberate trapped units and re-take the city from a military occupation; at Fallujah, we had to chase out a bunch of loosely-organized insurgents.
posted by lodurr at 1:08 PM on December 7, 2005


loquax: "Thank you for adding value to the site Prostyle, your words are as relevant as they are beautiful."

Oh ok, you want to be snide?
This post is the exact same. You want to talk about adding value and relevance to the site? What a joke! How about actually engaging in rational conversation with the multitudes of people who confront the ideas your authors present with very rational logic? That might make these threads worthwhile.

Instead, you simply cherry pick comments and pull quotes, asking ridiculous questions in the most childish manner. I genuinely feel sorry for y2karl and those who are so interested and capable of enlightening you, as their meticulous efforts are wasted as they are forced to repeat themselves ad infinitum. Thankfully, there are others who are capable of benefitting from the reading.

This thread will end the same as the others, with multiple users quoting and referencing against your (already mutilated) points with you nowhere to be seen. Then you'll forget about it and come back in a few weeks with a different author's book, editorial peice, whatever - and the same agenda. Yeah, lets talk about value!
posted by prostyle at 1:20 PM on December 7, 2005


Not only do I despise these inane wordsmiths for spreading the message of hatred and destruction, but for their wanton disregard for logical discourse. ---ahem:
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of international relations at Boston University. A graduate of the U. S. Military Academy, he received his Ph. D. in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University. Before joining the faculty of Boston University in 1998, he taught at West Point and at Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Bacevich is the author most recently of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2005). His previous books include American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U. S. Diplomacy (2002) and The Imperial Tense: Problems and Prospects of American Empire (2003). His essays and reviews have appeared in a wide variety of scholarly and general interest publications including The Wilson Quarterly, The National Interest, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Nation, The American Conservative, and The New Republic . His op-eds have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today, among other newspapers...

Helena Cobban has contributed a regular column to the Christian Science Monitor since 1990, covering such issues as strategic affairs, human rights, peace-building, global governance and international justice. The latest of her five books is The Moral Architecture of World Peace: Nobel Laureates Discuss our Global Future. She is currently senior global affairs fellow with the University of Virginia's Institute for Practical Ethics.

Christian Caryl is the Tokyo Bureau Chief of Newsweek. He has reported from 35 countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia, and North Korea.
We don't agree with you or your favorite author of the month, so we must not get it... right? Because we're too simple, we must not be able to grasp your manical concepts of the world?

*rolls eyes*

Thank you for adding value to the site Prostyle, your words are as relevant as they are beautiful.

Consider the source.
posted by y2karl at 1:25 PM on December 7, 2005


Y2karl, he's on your side.
posted by loquax at 1:33 PM on December 7, 2005


I must admit I misread your first response, prostyle, and thought you were cheerleading loquax here and he sincerely thanking you. Hence my comment above. Upon re-reading, I see your inital comment was far from backslapping. My apologies.
posted by y2karl at 1:33 PM on December 7, 2005


Well, apart from the mistakenly read split quote, and rolled eyes, the comment was otherwise applicable.
posted by y2karl at 1:36 PM on December 7, 2005


y2karl, please relax. I apologize I didn't catch the reference from the tens of pages of text you've posted here. I'm happy to discuss and debate, I don't feel like responding if I'm being belittled. Honestly, I appreciate your contributions, but here I think you've absolutely smothered any realistic discussion of a wide range of topics by posting giant blocks of text. Seriously, if you need to post a section of an article great, but do you need to add pages and pages of copied text when a *relevant* excerpt and a link will do? You already highlight pertinent sections of text, why not leave it at that and let people read the article if they so choose?

lodurr: I would say that there's nothing inherently moral or immoral when it comes to tactics, only the purpose for which they're used. The primary objective of any tactic (for the most part) is to kill others without being killed yourself. If you're doing it in the name of massacring the Indians for sport in the 1800's (even though it wasn't so simple), it's bad, but if the same strategies are used for a noble purpose (whether or not it is a noble purpose is obviously debatable) what's wrong with them? From a broader perspective, leaving aside the morality of the Indian Wars, it can't be denied (at least, in my mind) that islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, totalitarianism and more generally destabilizing and destructive insurgencies are a real and serious threat to both local populations and the West. The comparison to the Indian Wars may on the surface be unpalatable, but I think it's still apt, given the conventional thinking of the time.

As for the comparison to Kipling, I did read it, and found it very interesting, and yes, I can see the similarities and Orwell's point, just as I see the point that many are trying to make here. I just think that some people are going much too far in their criticism of Kaplan, much further than Orwell goes with respect to Kipling, and calling him an outright fool, instead of a highly respected, widely read person that they happen to disagree with, which is most fair. To be perfectly honest, I'm quite surprised by the reaction in this thread. I didn't think that Kaplan's views were particularly controversial, and I certainly didn't think that he'd inspire the same reaction as some of the "neo-con" thinkers that MeFi loves to hate so much. Honestly, I'll go back and reread some of criticisms posted here and the relevant sections of his books. Maybe I've missed something, but failing that, I think people are painting Kaplan with a brush usually reserved for Anne Coulter and Rush Limbaugh and the like. Which is most unfair.

I'm kind of troubled by comparisons with Hue; don't you think they betray a certain loss of perspective? Everything I've read about the battle for Hue suggested that it was a desperate, clawing affair that we had no great assurance of winning. If we hadn't "won" Fallujah, it would have been pretty embarrassing, by comparison. Too, the criteria for victory were different: At Hue, we had to liberate trapped units and re-take the city from a military occupation; at Fallujah, we had to chase out a bunch of loosely-organized insurgents.

Well, of course the parallels are not exact, but I think they're close enough. I don't think the end result in Hue was any more in doubt than in Fallujah (or at least, I've never read anything to suggest that, I could be wrong). Like most Vietnam battles, the US won handily from a military perspective, but not necessarily from a strategic or political perspective. The same is certainly true in Iraq. As Kaplan says, by the measure of WW2, either Hue or Fallujah would be an absolutely epic success, however given the political implications, and given the nature of this asymmetric warfare, failure and defeat are the taste left in the public's mouth. I also don't think that the insurgents in Fallujah were loosely organized. From everything I've read, they had a plan, and executed it brilliantly. They occupied mosques, schools and hospitals, knowing full well the US rules of engagement. They had no qualms involving innocents, as they knew that any civilian deaths would be blamed on the US, and they melted from the city as soon as the US attack was slowed by directions from Washington. End result, the US wins the battle but fails to make significant headway in the war because of the failure of strategy, not tactics. Either way, I fail to see how it can simply be dismissed as a bloodbath. I'm sorry, re-reading your comment, I feel like maybe I missed your point and went off on a tangent.

prostyle, you're right about one thing - I won't respond to you until you stop acting like a petulant child, whining about this and that and generally insulting me. If you want to be respectful and polite and debate, great. If you disagree with me and my points, fine. But excuse me if I don't feel like addressing your rants. If you really feel the need to post that stuff, I encourage you to either take it to MeTa or email me, my address is in my profile.
posted by loquax at 2:14 PM on December 7, 2005


Kaplan's writing is interesting, and while I wouldn't call him unhinged, the "romantic" apologist for empire seems pretty accurate. It's hard not to admire the sacrifices made by enlisted troops and lower-level officers, but the whole anti-intellectual "true grit" thing is tired. America has occupied Iraq for three years now, and by all measurable standards, things are worse than ever. I don't mean to denigrate the troops by saying the following: Their job is to kill the enemy and destroy their equipment and infrastructure. They have no business trying to nation-build, and it's foolish for them to stay a day longer.

Loquax, most of this discussion has been pretty even-handed. But if you're going to take your ball and go home, so be it. Don't let the door etc., etc.
posted by bardic at 2:28 PM on December 7, 2005


Bardic - what? Are you serious? Where did you get that I was taking my ball and going home from my post? I asked y2karl to not belittle me if he wants a response, and I asked prostyle not to hold his breath waiting for me to respond to him as he bounds from post to post attacking me. Other than that, I've been addressing as many comments as I have time for.
posted by loquax at 2:33 PM on December 7, 2005


I usually find Kaplan worth reading, although I often disagree with him. A couple essays: The Coming Anarchy. Was Democracy Just a Moment?

That said:

I would say that there's nothing inherently moral or immoral when it comes to tactics, only the purpose for which they're used.

Afraid I have to strongly disagree here. Noble purposes don't justify horrific tactics. Nobody ever thinks they're the bad guy. The worst atrocities are committed by people who are confident that they're fighting in the cause of right and justice (think of Hitler and Stalin).

Hans Morgenthau:

To what extent the profession of universalistic principles of morality can go hand in hand with utter depravity in action is clearly demonstrated in the case of Timur, the Mongol would-be conqueror of the world, who in the fourteenth century conquered and destroyed southern Asia and Asia Minor. After having killed hundreds of thousands of people--on December 12, 1398, he massacred one hundred thousand Hindu prisoners before Delhi--for the glory of God and of Mohammadanism, he said to a representative of conquered Aleppo: 'I am not a man of blood; and God is my witness that in all my wars I have never been the aggressor, and that my enemies have always been the authors of their own calamity.'

Gibbon, who reports this statement, adds: 'During this peaceful conversation the streets of Aleppo streamed with blood, and re-echoed with the cries of mothers and children, with the shrieks of violated virgins. The rich plunder that was abandoned to his soldiers might stimulate their avarice; but their cruelty was enforced by the peremptory command of producing an adequate number of heads, which, according to his custom, were curiously piled in columns and pyramids....'


George F. Kennan, writing in 1959:

I should like to say at the outset that questions of method in foreign policy seem to me to be generally a much more fitting subject for Christian [i.e. moral] concern than questions of purpose....

The English historian Herbert Butterfield has shown us with great brilliance, and so has our own Reinhold Niebuhr, the irony that seems to rest on the relationship between the intentions of statesmen and the results they achieve. I can testify from personal experience that not only can one never know, when one takes a far-reaching decision in foreign policy, precisely what the consequences are going to be, but almost never do these consequences fully coincide with what one intended or expected. This does not absolve the statesman of his responsibility for trying to find the measures most suitable to his purpose, but it does mean that he is best off when he is guided by firm and sound principle instead of depending exclusively on his own farsightedness and powers of calculation. And if he himself finds it hard to judge the consequences of his acts, how can the individual Christian onlooker judge them?

All this is quite different when we come to method. Here, in a sense, one can hardly go wrong. The government cannot fully know what it is doing, but it can always know how it is doing it; and it can be as sure that good methods will be in some way useful as that bad ones will be in some way pernicious. A government can pursue its purpose in a patient and conciliatory and understanding way, respecting the interests of others and infusing its behavior with a high standard of decency and honesty and humanity, or it can show itself petty, exacting, devious, and self-righteous. If it behaves badly, even the most worthy of purposes will be apt to be polluted; whereas sheer good manners will bring some measure of redemption to even the most disastrous undertaking. The Christian citizen will be on sound ground, therefore, in looking sharply to the methods of his government's diplomacy, even when he is uncertain about its purposes.

posted by russilwvong at 2:51 PM on December 7, 2005


I’m hesitant to engage in a thread with such thoughtful and well researched (albeit occasionally snarky) comments, particularly when I’m pressed for time and my second point references a comic book...

But I do have two points.

“All the Special Forces and in the world will not change the fact that "low-key" armed conflicts are the very worst kind and are fantastically messy.” -posted by nixerman

I slighly disagree with part of that. Low key conflicts are messy only when used improperly. Panama comes to mind. (In Just Cause, December, 1989, Noriega, etc...anyway, that’s a whole other discussion)

Secondly, what Kaplan’s talking about might be swell or it might be goofy, but it’s the political end that drives the situation and from Caesar to Shays politicians always ultimatly fuck the troops in the ass (in Caesar’s case literally) even, perhaps especially, when they have the best intentions. Not any particular politician or group, it just seems to be the way of it. Much like that Onassis’ kid statement that all the problems she’s had in life were caused by the money. People fight over things of value.
So Kaplin’s valuation of the troops is a little dangerous.
But on the tactical level, a lot of this mirrors the small wars handbook. And in unit ops the "candy-bar in one hand weapon in the other" is the way to go.
I don’t know enough detail to take a more in-depth opinion, but the big picture bothers me.
And in the back of my mind (where I do my best thinking) for some reason I had Frank Miller’s Martha Washington series in mind. (As a metaphor - the specific details could be any operations or players you want to insert)
There is a period where the upper eschelons of the U.S. government is wiped out and the Secretary of Agraculture becomes the President.
He takes the troops and has them safeguard the South American rainforests. And they’re fighting an American hamburger corporation. Anyway, he starts getting political pressure, his cabinet is subverted, he’s gently encouraged to drink more and more and he’s suckered into destroying someone’s enemies and eventually he’s killed and there is a coup and various factions begin in-fighting. Troops do most of the dying of course.
It’s fiction and it’s a comic, but it rings true.

I don’t think America is imperialist. But I do think multinationals and other wealthy entities have a lot of pull and sometimes politicians do things that aren’t always in the interest of the people. That to me is the only flaw in Kaplan’s overall idea. Perhaps a bit more multinationalism. Otherwise it’s a nice look at tactics that have - divorced from arguments about the greater strategy and political will - worked.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:56 PM on December 7, 2005


loquax: whining about this and that and generally insulting me.

This and that? More like addressing your pattern of posting and subsequent participation in these threads. I suppose there is too much of a genuine disconnect between our thought processes for me to engage anyone in a "debate" who would consider these comments adequate responses:

...I will be interested to hear how we plan to conduct a war, Cold or otherwise, against a country that owns a sizable chunk of our Treasury debt.

What does one have to do with the other?


...The chain of command as it exists is the only one that a democratic society can possibly accept.

...It would seem that our empire-builders are hell-bent on destroying our army.


Not sure what the point or context of these two are.

And what exactly is the problem with the "Indian Country" analogy? You seem to think it's flawed on its face, but don't mention why.


I will stop addressing you directly in any fashion, and I truly apologize for wasting your time and energy by eliciting responses from you. It won't happen again.
posted by prostyle at 3:03 PM on December 7, 2005


leaving aside the morality of genocide, it's a great tactic for getting rid of shitloads of people
posted by mr.marx at 3:04 PM on December 7, 2005


And what exactly is the problem with the "Indian Country" analogy? You seem to think it's flawed on its face, but don't mention why.

See the David Rieff review. (Rieff and Bacevich are two other writers who are well worth reading.)

When historians talk about the British taming the Indian frontier, they mean dominating it politically and militarily, not conquering it outright, and expelling its inhabitants, and settling the land with their own people. Despite several disastrous attempts to conquer Afghanistan over the course of the nineteenth century, the principal strategy of the British along the northwestern frontier of the Raj was to impose a status quo that did not threaten British interests in India proper. If they bowed to that, Pushtuns and the Afridis could do what they liked. But the phrase "taming the frontier" when applied to the American West meant something entirely different. It meant driving the Indians out by any means necessary. It was a murderous, zero-sum game, and not at all, to put it mildly, an ideal for contemporary American policy.
posted by russilwvong at 3:19 PM on December 7, 2005


I didn't think that Kaplan's views were particularly controversial

Obviously. Live and learn, eh? But just to clear up an important point: I certainly don't put him in the same bin as Coulter et al, who are raving ignoramuses who can be safely ignored. Kaplan is, as you say, well traveled and knowledgeable, which is exactly why he's so dangerous; the fact that he analyzes all those facts and experiences according to the same simplistic template is easy to miss in the barrage of dates, stories, &c. Look, I enjoyed Balkan Ghosts too—I'm a sucker for historical travelogues. But his worship of Rebecca West started alerting me to the problem, because West was also a big-idea traveler who took a side and clung to it regardless of complications like morality (although she was a much better writer); Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a superb and pernicious book that misled people much as Kaplan does. Try to ignore the snarks and take the opposition seriously; you're obviously a thoughtful guy, and I hope you'll be able to see that the Big Thinker has no clothes if you put your mind to it.
posted by languagehat at 3:21 PM on December 7, 2005


Noble purposes don't justify horrific tactics.

You're right. I expressed myself badly in haste. That's not what I meant to say, only to separate the the *tactics* of the Indian war from the *purpose* of it. Or put another way, just because the Nazis were evil, doesn't mean that their battlefield tactics should be viewed as "tainted" and never used again.

Russilwvong - Have you read Warrior Politics? I take exception to much of what Kaplan says there (sort of), but it speaks to, and almost completely disagrees with your Kennan quote.

It meant driving the Indians out by any means necessary. It was a murderous, zero-sum game, and not at all, to put it mildly, an ideal for contemporary American policy.

And I don't think anyone is suggesting that. Simply that as an analogy, it's somewhat apt. The Native Americans were an indigenous people, as are the terrorists and insurgents that the West currently faces. They knew the land better, they fought asymmetrically and unexpectedly, with no regard for "traditional" tactics. The Americans had to change strategies in order to defeat the Natives then, by not engaging them with full armies (like Custer), by not depending on fragile supply lines, and by attacking in small groups, taking key locations, and ultimately by giving up on the military phase and settling land and defending it. His point is that the Army has it all wrong. Instead of sending 150,000 troops to Iraq and building bases and supply lines that are vulnerable both to attack and political sensibilities, they should have sent smaller, agile, forward operating groups that could act as effective catalysts (as in Afghanistan, where the Tailban was defeated before the Army even showed up) without the encumbrance and risk of a massive mobilization. I don't know if he's right or wrong, but I certainly don't think he's advocating the extinction of Islam, or colonization of their land. It's as if he were to advocate "blitzkrieg tactics" and was accused of being a neo-nazi, as I see it. An imperfect but apt analogy, I'd say.

Obviously. Live and learn, eh?


Yeah. If I've been a little defensive, I apologize. I really was caught quite off guard with the response (not that I still don't disagree with it).

I do find it ironic, however, that much of the objection to Kaplan (and as you mention, West), is on the basis of their perceived amorality (or immorality?). From my reading of both, they seem to come to the conclusion that there is a very very basic morality, far more basic than Judeo-Christianity, or any other religious morality, almost an animalistic or natural morality, and anything beyond that is useless, and perhaps even counter-productive when it's used as a prism to view, judge or interact with people and nations outside of "traditional" Western culture. Kaplan takes that concept quite far in Warrior Politics, and obviously people object to that view when appended to US "imperialism", however that doesn't mean that they're necessarily incorrect in stating it as fact, as opposed to an ideal to be strived for (at least, I've never come across a statement like that). If anything, I see their treatment of morality as a sort of inverse moral relativism, which doesn't predicate interaction or intervention on morality that has no place within a culture that not only in many cases doesn't recognize it, but often is offended by it.

Leaving aside military intervention for a moment, this makes perfect sense within the context of Kaplan's and West's travels through the Balkans. What's the point of interpreting 500 years of Balkan/Ottoman history through the eyes of a Westerner, with all the "moral baggage" that brings with it? In the context of Iraq, or other conflicts, Kaplan often talks about how counterintuitive (or ostensibly "immoral") actions are often successful in foreign war zones and humanitarian actions. For instance, how should the US and Columbia fight the drug lords and rebels in Columbia? He describes the utter failure of a strategy that treats them as "criminals" requiring the obtaining of warrants and proper police procedures to raid their compounds, while they operate completely outside the bounds of any morality that a civilized human being could claim.
posted by loquax at 4:00 PM on December 7, 2005


"The assault on Falluja . . . was a bloodbath.
That's one opinion. I believe it to be wrong. So does Kaplan. He was there."


As an embedded reporter, who didn't incur the same level of risk as the soldiers who took part... who, incidentally, disagree with Kaplan's rosy assessment.

Here are what a few soldiers I know said about Fallujah. (One, two, three.) It was a bloodbath.

"I have just come back from Fallujah. I volunteered for that mission and let me tell you, that I think I will be a pacifist for the rest of my life. The carnage and destruction that just builds on itself is staggering. It's life a free-for-all for everyone."

"My unit was called down to fight in Fallujah. And we did. I just got out of there. Back in the day I used to talk a lot of shit and think that war was really cool. Well, I was dead wrong. That was the most horrifying experience of my life. . . I can't believe that people actually let this shit happen. Actually want this. The worst part is that people are actually happy about it. I can't wait to get the fuck out of Iraq and out of the Army. But this past week has changed my life forever."

"Dead bodies smell like ... moldy/metallic cinnamon. I have a very good imagination... I keep catching my mind wandering, and it keeps showing me my friends who got killed, or the limbs I amputated off people. . . I will not re-enlist to continue this job, if at all. I do not like the feeling of helplessness when people are suffering. I do not like having to do the inventory of the pockets of the dead, or to try and console a mona that lost his arm that hes going to be ok... while rummaging through his pockets for his ID card because he can't talk anymore."

Kaplan can go fuck himself.
posted by insomnia_lj at 9:14 PM on December 7, 2005


er.. .try to console a man. That said, I hope you get the picture loquax. You, who know nothing of the horrors of war.

"If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori."
- Wilfred Owens
posted by insomnia_lj at 9:19 PM on December 7, 2005


Nothing to really add here, but I find myself inspired by watching Discovery's SEAL BUDS training documentary from 2002 no I'm not gay.

Muscular christianity as exemplified by Gen. Boykin is of course troubling since earnestness and competency are orthogonal, but the best people to fight and die are the ones who are true-believers in the cause, otherwise you just get a mercenary mentality, all bark and no bite, people punching the clock on Uncle Sugar's paycheck.

I actually wouldn't mind be called up to duty in Iraq, I'd like to contribute something positive to the world. This is the same thinking that both Charlie Sheen and Michael J Fox's characters in their Vietnam movies portrayed, vague idealism in service of American ideals.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 9:43 PM on December 7, 2005


yeah, insomnia, there are war boosters like the blogger Bill Whittle, nominated for Wanker of the Year here that turn my stomach.

One of my friends who joined the Army Reserve in 2002 (at age 34) directed me to Whittle's essays. The libertarian side of me gets where he is coming from wrt the social criticism, but something about Whittle's worldview just rubs me the wrong way, eg. when he tossed out/off "crucible of war" in one of his essays.

People, like eg. den Beste, who can in a non-ironic way write of the "crucible of war" are lacking some important perspective. War, to me, is a shit sandwich, full stop. Romanticising it is just wankery.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 9:51 PM on December 7, 2005


Well I suppose it all comes down to the definition of a bloodbath, and wether or not you think that the war in Iraq is a positive or not. I don't know that I'd say that Kaplan was "glorifying" Fallujah, or saying that it was rosy, only that the portrayal of what happened in the media was factually and contextually incorrect, and that the US military was effective in completing the objective of removing insurgents from the city until politics interfered with the mission.

In any case, it's all opinion. Some other soldiers disagreeing means that some other soldiers disagree. Not that they're right and Kaplan isn't.

And thanks for the poem. Very moving.
posted by loquax at 5:46 AM on December 8, 2005


The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.


".... Sweet and appropriate [?] is / Death for [your] country" -- Wilfrid Owen, rough translation, original source I don't know

"The object of war is not to die for your country, but to make the other bastard die for his." -- G. S. Patton
posted by lodurr at 6:04 AM on December 8, 2005


Horace. (Couldn't stand not knowing.) Usual translation: "It is sweet and honorable to die for the fatherland."
posted by lodurr at 6:08 AM on December 8, 2005


Kaplan's a joke. He's a fucking special forces fanboy.
posted by It ain't over yet at 6:51 AM on December 8, 2005


Yeah. If I've been a little defensive, I apologize. I really was caught quite off guard with the response (not that I still don't disagree with it).

I think you've been admirably level-headed in your responses, actually. I know it's not easy having several people all disagreeing with you.

Russilwvong - Have you read Warrior Politics? I take exception to much of what Kaplan says there (sort of), but it speaks to, and almost completely disagrees with your Kennan quote.

No, I haven't. I did a quick search and found his essay The Return of Ancient Times. Kaplan actually cites Kennan in his essay. Not sure there's so much of a conflict between what Kaplan is saying and what Kennan is saying. (Kaplan actually cites Kennan in his essay.)

Morgenthau, Kennan, and the other classical realists emphasize prudence--that is, attention to results ("anxious foresight", in Kaplan's words)--over abstract principles. Morgenthau:

Realism maintains that universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal formulation, but that they must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place. The individual may say for himself: "Fiat justitia, pereat mundus (Let justice be done, even if the world perish)," but the state has no right to say so in the name of those who are in its care. Both individual and state must judge political action by universal moral principles, such as that of liberty. Yet while the individual has a moral right to sacrifice himself in defense of such a moral principle, the state has no right to let its moral disapprobation of the infringement of liberty get in the way of successful political action, itself inspired by the moral principle of national survival. There can be no political morality without prudence; that is, without consideration of the political consequences of seemingly moral action. Realism, then, considers prudence--the weighing of the consequences of alternative political actions--to be the supreme virtue in politics.

Elsewhere Morgenthau writes that evil is inescapable in politics; the most we can achieve is to choose the lesser evil.

Nevertheless, Morgenthau and Kennan emphasize that you have to draw the line somewhere. Morgenthau recounts Churchill's story of Stalin proposing near the end of the war (perhaps joking, perhaps not) that the problem of future German aggression could be solved by decapitating the German officer class, killing 15,000 or so German prisoners. Churchill rejected this proposal as deeply dishonorable. I would hope that Kaplan doesn't go so far as to reject the idea of morality or honor entirely. Otherwise, what's wrong with torture or genocide?

Morgenthau and Kennan start from the position that all nations basically have the same objective: to pursue their own self-interest. (As far as I know, Kaplan does as well.) Thus in foreign policy, the distinction between good and evil is primarily about the methods that one is willing to employ.
posted by russilwvong at 12:52 PM on December 8, 2005


Might equals right may seem like a good policy right now, but something tells me that it might not be so peachy in fifty years if the Chinese have anything to say about it.
posted by insomnia_lj at 6:27 PM on December 8, 2005


Kaplan: Kennan, the statesman, warned that the more underdeveloped the country, the more ruthless we must be toward its inhabitants to improve their society. Such unsavory truths, all descending ultimately from Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War, are too rarely taught. Our elites are less like Renaissance pragmatists than like medieval churchmen, sanctimoniously dividing the world into good and evil.

Odd, I would read this as the opposite of the quote from Kennan that you provided (unless I'm misreading everyone), where he says:

"questions of method in foreign policy seem to me to be generally a much more fitting subject for Christian [ i.e. moral] concern than questions of purpose....This does not absolve the statesman of his responsibility for trying to find the measures most suitable to his purpose, but it does mean that he is best off when he is guided by firm and sound principle instead of depending exclusively on his own farsightedness and powers of calculation. "

And again almost the opposite of Kaplan's point in Warrior Politics (which he makes in the essay you linked to) that states:

Just as good men must learn how to be bad in order to do good, moral goals often require "amoral" arguments, or, rather, arguments using an ancient morality

...

Realism, then, considers prudence--the weighing of the consequences of alternative political actions--to be the supreme virtue in politics.

I agree with this, and I think Kaplan glosses this point over in his realism and fails to properly acknowledge the realities "at home" while focusing on foreign realities.

I would hope that Kaplan doesn't go so far as to reject the idea of morality or honor entirely. Otherwise, what's wrong with torture or genocide?

This is where I think it gets tricky for Kaplan, or anyone (including myself) who would state that the ends justify the means (within some very strict guidelines, from my point of view anyways). Let's use your example of Stalin and the German officers. Stalin was right. Executing (or indefinitely imprisoning) the entire German officer class would have rendered Germany militarily impotent for at least a generation or two. From a isolated, realistic perspective, the deaths of 15,000 German prisoners at the end of an aggressive and almost cataclysmic war initiated by those Germans would have been a drop in the bucket compared to the death and destruction that the war caused, and it certainly was in line with the morality (or lack thereof) that the Germans themselves displayed in their conduct of the war and their various occupations (for example, the 10 to 1 rule in Warsaw and elsewhere). Machiavelli (or Stalin, for that matter) would almost certainly have decapitated the German war machine and taken considerable pleasure in doing so. Presumable, it was also Churchill's goal to ensure that Germany would never again threaten not only Britain, but all of Western Civilization, and perhaps the planet. By not taking a decisive, crippling (and brutal) action against Germany at that point, he engaged in moral tactics, but was perhaps gambling with the future of mankind on the basis of that morality. Is that moral in itself? Obviously this is an extreme example (or maybe not, based on human history), but the same kind of decision plays itself out on a smaller scale every day from the release from custody of a known rapist (or terrorist) on a technicality to the decision to not attack a mosque full of insurgents.

Now that's the isolated view. I would argue (and I think that Kaplan would do the same, however grudgingly) that political (and moral) reality on the part of the people on behalf of whom you are acting would preempt any such action (or most of it anyways). Perhaps Churchill didn't execute the German officers not out of a sense of morality or honour, but out of the knowledge that such an act would disgust the society in who's name the act is being committed, invalidating any gains. Conversely, look at Truman's decision to bomb Nagasaki and Hiroshima. A highly immoral act (mostly) justified to the public by its noble and moral purpose. In Truman's estimation, the public would accept it, and therefore both realistic moral paradigms (the foreign and the domestic) have been satisfied.

In a war like Iraq (or the broader effort against terrorism), that is essentially asymmetric, everything is muddied. There are no clear moral rules for governing behaviour because the context is not clear. If this were total war, with the destruction of the US imminent (as was hinted at by the Bush administration pre-Iraq), the domestic morality will allow greater leeway in acting. If US destruction is not imminent, but there is a serious yet vague threat from destabilization of regions, terrorist disruption of civil society, and so on, how can a rigid, restrained domestically moralistic military effectively act against parties not playing by the same rulebook?

Which brings us here:

Thus in foreign policy, the distinction between good and evil is primarily about the methods that one is willing to employ.

Being constrained to basing foreign policy on the moral merits of methods ensures that any government will find itself in a conundrum, where a purpose beneficial, or even essential to the nation (or humanity) will be restricted by the fickle nature of an entirely theoretical and intangible ideal. Unless we acknowledge that by definition, foreign policy, especially military policy, is inherently evil, just to varying degrees, then judging purpose by method is self-defeating.

I think were we are today is a pretty good approximation of an ideal mix of foreign and domestic morality in terms of both policy and methods. Annihilation of enemies by nuclear means is obviously out, as are genocide, torture as a matter of policy, aggressive, imperialistic wars for resources and territory, enslavement of populations, and so on. Instead, Western civilization plays at the edges of domestic morality while pushing up against more and more incompatible foreign moralities. Like the relatively minor (in the grand scheme of human history) secret CIA jails, Camp X-Ray, "outsourcing of torture" (on a small scale), geopoliticly key wars with humanitarian objectives and an extreme aversion to human casualties, and so on. The key is in having confidence in the basic morality of the leadership of a nation to a point where they can be trusted to act in the nation's best interests, even if it is sometimes unpalatable from a higher moral perspective. Obviously that confidence in the current US administration is lacking at times (especially here), and I believe that it merits a change in adminstration (as I've said before). That's what "losing the moral authority to govern" means to me. It means losing implicit trust, and losing the leeway granted to you to act on our behalf in a way that we would normally object to. Bush lost it when he over- and mis-stated the case (or purpose) for war with Iraq, casting doubt over the higher and lower morality of all policy and methods that followed (which is fair, I might add, but should be tempered moreso than it is). But a democratic and fundamentally liberal system like that of the US, or the West in general allows for that faith and trust to be renewed until the next time it's breached, which is pretty much inevitable. That accountability is the difference between Stalin and Churchill in your example as well. Stalin would never have to answer for his treatment of German prisoners. Churchill would have had to, or at least gone to great (and probably impossible) lengths to hide it from public knowledge. That check is essential in allowing domestically morally dubious actions to be undertaken for noble purposes.


I feel like I've used far too many words to make a relatively simple point (which I also may have mangled by writing over the course of hours). I apologize, I wish I could find quotes like yours to make my points clearer.

Might equals right may seem like a good policy right now, but something tells me that it might not be so peachy in fifty years if the Chinese have anything to say about it.

You raise two good points, I think. I would say that might equaling right is essentially a basic construct of human civilization, not something to agree or disagree with, only something to accept and act in accordance with. What other system of balancing inequities in strength is there beyond (slight) variations on that theme?

As for the Chinese, all the more reason to mitigate their growing strength, and push them in a direction where their superior strength and collective will deviates as little as possible from "our" objectives. Hopefully the issue will be moot, if we end up sharing the same objectives. Like Eastern Europe, or Nazi Germany, or Imperial Japan, or Mussolini's Italy.
posted by loquax at 7:47 PM on December 8, 2005


Kennan, the statesman, warned that the more underdeveloped the country, the more ruthless we must be toward its inhabitants to improve their society.

Kennan was warning against intervening in Somalia. Kennan wasn't advocating ruthlessness! He was arguing that the US ought not to get involved.

The fact is that this dreadful situation cannot possibly be put to rights other than by the establishment of a governing power for the entire territory, and a very ruthless, determined one at that. It would not be a democratic one, because the very pre-requisites for a democratic political system do not exist among the people in question.

Unless we acknowledge that by definition, foreign policy, especially military policy, is inherently evil, just to varying degrees--

I would agree with this; see this Morgenthau quote. But that doesn't free us from the moral necessity of choosing the least evil means possible.

I would agree with Kaplan that the morality which applies in international politics is much more limited than everyday morality. But it still exists. To me, Kaplan seems entirely too blase about "doing evil to achieve good." The exercise of power requires moral humility, as described by Morgenthau: "that fear and trembling with which great statesmen have approached their task, knowing that in trying to mould the political world they must act like gods, without the knowledge, the wisdom, the power, and the goodness which their task demands." Kaplan doesn't seem to be aware of this.

Back to the Churchill-Stalin example. I've dug up the relevant quote, so you can judge for yourself the extent to which Churchill was motivated by British public opinion, by a personal sense of honor, or both. From Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations, 6th ed., pp. 252-253.

A foreign policy that does not permit mass extermination as a means to its end does not impose this limitation on itself because of considerations of political expediency. On the contrary, expediency would counsel such a thorough and effective operation. The limitation derives from an absolute moral principle, which must be obeyed regardless of considerations of national advantage. A foreign policy of this kind, therefore, actually sacrifices the national interest where its consistent pursuit would necessitate the violation of a moral principle, such as the prohibition of mass killings in times of peace. ...

The fundamental conflict between these two conceptions of international politics, one operating within a framework of morality, the other outside it, is graphically illustrated by an episode Sir Winston Churchill reports in his memoirs. At the Teheran Conference, Stalin raised the issue of the punishment to be inflicted upon the Germans after the war:
The German General Staff, he said, must be liquidated. The whole force of Hitler's mighty armies depended upon about fifty thousand officers and technicians. If these were rounded up and shot at the end of the war, German military strength would be extirpated. On this I thought it right to say: "The British Parliament and public will never tolerate mass executions. Even if in war passion they allowed them to begin, they would turn violently against those responsible after the first butchery had taken place. The Soviets must be under no delusion on this point."

Stalin however, perhaps only in mischief, pursued the subject. "Fifty thousand," he said, "must be shot." I was deeply angered. "I would rather," I said, "be taken out into the garden here and now and be shot myself than sully my own and my country's honour by such infamy."
Of course Stalin did employ such methods, as Katyn Forest demonstrates: the NKVD shot 20,000 Polish prisoners after the invasion of Poland, including about half of the Polish officer corps.

Being constrained to basing foreign policy on the moral merits of methods ensures that any government will find itself in a conundrum, where a purpose beneficial, or even essential to the nation ... will be restricted by ... an entirely theoretical and intangible ideal.

I think this is a good thing, not a bad thing.

Isn't this what the whole "war on terror" is about? That terrorism is never a legitimate tactic, no matter what your grievances are? What if we could make significant progress in the war by blowing up a building and killing thousands of civilians--would that be different somehow from what Osama bin Laden did on 9-11?

I don't see why the nature of the current conflict changes the moral principles that we apply to ourselves. (Of course al-Qaeda doesn't follow these rules, but that's one of the key reasons we regard them as evil.) They're pretty simple: the laws of war (derived from Western military traditions and formalized in the Geneva Conventions) require protection of non-combatants, including civilians as well as soldiers who surrender or are captured. They shouldn't be tortured, raped, summarily executed, starved, or worked to death. Attacks on military targets may endanger non-combatants, but the laws of war require proportionality: the risk to non-combatants should be proportional to the military benefit of the action.

I don't see these as "fickle."

I've tried to summarize my view of morality and foreign policy in a BlogsCanada E-Group post.

I feel like I've used far too many words to make a relatively simple point (which I also may have mangled by writing over the course of hours). I apologize, I wish I could find quotes like yours to make my points clearer.

No problem, I think you're doing fine. I think it's an important discussion we're having.

"Realist" means very different things to different people. The distinguishing characteristic of the classical American realists (like Kennan and Morgenthau) is their pessimism and skepticism; they're very aware of human fallibility. Kaplan still describes himself as a realist, but he seems awfully optimistic (to me) about the ability of the US to conduct an effective foreign policy in the Third World.
posted by russilwvong at 9:56 PM on December 8, 2005


These aspirations of global empire are moot.

To think that it makes the US stronger to have the burden of an offensive empire... well, that's just not true.

Infact, it weakens us. Because we're already in Iraq, the US literally cannot commit to stopping Iran from getting nukes without cutting its own throat. It lacks the resources and resolve needed to successfully complete such an action, not only of its citizens but also of its military. It also, incidentally, cannot afford it financially.
posted by insomnia_lj at 7:15 AM on December 9, 2005


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