Robert D. Kaplan, Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground (Random House, 2007)
Given the degree to which Iraq and Afghanistan have disintegrated into little more than venues for stomach-turning violence, corporate plunder, and doomed efforts at state-building, it’s surprising to find someone outside the West Wing still clinging to the false promise of American Empire. And yet here he stands: Robert Kaplan, beltway darling and correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, arguing in his new book for a greater application of American military involvement overseas.
When Kaplan surveys the scene of international politics, he sees a wilderness of tribalism, violence, irrationality and hatred.The remedy to this chaotic stew of potential dangers? Enlightened American imperialism. Since the invasion of Afghanistan by American forces near the close of 2001, Kaplan has traveled—with the American government’s stamp of approval—to a host of countries around the globe where the U.S. military has established an active presence.
Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts takes shape as Kaplan’s second installment in his series of in-depth looks at the American military. The first, Imperial Grunts, was a Frankensteinian concoction of war tourist reportage and traditional travelogue masquerading as officially sanctioned military history. But it worked. The itinerary Kaplan chronicled in Imperial Grunts included the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, but also featured stops in more peripheral locals where American officers engaged with the chores of imperial maintenance. From the battle of Fallujah, and counter-narcotics operations in Colombia, to an indigenous troop-training mission in Yemen, the scenes captured in Imperial Grunts provided an arresting portrait of the American response to emerging challenges to its post-Cold War hegemony. The sequel is far less successful.
To be sure, Kaplan’s observations about the U.S. staging war-games to prepare for potential threats from the Chinese or the collapse of Kim Jong-il’s North Korean regime provide an excellent primer on the uncertain complexities that characterize the balance of world power as it shifts east. Yet, while the American military is battling threats to global security, Kaplan takes care to wage his own war against the “media” and its “liberal elite” sponsors. The familiar tropes of an effeminate northeastern Left—adverse to freedom and the manly virtues necessary for its defense—are resurrected throughout Hog Pilots only to be flogged to death again by Kaplan’s disdain. For Kaplan, reporters do little but “get in the way,” with their “klieg lights” and insistence on covering stories that are damaging to the U.S. national interest, and thus are best kept from the public’s awareness. Kaplan’s work is anything but a powerful case for the importance of an independent press.
Bemoaning the media’s resistance to celebrating the “heroes” of the “Global War on Terrorism” (the Bush administration’s initial term), Kaplan smarts at the coverage lavished upon the Abu Ghraib scandal. “While the exposure of wrongdoing by American troops is obviously of paramount importance, less obviously it can become a tyranny of its own when taken to an extreme.” Despite the fact that the latter part of this assertion makes little sense, its intended meaning is clear enough. This, in turn, suggests that Kaplan misses his own point. It is precisely the American military’s professionalism, self-discipline and valor that make disgraces, such as those at Abu Ghraib, shockingly newsworthy.
What makes Kaplan’s attacks on the press doubly inappropriate is his claim of personal independence from the media monolith against which he rails. After all, he has long held a privileged spot on the roster of the American media elite. Like other heavyweight pundits, Kaplan enjoys a readership that includes influential actors at the CIA and State Department, not to mention residents of the Oval Office.
Hog Pilots suffers from other problems as well. Numerous critics have taken Kaplan to task for his poor readings of history and literature. These accusations are well founded. Kaplan borrows liberally from a grab bag of literature, history, and political science references to frame his discussions of global events. But while this certainly makes for colorful writing, it also leads to lousy analysis. Kaplan has read widely, but unfortunately, not deeply.
This shortcoming is nowhere more evident than in Kaplan’s abuse of political science. He proudly admits to being a political “realist”, yet even a cursory glance at realist thought demonstrates that he’s nothing of the sort. Where realists see an international system dominated by self-interested, sovereign nation-states, Kaplan sees a world where the power of non-state actors has largely supplanted a crumbling Westphalian system. When hard-core realists argued persuasively that the invasion of Iraq was a fool’s errand destined to undermine the United States’ national interest, Kaplan dutifully banged his war drum, praising George W. Bush’s foresight and resolve.
But Kaplan’s most egregious abuse of realist theory revolves around his preoccupation with “anarchy.” Traditional realists take pains to emphasize the term’s Greek etymology in order to describe a rational international order lacking a government of governments. In Kaplan’s mind, however, anarchy connotes a disorderly international scene where the irrational forces of man’s inner depravity are given full expression. With such a grim outlook on the state of world affairs, Kaplan’s faith in the American military’s ability to provide global stability is unsurprising. There’s only one problem: Kaplan suspects that Americans may not be up to the challenge.
As it turns out, for Kaplan, the liberal elite media aren’t the only spineless players driving our “non-warrior democracy.” The American people are also at fault. The United States, it seems, lacks a “broad-based warrior mentality” that clearly leaves it at a disadvantage in the chaos of a new century. This is to be expected, Kaplan assures us, because “The loss of a warrior mentality and the rise of universal values is a feature of all stable, Western-style middle-class democracies.” That’s why we need to depend, now more than ever, on the armed services to handle the dirty work of international politics. However, Kaplan soon turns on them as well:
The members of our social and economic elite that avoid military service, and encourage their children to do likewise, are not the only problem. Just as the American public has a limited appetite for grand causes and conflicts, so do the troops themselves, outside of the best units.
Apparently the cancer of liberalism has spread and is eating away at the fabric of our military institutions. So where does that leave us? Don’t ask Robert Kaplan. As best he understands it, “The question is, in what direction is our morale headed, as well as the morale of our current and future adversaries? Argue the question as we may, one thing is clear: we’re fated to find out.”
By the end of Hog Pilots, Kaplan’s narrative threatens to collapse from exhaustion. The constant zigzagging from one end of the world to another provides little continuity for the reader and Kaplan himself seems to grow tired of the project. Hog Pilots breaks down into a tedious parade of sloppy writing, unsupported generalizations, crude observations and silly stereotypes. Consider this charming snippet about the former Soviet Republic of Georgia:
Georgia did not have a European tradition beyond Tbilisi’s architecture and circle of intellectuals. The rest of the country was heavily Oriental. The strength of Georgia’s mafias and the weakness of its governing institutions attested to the predominant influence of Persia’s clan and tribal system over that of Russia’s bureaucratic tradition.
But don’t despair, because the country’s “women had sad, intoxicatingly dark expressions and the noble bearing of Eastern princesses. And they were always on the lookout for Western husbands and boyfriends.” It’s a good thing, too. With military enlistments down, and the nation’s military commitments widening by the year, it’s safe to say that American grunts will face increasingly long deployments overseas. And not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also those lonely spots found at the ends of the earth.
Michael Busch is a Ph.D. student in International Relations at the CUNY Graduate Center.