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Given unprecedented access, Kaplan takes us from the jungles of the southern Philippines to the glacial dust bowls of Mongolia, from the forts of Afghanistan to the forests of South America–not to mention...
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Given unprecedented access, Kaplan takes us from the jungles of the southern Philippines to the glacial dust bowls of Mongolia, from the forts of Afghanistan to the forests of South America–not to mention Iraq–to show us Army Special Forces, Marines, and other uniformed Americans carrying out the many facets of U.S. foreign policy: negotiating with tribal factions, storming terrorist redoubts, performing humanitarian missions and training foreign soldiers.
In Imperial Grunts, Kaplan provides an unforgettable insider’s account not only of our current involvement in world affairs, but also of where America, including the culture of its officers and enlisted men, is headed. This is the rare book that has the potential to change the way readers view the men and women of the military, war, and the global reach of American imperialism today.
As Kaplan writes, the only way to understand America’s military is “on foot, or in a Humvee, with the troops themselves, for even as elites in New York and Washington debated imperialism in grand, historical terms, individual marines, soldiers, airmen, and sailors–all the cultural repositories of America’s unique experience with freedom–were interpreting policy on their own, on the ground, in dozens upon dozens of countries every week, oblivious to such faraway discussions. . . . It was their stories I wanted to tell: from the ground up, at the point of contact.”
Never before has America’s overarching military strategy been parsed so incisively and evocatively. Kaplan introduces us to lone American servicemen whose presence in obscure countries is largely unknown, and concludes with a heart-stopping portrait of marines in the first battle in Fallujah. Extraordinary in its scope, beautifully written, Imperial Grunts, the first of two volumes, combines first-rate reporting with the sensitivity and insights of an acclaimed writer steeped in history, literature, and philosophy, to deliver a masterly account of America’s global role in the twenty-first century.
• Imperial Grunts paints a vivid picture of how defense policy is implemented at the grassroots level.
• Kaplan travels throughout the world where U.S. forces are located. This is not just a book about Iraq or Afghanistan.
• Rather than debate imperialism, Kaplan relies on a keen understanding of history, philosophy, and in-the-field reporting to show how it actually works on the ground.
• Imperial Grunts escapes Washington and shows us what it’s like to live with the grunts day to day.
Praise for Imperial Grunts
“One of the most important books of the last several years. Robert Kaplan uses his prodigious energy and matchless reporting skills to takes us on to the front lines with the new warrior-diplomats who use weapons, imagination, and personal passion to protect and advance the interests of the United States. This is a generation every American should come to know.”
“Robert Kaplan has brilliantly captured the story of today’s U.S. military operating in far-flung places on strange missions. Imperial Grunts is the most insightful and superbly written account of soldiering in the New World Disorder to date. It is a must read for all Americans.”
–General Anthony C. Zinni, United States Marine Corps (Ret.)
“Kaplan infuses us with a sense of hope about the future. Through astonishing observations, truths, and stories, Imperial Grunts introduces a brand-new way of thinking about the enduring virtue of the American spirit.”
–George Crile, author of Charlie Wilson’s War
“No recent book so well or so vividly portrays the challenges of the modern United States military. With an impressive grasp of the complexities of military missions worldwide, Robert Kaplan exposes the reader to the world of the modern soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine. A must read for both civilian and military leaders.”
–General Barry R. McCaffrey, United States Army (Ret.), Bradley Distinguished Professor of International Security Studies, United States Military Academy
“Imperial Grunts is vintage Robert Kaplan, combining a deep appreciation of history and wonderfully vivid writing with an infectious wanderlust.”
–Max Boot, Senior Fellow, National Security Studies, the Council on Foreign Relations, author of The Savage Wars of Peace
“Splendid! This is the finest work in print about today’s American fighting men and the challenges they face around the globe. Kaplan’s courage in researching this book under combat conditions is complemented by his integrity and great literary skill. Imperial Grunts simply could not be better.”
–Ralph Peters, author of Beyond Baghdad
YEMEN, WINTER 2002
With Notes On Colombia
"Yemen was vast. And it was only one small country. . . . How to manage such an imperium?"
In November 1934, when the British traveler and Arabist Freya Stark journeyed to Yemen to explore the broad oasis of the Wadi Hadhramaut, the most helpful person she encountered was the French aesthete and business tycoon Antonin Besse, whose Aden-based trading empire stretched from Abyssinia to East Asia. Besse, dressed in a white dinner jacket with creased white shorts, served excellent wine at dinner, and was described as "a Merchant in the style of the Arabian Nights or the Renaissance."1 In December 2002, when I went to Yemen, the most helpful person I encountered was Bob Adolph, a retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Army Special Forces, who was the United Nations security officer for Yemen.
Adolph, whose military career had taken him all over the world, had the chest of a bodybuilder and a bluff, bulldog face under wire-rim glasses and a creased ball cap. I spotted him on the other side of passport control, waiting in the dusky warehouse under fluorescent lights that functioned as the Sana'a airport.
Because of their own al-Qaeda problem, the Yemenis were suspicious of anyone with a Pakistani visa inside his passport. I was pulled over by a man smoking a cigarette and wearing a torn sweater and slippers. Adolph, seeing that I was making no progress, ambled over to him, speaking in bad but passable Arabic, gritting his teeth each time he made a point. Others were also haggling with customs and passport officers. It was a typical third world scene: confusion and a cacophony of negotiation in place of fixed standards.
After more of Adolph's pleading, I got back my passport. We headed for the parking lot. It was 2 a.m. Two beggar boys grabbed my bags and put them in the Land Cruiser. Adolph slipped them half a dollar in riyals. I was relaxed. The Arab world, while afflicted by political violence, had little or no common crime. In this sense, Islam had risen to the challenge of urbanization and modern life, and was a full-fledged success.
"This is the most democratic state in Arabia. For that reason it's the most dangerous and unstable," Adolph said, explaining that when Western-style democracy replaced absolute dictatorship in places with high unemployment rates and weak, corrupt institutions, the result was often a security vacuum that groups like al-Qaeda could take advantage of. "I've drawn up multiple evacuation plans for the U.N. staff here, updating calling-tree lists," he went on. "If the place goes down during the night, I can have all our people in Asmara the next day in time for brunch at the InterContinental there. The trick is to keep doing favors for people in the army, the police, and the tribes, and never call them in, until you need them to get your people out."
He veered to avoid another head-on. "Notice the way people drive here, you've got ten-year-olds propped up on phone books driving Granddad around town. Forget about rules and licenses. Keep all of your cash in different pockets. Despite all of the guns, ready cash always gives you more power in Yemen than a gun. Everybody in this country is a businessman, and a good one." His tone was commanding, didactic.
It was the last night of Ramadan. Though a few hours before dawn, the streets were noisy and crowded, and gaily strung with lights. Sana'a resembled a fairy-tale vision of Arabia, with basalt and mudbrick buildings festooned with colored glass fretwork and gypsum friezes. I recalled my first visit to Yemen in 1986.
Back then, the diplomats and other area specialists had assured me that with the discovery of oil in significant amounts, the Yemeni government would soon have the financial wherewithal to extend its power into the countryside, ending the feudal chaos. The opposite had occurred. To placate the sheikhs, the government bribed them with the newfound wealth, so oil revenues strengthened the medieval periphery rather than the modernizing capital. Kidnappings of foreign tourists erupted in the mid-1990s, as the sheikhs got greedy and sought to further blackmail the government. The government also had to compete with wealthy Wahabi extremists from Saudi Arabia and with al-Qaeda, who sometimes had more money with which to influence local Yemeni tribal leaders. With al-Qaeda targeting oil vessels off the Yemeni coast, maritime insurance rates had gone up, reducing sea traffic and consequently the amount of money from oil exports, so the regime had less money for bribes. The foreign community feared that a new wave of kidnappings might lie ahead.
For al-Qaeda, Yemen was a conveniently chaotic, culturally sympathetic country in the heart of Arabia, so much more desirable than far-afield, non-Arab Afghanistan. It might just be a matter of chipping away at the regime.
In downtown Sana'a, I noticed that people were not wearing the cheap Westernized polyesters that signify the breakdown of tribal identities under the pressure cooker of urbanization. They still wore white thobes with checkered keffiyahs or Kashmiri shawls, with the men sporting jambiyas (ornamental curved daggers) in the middle of their belts.
"It's tribal everything," another U.S. military source would explain to me. "The ministries are fiefdoms for the various tribes. It's a world of stovepipe bureaucracies. All the information flows to the top and none of it is shared along the way, so that only [President Ali Abdullah] Saleh knows what is going on. As for the furious demands from the Americans to fight bin Laden, we Americans are just another crazy tribe that Saleh holds close to his chest, and balances against the others. Same with al-Qaeda. Saleh has to appease and do favors for everyone to stay in power." Yeah, I thought, whichever dog is closest to biting him, he feeds.
Adolph told me that the Yemeni government controlled only about 50 percent of the country. A high-ranking Western diplomat in Yemen would hotly dispute that claim, telling me that Saleh controlled "all the main roads, oil fields, and pipelines," which, I countered, was less than 50 percent of the country. "Well," the diplomat huffed, "he controls what he needs to control." If that was the case, I thought, then why was there such a problem with al-Qaeda in Yemen at the time of my visit? The difference between Adolph and this diplomat was not in their facts, or even in their perceptions, it would turn out. Rather, like the Marine lieutenant colonel I had met briefly at Camp Pendleton, Adolph didn't know how to be subtle, or how to dissemble. He was brutally, refreshingly direct. Dealing with him saved time.
Inside the galloping Land Cruiser, Adolph knocked off the most recent security "incidents" in the country. His apartment building had been the scene of a gun battle between the son of a highly placed sheikh and government forces, with four people "KIA" (killed in action). Several more had been killed during a firefight between the al-Haima and Bani Mattar tribes outside Sana'a. Two bombs had exploded near the homes of government officials in the capital. In nearby Ma'rib there had been an attempt to assassinate the regional governor, Abdullah Ali al-Nassi, when tribesmen blocked the road and opened fire on his vehicle. The reasons for all this violence remained murky. As for al-Jawf and other areas on the Saudi frontier, there had been so many bombings and gun battles that Adolph hadn't bothered to investigate or keep count. All this was a prelude to the assassination of a leading Yemeni politician and the murder of three American missionaries.
Adolph, trained as a hostage negotiator by Great Britain's New Scotland Yard, told me what to do in case I was kidnapped: "Don't protest. Be submissive. Show them pictures of your family to establish a relationship. After the first few hours, ask to see the sheikh. If they take you to meet him, it's all right. It's an authorized kidnapping, for the sake of convincing the authorities to give the tribe a new road or water well. They'll tell you the negotiations should be completed in a few days; figure two months. Foreigners have been known to gain weight in the course of being held hostage in Yemen. Each family in the village will host you for a while, to divide the cost of your food. But if they don't take you to see the sheikh the first day, start to worry. Then it may be an unauthorized kidnapping, and it's okay to think of ways to escape."
He slowed the vehicle as we got closer to his apartment in a wealthy area of Sana'a where many expatriates lived. High walls, armed guards, and concertina wire were everywhere: the paraphernalia of paranoia.
I was headed for Injun Country, Adolph told me. He meant the desert wastes of northern Yemen abutting the Saudi border, a border that the Yemeni government was attempting to demarcate, even as local tribesmen were blowing up the new border markers. The next day I had an appointment with a sheikh who could provide me with guards and a guide, a sheikh for whom Adolph had done favors.
Sheikh Abdulkarim bin ali Murshed, forty, looked older than he was: something not uncommon in a country where extreme poverty and a high birthrate literally sped up time. Well over half of the people in Yemen hadn't been born when I had first visited sixteen years before. From his father, Sheikh Murshed had inherited control of one hundred thousand Khawlan tribesmen who lived east of Sana'a. They were part of the Bakil tribal confederation, the largest in Yemen. The Bakils were less powerful than President Ali Abdullah Saleh's more cohesive Hashid confederation, which resided along the northern spine of the mountains of the High Yemen. President Saleh's political rival, Abdullah al-Ahmer, leader of the Islamic Islah (Congregation for Reform) party, was a fellow Hashid, of the al-Ahmer branch. Consequently, the president needed allies from the Bakils to counter some of his own Hashid tribesmen, and Sheikh Murshed was both willing and ambitious for power.
With the blessing of both Saleh and some khawajahs (wealthy white foreigners), including the Americans, Sheikh Murshed had established a nongovernmental organization (NGO) called Human Solidarity. He had business cards and a half-empty office where nothing seemed to be going on. Like the political party system in Yemen, the office was mainly a Westernized facade, behind which lay a vibrant traditional means of power: the tribe.
Adolph introduced me to Sheikh Murshed less than twenty-four hours after I had arrived in Yemen. This was at the start of the three-day Feast of Eid al-Fitr which concluded Ramadan, a time when such a meeting should have been impossible to arrange. But Adolph had a holiday gift for the sheikh: "an American jambiya," as he put it with a wide, overbearing smile, as he towered over the sheikh. It was an authentic, foot-long Texas bowie knife in a handsome red case.
Adolph showed me a stack of such bowie knives inside red cases that he had bought for $80 apiece. "I should be able to deduct these on my taxes as a legitimate business expense," he told me, "but of course I can't. I've given one to the chief of police, and have another for the president's half brother. In male-dominated tribal societies like Yemen, manliness goes a long way. It's how you get people to do things for you." Adolph's apartment was filled with knives and swords--from West Africa, the Horn, and Yemen.
Sheikh Murshed told me that as a friend of Adolph's, I would be his guest in the tribal areas. Thus it would cost me nothing for the vehicle, the bodyguards, and the guides I would be lent for my journey. If I wanted to show my appreciation, however, through a donation to his NGO, that was up to me. In other words, the negotiation had begun. The first group of guards with whom he put me in contact wanted $350 a day. I ended up paying $100 a day, plus a donation to the sheikh's NGO.
Soon after our first meeting, the sheikh invited me to chew ghat at his medieval tower house, perched on a hilltop on the outskirts of Sana'a. The sheikh's mafraj, upper-story room, was filled with about twenty tribesmen reclining on pillows on the floor. Late-afternoon sunlight fell through the stucco friezes and colored glass windows. The sheikh sat with his Makarov pistol, Kalashnikov assault rifle, and notebook, using a spittoon to rid his mouth of excess ghat leaves and mucus as he listened to supplications. The ghat was stuffed in plastic supermarket bags beside the pile of assault rifles on the machine-made carpets. An antique telephone sat on a chipped wooden stand. It never rang, but the sheikh talked incessantly on his new cell phone. Mounted on the wall beside faded family photographs was a television turned to Al-Jazeera, the all-news Arabic-language station out of Qatar that the Yemenis thought of as provocatively Westernized, even as Americans saw it as hostile to the West.
Arguments raged into the evening over the best way to improve security and living conditions in the troubled desert regions of al-Jawf and Ma'rib. The sheikh listened, not interrupting, but he always had the final word. He heard numerous supplications, including a request to help a man whose brother had been arrested for allegedly stealing funds from the central bank. The idea that a good lawyer and an independent judge would provide justice was not especially considered; only the sheikh, it seemed, could guarantee a fair resolution of the matter. "In Yemen, the kabili [tribal] system is stronger than the government, stronger than Islam even," one of the supplicants told me. This was the essence of underdevelopment, a situation in which the government bureaucracy works on the basis of family ties and who-you-know, rather than on impersonal laws and principles.
The ghat spurred conversation. If it is chewed properly--the soft stems and leaves bunched into a rear corner of the mouth, resting on the lower teeth until a greenish mucus forms--the plant has an exquisitely subtle effect at once energizing and relaxing, like having five cups of espresso without feeling overwound. Ghat's effect was creeping. It incited you sexually. It was common for men after the afternoon chew to take a siesta with their wives.
Excerpted from Imperial Grunts by Robert D. Kaplan
Excerpted by permission.
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Posted January 9, 2006
The author takes a grunts-view look at several key areas around the globe, where American forces are working every day. He applies his viewpoint of the Imperial nature of these activities, while reporting the viewpoints of the troops cleanly. His reporting on the 1/5 Marines in Fallujah during April 2004 was great.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 27, 2005
Not that I have anything against imperial systems as somebody needs to keep order in a messy world. Kaplan makes a good case for how the military needs to change to respond to the GWOT.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 28, 2005
I read the book. Robert Kaplan is a genius. For someone who retired unexpectively from the Philippine Army, I find myself at ease reading the book. I've experienced first hand incompetence and corruption in the Philippine government and military. I graduated from the Philippine Military Academy in the 70's and throughout my military service I've witnessed what the author has written. The Philippines is a culture that thrives on corruption. For those who have not served in the military in the Philippines will find hard to accept the authors' story. Filipinos have become too blindly protective of their hypocrisy and self-serving culture. As their hero Benigno Aquino once wrote in the 1969 Foreign Affairs Journal, 'Filipinos profess love of country but love themselves.' The late Benigno Aquino must be laughing as he finds time to read the book. Robert Kaplan, who I've always admired, provides an outstanding and revealing look at a society that borders on hopelessness and a culture absorbed by sex, bribery, corruption, hypocrisy, cynicism, hatred, pessimism, lies, and everything that lies beneath what we call immoral. and incompent.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 27, 2005
Much like 'Armageddon', the real impact of this book is delivered when the author lets the soldiers speak for themselves. We should listen to them very closely, and hopefully the old school bureaucrats and brass at the pentagon are as well. In an age of unconventional warfare the SF will be at the front line wearing a variety of hats and even beards for that matter, be it taking on insurgents or even leading Karaoke with children waiting to get their teeth checked. The only problem I had with the book was the author's intrusive droning regarding historical parallels to the current situations, all under the pretext of blessing us with 'context.' You can skip over these sections and get to the story, which is about our amazing SF and marine soldiers.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.