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Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground

Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground

5.0 1
by Robert D. Kaplan

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In this landmark book, Robert D. Kaplan, veteran correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and author of Balkan Ghosts, shows how American imperialism and the Global War on Terrorism are implemented on the ground, mission by mission, in the most exotic landscapes around the world.

Given unprecedented access, Kaplan takes us from the jungles of the southern Philippines


In this landmark book, Robert D. Kaplan, veteran correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and author of Balkan Ghosts, shows how American imperialism and the Global War on Terrorism are implemented on the ground, mission by mission, in the most exotic landscapes around the world.

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.”
Tom Brokaw

“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

Editorial Reviews

A huge map hangs from a Pentagon wall that divides the planet into five area military commands. Veteran Atlantic Monthly correspondent Robert D. Kaplan decided that the only way to explore such a map, "to know it intimately," was on foot. With unprecedented access, he traveled alongside America's elite fighting forces to far-flung regions of the world, including Mongolia, Columbia, Yemen, West Africa, and Iraq. With vivid reportage, he describes not only conventional military missions and patrols in volatile areas but also humanitarian activities. First-rate journalism; first-class insights.
Michiko Kakutani
… [Kaplan] provides vivid and highly chilling accounts of the dangers faced by members of the American military in places like Falluja in Iraq and Colombia's Arauca Province, even as he leaves the reader with a keen appreciation of the expertise and versatility of Special Forces units, who are as adept at executing emergency commando raids as they are at the long, frustrating work of training indigenous armies and pursuing narco-terrorists.
— The New York Times
Eliot A. Cohen
But for better or worse, the grunts Kaplan describes so brilliantly will be out there representing America in the chaotic zones of a dangerous world, and to understand them one is well advised to read this book.But for better or worse, the grunts Kaplan describes so brilliantly will be out there representing America in the chaotic zones of a dangerous world, and to understand them one is well advised to read this book.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
America is no less an imperial power than Britain and Rome in their times, claims veteran journalist Kaplan (Balkan Ghosts, etc.)-one that is backed by the same sort of enforcers. To illustrate, he travels to seven nations and describes how American troops are, if not ruling the world, working to persuade it to follow our lead. The author joins elite units (generally marines or special forces) sent to shore up friendly governments, win people's hearts, train security forces and defeat terrorism-an increasingly vague term that includes narco-guerrillas, local warlords, unruly tribes and criminal gangs. Living among working soldiers, Kaplan makes no secret of his admiration for their camaraderie, practicality and rational if politically incorrect views. All roll their eyes when our leaders proclaim that defeating terrorism requires democratic governments; according to Kaplan, they believe this is nonsense in Colombia, Kenya, Yemen and the Philippines-all democracies. Forbidden to fight in these countries, Americans are building infrastructure and gathering intelligence as they instruct local units, hoping American-trained leaders will eventually rise to positions of authority. Military buffs will prefer the chapters on Iraq and Afghanistan, where the soldiers are slugging it out. Stabilizing all these nations may take decades, these men and women say-except in Iraq, where it may take longer. (On sale Sept. 13) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The author of Balkan Ghosts is there with the marines in the Philippines, Afghanistan, and Fallujah, trying to understand America's global role in the new century. With an eight-city tour. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Prolific world-traveler Kaplan (Mediterranean Winter, 2004, etc.) goes where the boots are. And where they are, he suggests, there stands the American Empire. "The Big Army doesn't understand that force protection means force projection. They're killing us in Iraq because they see that we're scared." Thus a Special Forces soldier in Afghanistan, speaking with the customary openness of soldiers in the face of someone they trust-Kaplan, in this case, who over the years has been along for many rides when the bullets are flying and who, at one point, catches himself wondering what for: "I was fifty-one years old. Why was I doing this?" He answers by bringing home absorbing stories from warriors at the edges of the empire, who are somehow different from soldiers in past wars: For them, all the world is "Injun Country," monitored by "singular individuals fronting dangerous and stupendous landscapes." Indeed, the troops who patrol the streets of Djibouti and scout the jungles of Colombia and the Philippines look like surfers, talk like cowboys and have a healthy disdain for the meaningless regulations of the Big Army. But, in the parlance, they're exquisitely sensitive to the mission, which has changed markedly since 9/11, involving a newfound resolution "to whack people quietly" while trying to win hearts and minds. The Big Army, of course, does things more noisily, though its middle managers-the captains and majors who run the show, "the true agents of the imperium"-seem keen to remake the organization for an ever-unpredictable world. Those who question whether or why the U.S. is an imperial nation will not be comforted by Kaplan's assurances that, after all, "Rome, Venice, and Britain werethe most morally enlightened states of their age"-and that democracy at home and a ruthless authoritarianism abroad are not necessarily incompatible. A provocative survey of a changing military charged-it seems ever more apparent-with making the world American, regardless of the world's view of things.

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Random House Publishing Group
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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. A water-intensive crop, ghat was a principal reason for the desertification of the country. Groundwater supplies in Yemen were expected to last no more than a generation or two, while Yemen’s popu- lation growth rate of 2.8 percent was among the highest in the Middle East.* Ghat, which had no export potential, was increasingly being grown at the expense of cash crops like coffee, further exposing the local economy to catastrophe as underground oil reserves diminished.

The next person I saw as soon as I arrived in Yemen, again courtesy of Adolph, was Brig. Gen. Ali Muhsen Saleh al-Ahmer. Gen. Ali Muhsen, half brother to President Saleh (they shared the same mother), was said to be the second most powerful man in Yemen after Saleh himself. Ali Muhsen controlled an armored division that protected the capital. He had the reputation of being a buttoned-down, capable organizer, close to the fundamentalist Islah movement, as well as to gun-running sheikhs and perhaps to some in al-Qaeda, too. It was Ali Muhsen who helped Saleh get support from the radical “Afghan-Arabs” (Yemeni veterans of the Afghan war against the Soviets) when his regime was threatened by civil war in the mid-1990s. But American pressure following September 11, 2001, had been so severe that both Ali Muhsen and Saleh felt they had no choice but to accommodate President George W. Bush. The Americans made a deal with this former “bad guy”: giving Ali Muhsen’s regiment a chunk of the American military aid package was the only way that Washington could do business in Yemen.

Ali Muhsen reminded me of a tribal leader that a young Winston Churchill describes in his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force: “He was a great man, which on the frontier means that he was a great murderer. . . . A strong man who has felt the grip” of an imperial power “is the best tool to work with.”2 It was Ali Muhsen’s ties to the radicals that gave his half brother, the president, the political protection he needed to move closer to the Americans—temporarily, that is. And also to distance himself from the Americans swiftly and credibly if that, too, became necessary.

Late at night during Eid al-Fitr Ali Muhsen received Adolph and me in his heavily fortified compound in Sana‘a. The flamboyant jambiya that Ali Muhsen wore over his tribal dress testified to the value of its lineage; it had likely been passed down for generations. Syrupy tea, nuts, and raisins were served. Adolph presented Ali Muhsen with a bowie knife, “a gift from one soldier to another.” Ali Muhsen smiled as he put his hand gratefully on Adolph’s. For Adolph in this situation, being a former U.S. Army officer

*World Bank estimates.

was more important than being a U.N. security officer. But the two functions were really inseparable. For sensitive security details like Yemen, where expatriates were truly at risk, it was not unusual for the U.N. to have Americans, or at least other Anglos, in positions of authority. While the United States and the United Nations often seemed at odds on the world stage, on the ground in Yemen the distance between them seemed less consequential.

“I’m ready to roast your communications minister alive,” Adolph complained. “I need to set up a radio call network for my staff in case of emergency and he won’t see me.” Ali Muhsen suggested he would settle Adolph’s problem. Adolph didn’t believe him, and went on complaining for a while. Ali Muhsen appeared to respect him for that.

Adolph introduced me in flattering terms and I made small talk with the general. To ask a direct question—or to consider this an interview—would have been an abuse of hospitality. In a place like Yemen the truth emerges by accident, when talking of other matters. The fact that the general had received me would serve as the best form of protection were I unlucky enough to be kidnapped. The excess of nervous-looking armed guards in the sitting room and nearby courtyard testified both to Ali Muhsen’s real authority and to the anarchy swirling around it.

Less than seventy-two hours after I had arrived in Yemen, during the most important holiday of the Muslim year, when government offices were closed, Adolph, with his passable Arabic, had arranged a trip for me through an area where westerners had been denied the right to travel, and had gotten me a brief audience with the country’s most shadowy figure. Adolph impressed me as neat, orderly, a bit anal-retentive even, as well as unpretentious.

Robert B. Adolph Jr. was born in 1952 in Chelsea, Massachusetts, one of nine children in a poor Catholic family. He started working when he was eleven. He was thrown out of high school five times, finishing 313 in a class of 330. He joined the U.S. Army after high school and was sent to Germany, becoming a staff sergeant, and later a member of Army Special Forces. “In the military, for the first time in my life, people told me that I wasn’t stupid.” Encouraged, Adolph, by way of a mail-order correspondence course, got a college degree, something he was still intensely proud of. Later, he would earn a master’s degree in international relations from American University in Washington, D.C. His military education in the course of becoming a Special Forces officer included Belgian commando school, Russian language school, a combat swimmer’s course offered by the Danish army, and Ranger and parachute jump master schools. In Germany he commanded two military intelligence companies. Serving in Egypt he learned to be wary of most scholarly books about the Arab world. “The books I read never mentioned that to improve a society you have to give the money to women, never to men. In the City of the Dead in Cairo,” he went on, “I adopted a poor family: Dad wanted a TV set, Mom wanted a sewing machine to start a little business.”

In 1992 he was sent to Cambodia as an American military observer to the U.N. peacekeeping mission. “It was the first time that I was in a place with no government. The Khmer Rouge were doing a bargain-basement business with the Thai army in gems and logging. I learned that if someone puts an AK-47 in your face, you move back slowly, bend at the waist in a supplicating manner, with your palms together as though you are about to pray. They usually put their guns down when you do that. Being in Cambodia for six months was like being raped. Nothing I had been given to read in the course of my education prepared me for what I encountered.

“It didn’t make me cynical. It just helped me get things done on the ground.” He set up an anti-malarial program in northern Cambodia, getting a French crew to bring in mosquito nets on C-130s (Adolph’s French, I learned, was like his Arabic) and a Canadian trucking company to distribute them. “The hardest thing, though, was to convince rural Cambodians that malaria was from mosquitoes, not from bad spirits.”

Upon retirement from the U.S. Army in 1997, Adolph became an advisor under contract with the State Department to the Bosnian Ministry of Defense. The next year he became the chief security officer for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone, where he had to evacuate several hundred civilian staff under threat from the sadists of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). “Whether it’s the RUF, al-Qaeda, or Serbian Chetniks, one unifying factor is that none of these people know how to have a normal relationship with a woman, and that lies at the root of their cruelty,” he told me, sucking on beer suds one night in his apartment. “RUF commanders would force boy soldiers to rape old women in their own village at gunpoint, so that the boys could never go home again. It is the kind of discipline unsocialized teenagers understand.”

Sierra Leone had been a frustrating assignment for Adolph. In Special Forces he had learned that “the mission was everything”; in the U.N. he had to work in an environment where, as I knew from my own reporting, the mission was secondary to diplomatic necessity.

For example, Nigerian peacekeepers were not in Sierra Leone to keep the peace, but in some cases to steal alluvial diamonds. The RUF controlled the diamond fields. The Nigerians made deals with the RUF. They used their own peacekeepers as mules to get the diamonds back to Lagos. The Nigerian government was getting money from the international community for each peacekeeper it dispatched to Sierra Leone, but the Nigerian soldiers themselves were not always paid by their own government. Guinean and Zambian peacekeepers were also not paid, though their governments were getting money from the U.N. for every soldier dispatched to Sierra Leone. The result was that they surrendered without a fight to hunter-warrior guilds dressed in wigs and shower caps.3* If the U.S. was going to subcontract out its imperial burden to the U.N., the U.N. would have to be able to fight on the ground as well as it talked before the television cameras.

Two weeks after he left Sierra Leone, the U.N. sent Adolph to Yemen. Here the mission was everything, to judge by the blunt way he had spoken to Gen. Ali Muhsen about the communications minister.

“Family, Village, Tribe, Guns—Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. That’s Yemen,” began the U.S. Army colonel dispatched to Sana‘a from CENTCOM in Tampa, Florida. Terrorism is an entrepreneurial activity dominated by enterprising self-starters. And as the colonel explained to me as we lined up for food in Adolph’s apartment, “In Yemen you’ve got nearly twenty million aggressive, commercial-minded, and well-armed people, all extremely hard-working compared to the Saudis next door. It’s the future. And it terrifies the hell out of the government in Riyadh.”

The buffet dinner included a dozen men. Aside from me, a U.N. official, the French defense attaché, and two diplomats from the American Embassy, the rest were American military officers running one program or another in Yemen: Yemeni commando training, de-mining, and so on. They were a bunch of working-class guys. There was much talk about “how dumb” they all were, especially from the U.S. defense attaché, Army

*For a blow-by-blow account of United Nations military incompetence in Sierra Leone see Damien Lewis’s Operation Certain Death (London: Century, 2004).

Col. Gralyn Harris, a former wrestler at the University of Connecticut who happened to speak fluent Arabic. I had also gone there, I told him. I said that he was the first fellow graduate I had met in more than two decades as a foreign correspondent. “What shit is that?” he laughed.

The conversation drifted to jobs after retirement from the service that paid as much as $70,000 per year. There was a lot of clear, ungrammatical, mincing-no-words comparisons of one country and culture with another, observations that were relevant even as they might be difficult to print. This was a world where people were judged less by their ideas than by the practical implementation of them; here virtue was in the results. If there was such a thing as an American Empire, it was here at this party.

Bob Innes, tall, red-haired, and extremely personable, was a fireman’s kid, born in 1950, who had grown up in an Irish-Italian neighborhood on Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue, near Ebbets Field. “I never got over the Dodgers deserting Brooklyn for Los Angeles,” he told me. “The three greatest villains of the twentieth century were Hitler, Stalin, and Walter O’Malley,” the Dodgers’ owner. Innes was now building from scratch a Yemeni coast guard.

“I was the product of a mixed marriage,” he began in homey deadpan. “My mother was from Brooklyn, my father from the Bronx. In the late 1950s my father retired to fireman’s heaven, Arizona: the real mythic west of the Apaches, that’s before it became suburban and upscale,” he sneered. On the streets of Phoenix, Innes learned Spanish from his Mexican friends. With good grades he got accepted to Stanford, which his parents couldn’t afford. With no scholarship from Stanford, he went to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.

Though we live in the jet age, 70 percent of all intercontinental cargo travels by sea, making the seas more strategic than ever. Most countries that claim to have navies really have coast guards. Though the U.S. Coast Guard consists of only thirty-eight thousand seamen and five thousand civilians, it is the largest coast guard in the world, as well as the world’s seventh largest navy. At first Innes served off the coasts of Greenland, Canada, Wake Island, and South Vietnam. “I saw the last U.S. aircraft leave Tan Son Nhut, where it was decided which dependents got on and which didn’t.

“What did I learn from the experience in Vietnam?” he asked himself out loud, letting the silence formulate his next statement. “I learned that honor and integrity are personal qualities, not institutional ones, not ones we should expect the state to always have. If you don’t like the policy, tough. Bad things happen in this world. You do the best you can in your job, and let the crybabies write the books.”

In the 1980s, Innes administered Coast Guard training programs in West Africa and every place in Latin America except for Bolivia and Paraguay, which don’t have seacoasts. His Spanish had become fluent. He was reading Cervantes in the early-seventeenth-century original text. He arrived in Monrovia, Liberia, in April 1980 just as Master Sgt. Samuel K. Doe staged a coup against President William Tolbert, and body parts were being paraded in the streets. “West Africa was Haiti on a pan-continental scale. The problems in South America weren’t even close. The high culture that in South America is a thing of beauty no longer exists in West Africa. But then there was Colombia. . . .”

Innes was in Colombia from 1987 to 1990 as the U.S. Coast Guard, police, and naval attaché. He also worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration. “Yemen can be hell in a handbasket, but it’s paradise compared to the Colombia of that era.”

Manuel Noriega held the reins of power in Panama, providing a haven for insurgents and narco-traffickers along the Panamanian-Colombian border. The Iran-Contra scandal raged still, which hindered Washington from providing the Colombian military the support it needed to battle the guerrillas and drug lords. The period also saw a closing act of the deadly drama between cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar and the Colombian government.

Innes told me of an incident in the Amazon region of southeastern Colombia in the late 1980s. In one village, he and the Colombian troops accompanying him found all of the adults crying because their children had been kidnapped. Unlike previous kidnappings, no one had demanded a ransom. He and a force of local soldiers took a boat upriver. In a clear- ing they discovered a dozen bodies of children with various body organs removed in a not so delicate fashion. The local police chief and others believed the carnage was committed by smugglers and dealers in the lucrative underground trade in body organs for transplant. A wealthy and unknowing foreigner from another continent—Innes never found out who—had a child who desperately needed a liver transplant. Such a foreigner would be willing to pay anything to find a liver that matched for his child, and he wouldn’t necessarily ask about how it was done.

“In Colombia,” Innes continued, “there was no distinction between military conquest, enslaving Indians, kidnapping, narco-trafficking, or a black market for body organs, so long as it turned a profit. Drugs are the lure that promises to break the cycle of poverty. By local standards the cartels were not inhuman. For many, drugs represented a means of escaping abject poverty.”

Narco-trafficking was, among other things, an economic weapon of the rising middle and upper-middle classes against the government, the traditional families, and the oligarchs who controlled the coca, the sweet coal, and the emeralds—the real wealth of the country.

“Violent, untimely death,” he went on, “was normal for young men in many parts of Colombia. It’s an intimate fact of their lives, it’s what most of them expected. Because they know they are going to die young and in pain, they want to do right by their families, breaking the cycle of poverty. Narco-traffickers knew this. In Colombia, minors would never be tried and sentenced as an adult regardless of the crime, so criminal organizations sent children to commit horrible acts on their behalf. The narco-traffickers kept their promises to these kids, financially rewarding their families if they were killed or caught. There is a big show of moving the kids’ parents into new little homes, and of sending the siblings off to private schools. That is more than the state could ever do for them. In Colombia, every pubescent teenager could be your assassin. In Yemen, crime operates within limits. Islamic law provides a vigorous moral compass.”

I should go to Colombia, I thought.

Innes retired from the Coast Guard in the late 1990s and was recalled to active duty after September 11, 2001.

“I was mowing my lawn in Louisiana when the twin towers were hit. Now I’ve got forty guys under me, only forty, but they’re a beginning. These guys,” he told me, getting intense, “were kicked out of the other Yemeni armed services, because they were smart, they spoke English, they asked too many questions and so nobody here trusted them. They were demoralized. ‘No,’ I tell them. ‘Don’t you all understand! Before [Robert] Clive consolidated India for the British in the eighteenth century, Yemen, right through the Middle Ages, was the haunt of those like Sindbad the Sailor. Aden was among the largest ports in the world for a thousand years. The coast here constitutes an incredible strategic geography. When you look at the expanding desert, the maritime environment is the only non-bleak future this country has.’

“After the [French tanker] Limburg was hit by al-Qaeda,” Innes went on, “insurance premiums for ships entering Yemeni waters went up 254 percent for a while. Yemen needs a twenty-first-century coast guard, like Jordan and the UAE [United Arab Emirates]. And these people are willing to learn; they’re not like others in the region who just want to hire mercenaries.”

What People are Saying About This

General Barry R. McCaffrey
General Barry R. McCaffrey, United States Army (Ret.), Bradley Distinguished Professor of International Security Studies, United States Military Academy
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.
Ralph Peters
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)
George Crile
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)
General Anthony C. Zinni
General Anthony C. Zinni, United States Marine Corps (Ret.)
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.
Tom Brokaw
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.
Max Boot
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)

Meet the Author

Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and the bestselling author of eleven previous books on foreign affairs and travel, including Balkan Ghosts, The Ends of the Earth, The Coming Anarchy, and Eastward to Tartary and most recently Imperial Grunts. He is currently the Class of 1960 Distinguished Visiting Professor at the United States Naval Academy. He lives with his wife and son in western Massachusetts.

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Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.