"Full of surprises and unusual revelations . . . an informed and disturbing portrait of the new American badlands."Chicago Tribune
"[Kaplan is] tireless, curious, and smart. . . . I cannot imagine anyone will concoct a more convincing scenario for the American future." Thurston Clarke, The New York Times
With the same prescience and eye for telling detail that distinguished his bestselling Balkan Ghosts, Robert Kaplan now explores his native country, the United States of America. His starting point: the conviction that America is a country not in decline but in transition, slowly but inexorably shedding its identity as a monolithic nation-state and assuming a radically new one.
Everywhere Kaplan travelsfrom St. Louis, Missouri, to Portland, Oregon, from the forty-ninth parallel to the banks of the Rio Grandehe finds an America ever more fragmented along lines of race, class, education, and geography. An America whose wealthy communities become wealthier and more fortress-like as they become more closely linked to the world's business capitals than to the desolate ghettoes next door. An America where the political boundaries between the statesand between the U.S. and Canada and Mexicoare becoming increasingly blurred, betokening a vast open zone for trade, commerce, and cultural interaction, the nexus of tomorrow's transnational world. Never nostalgic or falsely optimistic, bracingly unafraid of change and its consequences, Kaplan paints a startling portrait of post-Cold War Americaa great nation entering the final, most uncertain phase of its history. Here is travel writing with the force of prophecy.
"Lively . . . Kaplan has a sharp eye for social truth, and his encounters with a chorus of eloquent citizens of the West keeps the narrative humming." Outside
About the Author
Robert D. Kaplan is the bestselling author of sixteen books on foreign affairs and travel translated into many languages, including Asia’s Cauldron, The Revenge of Geography, Monsoon, The Coming Anarchy, and Balkan Ghosts. He is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a contributing editor at The Atlantic, where his work has appeared for three decades. He was chief geopolitical analyst at Stratfor, a visiting professor at the United States Naval Academy, and a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. Foreign Policy magazine has twice named him one of the world’s Top 100 Global Thinkers.
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LAST REDOUBT OF THE NATION-STATE
Whereas east coast monuments such as the Lincoln Memorial and the Statue of Liberty speak specifically to ideals, the Protestant memorial chapel at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas-overlooking the Missouri River at the edge of the Great Plains, with the rails of the Union Pacific visible in the distance-invokes blood and soil. The chapel was built from local limestone in 1878, two years after the massacre of George Armstrong Custer's Seventh Cavalry. Six brass pack howitzers from the Indian Wars are embedded in the wall. In addition to plaques commemorating the U.S. Army dead at Little Big Horn and other frontier engagements, the walls are studded with the names of heroes of every war since; Colonel Ollie Reed (July 30, 1944) and First Lieutenant Ollie Reed Jr. (July 5, 1944), for example, a father and son killed weeks apart in France and Italy in the Second World War. In early May 1995, on the fiftieth anniversary of V-E Day, as I stood within this darkened holy of holies, my eyes struggling to read the names in the gloom, I felt as if I were within the core of nationhood.
The poignancy of the moment overwhelmed me, stretching beyond the deaths of those men. For after several weeks at Fort Leavenworth, freighted as it is with historical reference, and after heated discussions with army officers about the failure of ancient Greece and Rome, how could I not think about the future of the United States?
The officers and I did not assume that the United States was going to decline like those ancient empires. That is not the lesson of classical history. Rather, it is that change is inescapable and the more gradual and hidden the change, the more decisive: the great shifts in fortune for ancient empires were usually not apparent to those living at the time. At Fort Leavenworth I was intensely aware of such transformation-of history moving silently beneath our feet however much we deny it-and thus the memorial chapel affected me more intimately than any monumental ruin in Greece or Italy or Egypt.
The setting is fifteen miles northwest of Kansas City, where the Missouri flows swiftly, several hundred yards wide, encumbered with logs and other debris, the untamed signature of the New World. Here the river arcs before turning north. On July 2, 1804, the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark camped nearby, en route to the Pacific. In May 1827, during the presidency of John Quincy Adams, Colonel Henry Leavenworth, sailing upriver from the direction of St. Louis, commenced construction here of what would become Fort Leavenworth: the advance post of European settlement within the western half of the American continent. Colonel Leavenworth's orders were to construct the fort on the east bank of the river. However, because the east bank was a floodplain, he built on the bluffs of the west bank, in what was officially "Indian territory" beyond the Union, in the future state of Kansas. By the time Washington bureaucrats learned of Leavenworth's decision, the colonel had already begun building.
As much as it is an army base or a war college, Fort Leavenworth is a living museum. French cannons, brought here before Thomas Jefferson purchased Louisiana from France, look out over the Missouri. Lining the parade ground are nineteenth-century redbrick Victorian houses, their facades framed by white porticoes. George Armstrong Custer lived in one, Douglas MacArthur in another. In 1926, when Fort Leavenworth was almost a hundred years old, Dwight D. Eisenhower lived with his family in nearby Otis Hall. It was at Fort Leavenworth that "Ike" learned to play golf. In another brick building, in the winter of 1917-1918, a young officer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, wrote the first draft of his first novel, This Side of Paradise. The post cemetery, designated by President Abraham Lincoln as one of our first twelve national military cemeteries, contains the graves of 19,000 soldiers who served from the War of 1812 through Desert Storm, including Shango Hango, an Indian soldier-guide, four officers from Little Big Horn, and a casualty from Fort Sumter. Fifteen hundred graves are unmarked.
The piece de resistance is the Buffalo Soldier Monument, a sixteen-foot bronze statue of a black trooper mounted on his horse, rearing up before two reflecting pools. The "buffalo soldiers" were two African-American regiments, the Ninth and Tenth Cavalries, which, from the end of the Civil War through the closing of the western frontier, escorted cattle drives and wagon trains, installed telegraph lines, and fought Indians and Mexican revolutionaries. The monument was dedicated in 1992 and was the idea of Colin Powell when he was deputy commander here, in 1981-1982. The magnificent bronze horse and rider could have leapt out of a painting by Frederic Remington: a binding myth, true and necessary.
Inside the post buildings, the theatricality demanded by tradition deepens. The pictures lining the corridors range from a painting of Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene to a giant photo of MacArthur striding ashore in the Philippines in 1944. For several days, army officials let me visit the varnished meeting rooms with plush red carpets, where I listened to officers in black boots and battle fatigues discuss future war scenarios in the Balkans, Central America, and Africa. The battle fatigues express the difference between Leavenworth and other war colleges, where dress greens and jackets and ties are required: Leavenworth is a frontier post still, and a nostalgic view of the United States is deliberately cultivated here, as if to bind the uncertain future to a reliable past.
Fort Leavenworth symbolizes the frontier. As the most important fort in the West, the place from which the first group of white settlers moved into Indian country, it was the starting point for what would one day be called Manifest Destiny. It was the main base for the exploration of the Great Salt Lake in Utah and of the Columbia River in Oregon. Eight miles west of Fort Leavenworth, the newly opened Oregon and Santa Fe Trails separated. Here a young man from Illinois, James "Wild Bill" Hickok, experienced the West for the first time, amid wagon trains as far as his eye could see. Fort Leavenworth was the base camp for building the transcontinental railroad. From here, troops marched off to the Mexican War and Custer's Seventh Cavalry trekked to the Little Big Horn. In 1881, General William Tecumseh Sherman established a staff college at Fort Leavenworth, and when the frontier closed in1890, Leavenworth began to train officers for fighting overseas-another territorial threshold-which they did in 1898, when U.S. troops carried the flag to Cuba and the Philippines. This has always been the place where the army prepares its commanders "to fight the next war." "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, MacArthur, Eisenhower, and Powell, to name only a few generals, were indelibly marked by Leavenworth.
Almost every member of the army's top brass has spent at least several months, if not longer, at Fort Leavenworth. More than 90 percent of Army captains take a nine-week course here. More than 50 percent of all majors spend a year at Leavenworth before they are eligible for promotion to lieutenant colonel; of those majors who eventually make it to general, the percentage is much higher. Leavenworth is where military warfare doctrine is written. It was Leavenworth's School of Advanced Military Studies that, in 1990, outlined the strategy for Operation Desert Storm. When the United States intervenes overseas, the phones and computers at Leavenworth work overtime.
Leavenworth's Battle Command Training Program runs simulated war games-for example, "Prairie Warrior," an annual exercise in which computers link Leavenworth with other U.S. military installations around the world in a "virtual" war situation, with isolated command headquarters, battlefield observers, and so forth. During my visit, Prairie Warrior featured a scenario in an "imaginary Europe" menaced by a failing nation-state in the "north-central" sector near present-day Berlin. The state is both threatened by its neighbors and tearing itself apart through civil unrest and guerrilla insurgencies in densely populated urban areas. Because this scenario was set fifteen years in the future, the weaponry for the war game included "intelligent mines" that can distinguish among trucks, tanks, and people and identify the enemy. While other military institutions look "strategically" and thus more abstractly at the future, Leavenworth, because it concentrates on training captains and majors, the "middle ranks," is "where the rubber meets the road," explained Major Chris Devens.
Another exercise I looked in on involved a humanitarian emergency in Memphis and St. Louis after a major earthquake along the Mississippi Valley's "New Madrid" fault line, where a series of big quakes did in fact occur in 1811 and 1812. More earthquakes are expected, and buildings in Memphis and St. Louis have not generally been constructed to withstand major tremors. This exercise tested the army's ability to work with NGOs (nongovernmental organizations, or private relief agencies), as it has had to do in the Third World.
It was assumed that there would be civil disorder after the quake. "Martial law has rarely been declared in the United States," noted Lieutenant Colonel Marvin Chandler. "That's another thing we look at." Many times in the course of my visit to Leavenworth I heard discussion of the Posse Comitatus Act, which forbids the National Guard to act as a local police force once it has been federalized by the army in a civil emergency. The implication was that turbulence within the United States might one day require the act to be repealed. "The future is icky," said Lieutenant Colonel Chandler, showing me a cartoon of a cow, representing an awkward, slow-moving army, trying to negotiate a series of mud puddles that represent natural catastrophes, political breakdowns, riots, and nuclear blackmail, both foreign and domestic.
Now that technology has erased distances, Leavenworth stands on a new frontier, a global one. Its computers disgorge daily advice to field commanders in Haiti, Rwanda, the Balkans, and wherever else American troops happen to be. "The guy in a tent in Port-au-Prince can access the library here regarding lessons learned in Somalia," explained Major Devens. From Fort Leavenworth, officers fly to hot spots around the world every week. By planning for future conflicts, Fort Leavenworth is helping to transform the nation by redefining where its borders really are.
For example, a captain, looking at a map of a war game in Honduras, told me, "We know more about Honduras than about western Kansas during the Indian Wars. The intelligence on Honduras is more dense. Honduras is closer in time than western Kansas was, a few hours by plane rather than days on horseback. Communications are better, too." The Third World has become like the Old West. For the army, continental frontiers-of the kind that led to the building of Fort Leavenworth and of the nation-have grown dim.
What kind of continent will it be with Honduras this close and getting closer, I wondered? Could the dissolution of distances also dissolve the nation which this bastion of nationness overlooking the Missouri is meant to defend? The prairie surrounding Fort Leavenworth focused my mind on America's continental isolation, its debt to geography, while the tensions I encountered within the fort led me to wonder about the future status of traditional nation-state America in an age when oceanic distances matter increasingly less.
Colonel Jerry Morelock's walls are cluttered with U.S. military iconography: a dogged U. S. Grant, the father of total, unheroic war, leaning against a tree at City Point; Robert E. Lee after Appomattox; and so on. For a computer screen saver, Morelock uses a photo of Ike, George Patton, Omar Bradley, and other generals taken in May 1945 in Germany, after V-E Day. Morelock, who wears wire-rimmed glasses and whose gray hair has begun to recede, lives with his family in "The Rookery," the oldest house in Kansas, built in 1832. MacArthur lived here when he was on post in the early 1900s. A typical title on Morelock's bookshelf is Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian Wars 1866-1891. He salutes the flag every day at five o'clock, he told me.
"Fifty years after V-E Day, the U.S. has history's strongest military. But it has been eroded tremendously since 1991. And that is nothing new." Morelock then explained to me how following every conflict, including the Revolutionary War (after which the twenty-thousand-man Continental Army was disbanded and replaced by a "regiment" of seven hundred militiamen), military cutbacks ensued as memories faded. This was true of the periods following not just the First and Second World Wars, but also the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American War. "After every war, everyone declared the end of war. Though now we talk about lots of smaller wars, what's to prevent a really big conflagration? The record of history indicates that a new and great threat is certain." The task for officers here is daunting: imagine being at Leavenworth after 1898, when the United States was flush with victory following its defeat of Spain, and trying to predict the rise of Hitler at a time when the words "totalitarianism" and "fascism" had yet to be coined. The horrors of the next century may not even have names yet.
Through most of our history, we have had a weak central government and a small volunteer army. The military draft has been strictly a wartime thing, a radical departure from most empires of the past, especially Rome's.1 The United States, in fact, did not have an adequate standing army until the twentieth century. World War II, the Cold War, and the persistence of a military draft through 1973 masked the reality of a weakly governed, brawling, fractious society. Now two oceans may not seal us off from disintegrative forces elsewhere. As nation-states begin slowly, inexorably to melt into a transnational stew, army officers such as Morelock feel threatened. They think the military must do all it can to help America preserve some semblance of a blood-and-soil, continental identity. Morelock is not sure that this is possible.
"Just like at the end of the Indian Wars in 1890, the army finds it has no more territory left to conquer," Morelock said. "The answer a hundred years ago was imperialism." He meant the Philippines expedition, which, however misguided, primed the army to help Europe in both world wars. (In 1935, with the United States in an isolationist mode, Eisenhower honed his analytical skills by helping reorganize the Filipino Army, even if it was subsequently defeated by the Japanese.) "For now, we're the world's 911 force. The public screams 'Stop those images'-the ones on TV of kids starving. But that's not necessarily a national interest."
Such excursions are only a temporary raison d'etre until a real threat appears. But the real threat could be so unconventional-chemical or biological bombs in domestic water or mass transit systems, for instance-that the "traditional" army of tanks and armored personnel carriers and what it has historically represented to the nation may seem quaint.
At Leavenworth I also saw how the acceleration of technology is driving the wedge deeper between military and civilian societies and bringing about, for the first time, a professional-caste elite, with serious implications for our national future. Today's volunteer army is different from all others in America's history. Soldiers are becoming like doctors and lawyers: a professional group we would like to need less but upon which we rely more. And just as health care reform requires the consent of the medical community because doctors know things the rest of us cannot adequately understand, foreign policy will over the decades be increasingly influenced by the military, as war, peacekeeping, famine relief, and the like grow too technical and complex for civilian managers to control.
The most troubling break with the past, as I realized at Fort Leavenworth, is how abstract technological warfare is becoming. Though this tendency has been true for years, its continuation is having a powerful impact; a phrase I repeatedly heard at Leavenworth was "Attrition of the same adds up to big change." Colonel Thomas Suitt, an African American from North Carolina who runs a "command preparation" computer course for tank commanders, showed me how Information Age war will demand leaders, from lieutenants to presidents, who can sort through dense waves of data to make risky decisions rapidly and constantly. Suitt's course simulates tank battles for lieutenant colonels, who will lead three hundred to four hundred vehicles and five thousand troops against similar forces in a "combat window" where all will be decided in fifteen to thirty minutes. "Each of these engagements is bigger and faster than Waterloo," explained Suitt. "Commanding a tank brigade isn't brain surgery; it's tougher." When tank commanders saw only the narrow view from their own tanks, decisions, though often flawed and fatal, were easier to make, because there was less information to process. Now the commander in a M1A2 tank can map terrain over the horizon and know the amount of fuel and ammunition left in each of his hundreds of vehicles, the speed and timing of support helicopters, the location of each "dead zone" (an area between friendly vehicles that none of his tank drivers can see), wind and temperature patterns that affect how visibility will be obscured by the smoke from exploding shells, and so on. As Suitt ran me through the on-screen battle, displaying all the vehicles and terrain as combat progressed and asking me what I would do at each stage, I felt as if I were playing multidimensional chess at thirty seconds per move. The Roman empire lasted more than a thousand years, but during that entire period technology remained relatively unchanged. The acceleration of technology not only is working against America's calcification, it is adding a great degree of unpredictability, since the future is now far harder to discern than it was for any other great state in the past.
The professional-caste quality of the army is evident in other ways, too. The growing use here of technical jargon and acronyms to accompany the growth of military specialties has created an insider's jargon. Foreign territory is referred to as OCONUS (Outside the Continental United States), humanitarian and peacekeeping duties are called OOTW (Operations Other than War, pronounced "ootwa"), the technological revolution in the military is known as RMA (Revolution in Military Affairs), urban warfare is MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain), and so on. Frequently, I had to stop a conversation to ask what those terms meant.
Significant, too, was the level of scholarship. At Leavenworth I encountered men and women, both whites and blacks, in their late twenties through early forties, who were on easy terms with ancient history and related subjects. In fact, at times army captains and majors seem immobilized by their knowledge of the past. To mention Haiti here is to elicit a detailed report on that country's troubles since independence from France in 1804. Mention Rwanda and Burundi, and you hear about ethnic violence from the late 1950s through the 1970s. The same with the Balkans. History, as these officers recount it, suggests that such places are hopeless, even as they provide the only work the army has at the moment.
Smaller wars with limited meaning for the rest of us may also widen the gap between the American military and society. Neither we nor the military wants this to happen. But late-twentieth-century life is driven by an unprecedented accumulation of knowledge that encourages the division of society into subgroups with their own journals, social networks, and obsessions. These subgroups are like lonely travelers who bump into other travelers-other subgroups-in superficial encounters. Why should the military be any different? Officers at Leavenworth read The Economist and Foreign Affairs and watch The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, but that does not mean they interpret the information the way civilian policy makers and people in the media do. However sophisticated the reading lists, the people doing the reading here often come from rural, blue-collar America. As soldiers, they live in materially poor conditions, especially compared to people who spend their lives in affluent Washington suburbs. The fact that so many military bases are, like Leavenworth, in the Midwest or the South further isolates American soldiers from the sensibilities of coastal metropolitan elites. "It matters less what you read than where you live and where you come from, because that determines how you interpret knowledge," explained Major Susan P. Kellett-Forsyth, one of the first female graduates of West Point.
* * *
Whereas the history-minded general public harks back to the Civil War and World War II, when secession, slavery, and fascism were the enemies, for this army drawn from the middle and lower classes, the defining moment was fighting the "Indians." The very location of army bases in the heartland is a legacy of the Indian Wars. Not only Fort Leavenworth but such other bases as Fort Riley and Fort Hays in Kansas, and Fort Sill in Oklahoma, were originally frontier posts. A popular book here is Five Years a Dragoon by Percival G. Lowe, a nostalgic memoir of Indian operations on the Great Plains between the Mexican and Civil Wars and of "the bivouac under the blue sky." (Lowe is buried at the military cemetery at Fort Leavenworth.) "The Indian plains beyond Fort Riley in central Kansas have been replicated in all the wars we've fought since: World War II, Desert Storm, Somalia," Morelock explained. "In our minds, we're still the cavalry. But that will end. We're not at the full tech-war stage yet, but we will be. All indications, demographic and otherwise, are that the future of war is urban. Patriotism, tied to a romantic vision of the land, will be harder to sustain."
The possibility of another great war in coming decades notwithstanding, the near term, according to the people here, offers the uninspiring prospect of small, increasingly urban wars and rescue details that will have increasingly little meaning for the nation. "In the future, the shelf life of victory will be short," said Roger Spiller, the George C. Marshall Professor of Military History at Leavenworth. "Military operations will proliferate but mean less." These smaller deployments will represent a departure from our history, which through World War II were driven by a major war every few decades. (If anyone believes that major wars have not been crucial to our sense of nationhood, consider how few patriotic songs and national holidays we would have without them. True, we might be happier from now on without great military struggles: but whatever it is we will become without them, it will not be the nation we once were.)
It was with such lugubrious thoughts in mind that I listened to a number of roundtable discussions at Leavenworth. In one a group of majors lamented the end of the draft. "People who want the draft back are hankering after a lost golden age," said Major Robert Everson. "The draft is obsolete because of the way warfare is changing. War has become so technological that it takes too long to train people who will serve for only a year or two." The talk switched to the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City. A marine in the group, Major Craig Tucker, said, "The minute I heard about Oklahoma City, I knew who did it: rednecks, the kind of guys from southern Idaho." I had heard similar remarks. The initial assumption that Middle East Muslims were responsible reflected an East and West Coast media preoccupation with foreign policy, as well as an ignorance of social upheavals in the heartland, to which people in the military, many of whom are from blue-collar backgrounds, are sensitive. Tucker and another officer suggested that "a time may come when the military will have to go domestic," as when George Washington put down the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania in 1794. During another discussion a visiting Canadian officer said, "The biggest threat to Canada is that the United States will collapse on itself. Canada's problems are out in the open, but the degree of turmoil in the U.S. is not admitted." Canadians have always sneered at the "disorderly" United States, but I noticed that protests from the American officers to the Canadian's remarks were muted.
These discussions were remarkable for their intensity. Quotes from books, pointed aphorisms, and Latin phrases came at me rapidly. "The Athenian oracle said the Persians would be defeated by 'wooden walls,' which meant the Athenian navy. That's the kind of riddle we have to solve." "Remember Heisenberg's rule: One who engages in foresight alters the future by the choices he makes." This technological and intellectual elite is poorly paid and lives in spartan, almost monastic, conditions. But here I was much less conscious of race: everyone, both white and black, wore fatigues, and the whites and blacks spoke the same arcane language, laden with technical and bureaucratic jargon. This is the way our nation-or at least our school system-should be, I thought. Here is the "Great Society" as Lyndon Johnson envisioned it. 2
1 Nor were the antiwar protests of the Cold War-Vietnam era unique. The Mexican War, for instance, caused dramatic protests whose pacifist rhetoric could be mistaken for that of 1960s demonstrators. Poet Robert Lowell opposed Vietnam, just as his great-granduncle James Russell Lowell, the first editor in chief of The Atlantic Monthly, opposed the Mexican War.
2 See Thomas E. Ricks, "The Great Society in Camouflage."
As these new American centurions guard the frontier of a strange new world, the nation-state they are sworn to defend is undergoing a vast transformation, in which its continental geography-its abundance of sparsely inhabited space defined by two oceans-may prove to mean the inverse of what it once meant: While Europe has had too much history and not enough geography, America has had relatively little history and plenty of geography.3 America happens to have been the last large, resource-rich part of the temperate zone uninhabited at the dawn of the European Enlightenment. In the sixteenth century, when 100 million people lived in Europe, the area of the current United States was empty except for a few million natives living in scattered settlements. On this exceptionally rich and unexploited landmass, with good soil and an abundance of minerals, some of the most ambitious Europeans reinvented themselves.4
Indeed, no continent has been as well suited to nation building as the temperate zone of North America. The Appalachians had provided a western boundary for a nascent community of states through the end of the eighteenth century, but river valleys cutting through these mountains, such as those of the Mohawk and the Ohio, later allowed for penetration of the West by settlers. Beyond the Appalachians the settlers found a flat panel of rich farmland without geographical impediments where, in the nineteenth century, wealth could be created and human differences could be ground down to form a distinctive American culture. By the time westering pioneers reached a truly daunting barrier-the Great American Desert, both east and west of the Rocky Mountains-the transcontinental railroad was at hand.
According to the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, at the turn of the twentieth century the western frontier-and free land in particular-was the guarantor of American democracy, since each westward migration produced an encounter with a new landscape that allowed the settlers to re-create local government, as continual economic opportunity drew newcomers. And because taming the land was an eminently practical task, ideology had a marginal effect on this emerging American life, compared to that of Europe. When the last interior tracts of the western frontier closed in the 1890s with the settling of Oklahoma and the Dakotas, Turner told a July 1893 Chicago symposium that there was nothing left to ensure America's dynamism.5
Turner's warning about decline was premature. Much frontier land remained cheap and underdeveloped, even if it had already been officially "settled." Through most of the twentieth century, oceanic distances were formidable enough to secure America's virtual monopoly over its large internal market in an age of industrial expansion and economies of scale. Oceans also protected the United States from the devastations of the First and Second World Wars, giving us a relative advantage over Europe and Asia that allowed for the "American Century." Our protected landmass with its abundance of natural resources was an ideal setting for the Industrial Age, whose passing has only recently begun. From the end of the Civil War to 1973, the U.S. economy, largely insulated from foreign competition, grew at an average rate of 3.4 percent annually, excluding inflation. The real wage nearly doubled from one generation to the next, so that the American Dream in these years came true and optimism was the official American religion.6
But now we face the loss of the protection that geography once provided. Because the United States has been so overwhelmingly a creature of geography, in the twenty-first century shrinking distances will affect us more than they will our competitors, whose economic development never depended on continental isolation. The region near Fort Leavenworth showed me how the vast stretches of land within our continent could become liabilities.
The town of Leavenworth, the oldest in Kansas, is, like the fort, a museum piece. Influenced by an elite military institution, the town, with a population of 36,000, is harmoniously multiracial to a degree that few other places in the country are. A town council member I met told me happily that Leavenworth is "twenty years behind the curve in social change." Here is an older America of low brick buildings and sidewalks, and a succession of streets named for Native American tribes with which the army negotiated treaties: Cheyenne, Pawnee, Seneca, Dakota. But whereas thirty years ago, Leavenworth boasted a hundred mom-and-pop stores, the downtown is now failing, a victim of chain stores and the regional shopping mall. Crime, too, has risen: in the early 1990s the town saw a spate of murders.
Mention Leavenworth and people think of a prison. The silver-domed federal penitentiary, with its white Doric pillars and large American flag near the Missouri River, is a building straight out of Washington, D.C. That is fitting, since prisons may define us to future generations, including archaeologists, as much as the buildings on the Capitol Mall. "Prisons are good business," a member of the Leavenworth city council told me. "They bring jobs, increase your tax base, and cause no pollution or traffic jams. There are no layoffs in the prison sector. It's a growth industry."
But as I drove beyond the town of Leavenworth, the deeper story emerged. Kansas City, Missouri, like other Americans metropolises, is slowly separating out into economic and racial enclaves that have little in common with one another even as some of these enclaves become increasingly like those in Asia and Europe. A new Kansas City is growing up to the west of the old one, around Overland Park and nearby towns in Johnson County, Kansas, a booming, predominantly white, high-income and high-technology area. While Johnson County's population grew by more than 15 percent from 1990 through 1996, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of Kansas City itself-which dropped in the 1980s by 7 percent on the Kansas side and by 3 percent on the Missouri side-has not grown as much. Johnson County, in turn, is forming a cultural community with up-and-coming Lawrence, forty minutes further to the west, the site of the University of Kansas. Lawrence's main street features a succession of fashionable apparel stores. This new Kansas City region, with its cappuccinos, French pastries, and designer seafood in the midst of the formerly beef-eating prairie, where European-designed fashions manufactured in Asia are readily available, is yet another globalized settlement. One night I had dinner with two military historians from Fort Leavenworth at Yayas, a "Eurobistro" in Overland Park that offered nineteen kinds of single-malt whiskey and a "continental cuisine . . . embraced as an art form," one of many such restaurants within the mallscape.
3 Daniel Boorstin and Aldous Huxley have also made this observation.
4 In his book on the origin of cultures, Columbia University anthropologist Marvin Harris notes,
"The American colonial experience was an anomaly. The Americans took over a continent where no dense population previously existed. Even a bronze age people would have been able to eke out a hundred years of rising living standards from a wilderness so richly endowed with soils, forests, and minerals."
5 See H. W. Brands, The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s, for a fine account of Turner and his thesis, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History."
6 See Jeffrey Madrick, The End of Affluence: The Causes and Consequences of America's Economic Decline.
True, the style is at the same time distinctively midwestern: big smiles, free drinks while you wait for a table, huge portions, a lack of subtlety in the interior design of new buildings and in clothing combinations. But such localisms are increasingly elusive, harder than ever to tease out of the people and places I saw in the vicinity of Fort Leavenworth. What was easier to notice was the growing similarity between this new Kansas City region and upstart Asian cities I had visited that have unapologetically embraced global materialism. If the comparison seems a bit forced, it will seem less so as the years and decades roll on.
America's geographical advantage-the vast empty tracts beyond the older suburbs with their low real estate values, especially compared to those of Europe and East Asia-allows the middle class to move further and further away from the disruptive poor and thus avoid, among other things, local taxes for social programs that may-or may not-work. For the citizens of the new Kansas City region, the traditional social contract that binds all citizens to the common good is gradually becoming an impediment to participation in the emerging global economy. The coming medievalization of the continent that I sensed in the western extension of Kansas City and in similar urban pods I would later visit brought to mind the period before the birth of the United States, when the land was peopled by isolated communities of Pilgrims, Spanish settlers, and Native Americans.
The same spirit of individualism that helped build the nation may henceforth deconstruct it, as new worldwide settlement patterns link similar communities by new computerized technologies and air travel while traditional states defined simply by geography wither. Nineteenth-century "print capitalism," with its local newspapers and manufacturing centers, once formed the basis of our nationhood. But in a computer-driven, knowledge-based world economy, educated Americans may have more in common with (and, ultimately, more loyalty to) their highly educated friends and counterparts in Europe, Latin America, and Asia than they do with less educated fellow Americans a few miles away. Such public infrastructure as airports and roads will still have to be built and maintained, if only to link places such as Johnson County and Lawrence; but in the future this might be done by private capital, both domestic and foreign, whatever "foreign" might eventually mean-perhaps no more than a fading memory of a time when cultures (and nations) were still distinct and colorful, as on today's map, rather than the free-floating aggregations they will have become at the upper end of the world economic spectrum and the unpromising sludge they will have become at the bottom.
As I traveled from one prairie enclave to another, I wondered if traditional patriotism may become a waning formality, as Earth Day becomes more significant for wealthier and more sophisticated citizens than Independence Day. (The Pledge of Allegiance may ultimately become a caricature of itself, as it already is among certain militia groups.) Perhaps one day the officers at Fort Leavenworth may sit around their wooden conference tables, as Nathanael Greene, Douglas MacArthur, and other ancient warriors look down from the walls, and argue about what-and whom-they are supposed to defend.
Jacksonian democracy, the Civil War, progressivism, and the New Deal were times in which America restructured itself. But as American society becomes more complex, more implicated in other societies, the odds for future reinventions of the nation-state get longer, especially as an aging population puts additional pressure on traditional institutions. By 2025, America's population will be as old as Florida's is now: one in five persons will be over sixty-five. By 2040, the number of Social Security beneficiaries will double.7 While more than half of all Americans are now over forty, nearly half of Mexico's population is fifteen years old or younger, just as half the population of many places in Latin America and Asia is under age twenty-five. Large-scale immigration may have to continue if for no other reason than to provide an army of younger workers to support America's retirees.
Thus a vibrant America in the twenty-first century may become an America of "rooted cosmopolitans," reinventing itself in a larger world by becoming history's first international nation (and the home of a value-driven international constabulary hunting down war criminals, plutonium terrorists, and so on) where the best and the brightest of Mexico and the other continents come to live and pay taxes, if only for six or eight months a year.8 The great historian Edward Gibbon believed that a decentralized, pluralistic society with a highly mobile citizenry might survive forever. The periodic reductions in military expenditures after each war are an example of how America renews itself by deliberately weakening the center in order to remain vibrant at the edges-as opposed to the Oriental and late-Roman models, characterized by despotism at the center and weakness at the extremities.
Matt Nowak is Fort Leavenworth's forester. "America is soil, geology, ecosystem. I teach the military, literally, what it is supposed to defend," he told me, holding in his hand a clump of loess (loamy soil kept in place since the last ice age by prairie grass) and pointing out some old-growth pecan trees that have lined the Missouri River since before the Lewis and Clark expedition. The nineteenth-century New England poet William Cullen Bryant wrote that "prairie"-suggestive as it is of an "encircling vastness," with that long, drawn-out first syllable-is a quintessential American word (albeit of French derivation) "for which the speech of England has no name."9 More important, for Bryant it is a "vastness" signifying "union." Walking with Nowak, amid fields of tall grass, ragweed, and sunflowers, along the great curve of the river near the fort, lined by sycamores and cottonwoods, I wondered what, precisely, the sound of that word will signify for future inhabitants of the continent.
Will the prairie continue to signify "union"? Will the memorial chapel at Fort Leavenworth stir a future American traveler as it did me, the son of a World War II veteran for whom that receding Homeric age and the Cold War that followed are living history? Or will such a traveler see the chapel merely as an interesting archaeological site, the relic of a civilization whose passions-like those of Greece or Rome-can be studied, but never again be felt? How much longer, I wondered, will the patriotic marches of John Philip Sousa move America's inhabitants?
Europeans, with their intimate experience of occupation, annihilation, and the passing of one political order after another-monarchy, fascism, communism-know intuitively about historical change. They know how frighteningly adaptive human behavior can be and how some of a society's most cherished assumptions can shift-cruelly, if necessary-to accommodate new circumstances. They know that no society is permanent and, as D. H. Lawrence put it, that "Men live by lies."
Americans, however, because we have had no experience of violent upheaval since the Civil War, lack awareness of historic mutation and thus more easily imagine the future with optimism: a stable future of even greater wealth and, perhaps, even more fairness within a permanent nation. History shows that such permanence is most unlikely.
Racial divisions are greater in America than in most other democracies, and class divisions may also harden as such equalizing experiences as the settling of the West and the military draft fall behind us and private education continues to increase.10 Meanwhile, such issues as race and class suggest that perhaps one of the greatest agents of change may be the northward migration from Mexico, which bears with it the cultural patterns of an Old World society as intractable as Egypt's or China's and influences us not only through its people, but also through drugs.
Such were the preconceptions I formed at Fort Leavenworth, which supplied my journey with a purpose. My aim in traveling through North America was to stimulate my thinking about the future, which is what travel has always been about for me. My routes often lacked geographical logic. Unlike my travels through Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, I followed no river, mountain range, or compass direction. Nor is the ensuing account of my travels always given in the order in which I made them. What follows is more the story of an idea as it emerged.
7 Figures from Peter G. Peterson, "Will America Grow Up Before It Grows Old?"
8 The term "rooted cosmopolitanism" was coined by Dissent editor Mitchell Cohen. The concept is partially influenced by the writings of Randolph Bourne.
9 See Bryant's poem "The Prairies."
10 See Amitai Etzioni, The Community of Communities.
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A tour de force. The finest foreign correspondent of his generation turns his eye and ear to his own country.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Kaplan brings his brilliance in "nose to the ground" journalism by traveling in the USA. I especially liked his observations on how we create artificial borders that do not stand the test of time. It is now seen with the influx of the Latinos into their original lands that lie inside the US borders.
Kaplan travels around the western US and Canada attempting to evoke North America's near future from the land, the people, and the social conditions that he encounters.
I found this book to be so very interesting. Amazing how one person can have the depth of knowledge about so many different subjects. A keeper for my library.
I read this book for my Pacific Northwest History class. Let me be the first to say that this is not what I expected. It gave insights into what might be facing in the coming decades. Kaplan is at the top of his game with this book. This is one of the best books I have read.