Review: Imperial Grunts–The American Military on the Ground (Hardcover)

5 Star, Empire, Sorrows, Hubris, Blowback, Military & Pentagon Power

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Amazon Page

5.0 out of 5 stars Admiring of Grunts, Deep Between the Lines Slam on Washington,

October 3, 2005
Robert D. Kaplan
Most important in this book is Kaplan’s documentation of the fact that transformation of the U.S. military is NOT taking place–Washington is still enamored of multiple layers of rank heavy bureaucracy, the insertion of very large cumbersome task forces in to every clime and place; an over-emphasis on technology; and a lack of appreciation for the urgency of providing security, food, water, and electricity IMMEDIATELY so as to start the cycle of counter-insurgency information collection from volunteers. The author is brutal in his indictment of the bureaucracy for failing to provide the linguistic skills, four years after 9/11, that are far more important to transformation than any weapons system. He is also brutal on the delays in approving operations in the field that are associated with layered bureaucracies that come with joint task forces, and completely detrimental to fast moving tactical success at the A Team level.

Key here is the conclusion that American power can only be exercised in a sustained way through discreet relationships at every level from neighborhood and village on up to provinces and tribes. The emphasis here is on discreet, humanitarian, tangible goods and services including security. When America introduces major forces, it spikes resistance and delays the achievement of its very objective. What jumps out is the need to change how the US achieves its presence around the world. The author recommends a change in the State Department model of embassies focused on countries–State tends to be co-opted country by country and loses sight–if it ever had it–of regional or tribal nuances. The author also recommends a sustained peaceful presence at the provincial and village level around the world, through a combination of modern civil affairs and humanitarian assistance cadres and retired military given leave to choose a place they get to know and stay there to finish out their careers and then be “on tap” for retired reserve plus up.

A third theme in this book, one that Ralph Peters also makes in “NEW GLORY,” is that a lot of these countries are NOT countries and should not be countries. Many borders imposed by colonialism are simply lunatic when taking into account historical and geographic and related ethnic realities. It *makes sense* to have regional summits that re-locate borders in a manner that respects historical, geographical and cultural realities, and to do so with a massive Berlin Airlift/Marshall Plan application of the benefits of peace. Ceding southernmost Thailand and the insurgent southern part of the Philippines to Malaysia, and establishing an Indonesian-Malaysian Muslim Crescent, makes sense. Similarly, in Africa and in the Middle East, there is good that could come of a deliberate recalculation of borders.

A fourth theme, and I share his admiring view of Special Operations and the Marine Corps, is that of the separation of the military ethos of service and dedication to mission, from that of the Nation at large, where Tom Friedman in “The World is Flat” declares that we are suffering from a new generation that is, in a word, apathetic. We need to return to universal service, with options for serving in the Peace Corps or the local constabulary at home. America has lost its civic integrity.

A fifth theme, one that corrected a misimpression I have shared, was of the rather special nature of the National Guard elements of the U.S. Special Forces and the Army civil affairs teams. They come out in this book as being among the best of the best.

Sixth, I found the author’s field appreciation of citizen militia in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, and elsewhere to be quite illuminating. Washington is wrong to rush the transition to a centralized Army in places where tribes and militia still hold sway and can be used to provide provincial stability. We ignore the possibilities of unconventional indigenous forces at our peril.

Seventh, as on page 230, the author highlight those occasions when our unconventional warriors point out that Toyotas are better than Humvees, commercial cell phones are better than military communications alternatives. Across the book, a few good men and women with independent authority and cash resources to do instant compensation and instant aid authorization come across as vastly superior to Washington-style contracting and major joint force insertions.

Eighth, throughout the book, force protection mania is killing us and gutting our counter-insurgency potential. This comes out especially strongly in Colombia, where A Teams are forbidden to go tactical with the forces they are training, and are limited to training within safe encampments only. Force protection is a modern variation of the Soldier’s Load-we are so nuts about force protection and heavying up that we are shackling our troops and our small unit leaders and completely avoiding the military value of “fast and furious.”

Ninth, national and military intelligence are not meeting needs of front-line grunts. Bottom-up intelligence collection, including passive collection from observant civil affairs teams and foot patrols, is what is really working. We appear to need a whole new concept of operations and a whole new doctrine for field intelligence, one that floods areas with non-official cover and overt personnel, one that puts analyst and translators heavy-up into the front lines.

Sidenotes include great admiration for SOUTHCOM, accustomed as it is to getting along with the short end of the stick; and derision for PACOM, “twenty years behind the times, afraid of messy little wars and of a transparent humanitarian role for SF.” The author regards the Global War on Terror (GWOT) as a convenient “set up” for a future war with China, not something I agree with but evidently a perception within the military that has specific outcomes from day to day. Other side notes include a brutal indictment throughout of “Big Army” and also of the US Air Force which is obsessing on more super-bombers and unwilling to fund what really works well, long-haul transports, AC-130 gunships (Puff the Magic Dragon), and more air controllers in the field with the grunts.

Super book! NOTE: I have the sense that some in the SF community have taken an intense dislike to Kaplan, and vote against the review as a way of voting against Kaplan. Fair enough, but for what it’s worth, the review is a good summary intended to be helpful to all in appreciating what I take to be some pretty useful themes.

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