Global Policy Forum

In Harm's Way


By Phillip Carter*

New York Times
September 30, 2007

It's hard not to like soldiers. The young men and women who make up our armed forces represent virtues we'd like to see more of in society: integrity, selfless service and loyalty to comrades and country, among others. Spend enough time with them, particularly those serving in harm's way, and you will inevitably come home admiring them, and maybe envying them as well.

In his first book on the American military, "Imperial Grunts," Robert D. Kaplan focused on Army Special Forces teams and Marine units engaged in unconventional wars around the world, from Fallujah to the Philippines. His reporting conveyed an awe for the men and women he accompanied, with Kaplan suggesting that they could function as both diplomats and fighters, the vanguard of the American empire. Kaplan continues this love affair with his new book, "Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground" - colorful dispatches from the lesser publicized parts of the global war on terrorism. Kaplan sails across the Pacific on a Navy destroyer, flies to Thailand with an Air Force bomber unit for a joint exercise and sweats in the mountains of Central Asia with a team training a battalion of Nepalese Army Rangers.

Kaplan consciously strives to emulate famed war correspondents like Ernie Pyle and Richard Tregaskis, men who wrote with the pronouns "we" and "our" to signify their emotional bond with the troops they covered. Kaplan likes to give short portraits (like that for Capt. David Boone, "an intense, dark-haired and boyish-looking naval officer"), in the style of an old-fashioned combat correspondent. He also peppers his stories with brief asides about military details, like the fact that the U.S.S. Benfold, on which he sails, was named for the Navy medic Edward Benfold of Audubon, N.J., killed during the Korean War and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. But Kaplan doesn't just admire the troops, he also praises their missions. Through their exploits, he forms a vision of how the American empire might preserve itself: as an international network of military power tied together by small foreign bases, global air and sea capabilities, personal relationships with foreign governments and American warriors willing to fight.

Take, for instance, the "cooperative security location" used by the American military in Utapao, Thailand. Kaplan finds a United States base there that is not a United States base, but rather a small airfield run by Dan Generette, a private contractor and the chief operating officer of Delta Golf Global. A retired Air Force master sergeant, Generette acts as logistical manager, diplomat and local fixer for the American units that pass though, facilitating every aspect of their stay. "Look, this place ain't Kansas. When a crew of young American airmen arrive, they don't know anything," Generette tells Kaplan, adding that the Thais would "rather deal with me than with some loud and upset ugly American running around their base complaining. I know the culture, the language. I'm kind and pleasant."

Arrangements like Generette's in Utapao, and another on the small island of Mactan in the Philippines, Kaplan writes, enable the American military to operate abroad with a low profile, without formal alliances or status-of-forces agreements and with little friction. In these, Kaplan sees how the American empire might look in the 21st century - featuring a light American footprint, and military forces that take pains to avoid offending local sensibilities while still contributing to their security. This model carries some promise but also considerable risk, for it neglects the traditional diplomacy and international institutions that framed America's superpower status during the 20th century.

"Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts" also offers an intimate glimpse inside many kinds of American military units, each with its own culture. Kaplan spends enough time with these men (most of the units he writes about are elite ones that remain closed to women) to pick up the subtle implications of their actions, like the way an Army Special Forces team intentionally lives in one overcrowded tent instead of several smaller ones as a way of maintaining its cohesion. The marines he accompanies in sub-Saharan Africa represent the most conventional of the units he travels with: young, testosterone-filled men who love their country and have no compunction about fighting for it. "A marine," one sergeant tells Kaplan, "is only happy when he's fighting, humping with his backpack or on liberty - spending time with his girlfriend or working under his car." At the other extreme, he writes of the anal-retentive "geeks with tattoos" who serve in the Navy's submarine service, junior sailors and officers with advanced technical degrees in nuclear engineering living for weeks at a time under the ocean's surface.

What unites all these troops is a common faith, Kaplan writes - a belief in their unit, their cause and the moral justness of their mission. Paradoxically, that faith is mirrored in some of America's enemies, like the Maoist guerrillas in Nepal who are fortified by their own "mystic dimension of service and the sanctity of an oath," and quite willing to die for their cause. In many places Kaplan finds this fighting faith deeply rooted in the martial spirit of the military, an ethos of the American South inextricably intertwined with Christianity - though he rightly points out that America's military faith is more secular and conservative than evangelical. Still, he notes the absence of this faith among the country's elites, particularly its intellectual elites, and argues that this undermines our ability to persevere in places like Iraq and Afghanistan: "No matter how much the combat arms community of the American military with its warrior ethos believed in its worldwide mission, the American governing class, unlike that of 19th- and early-20th-century Europe, had less stomach for it."

Kaplan's picture contains a great deal of truth. Fewer than 1 percent of Americans serve in uniform today. The military's officer and senior enlisted ranks make up a self-selecting, self-reproducing warrior caste that increasingly is socially, geographically and politically insulated from the nation it serves. Occasionally, Kaplan's reporting lapses into unabashed cheerleading, obscuring the problems with the military's missions or strategies. Nonetheless, his book offers a valuable bridge across the country's widening civil-military divide. It is an important contribution to our understanding of how this military works in the 21st century.

About the Author: Phillip Carter, an Iraq veteran and lawyer, is writing a book about America's relationship with its military.

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