Absorbing continuation of Imperial Grunts (2005), with journalist Kaplan visiting American military forces in another dozen nations as they work to spread the influence of the world’s leading imperial power—a phrase that he insists describes us just as it once did Britain and Rome.
A long chapter follows regular army units patrolling relatively pacified areas in Iraq during 2005. These soldiers embrace “winning hearts and minds” without cynicism, but Kaplan makes it clear they have a crushing task. Surprisingly sophisticated mid-level officers explain that, despite their superior’s proclamations, poor people yearn for security (honest police, a minimum of criminals) more than free elections; then they want work. Most Iraqi insurgents are not religious fanatics but unemployed young men. Fixing this requires patience and money—more of both, Kaplan concludes sadly, than Americans will tolerate. While Imperial Grunts featured army and marine units, this book adds our Air Force and Navy, dazzling high-tech services but run by the same down-to-earth men and women with the same goals: assisting friendly governments, training military forces, providing humanitarian relief and fighting terrorism (a broad term that may include less-friendly political opposition, breakaway insurgents and uncooperative tribes). The chapters on sailors and airmen are less successful; these fighters rarely interact with other nationals, and their consequently simpler views of America’s virtues will make some readers squirm. Sensibly, Kaplan writes mostly on the minutiae of operating extraordinarily complex war machines: nuclear submarines, guided missile destroyers, spy planes. His subjects seem overwhelmingly right-wing and Republican, but units working on foreign soil show a gratifying tolerance as well as a commonsense view of what these nations need that contradicts our leaders’ platitudes about spreading democracy.
A relentlessly admiring portrait of our armed services, but without the traditional overlay of patriotic homilies.