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Euphorias of Perrier: The Case Against Robert D. Kaplan

ISSUE:  Summer 2006
[A]n embattled democracy . . . soon becomes the victim of its own war propaganda. It then tends to attach to its own cause an absolute value which distorts its own vision on everything else. Its enemy becomes the embodiment of all evil. Its own side, on the other hand, is the center of all virtue.
George F. Kennan, Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin

book cover Throughout his long career Robert D. Kaplan has consistently benefited from the fact that no one has any idea what, exactly, he is. A humble travel writer? A popular historian? A panjandrum analyst of developing-world politics and personalities? The 2001 reissue of Kaplan’s Soldiers of God: With Islamic Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan (1990) tried to settle the matter. The back-cover copy refers to Kaplan, pretty much definitively, as a “world affairs expert.” Kaplan’s prolific writing would appear to bear out such stature. The subtitles of his eleven books mention twenty countries or regions. The Mediterranean? Check. Kaplan has even lived there. Central Asia? Too late. Kaplan covered it. Southeast Asia? Nope. Annexed by Kaplan. North Africa? Kaplan. West Africa? Sorry. South America? What do you think?

During his often brave and occasionally astounding career of peregrination, Kaplan has earned an influential readership. Not many authors can expect blurbs from senators, former Department of Defense secretaries, the Director of Central Intelligence, or Tom Brokaw, but Kaplan can. Despite (or perhaps because of) Kaplan’s polarizing worldview, he has been embraced by the administrations of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and to American civilian readers he has become one of the most prominent lay voices on issues surrounding American foreign policy. Of late, however, there have been alarming indications that Kaplan has undergone some sort of imploded political transformation. His books have grown more vague but also more strident; angrier, but also more complacent. He has, in short, begun to write like a man who knows his audience, with a correspondingly fatal confidence that his words will be contemplated in high governmental and military aeries indeed.

To be sure, there has been previous unrest in Kaplanistan. In 2000, the historian Robert Kagan noted Kaplan’s “cheap pessimism,” his indifference “as to whether societies are governed democratically or tyrannically,” and his “weak” grip on history: “Just about every historical event or political philosopher he discusses he gets at least half-wrong.” In 1993, the Balkans expert Noel Malcolm gutted Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts for its many errors of fact and judgment; Kaplan’s hapless response earned this rejoinder from Malcolm: “The basic problem, I think, is that Mr. Kaplan cannot read.” Kaplan’s new book, Imperial Grunts, in which one cannot be sure whether the latter word is a noun or a verb, has unleashed a new offensive. Writing in The New Republic, David Rieff takes Kaplan to task for his “boneheaded nonsense.” In the New York Times Book Review, David Lipsky laments that Kaplan “appears to have become someone who is too fond of war.” But these traits have been visible in Kaplan since his first book, as has his love of intellectual shortcuts and invincible humorlessness. Kaplan’s real and growingly evident problem is not his Parkinson’s grip on history, or that he is a bonehead or a warmonger, but rather that he is an incompetent thinker and a miserable writer.

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Kaplan came to my attention while I was researching my first book, an account of my travels in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, in 2001. I believed then and believe now that the travel genre has much to answer for. Travel writers are seldom scholars. They are, by inclination if not definition, transients and dilettantes. All that can save the travel writer and redeem his or her often inexpert perceptions of foreign people and places is curiosity, a willingness to be uncertain, an essential emotional generosity, and an ability to write. Even travel writers well equipped in all of the above are inevitably attacked for missing the point, getting all manner of things wrong, and generally mucking about in questions of history and scholarship to which—when compared to experts—they have only lightly exposed themselves. This does not mean the travel writer is incapable of insight, to say nothing of entertainment, and in some cases the travel writer’s fresh-eyed unfamiliarity with a place can be made a virtue. As Lord Palmerston once said, “When I wish to be misinformed about a country, I ask the man who has lived there thirty years.”

book cover While reading up on the available English-language literature concerning Central Asia, I came across Kaplan’s The Ends of the Earth: A Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy (1996), which features a long section on Uzbekistan. Until Kaplan reaches the Uzbek capital, I read The Ends of the Earth more or less attentively. While Kaplan’s prose was usually peahen drab and his use of illustrative detail unimaginative, the man was certainly intrepid. He wanders from Sierra Leone to Iran to Cambodia, all the while splattering the reader with regurgitations of various scholarly research: where the word Turk comes from, a pocket history of the Iranian city of Qom, the “deceptive” nature of the term Indochina. I did not mind Kaplan’s cribs; I have done the same, as has every travel writer. Kaplan’s tone, however, often troubled me. The disintegrating, anarchic world he conjures in The Ends of the Earth is irradiated with tribalism, fanaticism, and stupidity. Since I had no firsthand experience with the places Kaplan was writing about, I swallowed his essential points even as I grimaced at the castor-oil hectoring that accompanied them.

Then Kaplan arrives in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, a city filled with what he calls “the most hideous and alienating example of Soviet design I had seen. It cried out, We crush the weak.” I actually find Tashkent lovely. But, I supposed, there was no accounting for taste. Once ensconced in Tashkent, Kaplan regards a Russian-Uzbek marriage he encounters there as “potentially dangerous.” His visit took place in 1994, only three years after the Soviet collapse. My first visit to Tashkent was in 1996, and Russian-Uzbek intermarriage, at least in Uzbekistan’s cities, was common enough, though perhaps in 1994 these issues were still smoldering. He then moves on to Samarkand, the noblest and most famous city in Central Asia. The bus ride from Tashkent to Samarkand provides some spectacularly rocky and mountainous scenery, but somehow Kaplan notices only “high weeds” and an “achingly flat, monochrome landscape.” Once he reaches Samarkand he remarks on the “battered automobiles, and people in unsightly polyester clothing.” Battered automobiles? Most of Uzbekistan’s people are poor, and this seemed needlessly petty. As for people’s clothing, I have never found Uzbekistan’s city-dwellers to be anything but maniacally fastidious about their appearance. (Shoeshining is practically the Uzbek national pastime.) He gets wrong the 1994 exchange rate of the Uzbek currency by a factor of 100. He visits Guri Amir, the tomb of the fourteenth-century despot Tamerlane, which he spells “Gul Emir.” He says the word uzbek means “independent” or “free.” That is wrong. His translator, Ulug Beg, a young Uzbek, claims to be “ashamed” in Samarkand because it has so many Tajiks. “How can I like them?” Ulug Beg asks Kaplan of the Tajiks. “We must settle Uzbeks here. We must settle many, many Uzbeks in Samarkand.” Problem: Samarkand, though a Tajik-majority city, has many, many Uzbeks. He writes that Samarkand is a “would-be Bangkok,” with its “army of whores.” I asked a friend who lived in Samarkand for years if that description at all rang true to him. My friend was still laughing when I hung up the phone. When Ulug Beg slurps as he eats Kaplan calls him “crude” and wonders if Ulug Beg’s manners might be explained this way: “Could these be pre-Byzantine Turks? Could this be what Turks might have been somewhat like before the great Seljuk and Osmanli migrations to Anatolia”? The Seljuks migrated to Anatolia around 900 years ago. That Kaplan does not understand how offensive such eugenic explanations are for one young man’s eating habits is appalling. That he does not recognize the basic implausibility of such an explanation is beyond reason.

Kaplan’s big thesis in The Ends of the Earth is that “ethno-cultural tensions” are leading to a world in which “national borders will mean less, while political power falls increasingly into the hands of less educated, less sophisticated groups,” in whose dim minds “the real borders are the most tangible and intractable ones: those of culture and tribe.” Like every nation, Uzbekistan has its “ethno-cultural tensions.” But a race riot here or there, especially in a nation faced with Uzbekistan’s crushing Soviet legacy, is hardly indicative of a globe trending toward disaster. Kaplan claims to give us the gristly stuff of what he calls “tragic realism,” to show us how the world works, and how it will likely fracture. Was it thus a coincidence or something far uglier that the Uzbekistan Kaplan describes is unrecognizable to me but happens to align perfectly with his grand thesis?

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How to deal with this fractious world is Kaplan’s great question. Some years ago, he has written, after a conference where “intellectuals held forth about the moral responsibility of the United States in the Balkans,” he took a cab back to the airport and was asked by the cabbie, “If there’s no oil there, what’s in it for us?” This was, Kaplan says, “a question none of the intellectuals had answered.” And shame on them, because “thousands of words and a shelf of books in recent years about our moral interest in the region do not add up to one sentence of national interest. . . . It is only from bottom-line summaries that clear-cut policy emerges, not from academic deconstruction.” Kaplan once believed that something called “amoral self-interest” should be the defining aspect of American foreign policy. His hope for the Clinton administration was that it could “condense” a justification for Balkan intervention “into folksy shorthand,” because “speaking and writing for an elite audience is not enough.” Robert D. Kaplan, meet George W. Bush. The writer who could once argue that “the world is too vast and its problems too complicated for it to be stabilized by American authority,” has found his leader in a man who in the 2000 presidential debates proclaimed that the job of the military was “to fight and win war,” not toil as “nation builders.” Kaplan is said to have briefed President Bush in 2001, and today finds these protean gentlemen in a surlier and far more interventionist mood. They have fused an apparent personal fondness for strutting machismo with a fetishized idea of simplicity’s value. Both have willed into unsteady reality extremely forced senses of personal identification with the common American, whose drooling need for that which is clear and cut trumps all other moral and political considerations. Bush has gone from an isolationist to an interventionist minus the crucial intermediary stage wherein he actually became interested in other places. Kaplan has traveled from the belief that America should only “insert troops where overwhelming moral considerations crosshatch with strategic ones” to arguing that “September 11 had given the U.S. military the justification to go out scouting for trouble, and at the same time to do some good,” seemingly without understanding that he has even changed. Doubtless both men would sit any skeptic down and soberly explain that September 11 changed everything. What September 11 changed, however, was not the world itself but their understanding of America’s role in the world. For President Bush and Robert D. Kaplan, September 11 primarily means never having to say you’re sorry.

Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote that war is the extension of politics by other means. Bush and Kaplan, on the other hand, appear to advocate war as cultural politics by other means. This has resulted in a collision of second-rate minds with third-rate policies. While one man attempts to make the world as simple as he is able to comprehend it, the other whispers in his various adjutants’ ears that they are on the side of History itself.

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book cover In Mediterranean Winter: The Pleasures of History and Landscape in Tunisia, Sicily, Dalmatia, and Greece (2004), we learn a bit about Kaplan’s background. He began his career as a small-town newspaper journalist in Vermont, then attempted to get a job with “wire services, the television networks, and over a dozen large metropolitan newspapers.” Because of his “forgettable” résumé and education at a “non-prestigious college,” Kaplan believes, he was unable to find work. So he went traveling. A graceful man might recount his early, humbling attempts to become a writer with, well, grace. Kaplan, however, has hewn from this block of youthfully ordinary frustration a chip he has spot-welded to his shoulder: “Like so many other free-lance journalists I would meet over the years, I was never to enjoy the social and professional status—or the generous travel budgets—of foreign correspondents for major media organizations.” Never? This man has written for the Atlantic Monthly for twenty years. His books have been bestsellers. He has briefed two American presidents. It is either comical or pathetic or both that a writer so disdainful of “elites” and their fancy educations can write, “Just as military officers who have known war first-hand can grasp more fully the meaning of Thucydides, only after I married and had a family would I grasp what Virgil, Homer, Tennyson, and others meant by the hardship of travel.” The classics, that most elite form of moral instruction, are for Kaplan a Casaubonian key to experiential enlightenment.

In all of his books, but especially in Mediterranean Winter, Kaplan is incapable of making a point about the past without pointing a finger at the present. To wit: “Carthage’s defeat in the First Punic War—like Germany’s in World War I—led to anarchy at home.” But how is the 2,200-year-old First Punic War at all otherwise comparable to Weimar Germany? (In another book he again rolls out this hot rod, slightly modulated, and writes how the Second Punic War has “many resemblances to World War II that seems to warn against the hubris of our own era.” Well, they both have a two.) He also connects, preposterously, a fourth-century B.C.E. Athenian invasion of Sicily with “President Lyndon Johnson dispatching half a million American troops to South Vietnam.” Of course he acknowledges the differences, but they “seemed less interesting than the similarities.” That is because Kaplan is addicted to similarities and blind to differences. “One can write endlessly about the differences between the first and twenty-first centuries A.D.,” he writes in another book. Yes. One can.

Kaplan’s bibliographies are usually anchored with fiction and poetry, and he can write how an iron balustrade reminds him of a line from Wallace Stevens. All of which makes the damage he has done to literature unforgivable. Kaplan’s “Euphorias of Hatred: The Grim Lessons of a Novel by Gogol,” an introduction to the Modern Library edition of Nikolai Gogol’s short novel Taras Bulba, is a bracing case in point. “The signal error of the American elite after the end of the Cold War,” Kaplan writes, “was its trust in rationalism, which, it was assumed, would eventually propel the world’s peoples toward societies based on individual rights, united by American-style capitalism and technology.” Again, this is by way of introducing a novel by Gogol (1809–1852). “The work has a Kiplingesque gusto, too, that makes it a pleasure to read. . . . We need more works like Taras Bulba, to better understand the emotional wellsprings of the threat we face today in places like the Middle East and Central Asia.”

Taras Bulba is about a few things—the Ukraine in the seventeenth century, the Russian ideal of the romantic, a guy named Taras Bulba—but it cannot, under any reasonably sane reading, be said to warn us about Wahhabism or the Taliban. Late in his life Gogol himself abandoned rationality, burned the second volume of Dead Souls, surrendered to Christian mysticism, and starved himself to death. The original draft of Taras Bulba was written early in Gogol’s career, when he was gleefully strip-mining his exotic Ukrainian homeland to the delight of parochial Moscow’s literary circles, about which Kaplan has exactly zero to say. Kaplan’s take on Taras Bulba is so absurd it is amazing that when his introduction arrived at the Modern Library’s offices, the pages were not locked in a lead-walled time capsule.

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book cover What happened to this man? Kaplan’s early books suggest a clue. His first, Surrender or Starve: Travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea (1988), an account of the famine that devastated Ethiopia in the mid-1980s, is not a bad book. “Drought,” he writes, “according to those first, memorable media reports, was the villain, and if anyone was to blame, it was the overfed West.” In fact, as Kaplan tells it, the famine was a neo-Stalinist device used by Ethiopia’s Marxist and politically powerful Amhara minority against their rebellious, also largely Marxist, and more numerous Eritrean and Tigrean fellows. His grief at the major media’s inability to grasp the famine’s classically Soviet character is compelling and convincing, and his account of traveling with the region’s Eritrean rebels is terrific. Even if the Ethiopian famine did not turn out to have the global ramifications Kaplan projected—wherever Kaplan travels, we are assured that whatever is happening there is going to have vast consequences—his attempt from within one of hell’s inner circles to make others take note of the suffering he has witnessed is salutary, and even moving. For once this monopolist of doom was looking around him rather than only forward and back.

Soldiers of God, his next book, concerns Kaplan’s travels with the mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan war. He admits in the foreword to the paperback version that he “was caught up in the struggle to liberate Afghanistan, and my lack of objectivity shows; nor was I fair to some people, or as critical of others, as I should have been.” Actually, Kaplan is fairer and more objective in this book than anywhere else. Nonetheless, he still defends his “brutal, tragic” position that US policy in Afghanistan was morally appropriate: “The United States, in the 1980s, was doing what great powers have done throughout history. . . . A state that neglects the projection of power has little chance of spreading its values.” But surely foresight is called for while the great power in question is spreading its values. American “policy” in Afghanistan consisted mainly of throwing guns and money at whichever nationalist, religious psychopath, or “commander” Pakistan’s secret service put forth as a slayer of Communist infidels. To be sure, the Soviet disaster in Afghanistan was well deserved and did help hasten the collapse of the Soviet regime, but many CIA agents on the ground and even many Afghans warned the State Department that it was financing its own assassins. As is now abundantly clear, the United States’ Afghanistan policy did not spread its values but undermine them.

Nevertheless, Soldiers of God is Kaplan’s most well written book, his most empathetic, and his most humane. An early description of Kaplan’s waltz through a Soviet minefield is a model of descriptive writing. His take on Afghan’s guerrillas, while somewhat naive (as he himself admits), is, all the same, winningly honest: “Sympathizing with guerrilla movements is an occupational hazard of foreign correspondents everywhere, but the Afghans were the first guerrillas whom journalists not only sympathized with but actually looked up to.” The other Kaplan, however, shoulders his way forward from time to time, as when he condemns “the elite establishment media and the new brand of 1980s foreign correspondents who stocked their fridges with Perrier water and talked incessantly of their computer modems.”

In Soldiers of God one finds what is surely a partial source of Kaplan’s later unhingedness: “Away from Pakistan and Afghanistan, I could barely speak about the war. When I told people where I had been, their blank expressions indicated I might as well have been on the moon. Of the few who were truly interested in what I had to say, the retort that often greeted me was: ‘Really? Well then, how come we read so little about it in the newspapers?’” Never again, he surely decided, would people doubt why being concerned with strife in faraway places is important. Kaplan would make it important, even if that meant being disingenuous and, indeed, often wrong about the places and conflicts he covered. Even if it meant Balkan Ghosts.

book cover Though widely acclaimed when it was published in 1993, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History (called by Kaplan “an idiosyncratic travel book”) has over the years been savaged by many Balkan experts, and Kaplan himself has been blamed for President Clinton’s hesitancy to intervene against the Serbs’ slaughter of their Bosnian Muslim countrymen. Clinton, according to the political journalist Elizabeth Drew, used Kaplan’s dour, hopeless portrayal of the region to justify American inaction. Kaplan laments this in a new foreword to the most recent paperback edition: “That policy makers, indeed a president, might rely on such a book in reaching a momentous military decision would be frightening, if true. My personal suspicion is that back in 1993, at the beginning of his term, Clinton had so little resolve that he was casting around for any excuse not to act.” This is doubly unfortunate, Kaplan writes, because “I myself have been a hawk on the issue” of intervening militarily in the Balkans.

One can tell the charge has stung him. “Neither Martians nor President Clinton killed Bosnian Muslims,” Kaplan writes. “Other Bosnians did.” This is a perfectly reasonable thing to point out. What is less reasonable is his belief that Bosnians killed Bosnian Muslims because they had been programmed to do so by history and ethnicity. Kaplan can complain about the unwarranted aftereffects of Balkan Ghosts all he wants, but he is the man who salted his book with statements such as, “while the Greeks and the Macedonian Slavs despise each other, as Orthodox Christians they equally despise the Muslim Kosovars.” The metaphysics of what makes people suddenly garrote and rape their neighbors can be debated from now until the end of time, but to generalize so complacently gives hatred a mask that too many can hide behind. In Kaplan’s telling, Balkan mass-murder was inevitable and unsurprising, given the region’s history. One wonders why, then, those who were slaughtered didn’t see it coming and get out. “Nevertheless,” Kaplan writes in Balkan Ghosts’s new foreword, “nothing I write should be taken as a justification, however mild, for the war crimes committed by ethnic Serb troops in Bosnia, which I heartily condemn.” Here is a writer reassuring us that he does not think genocide is justifiable, and that he condemns it. Any book written in a way to require such a statement is on thin moral ice.

Once the book proper begins, Kaplan tells us, “The Balkans produced the century’s first terrorists.” That is pretty definitively untrue, but at any rate terrorism is at least as old as warfare itself—who cares which region introduced it to the twentieth century? “Even the fanaticism of the Iranian clergy has a Balkan precedent.” It also has American, English, Russian, French, and Spanish precedents. “Twentieth-century history came from the Balkans. Here men have been isolated by poverty and ethnic rivalry, dooming them to hate.” In Carinthia, Austria’s southernmost province, Kaplan notes that “a shop sold women’s undergarments from Paris that were as expensive as they were naughty. The perfume worn by the blond shop girl had a sweaty, animal scent.” Could this be a quirk of Kaplan’s inquisitive sniffer? No. You see, “The offspring of the SS have become expensively groomed, performing tigers, safely tucked away in middle-class box houses. . . . Carinthians have become a tamed species.” It takes a special kind of man to waltz into a foreign city, tar the entire populace as recessive Nazis, and then refer to them as animals.

When he reaches Greece, where he lived for several years, Kaplan chides scholars for ignoring “the most recent 2,000 years of Greek history . . . in favor of an idealized version of ancient Greece, a civilization that had already died before Jesus’ birth.” But this is precisely Kaplan’s technique in looking upon the rest of the world: Find one epoch, fixate upon it, project outward in the most intellectually irresponsible method imaginable.

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book cover Some truly nutty books followed Balkan Ghosts, among them Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (2002) and An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America’s Future (1998). What Warrior Politics really gives Kaplan is the chance to show what he and a bunch of geniuses have in common. First, Churchill, whose “unapologetic warmongering arose not from a preference for war, but from a breast-beating Victorian sense of imperial destiny—amplified by what Isaiah Berlin calls a rich historical imagination.” That sort of sounds like someone we know. Onto Livy, whose “factual errors and romantic view of the Roman Republic should not dissuade us from his larger truths.” Sound familiar? Then Hobbes, whose “concepts are difficult to grasp for the urban middle class, who have long since lost any contact with man’s natural state. But however culturally and technologically advanced a society is, it will endure and remain civil only so long as it can in some way imagine man’s original condition.” What original condition might that be—throwing spears at woolly mammoths? Kaplan does not understand man’s original condition any better than this so-called urban middle class, which is just a bit more diverse than Kaplan imagines. Malthus, then, who “was humiliated by the literary elite of the day, including Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley.” Did Malthus go to a “non-prestigious” college too?

Along the way Kaplan writes, “The short, limited wars and rescue operations with which we shall be engaged will . . . feature warriors on one side, motivated by grievance and rapine, and an aristocracy of statesmen, military officers, and technocrats on the other, motivated, one hopes, by ancient virtue.” What ancient virtue is that? Achilles disfiguring Hector? Consulting a haruspex about whether to invade Syria? Using an executioner class of soldiers to slaughter men who have surrendered, as was the rule of ancient warfare?

At the end of the book, he imagines a “nontraditional American-led empire,” which would mean . . . what? “The power of this new imperium will derive from it never having to be declared. . . . Joseph Nye Jr., dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School, speaks of ‘soft’ American hegemony.” But if men are essentially and savagely unchanged, if we need to know about our elusive mammoth-hunting “original state” to understand how craven people are, what possible guarantee is there that this American hegemony will be soft? That Kaplan can quote John Adams saying that “there is no special providence for Americans, and their nature is the same with that of others,” shows something quite distressing: Not even he understands what he writes.

book cover Amazingly, An Empire Wilderness is even worse. This book followed The Ends of the Earth—Kaplan’s account of a world vexed by ethnic tension and unstable governments—and describes his journeys around the American West. What does Kaplan find? Ethnic tension and unstable governments, what he calls the “coming medievalization of the continent.” Renaissance fairs and President E. Gary Gygax? No, he means the “globalized settlement” like the one he finds in Kansas City, with its “cappuccinos, French pastries, and designer seafood in the midst of the formerly beef-eating prairie.” Designer seafood? The prairie itself ate beef? He has dinner at a “Eurobistro,” and wonders “if traditional patriotism may become a waning formality. . . . How much longer, I wondered, will the patriotic marches of John Philip Sousa move America’s inhabitants?”

On he goes, antennae bristling for all indications of the de-Sousafication of the American landmass. In Los Angeles, “The crowd here was young, heavily Oriental, and fiercely middle-class. . . . I sat down at an outdoor Thai-Chinese restaurant for an early dinner. The manager was Japanese, the hostess Iranian, and the other help Mexican immigrants.” He walks into a Chinese grocery and says, “I could have been in Hong Kong or Taiwan.” If he had continued and said, “or in a Chinese grocery in Los Angeles,” he might have been onto something. He goes to Orange County, which he “was prepared to hate,” but his visit to the Fashion Island Mall in Newport Beach leaves him “as impressed as I had been when I had seen the great squares of medieval Bukhara and Samarkand,” and God help him for it. In Orange County, however, he has one big question: “Will this place fight for its country? Are these people loyal to anything except themselves? . . . Rather than citizens, the inhabitants of these prosperous pods are, in truth, resident expatriates, even if they were born in America, with their foreign cuisines, eclectic tastes, exposure to foreign languages, and friends throughout the world.”

He then surveys the Arizona-Mexico border. On the Mexican side are a bunch of Mexicans. On the American side people are speaking Spanish, “but to me they might as well have been speaking English. Whether it was the high quality of their leisure clothes, their purposeful stride—indicating that they were going somewhere, rather than just hanging out—the absence of hand movements when they talked . . . they seemed to me thoroughly modern compared to the Spanish speakers” over in You Know Where. (The italics, I swear, his.)

At a basketball game in Tucson, Kaplan notices that “the entire crowd, as well as every cheerleader, was white, in many cases with honey-blond hair, while almost everyone playing on the court was black. Wasn’t this a bit like ancient Rome, in which the gladiators were often from ‘barbarian,’ that is, subject races?” I recall having a similar realization of this “blunt racial fact,” in Kaplan’s words, at about twelve years of age at the Mecca in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, watching the Bucks lose to the Cavs. I have to admit, though—I never took it this far: “The shrieking blond crowd and the sweating black players may indicate a society’s way of coping with racial tensions rather than dramatizing them.” Or it may indicate Robert D. Kaplan’s racism as he thoughtlessly compares perspiring black Americans to barbarians.

On a Greyhound bus this man who survived Ethiopia and Afghanistan nearly goes to pieces among what he calls the “Greyhound underclass.” They are fat, and loud, and Jesus Christ, can someone shut up those bawling kids? “Can democracy flourish among people like this?” he wonders. When he gets near Canada, he makes a startling discovery: “Canada can’t hold together,” he quotes a former mayor of Missoula, Montana, as saying. Kaplan agrees that things look pretty bleak for Canada, and writes, “So far, most Americans have not thought much about the psychological effect of the peaceful disintegration of an entire Atlantic-to-Pacific middle-class nation on their northern border.” There is at least one obvious reason why they have not much thought about this. In Vancouver, Kaplan writes, “we may be seeing something else, too: the erotization of race.” The reader leans forward; this will surely be priceless. “As another Vancouverite told me, if you walk down the street and look at who’s holding hands with whom, you’ll observe that whites find Asians, particularly Asian women, with their small-boned symmetricality, highly desirable.” I hear they have tiny little snatches, too. “Still,” Kaplan says, “Vancouver has something special, a cohesiveness evinced by the never-empty streets and interracial couples: people would fight for this, I thought.” Great. But are they not Canadian? And isn’t Canada doomed? What if they fight us?

Never fear. Kaplan has found our saviors. They are called the American Military.

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book cover Imperial Grunts, Kaplan’s obligatorily gritty account of life among America’s front-line soldiers in the War on Terror, is the first of what he promises, ominously, will be several books. Kaplan had the full cooperation of the Department of Defense while researching this alpha volume, and despite being treated by the military like “an oddity, a threat, and a VIP all at once,” Kaplan grew close to the soldiers. He tells us how this was possible: “When the battalion found out there would be a journalist among them, there were rude complaints, another fucking left-wing journalist. Then an 18 Delta medic . . . used the NIPRNET to check me out online. He downloaded some of my articles and pronounced me ‘okay’ to the others.”

Kaplan describes receiving a “command briefing” that began with an Orwell quote: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” Imperial Grunts is that peaceable sleep’s lullaby. The book is not merely an account of twenty-first-century soldiering; it is also Kaplan’s attempt to define, defend, and justify American “imperialism.” On this point Grunts is a thesaurus of incoherencies.

“Indeed,” he writes, “by the turn of the twenty-first century the United States military had already appropriated the entire earth, and was ready to flood the most obscure areas of it with troops at a moment’s notice.” To say the least, the notion that the United States effectively rules the planet is an emaciated one. Does Kaplan not remember the endless haggling the United States was forced to do on the eve of the Iraq War to enable its use of other nations’ airfields? Do other nations’ desires and integrity really mean so little to Kaplan? But at the Pentagon, we learn, Kaplan gazed upon a Mercator projection of the US military’s areas of responsibility and saw a planet chopped up into jagged rectangles of command (CENTCOM, EUCOM, PACOM, and so forth). He “stared at it for days on and off, transfixed. How could the US not constitute a global military empire?” But sometimes a map is just a map.

In an interview, Kaplan has said, “our challenges abroad are exactly like those of other empires in history. . . . You don’t like the world ‘imperial’ for America? Tough luck.” Let us repair to the dictionary: Imperialism, according to the good people at Webster’s, is “the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation esp. by direct territorial acquisition or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas.” According to this definition, only Kaplan himself is guilty of imperialism. To be sure, there are certainly imperial aspects to US involvement around the world, but to argue that US goals are “exactly” like those of the Soviets, Persians, French, British, or Spanish is analysis along the lines of History Channel voiceover. Kaplan’s approving seizure of the “imperial” label while knowing full well the term’s historically ugly connotations is quietly embarrassing in the way someone who misuses a widely misunderstood word such as decimate is embarrassing. (Which Kaplan does, incidentally: “Up to 30 percent of the population of Central Asia and adjacent areas was decimated by this Mongol war machine,” which would mean that up to thirty percent of the population was reduced by ten percent.)

So what is Kaplan’s understanding of imperialism? “Imperialism is but a form of isolationism, in which the demand for absolute, undefiled security at home leads one to conquer the world.” Okay. But then: “The grunts I met saw themselves as American nationalists, even if the role they performed was imperial.” Got that? And: “America’s imperial destiny was to grapple with countries that weren’t really countries.” It is? They aren’t? “Imperialism was less about conquest than about the training of local armies.” Oh. “All America could do was insert its armed forces here and there, as unobtrusively as possible, to alleviate perceived threats to its own security when they became particularly acute.” But you just said— “The Americans wanted clean end-states and victory parades. Imperialism, though, is a never-ending involvement.” Before long you’re wondering if taking a good old-fashioned American dump in a US-dug latrine in Yemen is not also “imperialism.”

The ideas in Imperial Grunts are garbage, but the book is often absorbing. Here credit goes to the spectacular locales (Colombia, the Horn of Africa, the Philippines, Mongolia, Afghanistan) Kaplan visits, though they are usually described in incompetent etudes such as, “to the north loomed a Planet of the Apes landscape.” Once he reaches the Philippines, things get interesting. With some Green Berets Kaplan goes to a restaurant, where he describes the local women, whom he calls “girls,” as “typical Filipinas: small-boned, symmetrically featured [again!], and walnut-complexioned beauties, with twangy, mellow Spanish-style voices and subservient oriental manners, a devouring mix of South America and Asia.” But for one Green Beret vanishing “for an hour with a girl into the darkness of the beachfront,” the evening is, Kaplan assures us, “innocent.” US military personnel are forbidden from fraternizing with local people, in my view wisely. Kaplan, though, writes, that this forbiddance was “a shame. . . . Had this been the old Pacific Army, some of these men would have taken some of these girls as mistresses.” And then gotten them pregnant, and left, and reduced them to pariahs within their culture. Soon enough the horny Green Beret returns to their table. “Driving back,” Kaplan writes, “someone joked about smelling his finger to see where it had been.” His inoperable cluelessness is equally apparent at a funeral for a slain soldier in Afghanistan, where Kaplan describes the “thumping, rousing song” that is played: Barry E. Sadler’s Vietnam-era chestnut “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” It is not a thumping, rousing song. It is kitsch as surely as the old Communist sing-along “The Internationale” is kitsch.

The soldiers themselves like the song, however, and that is enough for Kaplan. He goes gaga for nearly every soldier and Marine he meets. (“He seemed to have a somewhat cold and surly nature” is about as negative as Kaplan gets about a soldier. He does note, however, that many soldiers’ inability with foreign languages is “where the American Empire, such as it was, was weakest.” Solution: more imperialism.) The problem with loving every soldier he meets is that the soldiers themselves, in Kaplan’s hands, quickly shed their individuality. The loss of individuality may be the necessary point of military indoctrination, but a writer has no such excuse when writing about them. While Kaplan is always careful to provide us with Stars and Stripes–style enumerations of their ages and hometowns, they are but in a few cases allowed little texture or eccentricity.

Why does Kaplan so adore these rough men? Because they “had amassed so much technical knowledge about so many things at such a young age.” He refers to their “brutal, refreshingly direct” manner. One soldier in the Philippines, Kaplan writes, “made snap cultural judgments of the kind that would burn an academic’s reputation, but which in the field prove right seven out of ten times.” (“The Afghans are just great,” one soldier says. “Yeah,” says another. “They love guns and they love to fight. All they need are trailer parks and beer and they’ll be just like us.” These are presumably the kind of snap cultural judgments that have so far served us so well in the War on Terror.) “Nobody,” Kaplan writes fondly, “is afraid to generalize in the bluntest terms. Thus, conclusions do not become entangled in exquisite subtleties. Intellectuals reward complexity and refinement; the military, simplicity and bottom-line assessments.” But they are scholars, too: one soldier is reading “Cervantes in the early-seventeenth-century original text,” while another is “dipping into the complete works of James Fenimore Cooper.” “Bad things happen in the world,” Kaplan is told by a soldier. “You do the best you can, and let the crybabies write the books.” The soldiers’ and Marines’ various thoughts and feelings, as transcribed by Kaplan, are rarely more complicated than this gunky self-congratulation.

“The American military is a worldwide fraternity,” Kaplan writes, filled with “singular individuals fronting dangerous and stupendous landscapes.” The soldiers “talked in clichés,” he informs us. “It is the emotion and look in their faces—sweaty and gummed with dust—that matters more than the words. After all, a cliché is something that only the elite recognizes as such.” That is surely why, Kaplan says, “these guys like George W. Bush so much. . . . He spoke the way they did, with a lack of nuance, which they found estimable because their own tasks did not require it.” Besides, those cliché-conscious elites are yellow anyway. As one soldier tells Kaplan, “I believe character is more important than education. I have noticed that people who are highly educated and sophisticated do not like to take risks.” Kaplan himself seems to have come to share this harsh essentialism. One Marine, Kaplan notes, “was not interested in what was interesting, only in what mattered.” In an earlier book, Kaplan could write: “Such interesting objects, I had told myself, each separated from the other by centuries, could be connected only through a lifetime of study, and what could be a better way to spend a lifetime?” He could also write that a traveler is “an explorer of everything interesting.” No longer.

There is at least one problem with this dismissal of the interesting, seeing that what is interesting, when dealing with foreign cultures, is very often what matters. “We need people who are quick cultural studies,” an Army major general tells Kaplan. Kaplan deduces this not as “area expertise; that took too many years to develop,” but as “a knack . . . a way of dealing with people. . . . The right men would find things out and act on the information they gathered, simply by knowing how to behave in a given situation.” Sounds easy enough. And what kind of soldier would be least equipped, emotionally speaking, to deal with vexed, confusing matters of religion and culture in nations understandably sensitive to foreign occupiers? If you said, “Evangelical Christian soldiers,” well, you could not be more wrong. Kaplan argues that Evangelical soldiers, whose entire worldview is founded upon accepting that everyone who is not a Christian will roast on Beelzebub’s spit, is in actual fact the US military’s strongest asset, seeing that “morale could not be based on polite subtleties or secular philosophical constructions, but only on the stark belief in your own righteousness, and in the inequity of your enemy.” God will just have to sort them out.

As a journalist I have spent some time around Marines and soldiers, both within and without war zones (my father is a former Marine and a Vietnam veteran), and I have found as much political and intellectual variance among them as the occupants of a typical F train into Brooklyn. Deployed soldiers do indeed tend to be good at their jobs, and since their jobs are often irreducibly technical, it is no surprise that their expertise can seem mind-boggling to outsiders. Kaplan is never quite clear whether it is the culture of the US military—egalitarian, clear-eyed, unsentimental, decisive, and, sometimes, despite all that, completely nuts—that attracts such men, or that produces them, but he has some thoughts.

Writing that he “happily admitted guilt” to the charge of having “lost [my] professional detachment and begun to identify with the troops [I was] covering,” Kaplan claims a unique understanding of American soldiers. After all, “I was a citizen of the United States and a believer in the essential goodness of American nationalism.” His argument is that “the objectivity of the media was problematic” because journalists “were global cosmopolitans,” whereas the “American troops I met saw themselves belonging to one country and one society only: that of the United States.” This is delusional. For one, are there really American journalists who do not think of themselves as American? I would very much like to meet one. And does Kaplan really think it is unusual that American soldiers view themselves as American soldiers? He does. The military, he writes, “is part of another America, an America that the media establishment was increasingly blind to, and alienated from.” This Perrier-quaffing media establishment cannot hope to understand this “vast, forgotten multitude of America existing between the two coastal, cosmopolitan zones, which journalists in major markets had fewer and fewer possibilities of engaging in a sustained, meaningful way except by embedding with the military.”

In An Empire Wilderness, Kaplan voiced disgust with America’s “Greyhound underclass,” but in Grunts the “country-slash-southern-slash-working-class version” of that underclass is America’s very heart and soul. “The American military . . . was composed of people who hunted, drove pickups, employed profanities as a matter of dialect, and yet had a literal, demonstrable belief in the Almighty,” which he later calls an “unapologetic, literal belief in God absent for the most part among the elites.” But why would a literal belief in God be anything but unapologetic? And what do the elites have to do with it? Kaplan uses some tough, pretty-sounding words to conjure up these soldiers, but one scratches at Kaplan’s prose just a little to find a nasty little drummer boy incapable of addressing any matter without going after those elites who denied him a job so long ago. He sees the world so relentlessly in terms of class, tribe, and race because he himself is unwilling to see the world in any other way.

“I wish people in Washington would totally get Vietnam out of their system,” a soldier tells Kaplan. He translates this sentiment thus: “[I]t was the politicians who were afraid of casualties, not the American military.” Similar callousness about the lives of the men he lionizes and lauds are strewn throughout the book: “The working class’s attitude to casualties was fairly tough. . . . It was the elites that had a more difficult time with the deaths of soldiers and marines.” The Marines, you see, “were an example of how government channels the testosterone of young males toward useful national ends.” Like, say, dying. “If the military were much smaller than it was, the result might be only more gang violence within the homeland.” Along these lines the book reaches its disgusting crescendo:

The grunts’ unpretentious willingness to die was also a product of their working-class origins. The working classes had always been accustomed to rough, unfair lives and turns. They had less of an articulated and narcissistic sense of self than the elites, and could subsume their egos more easily inside a prideful unit identity.

Kaplan is equally coldhearted about civilians’ lives. When a Marine kills an Iraqi civilian, Kaplan writes, “I felt bad for the marine who had fired the shot—any civilian would have felt bad for him, if he or she had experienced the complexity and confusion of this urban battle space.” As for the dead Iraqi—tough luck, Ali. Next time don’t be so pretentious.

Here we see a writer effectively lapped by his subject matter, yet still believing he is in first place. After quoting one National Guardsman as saying, “We’re like tourists with guns,” Kaplan writes: “While the media was filled with lugubrious stories about the great sacrifices being made by reservists in Iraq and Afghanistan, these guys were having the time of their lives.” Last summer I was embedded with the Marines in Iraq, and I certainly noticed some of soldiering’s satisfactions, even a few of its hard-won joys. I also saw men and women tensely grinding their dinner between molars and crying while talking to their loved ones back home; I saw equal amounts of frustration and confusion, and, in one particularly awful occasion, some wounded Marines brought into a surgical ward. A screaming, burned Marine is not having the time of his life, and neither are his friends. I am sure the US military has its share of cheerful characters—the burned Marine may have been having a ball until the day our paths crossed—but Kaplan continually, and in my opinion criminally, refuses to dig beyond his baseline feeling that soldiers are super. It is both a literary and moral failure.

Who, then, are Kaplan’s books for? The liberal elite he lectures as being too pampered and cosmopolitan to understand his Manichean world? An untraveled American reading public looking for reassurance that the nations beyond their borders are hostile, crumbling, and in need of some harshly applied American elbow grease? Right-wing think tanks in search of on-the-ground folderol? Policy-makers casting about for some troublesome new chimera to chase along the crags before the next electoral cycle? One wonders if Kaplan himself knows the answer to this question. He has been so contented to wander from his beloved quasi-isolationist “tragic realism” (the world is harsh; people behave abominably; war is terrible, and should only be waged when there are obvious and overwhelming strategic benefits to be reaped) to pounding a bloody-minded drum of imperialism largely because he enjoys the sound it makes, with no secondary recognition that “tragic realism” and soldiers having the time of their lives is, in fact, a profoundly self-contradictory notion.

Kaplan is worse than a bad writer or thinker. He is a dangerous writer made ever more dangerous by the fact that he is taken seriously. Even his most hostile reviews have treated him as though his arguments are still within the pale. His worldview is, in many ways, that of the current administration, and shared by many Americans. These are people for whom the wider world means only acrimony to be dismissed and obstacles to be knocked over. People who care not for “exquisite subtleties” when it comes to matters of force and occupation. People who do not think in human terms, except insofar as those terms reflect their own beliefs, which are supremely correct. People, in short, who had no use for people, except as cannon fodder—lives whose passing they dutifully mourn on their side and gleefully celebrate on the others. “Kaplan is America’s Kipling,” reads one of Imperial Grunts’s blurbs. This is to slander Kipling, who nevertheless did write one Kaplanesque sentence: “All the people like us are We, / And every one else is They.”

*  *  *  *  

“Lying awake,” Kaplan writes in Imperial Grunts, “as Indian Ocean breezes raced through my mosquito netting . . . I thought that if you were a male of a certain age during World War II and had not served in some capacity, you were denied the American Experience.” Not some part of the American Experience, mind you, but the American Experience. Let us reflect on this. If you have not killed a fucking kraut or zipperhead with your own two hands, you are not an American. “Now I realized that many of my own generation had been denied it as well. . . . Perhaps it was a safer, more enriching global experience that we were having, but whatever it was I knew now that it was not fully American.” So what is this American Experience? It was “exotic, romantic, exciting, bloody, and emotionally painful, sometimes all at once. It was a privilege, as well as great fun, to be with those who were still living it.” I do not doubt that it was great fun for Kaplan to play soldier, but he is apparently unaware that he is celebrating the taking and loss of life in this leprous book—though, given the current state of our nation, perhaps he is the writer we deserve.

Travel, Kaplan has written, “is where we truly meet ourselves.” Unfortunately, this has proved to be his one most accurate articulation.


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Gerhard's picture
Gerhard · 9 years ago

thanks for the fantastic critique of Kaplan I have to admit I read Ends of the Earth and was sucked in to his writing .

Lawrence A's picture
Lawrence A · 7 years ago

I'm sorry. But you're criticizing Kaplan for his writing, facts, prose? This article is the most narcissistic and pretentious twaddle i've read in a long time. I bet you're the really annoying guy at a dinner party who tells everyone that the wine is no good because there aren't the appropriate tannins.  I personally think his books are pretty good, and honestly it sounds like you have a few "sour grapes", against Kaplan. Perhaps because his books are well received and yours are critically lauded but as for sales.......... i'll take a guy who's been embedded with Eritrean freedom fighters and Mujaheddin in Afghanistan against your embedding yourself with US Troops (one of the least objective journalistic places to be). Oh no. He got the rate of exchange in Uzbekistan wrong in 1994 while reasearching and writing a book on his numerous travels throughout African, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Hang the man. And you have the nerve to call him a bad writer.  You are the worst type of writer, the one that feels like they're intellectually superior to the world around you and that anyone whom has had more success then you needs to be taken down a peg or two.  If you don't like him. Fine. Don't read him. But to say he's dangerous?? You are the dangerous one sir. Your ego seems to have gotten out of control and hopefully someone you know personally is able to bring you back down to earth. Maybe when you're a little older and a little wiser you'll realize that rather than critiquing other writers you should concentrate on perfecting your own craft. You can start by being a little less pompous.


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