There's only one way to know how modern American warriors think, how they live and their role in the world better than by reading Robert Kaplan's "Imperial Grunts" books.
On the other hand, while joining the armed forces would immerse you in the culture of the U.S. military, you might serve your whole 20 without gaining the breadth of knowledge that Kaplan's readers gain from his masterful Imperial Grunts and a new follow-up, Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts, which might as well be titled Imperial Grunts 2.
As in Imperial Grunts, Hog Pilots follows historian/travel writer/geopolitical analyst Robert Kaplan of the Atlantic Monthly as he embeds with American military units in the far corners of the world. In his previous book, Kaplan stayed with Special Forces and Marine units that were mainly focused on terrorists; here, he broadens his approach to feature such strategic forces as nuclear submarines and bomber units operating from Guam (though he also visits with Special Forces training Algerian troops to fight al-Qaeda and Marines operating in countries no high school geography class ever mentions).
Kaplan also continues his examination of the heart and soul of the U.S. military and its "imperialistic" role in the world. In Grunts, he offers a thesis that today's American military is more than a fighting force. While the United States is not a conquering empire in the traditional sense, our far-flung interests and military might bring us many of the challenges faced by an empire. This means the armed forces virtually have become a diplomatic arm of the government; in many remote reaches of the world, practical emergency help often arrives in the form of a U.S. Marine.
Imperial Grunts also began the author's fascination with the culture of the U.S. military and its increasing separation from the rest of U.S. society. This is due to not only the increasing professionalism of American troops, but of the decline in society of the values it takes to be a good soldier.
The U.S. military, Kaplan finds, is not made up of John Kerry's dead-enders but of middle-class young men, many from small towns. Interestingly, a disproportionate number grew up on farms, while defending the country has been the family business for generations for many of the troops.
In Grunts, Kaplan discovers a trend away from "Big Army" and toward Special Forces units.
In Hog Pilots, he finds this attitude is even leaking into the officer-dominated Air Force. While the prestige job in the Air Force has always been the pilot who flies the fastest and latest fighter, the nature of the wars we are fighting and the enemy we face at least temporarily has put ground support pilots closer to the top of the heap.
The "Hog Pilots" of the title fly the A-10 Warthog, which basically is a flying tank. It's a fearsome weapon that mostly assists Army and Marine units on the ground. While F-16s have a key role in the Middle East (such as hitting the house hiding Zarqawi), the Hogs get most of the everyday work. Meanwhile, for the record, F-15s have never engaged a foe worthy of them in any significant way.
One Hog pilot Kaplan interviews exemplifies the new Air Force grunt attitude: "If you're in the Air Force, why would you want to be associated with a plane that doesn't blow sh*t up?"
Also striking — and far different from what he covered in his previous book — is Kaplan's memorable portrait of submariners and life aboard a nuclear sub in a chapter entitled, "Geeks with Tattoos: The Most Driven Men I Have Ever Known."
Kaplan goes under the polar ice cap on the USS Houston with a group of intense techies who operate the world's most secret — and secretive — piece of military equipment.
One could argue that because they studied hard, they don't have to go to Iraq, but Kaplan finds them as committed as the Marine unit he'd just left in Iraq, noting, "both were manned by a certain kind of extremist, men who enjoyed a deserved superiority complex because of their willingness to incur extreme sensory deprivation."
Although the U.S. home front is even more war weary and discouraged since he wrote Grunts, Kaplan finds it is still true that among the "combat arms community" the men "fall into two categories: those who were (or had been) deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq, and those who were doing what they could to get there."
That's precisely what Bruce Springsteen, who claims to empathize with grunts by writing songs in which they "don't know who to trust" and Hollywood types who make movies about demoralized soldiers who finally snap, don't have a clue about.
Griping, Kaplan writes, is "something that soldiers and Marines have done since time immemorial. It was unrelated to bad morale; bad morale is only about losing the spirit to fight."
The fact that U.S. civilians, especially politicians, are less and less able to comprehend this warrior spirit poses a danger. While such alienation has led to a contempt for the military in Europe, this has not happened here. In fact, Kaplan observes, the reverse has happened, with the military being put on a pedestal instead of being despised.
But even this has a downside. In their haste to show how supportive they are of the military — and because the mindset of the troops is so alien to them — liberals have tried to turn the country's warriors into just another class of victims who need protection from the evil Republicans.
However, the military is largely immune to short term political appeals (except, maybe, for recently retired generals). Perhaps it is, as Kaplan observes, their highly developed sense of history. This is particularly true in the Pacific, where the spectre of World War II combat seems to haunt every atoll, island and shoreline.
This sense is also helped along, Kaplan writes, by a literature of combat memoirs which barely makes a dent with the reading public, but are devoured by our fighting men. Recent bestsellers include Bury Us Upside Down, about the secret air war over Laos, and House to House, David Bellavia's Fallujah memoir.
This sense of heritage gives combat personnel a far different take on America's recent military history than the general public. Kaplan asks Master Sergeant Mark Lopez when he would like to have been born, the answer is telling: "Right before the Great Depression, so that I could enlist as a combat pilot and fight in World War II and Korea, and still be young enough to fight in Vietnam," comes the surprising answer.
Kaplan writes, "Mark and so many others I knew saw these three wars as equally sanctified—not as one good war, one stalemate and one bad war." It is this eagerness to fight America's enemies, regardless of any other consideration that the media, Hollywood—and 99.9% of the Democrat Party-- cannot comprehend.
Another major theme of Hog Pilots is the way in which the American military is remaking the world one NCO at a time from the Horn of Africa to Algeria and to the South Pacific. Noncoms, lieutenant colonels and commanders are spreading American influence in far greater and more practical ways than the U.S. ambassadorial corps.
The main reason for this burgeoning influence is America's effort to make foreign militaries more professional by building a strong non-commissioned officer corps to stabilize their organizations and make them more effective in fighting terrorism. But the philosophy that American NCOs hand down to their foreign counterparts goes far beyond tactics in warfare and a long way toward creating a civil society. Professional militaries with a middle class ethos are far less likely to engage in atrocities.
As the spectre of a possible Hillary Clinton presidency looms, this is a comforting development. Out in the boonies, master sergeants in the Special Forces are highly unlikely to become liberals overnight or take up passing out condoms on their own initiative. In the same way that Republican presidents have been stymied in putting their imprint on the State Department, it would take a long and concerted effort by a liberal president to undo the good being done by the U.S. military in countless places across the globe.
While liberals in Congress and the media are slandering the private contractors who serve in war zones, Kaplan visits private facilities run by retired military personnel. The companies accomplish a goal liberals should love — making America's footprint in foreign lands seem less heavy or imperialistic — unless sabatoging U.S. interests abroad is their real goal.
A terrific example is retired Air Force Master Sgt. Dan Generette, who is now the chief operating officer of Delta Golf Global, whose only official client is the United States. Generette operates an airbase in Thailand, but since it's not technically a military base, it attracts no protests or political interference. Genrette's ultra-efficient facility has few personnel than an official base requires, and he serves as a quasi-diplomat. He tells Kaplan 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."
But Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts is far from a dry white paper on the ways in which the U.S. military -- and retired military-- affects foreign policy. Kaplan presents an intimate, thoroughly enjoyable series of visits with the best and most committed people the United States has to offer. It's filled with candid interviews and entertaining, candid remarks like, "A Marine is only happy when he's fighting, humping with his backpack or on liberty — spending time with his girlfriend or working under his car." Then there are trainers yelling with some relish, "Every time you fire, a bad guy should bleed."
Kaplan clearly likes and admires his subject and enjoys every minute he spends with them. So will you.