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God-Fearing Spartans

Wall Street Journal, Sept. 21, 2005

By DANIEL FORD

"Forget the crap about it ain't being a culture war," says an American sergeant in Zamboanga, trying to explain why he regards the local Muslims as hostile. In Imperial Grunts, Robert Kaplan surveys the U.S. military presence around the world. He finds brighter spots than this southern Philippine island but never a more succinct statement of the problem: In "Injun country," as the sergeant notes, you can't afford to be nonjudgmental.

[An admiring look at the troops who guard the marches of the American imperium.]
An admiring look at the troops who guard the marches of the American imperium.

It is Mr. Kaplan's conceit that the U.S. now governs the world and, for efficiency, has carved it into six territories or "commands." For good measure, we have a Special Operations Command to perform unconventional tasks anywhere, though they are required much more in the Middle East or South America than in, say, "Northcom," an area comprising the continental U.S., Canada, Alaska, the Caribbean -- and the west coast of Greenland.

Mr. Kaplan set out to visit a hotspot in each command. His grand tour occupied him for two years, during which time he developed an abiding fondness for the men who guard the marches of the American imperium. "I was beginning to love these guys," he writes of a special-forces team in Colombia. "They had amassed so much technical knowledge about so many things at such a young age. They could perform minor surgery on the spot. Yet they had such a reduced sense of self compared to everyone I knew in the media and public policy worlds."

One of the more surprising of Mr. Kaplan's findings is that evangelical Christianity helped to transform the military in the 1980s, rescuing the Vietnam-era Army from drugs, alcohol and alienation. That reformation, together with the character-building demands of Balkans deployments of the 1990s (more important, in his judgment, than the frontal wars against Saddam Hussein), created our "imperial grunts."

The phrase is slightly misleading -- even off-putting. As a synonym for American troops, "grunt" came and mostly went with the Vietnam War, evoking the dispirited soldiery of that era. And "imperial," with its adjectival nod to "imperialism," concedes too much to those who argue that the U.S. and the world would be better served if we withdrew behind our own borders. But Mr. Kaplan intends something positive -- a way of suggesting that our far-flung troops are the descendants of the cavalry, dragoons and civilian frontiersmen who fought the Indian wars of the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed, his opening chapter is titled "Injun Country," a term that was also popular in the early days of the Vietnam War and one that soldiers use with respect.

The book is replete with such catchphrases. The military would grind to a halt without them, as surely as if it ran out of gasoline or computer chips. So nouns become verbs: templating, civilianizing, unassetting (which means emptying a helicopter of troops and which in turn is reduced to unassing). Ideas become acronyms, mostly mind-numbing but sometimes soaring to poetry: I was delighted to learn that what we used to call nation-building is now MOOTWA, for military operations other than war.

And in quiet moments the troops explain themselves in terms that call to mind an earlier America: God, country, honor, duty. "The clichés were spoken with utter seriousness," Mr. Kaplan assures us. "That's ultimately why these guys liked 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."

The book's structure -- an author introducing himself to six geographical areas, then introducing them to us -- can be repetitive, so the book sometimes drags. It is most compelling when the subject is the U.S. Army Special Forces. The Green Berets are everywhere. Mr. Kaplan visits them, among other places, at Firebase Gardez in southern Afghanistan, a mud-walled fort over which fly the flags of the U.S., Texas and the Florida Gators.

"We're the damn Spartans," explains Maj. Kevin Holiday of Tampa, "physical warriors with college degrees." A civil engineer with three kids, he is a National Guardsman with an attitude. "God has put me here," he tells Mr. Kaplan. "I'm a Christian … You see this all around you" -- the dust, deprivation and anxiety of Injun Country -- "well, it's the high point of my life and of everyone else here." It's not just officers, and not only the Green Berets. Cpl. Michael Pinckney, a Marine, tells Mr. Kaplan: "I don't want to be anywhere else but Iraq....This is what manhood is all about. I don't mean macho [stuff] either. I mean moral character."

If Imperial Grunts serves no other purpose, it is a wonderful corrective to the disenchanted troops we sometimes see on the television news or in the new TV series "Over There," or read about in the dispatches of reporters and pundits who are themselves disenchanted by the war on terror.

Mr. Ford is the author of the Vietnam novel " Incident at Muc Wa," which was made into the film "Go Tell the Spartans," starring Burt Lancaster.

Buy Kaplan's book at Amazon.com