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Tuesday, October 11

America's amazing new military: getting it right all around the world

If you heard John Batchelor's Monday interview with Robert D. Kaplan, you'll get a good laugh from reading the skewed Eastern Establishment Amazon.com reviews of Kaplan's Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground.

If you didn't catch the interview, ignore the Washington Post and Publisher's Weekly reviews at Amazon and just buy the book -- then make sure to hide it from your kids if you don't want them running off to join the military.

Batchelor's interview with Kaplan reveals the silver lining to the terror masters' war on America: the State Department and the CIA and their paranoid Cold War scheming are no longer in charge of presenting America's face to the world. And neither is the Pentagon in charge. ("The Pentagon just moves the money around now," explained Kaplan.)

So who's in charge? Small military units working under the direction of theater-level, unified combatant command units or "Coms" built on the CENTCOM concept, which was originally conceived as a rapid deployment force.

The result? All over the world, branches of the US military are gathering intelligence and promoting American ideals in the best way possible: by first gaining confidence through the sane tactic of making themselves genuinely useful to the locals.

Today's grunt is "more likely to be killed helping a civilian dig a well," than during armed combat, Kaplan explains.

Of course, US soldiers are still trained to kill people and break things, but historically neither activity has been very successful at gathering actionable intelligence and inspiring cooperation. So the Coms favor specially trained units -- sometimes as small as 4 by typically 12 in number -- which are tasked with risking their lives to do an honest day's labor in places you never even heard of.

If this sounds like the Peace Corps with firepower, let's be cautious about carrying the analogy too far. But yes, the units reflect an integration of relief work with traditional military intelligence-gathering objectives.

Kaplan explained that the realities of the present era as much as the terrorists have driven the shift. Today, the US must operate in many countries that are, at least on paper, democracies -- places such as Yemen and the Philippines. Governments in such countries won't stand for Cold War CIA-type machinations against factions playing footsie with terrorist/ anti-democracy groups. But if the US military wants to make themselves useful, while at the same time coaching factions resisting the bad guys, they are welcome to set up camp.

Thus, the title of Kaplan's book is somewhat misleading. Today, America is not so much an imperial power as a hegemonic one. Hegemony is maintained not through flashy imperial displays of military force but through sheer hard work.

This approach is not glamorous but there's a romance about it that appeals to the missionary side of America's character and reflects the American work ethic. It's also very dangerous work, so it's not surprising to learn from Kaplan that the US soldiers he met with display nobility of character. "It seems a sense of danger builds character," he observed.

Kaplan told Batchelor that he was struck by the "selflessness" he found among unit members. He observed that his East Coast Literary Establishment world of obsessive self promotion is the antithesis of the one he found while embedded with special forces units. The individual doesn't really exist in the mind of unit members, Kaplan noted. "The unit exists."

Is this observation bad news for fans of Ayn Rand's philosophy of rugged individualism? I'd say no; the stories Kaplan told John Batchelor suggest that the high ethical standards, self-reliance and leadership qualities in Rand's fictional heroes are well represented in the soldiers Kaplan got to know. Kaplan's stories reveal that the new military has taken up the slack created by our educational institutions' failure to teach ethics to a generation of American schoolchildren.

Also, as Rand famously observed, before you can be a person who does things for others you must first be a person who knows how to get things done. Those serving in the new military are taught to get things done amidst tribal rivalries and clan alliances in regions that are centuries behind the times in developed countries.

And don't be fooled by one Amazon reviewer's depiction of what Kaplan has to say about where these new soldiers come from in America; i.e., from "...predominantly working- or lower-middle-class folk, the products (with the exception of West Point and Annapolis) of state schools and part-time degree programs."

Kaplan told Batchelor that the soldiers he met were predominately from families with a history of military service. They are Americans raised in a family tradition that American ideals are worth dying to defend.

So the new military reflects a cross-section of backgrounds: children of immigrants from around the globe, working class families from all across America, ethnic minorities from poor households as well as WASPs raised in privilege. The common thread in many backgrounds is service to America.

On a more abstract level, the value of the special units to the US military's intelligence gathering applies a dictum of the best-run business enterprises. "The better a system, the more decentralized it is," observed Kaplan.

The 9/11 attack tragically demonstrated the limits of the highly centralized, NATO-oriented command structure. That approach blinded a series of US presidential administrations and congressional committees to what was really happening in the world outside NATO's home base of Western Europe.

Of course the military objective is not the same as the profit-making goal of private enterprise, so decentralization of operations does have its downside when applied to the military. Yet in a world where accurate, timely observations are the key to winning against a highly decentralized enemy, the decentralized operations approach is vital to supplement electronic spying and correct wrong theories in Washington about how things are going in the world.

The interview ended with a few observations about America's failed quest in Iraq -- failed, to hear the Establishment media tell it. Kaplan observed with a chuckle that Iraq's Sunnis are signing up "in droves" to vote and that, "Iraq is no longer a military problem, it's a governance one." He added that the terrorist bombings are "statistically meaningless" to this big picture.

No matter how the vote on Iraq's Constitution goes, it's going to happen despite al Qaeda's best attempts to derail it. In a land that for millennia accepted despotism and oppression as an inevitable fact of life, the Iraqi voters, with help from America's grunts, are the dawn of a new day.

It's a new day for America as well. While there is still plenty of intrigue in intelligence gathering, the new military is following the adage that you get back what you put out. If the Cold War produced in many foreign quarters the view that America is full of tricks and can't be trusted, that was a reflection of the CIA-MI6 way of doing things so chillingly depicted in John Le Carre's novels.

The new approach to intelligence gathering is more in synch with the values that make the United States of America a beacon to the world's oppressed. More than all the propaganda, the approach will return many times to America in fond feelings and respect.

Lest you think Kaplan's account is only for military buffs, here I grudgingly allow Amazon.com a few words:
He has now written a book about several years of visiting with the troops at the far corners of the American Empire ... As befits such a global tour, Kaplan is a very good travel writer indeed. He superbly describes bazaars and rainforests, brothels and junkyards, hootches and bases, M-4 carbines and M-240 machine guns, heat and dust. He captures in a few pages what it takes to train a moderately competent sergeant or plan an assault on Fallujah.
Come to think of it, maybe it's not just the children running off you'd have to worry about. Better not read Imperial Grunts if you think you might kick yourself for being too old, or too saddled with civilian responsibility, to join the new military.
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