REVIEW Do you call that an empire? Imperial Grunts by Robert Kaplan
Buy this book
Reviewed by Spengler
Robert Kaplan of the Atlantic Monthly longs to be the American Rudyard Kipling,
the chronicler of the intrepid subalterns and leathery sergeants who save the
empire through pluck and grit.
His latest volume reports two years of rough trekking with Special Forces and
Marines from Colombia through the Middle East to the Philippines. But Kaplan's
warriors less resemble Kipling's imperial soldiers than W S Gilbert's policemen
in The Pirates of Penzance. When they sing, "Yes! Forward on the Foe!",
the major-general exclaims, "But Damme! You don't go!"
There is no American empire, because there are no imperialists. The
working-class warriors of American light infantry and
commando units aver that no one in Washington has a clue about what is
happening on the ground. Rather tales of derring-do, Kaplan has produced a
litany of aborted missions, mixed signals and bureaucratic bungling. The
American military, one concludes from his report, is spinning its wheels.
Save one aborted Marine sally into Fallujah, Kaplan heard not a single 5.56
millimeter round fired in anger. His Special Forces hosts train feckless
Colombian or Philippine soldiers, knowing that they will sell their ammunition
to the enemy to supplement a $2 per day income. They fix children's teeth and
build schools to win hearts and minds, recover the bodies of downed pilots and
try to gather intelligence from local services. They want to fight regardless
of risk to life and limb, but the Pentagon will not let them.
Fine journalist that he is, Kaplan faithfully records the boredom and
frustration of American forces abroad, and has brought forth a boring and
frustrating book. Conspiracy theorists who imagine that America pulls
puppet-strings throughout the world should be made to read it as punishment.
Kaplan quotes British historian Niall Ferguson to the effect that the
"[American] empire is as much a reality today as it was throughout the three
hundred years when Britain ruled, and made, the modern world". But Kaplan's
anecdotes show that America is not an empire, but rather a Gulliverian giant
lumbering about after Lilliputian antagonists.
To begin with, the 10,000 or so Special Forces in the US Army are the wrong
sort of people: tattooed, tobacco-chewing, iron-pumping Southerners, clever at
improvised repairs or minor surgery in the field, and deadly in firefights
(although Kaplan never sees one), but without the cultural skills essential to
They complain incessantly about Washington's stupidity and risk aversion, but
humbly accept their orders because they are humble people: the working and
lower middle classes of America. "I had not been particularly impressed with
the linguistic skills of Green Berets," notes Kaplan. "The United States was
more than two years into the war on terrorism. Pashtu should have become a
common language by now among the Green Berets assigned to Afghanistan. But with
few exceptions, even the counterintelligence officers I met barely spoke the
language. The situation was no better in the Pacific; almost everyone I
encountered in 1st Group knew some Oriental language or other, but rarely the
one needed in the country where he was currently deployed."
One wants to say, paraphrasing Mick (Crocodile) Dundee, "You call that an
empire? This is an empire!" I refer of course to the British Empire, which for
better or worse has no successor. One example (noted by Sir John Keegan in his
2003 study Intelligence in War) will suffice. No more than 3,000 British
officers served in Imperial India at any given time, but they "wore a version
of native dress, spoke Indian languages and prided themselves on their
immersion in the customs and culture of their soldiers".
The Raj relied on soldier-adventurers such as Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890),
who joined the army of the East India Company after his expulsion from Oxford.
Burton learned 25 languages and an additional 15 dialects, traveling
extensively in South Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the American West. He
passed for a Sindh on the Northwest Frontier and for a Haji in Mecca; his
translations of Arabic and Sanskrit classics remain in print. T E Lawrence ("of
Arabia") earned a first in Medieval Studies at Oxford, and spent years in
archaeological excavations in Syria prior to his service in World War I.
Soldier-scholars of this quality cannot be found in the United States - Yale
University had one undergraduate reading Middle Eastern languages last year -
let alone in the US military. Part of the reason for this lacuna is cultural,
as I argued in
Why America is losing the intelligence war (Asia Times
Online, November 11, 2003). Immigrants came to America precisely in order to
flee the tragic destiny of the cultures they abandoned, and the second
generation almost invariably forgets the language of its forefathers. Of the
pitifully small percentage of Americans who learn the languages of countries in
which their country's strategic interests lie, an infinitesimal portion might
choose the military as a career.
Therein lies the great difference between America's global police exercise and
a true empire. Cultural insularity forms only part of the explanation for
America's maladroitness. The other explanation is money. The main object of
empire is to loot the colonies and get rich quick. Between 1760, when Robert
Clive drove the French from India, and 1780, nearly 300 returning East India
Company servants bought their way into England's landed gentry. The high
aristocracy swelled with the ranks of West Indian planters and East Indian nabobs
(governors) during the 19th century. 
A likely lad from a middle-class family with a bit of education and some social
connections would choose imperial service as the fastest route to wealth or
prestige. Where there is a great deal of wealth, there is also prestige. Men
like Burton or Lawrence made their reputation as soldiers and writers rather
than as traders, but the imperial flow of wealth underwrote the career choices
of the British elite.
The flow of wealth from the empire was the pillar on which Britain's economy
stood, funding Britain's growing net creditor position with the rest of the
world. As Amiya Kumar Bachi wrote in the Economic and Political Weekly of June
The export surplus accruing to Europeans from trade and
production in British India goes up annually from more than 25 million [pounds]
in the 1870s to more than 50 million in the 1910s. If we compare these figures
with those of British foreign investment estimated by Imlah (1958: 70-75), we
find that they formed more than half of such investment flows (in fact they
exceeded them in some years) up to the 1890s and a very substantial fraction
still of British foreign investment in the peak years before the first world
Exports of Indian opium alone averaged 12 million
pounds a year between 1884 and 1894, a not inconsiderable contribution to
British wealth, at the expense of untold misery in China and other parts of
Asia plagued by drug addiction.
There is of course another side to the British Empire, without which India
would not today exist as a nation with a common language, namely English.
Lawrence James recounts the "white man's burden" aspect of the empire in his Rise
and Fall of the British Empire , for those who wish to read an
apology. Doubtless some parts of the empire were better off under British rule
than they are under independence, but India surely is not one of them. The
British bought gifts: centralized administration, public works and order, but
they were dreadfully expensive.
Americans have no empire, and therefore nothing whence to extract wealth. To
the extent America might be said to have an imperial back garden it is South
America, whose economic relations with America are of trivial importance.
America buys oil from the Middle East, enriching the locals, but its oil
companies do not make a thousandth of the scale of profits that imperial
traders made in South Asia a century ago.
China forms America's most important foreign economic relationship, accounting
for a quarter of its payments deficit, but I do not know anyone who
characterizes that relationship as imperial. The Chinese are their own masters,
and the trade relationship benefits both sides.
Britain's empire created wealth for the British, expressed as a net creditor
position with respect to the rest of the world, as Dr Bachi observes above.
America is falling into a net debtor position, above all with China. That is
the opposite of an imperial profile.
Ambitious Americans do not head for the oilfields of the Persian Gulf or the
emerald mines of Colombia, but to the business or computer science faculties of
leading universities. The great fortunes of recent years stem not from overseas
trade but from technological fads, mergers and acquisitions, or entertainment.
That explains why America's elite has little interest in what Robert Kaplan
wrongly imagines to be a nascent empire.
Even if Yale or Harvard produced the likes of a young Richard Burton, the army
would not get them. As Kaplan observes:
The American military,
especially the Non-Commissioned Officers, who were the guardians of its culture
and traditions, constituted a world of beer, cigarettes, instant coffee and
chewing tobaccos, like Copenhagen and Red Man. It was composed of people who
hunted [ie, stalked], drove pickups, employed profanities as a matter of
dialect, and yet had a literal, demonstrable belief in the Almighty.
Kaplan makes much of the military romance of the South, where nostalgia for the
Civil War remains strong. There is a lesson here. The dream of a slave empire
stretching from the Mason-Dixon line down through Tierra del Fuego inspired the
meanest private in the Confederate Army (Happy
birthday, Abe: Pass the blood, Asia Times Online, February
The Southern rebels intended to grab Cuba and ally with the French army that
invaded Mexico in 1863. Poor Southerners defended the rights of the minority of
rich Southern slaveholders because they, too, wished to obtain land and slaves.
That, I have argued in the past, explains why the Confederacy sustained the
highest rate of casualties - nearly 40% - in any modern war. Men will fight to
the death for the chance to raise their station in life.
Something of the old imperial urge percolates in the resentful culture of the
American South, and that may explain why so many of America's military
adventurers hail from the lands of the old Confederacy. But they are of the
type of Peachy Carnahan rather than Kim. Rather than retire to an estate in
Wiltshire, they will buy a motor home. One might say: that is the way the
empire ends, not with a bang, but a Winnebago.