"Big Army Just Doesn't Get It"


The American Military on the Ground

By Robert Kaplan

Random House; 421pp; $27.95

( below)

Editor's Review

Three Stars
Star Rating

The Good Key lessons from midlevel U.S. officers about how to address global threats.

The Bad The author's assertions about a United States empire are misconceived.

The Bottom Line Dispatches from far-flung places offer hope for the long run.

At the turn of the 21st century, Army Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Parker Wilhelm turned down a plum Pentagon posting for a job in the boondocks. The fluent Russian speaker had decided that he could make more of a difference as a military attaché in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar than on the Potomac -- and he was probably right. When Wilhelm arrived there in 2001, he found that the country was attempting to acquire an air force, even though it had neither a clear purpose for such a unit nor the expertise to maintain it. So, with the cooperation of the U.S. ambassador, Wilhelm persuaded the country's military to pursue a different course: secure Mongolia's borders not against a Chinese military invasion, which would be impossible, but against migration from that country and infiltration by Central Asian terrorists; improve its ability to respond to natural disasters; and train peacekeeping forces, which would raise the country's profile and provide diplomatic protection from Russia and China. Informally, Wilhelm was having more of a local-policy impact than any Pentagon bigwig.

Wilhelm is one of many thoughtful and effective U.S. military operatives profiled in Robert D. Kaplan's Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground. The title notwithstanding, the Atlantic Monthly writer does not focus on mud-caked buck privates but on midlevel officers who rely more on wits than weapons. Their tales provide key lessons about how to address current threats across the globe -- and even offer useful guidance for corporate managers. Despite one flaw -- the author's misconceptions about imperialism -- the book makes a valuable contribution to the debate over the military's future.

Fascinating insights abound. Robert B. Adolph Jr., a retired Special Forces lieutenant colonel, learned from experience, not books, that to spur development in Egypt, you give money to women, who want sewing machines to start businesses, rather than to men, who want TVs. In the Philippines, U.S. troops provided health care, reasoning that while treating children's skin diseases or fixing their teeth, American troops might glean important intelligence from their parents.

Kaplan offers such vignettes not only to show how savvy U.S. troops can be, but also to demonstrate that the best tactics often arise from the field, among folks well-acquainted with the culture and the turf, unguided by directions from D.C. It's a key lesson of what is often a brass-bashing book.

Afghanistan is Exhibit A for Kaplan's point. At first, Washington's only order was for U.S. forces to hook up with the Northern Alliance. Everything else got figured out by Special Forces in the field. So master sergeants could call in B-52 strikes, and operations were approved orally in minutes. The improvisation worked well. The discretion given to subordinates in the field "evinced the flat bureaucratic hierarchy which distinguished not only al-Qaeda but also the most innovative global corporations," Kaplan writes.

Two years later, a huge camp was in place in Bagram. Senior officers diluted operations in order to reduce risk and took days to approve missions. By the time U.S. troops were ready to attack, targets had vanished. Such bureaucratic methods might have been acceptable when the enemy was anticipated to be slow-moving Soviets in the Fulda Gap in Germany, but they're not right for today's threats. Listen to Lieutenant Colonel Marcus Custer: "Big Army just doesn't get it. It doesn't get the beards, the ball caps, the windows rolled down so that we can shake hands with the hajis and hand out Power Bars to the kids, as we do our patrols. Big Army has regulations against all of that." If you want to win the hearts and minds of a people, he adds, "you've got to love them, and love their culture." Self-serving? Sure. The truth? No question.

There is one flaw in Kaplan's work. He argues that the presence of some U.S. troops in scores of countries is evidence of a U.S. empire. Yet he notes that China and Russia, like the U.S., have defense attachés in Mongolia. If mere presence is empire, are three countries operating empires on the same turf? "Imperialism" has traditionally meant the exercise of sovereignty over another people, and at the very least it implies some measure of control. Yet despite U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Germany, all three nations hindered the U.S. drive toward war in Iraq. Some empire.

Still, Kaplan's conceptual lapse makes little difference. His account is an entertaining mix of shrewd military testimony and history. The message is more reassuring than you might think: While common sense often doesn't prevail at Pentagon headquarters, it frequently governs the strategies adopted by those deployed to outposts around the world. Headlines from Iraq and Afghanistan remain bleak. But Kaplan's dispatches from places that don't make the front page offer hope that some in the military are learning what they need to know.

By Stan Crock

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