View Full Version : Special Ops' fly on the wall

10-07-05, 04:11 PM
Special Ops' fly on the wall
By Kelly Lemieux, Special to the News
October 7, 2005

In 1980, a Special Forces operation named Desert One was dispatched by President Carter to Iran to rescue Americans taken hostage by revolutionary Islamists. Air, sea and land elements combined in the rugged wastes of that massive country, only to see the operation disintegrate in the face of serious hardware and manpower casualties.

America's covert forces were humiliated in front of the eyes of the world, and the Department of Defense took the lesson hard.

A generation later, writer and Atlantic Monthly journalist Robert D. Kaplan took on an awesome task: to embed himself inside the reconstituted body of the Special Operations Forces around the world. His new book, Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground, is the first in a planned series detailing America's military presence and posture around the world.

A majority of Kaplan's embeds were with covert forces similar to the one responsible for Desert One, but the author also found himself on the ground with the Marines in Iraq and National Guard personnel in Afghanistan. Sometimes these grunts were training Colombian forces in assault tactics, but just as often they were setting up field hospitals or gathering intelligence among local populations.

"The goal here," Kaplan relates one colonel telling his sergeant, "is load-light, low-tech, small footprint." It's a telling statement.

While massive deployments in Iraq and mid-sized operations in Afghanistan and the Balkans grab headlines, Kaplan reveals that there are slimmer, swifter, almost unnoticeable dispositions of American forces in around 180 nations on six continents.

Kaplan offers a fly-on-the-wall tour of American's military jurisdictions around the globe - traveling between firebases, humanitarian relief ops and military training exercises. It's a task he's eminently qualified for. Previous travelogues such as Eastward to Tartary, Balkan Ghosts and The Coming Anarchy collated decades of travel to dozens of countries, where he interviewed people on the street, opposition figures, mujahedeen and heads of state.

Kaplan reaches amazing insights, sketched in tight, firmly grounded prose. As the title of the book indicates, the author describes this distribution of the most powerful military in human history as truly imperial. Kaplan doesn't bring partisan politics to this admission. As he travels from base to base, it simply becomes an obvious fact.

He looks upon America's dozens and dozens of military engagements around the world as fulfilling a global police role, and his political commentary about that role is mostly mute. His sights seem to be so focused on the "grunts" of the title, that he ignores any moral questions .

Instead, the author expounds on the individual missions in each country he visits: Colombia is about fighting narco-terrorists; the Balkans about stopping ethnic cleansing; Afghanistan about attacking al-Qaida; and Iraq about counter-insurgency.

Such mission-specific commentary leaves a missed opportunity: the chance to speculate on America's grand strategy for establishing a military presence in so many places. The possibility also exists, however, that he would not have been granted such thorough access if he had intended to write a negative critique.

But if Kaplan's focus is limited, his talent for setting each scene is precise and comprehensive.

One embed led him to Mongolia, a country so obscure few could point it out on a map. On a patrol through the Gobi desert near the Chinese border, Mongolian troops hosted the author and his military handler. "That day Wilhelm and I had to endure large meals at six zastafs (indigenous compounds), with vodka toasts at each one. That was in addition to drinking the blood of a black-tailed gazelle."

Kaplan has an eye for rich detail like this, each country's landscape vibrantly brought to life. But the heart of the book is about the military life of the grunts, those boots on the ground that get the job done under harsh conditions and tight ROEs, or Rules of Engagement.

The jargon and acronyms used by the war fighters are so plentiful in the text that Kaplan provides a glossary to explain them. He posits that the lower-level officers and team leaders are the real backbone of America's empire, the grunts implementing policy-makers' decisions on the ground, with generals and admirals too far up the chain of command to get their hands dirty.

Kaplan's embedded status brought him into direct contact with sergeants and corporals, mavericks and lone wolves, Puerto Ricans, Southern boys and New England working-class kids. He movingly portrays their strength, skill and patriotism, without saccharine sentiment, and doesn't hold back from keeping it real.

"One of the team sergeants announced," Kaplan writes, " 'All right, guys, the general and the colonel are coming down from Bagram to see us tomorrow. So hide your porn, hide your booze, and hide them well.' "

It doesn't get more real than that.

Kelly Lemieux is a freelance writer living in Denver.