Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground

Sep 27, 2005

Robert D. Kaplan provides an insider's account of our current involvement in world affairs, as well as painting a vivid picture of how defense policy is implemented at the grassroots level.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers. On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I'd like to thank you for joining us.

This morning our speaker is Robert Kaplan. He will be discussing his book, Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground.

It has been three years since Robert Kaplan last spoke at the Carnegie Council. I, along with many others, have been impatiently waiting for his return. For many years now, Bob Kaplan, with his lucid and elegant prose, his unfailing curiosity and open mind, has been the journalist of choice for providing us with a fresh interpretation about the nature of our changing world. There is little doubt that his books are welcomed at any time, but for those of you who are concerned about the seemingly imperialistic role of the American military and its place in this global war on terror, Imperial Grunts demands your immediate attention.

In this most recent book, Mr. Kaplan traveled to "the ends of the earth" in order to report on how, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, America's "imperial grunts" are engaging in "warrior politics" in order to confront "the coming anarchy." After observing a map in which the Pentagon had divided the world into five areas of command, Mr. Kaplan concluded that even though some may wish to deny the very existence of America's imperialistic policies, wasn't this map proof that the Pentagon had appropriated the entire planet, leaving no point of the earth surface unaccounted for? And, with this vast new empire around the world, why was no one writing about the warriors on the ground who are out there taming our newest frontiers?

It was with this thought in mind that Mr. Kaplan, himself a fighting man of sorts, decided that it was time for him to traverse the world in order to witness firsthand how America's twenty-first century army was managing this imperium on the ground. After all, with bases in over fifty-nine countries and with the U.S. Army Special Operations Command that even before 9/11 was conducting operations in 170 countries per year, how could anyone doubt that the U.S. did not constitute a global military empire?

Thus, being the peripatetic reporter that he is, he began his journey, traveling first to Yemen, and then continuing on to Colombia, the Philippines, Mongolia, the Horn of Africa—and, yes, Afghanistan and Iraq, too. What he found were, in his view, the true agents of the American empire—soldiers in the field who may be fewer in number than the larger infantry battalions we are more familiar with, but these soldiers whom he encountered were better skilled in guerilla warfare and more attuned to the local environment. This led him to conclude that although it may be the U.S. military that has the ability to run the American empire, the fewer troops that police it, the better.

This book, as Mr. Kaplan notes, is the first in a series he plans to write about imperial maintenance and its use of modern soldiering. In essence, it is the way in which America exports its will in order to protect its own national interests.

This is also the first lecture in a series that we at the Carnegie Council are launching this fall about American military power. One of the topics we will be addressing in this series is about the composition of the American fighting forces and the principles by which it operates.

Therefore, as we begin this discussion, I can think of no one who either is a more acute observer or can offer us better insights into the nature of our military on the ground than our speaker today.

Please join me in welcoming someone whom I personally always look forward to hearing from, our guest, Bob Kaplan.


ROBERT KAPLAN: Thank you, Joanne, for that lovely introduction.

It's a great pleasure to be here with adults again. As I was telling people at breakfast, for the past three years, six months out of every twelve, I've been in barracks with people half my age or younger. If you think it's hard keeping up contacts and networking with people of your own age, when you start to get instant messages from nineteen-year-olds from four trips ago asking you advice about whether they should get married at twenty-two or whatnot, it gets a bit overwhelming.

Let me start, though, with someone who is a bit older. Marines tend to be young. Being with marines in barracks is like being with a whole bunch of tattooed twenty-one- and twenty-two-year-olds. But your average Army Special Forces Green Beret is in his mid- or late-thirties; he's on his third divorce usually and he's easier to deal with.

One in particular encapsulates this whole concept. His name is Ken Butcher. He's a Green Beret master sergeant. He's in his mid-thirties. He grew up on a farm in central New Hampshire. He was accepted to Dartmouth, turned it down, joined the Army. Now, after twenty years in the Army, he runs what's called an A-Team, a frontline commando team for the Green Berets. He's the team sergeant. He has been to about seventy-five countries, speaks several exotic languages. He was in Sierra Leone when that country collapsed, went back after it collapsed a second time. He was in Liberia when it collapsed. He was in the Congo when it collapsed. He has mentored and consulted the various cabinets of the various former Soviet republics in the Caucasus on earthquake relief, emergency disaster relief. Whenever there is a real humanitarian assistance problem or a governmental problem, the Green Berets send him in. He still hasn't gone to college. He is going to retire next year and go back and run his father's farm.

I met him in southern Algeria this summer. For the first time since 1942, Operation Torch, the United States had a military mission to Algeria, led by eleven Green Berets, one captain, one warrant officer, and a team sergeant, Ken Butcher, who led the other sergeants.

He is the kind of person out there. What I'm talking about is a kind of "warrior working class:" high-school graduates, but who can speak foreign languages, often exotic languages; know their way around capital cities from Brazaville to Mombasa, to all kinds of places; can deal with NGOs and others better and better; and, obviously, know how to fight.

But most of what they do, ironically, falls into the realm of disaster relief. Now I'm starting to warm to my theme. In any given week, U.S. Special Forces Command is involved in about sixty-eight countries around the world. This was a typical summer for me with the U.S. military. I spent the first half of it in Algeria, the second half in Nepal, where we are also active. In these sixty-eight countries—Colombia, the Philippines, Djibouti, Somalia, all these training missions to Thailand, Singapore, training at the Jungle Warfare School in Brunei, other things—what I have found is that the fewer American troops we have on the ground, the lower beneath the media radar screen it is, the more it attempts to nip a problem in the bud when it is still on page 11—before it gets to page 5, even—the more bang for the buck the taxpayer gets out of it.

Iraq and Afghanistan, though obviously major things, are exceptions to this general rule of small-scale deployments around the world. I will get to them later.

The future is with the sergeants. The reason that the future lies with the sergeants is that the nature of warfare is changing. We used to have a very confined, limited battlefield, with large numbers of troops inside it. Now we have an emptying and dispersed battlefield, over vast deserts, jungles, poor cities, Third World cities, where small clusters of combatants seek to find other small clusters of combatants. Killing the enemy is easy; it's finding him that is increasingly difficult.

So the action is happening at the platoon level and even lower, at the squad or team level, which means from levels of thirty people, at the most, down to teams of three or four, that are increasingly autonomous, which is the realm of the noncommissioned officer, the warrant officer or the sergeant, the corporal, and the lieutenant or the captain.

Yes, because of technology, generals can horn in and micromanage if they choose. But the best general will tell you, "My job is to back up the major or back up the sergeant, and listen in, but not to butt in; only to provide some direction here and there when there seems to be a problem."

So we are pushing power and responsibility out to the furthest edges of command, what you people in the corporate sector would call the point of contact with the customer—the customer being a tsunami victim, an insurgent who needs to be killed, a host country force who needs to be trained—where the military ends and the other side begins.

If you ask me, "What is the single most important imperative now for the U.S. military," I would say, "Raising even higher the standard of NCOs." Stop concentrating on West Point and Annapolis, and start concentrating on the Sergeant Majors Academy at El Paso, Texas, and the various leadership courses at Fort Benning and Camp Lejeune.

Just as an example: The problem the Marines have now is, when they move into an operation in Fallujah or Ramadi for instance, or when they are providing relief, having just come onshore from a carrier in Indonesia, normally the person in control of a team is a senior corporal who has been in the Marines four-and-a-half years. His enlistment is almost up, and he is getting out. That's a bad situation. What it has to be shifted to is where, instead, you have a staff sergeant who has just reenlisted for the second or third time and has at least four more years in the Corps. He is going to provide a lot more balance, discipline, leadership, and wisdom out there. That means changing the whole rotation of school cycles. This, in fact, is what the Marine Corps is looking at right now.

The future is fluidity. We make false distinctions between domestic operations like New Orleans and foreign operations like Afghanistan, between combat operations like Fallujah, between humanitarian relief operations like Indonesia. For the military, though, it all flows into one deployment after another. In other words, each deployment brings back lessons learned that enrich staff college curriculums.

The distinction between disaster relief and combat is much less than you think. It is only the training for expeditionary combat that enabled the marines and sailors to perform so well in Indonesia. Combat and relief is about quick insertion. It's about access. It's about establishing security perimeters the moment you're on the ground, because after you have a natural disaster, be it an earthquake, a flood,or a hurricane, normal security systems get swept away along with everything else, and if there wasn't lawlessness before, there is now.

In many countries in Africa where NGOs are operating, increasingly you have a situation where it's hard for them, for security reasons, to operate too far from the capital. So you're left to a military that has good relationships with the host-country military to get anything done.

Just a story about this. I was embedded for a month on a U.S. destroyer, the USS BENFOLD, off the coast of Indonesia. These sailors had seen action in Operation Iraqi Freedom of March 2003. In other words, they had fired some of the first missiles into Baghdad from their sub. So they were officially, these young boys and girls, in theater combat. But it was a video game for them. They weren't the Marines. Officially, they got combat citations and all of that, but the first time they saw real violence—mangled human bodies torn apart violently by Mother Nature, if not by man—was when they saw hundreds of bodies floating by them in the water. So this disaster relief operation traumatized them much more than official combat did.

I said the future is fluidity. What we have seen in Indonesia and New Orleans, and what we'll see more of, is the militarization of relief assistance, because of the lawlessness that erupts after a natural disaster, because the military, precisely by training for combat, is best equipped to provide relief fast, because it has the assets, air and sea assets. What's the first thing you need after a disaster, normally? Fresh water. The USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN can pump—pumped, in fact—hundreds of millions of gallons of fresh water onshore in Indonesia. They ramped that up, because the sailors did not take showers for two weeks in order to get more water available for the civilian people onshore.

What does that mean for the U.S. military? The military doesn't do nearly as good a job as it needs to in interfacing and interacting with civilian NGOs. The Navy is a bit ahead of the curve in this. They are trying to turn the USS MERCY and the USS HOPE, their hospital ships, into basically all-NGO ships, where the Navy will provide the security, the navigational direction, and will embed NGOs on these ships. It is a project that former General Zinni is interested in.

But that is where we are going. NGOs have to learn to work more and more with the American military, and vice versa—even more important.

Another issue here is that we are going to see more and more of these disasters, for the simple reason that you have vast urban populations living on environmentally, seismically, and climatically fragile places for the first time in human history. Two-thirds of China lives in a flood zone.

I did a cover piece in The Atlantic last June about how the U.S. military sees China, in terms of rising to China's "shop till you drop" policy on building nuclear submarines and acquiring them. But there's an irony in all of this. While the U.S. military Pacific Command is now formulating how to contain a rising Chinese military power, they also know that the first time U.S. troops go onshore in China may be for disaster relief, ten or twenty years from now. How they perform may have a great impact on stabilizing U.S.-Chinese relations. In an era of global mass media, whatever the politics are between two countries, if there is a massive disaster, that country simply, politically, cannot say no to any foreign element that has the assets and is able to provide relief on the spot.

Let me turn to Iraq for a little bit. The tragedy for the global war on terrorism, or whatever you want to call it, is that it arrived too soon. It arrived before the U.S. military had transformed itself from an archaic vertical-hierarchy Industrial Age beast into a more flattened corporate-style system.

I've been to Iraq a number of times. I was the first reporter with the Marines during the first battle of Fallujah. I can tell you that the greatest privilege of my life was being with young marines then. The moment combat started, the moment we were surrounded and shot at with RPGs, mortars, I saw eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds turn into calculating forty-year-olds. They went quiet and technical, picking their shots. One marine from the South Side of Chicago, tattoos all over him, was surrounded, a half-hour firefight, didn't get off one shot on his light-medium machine gun because he didn't have a clear view through his scope; too many civilians around.

They are real impressive, but they have to be more so here.

The problem with Iraq, though, is that you get on the ground and you go to Camp Liberty, Camp Blackjack, and you see how the U.S. is deployed for World War II when it is really fighting the Plains Indians from the nineteenth century. I call it the "Westmorelandization of Iraq."

There is all this talk in the media—"we need more troops." The problem is that the support tail is too long. We are not getting enough out of the troops we have. The way the big army works, if we had more troops, you would just have a longer support tail and more bureaucracy. That's the reality of it.

You have massive numbers of troops at these "Burger King-Little America" bases around Baghdad, doing very little and just earning hatred. Then you have small clusters of Special Forces marines outside who are undermanned and don't get the support that they need.

Remember, in the nineteenth century, the cavalry never got it right. The Indians constituted a guerilla force that emerged out of the landscape, that fought in small numbers. The cavalry always had too many horses along, foraging, too long a support tail, and their only area experts and cultural experts were the handful of mountain men and pathfinders. Had it not been for the railroad, the United States never would have expanded beyond the Great Plains.

We still have to prove that we can get it right.

Another issue the military is dealing with is democratization. An era of increasing liberalization around the world means an era of increasingly frustrating rules of engagement for the military. New democracies mean new medias, and new medias do not countenance U.S. troops running around on their soil killing people. So U.S. Special Forces is turning more towards unconventional warfare—how to kill without firing a shot—which means two things: becoming experts at humanitarian relief to win over subject populations, as they did very successfully in the southern Philippines; and then training host-country troops.

You cannot reform a whole army. Forget about it. But what you can do, even in the worst militaries, is take one or two battalions and bring those up to Western standards. You keep concentrating on the one and two battalions, and then you have a force that you can use. You can advise them. You have won over the population.

I believe, and I have written, that the model for the southern Philippines and the Sulu Archipelago is the only model that will work in the tribal agencies of Pakistan. I've been fighting for that.

Another thing is dealing with teenagers. Whether it's Iraq, Afghanistan, most of what is going on is not fighting. It's dealing in towns and villages with large groups of young men hanging around, without jobs or educational opportunities. That is where the National Guard comes in big-time. The guardsmen are often policemen, community policemen, in civilian life, who have many years, even decades, in doing exactly that. It's not a language issue. It's a knack; it's a charisma. It's something you learn over years. It can't be taught in an active-duty basic-training course.

So the dilemma the United States faces is that the most valuable people on the ground are the guardsmen. Yet the guardsmen signed up for one or two months and are deployed ten or eleven. Forget about it.

So forget a draft. In an age when it takes two or three years to train anyone to do anything useful, that is a romantic notion. What we are going towards is a part-time Guard, where people will do six months a year, and they will know it in advance so they can plan their lives creatively around it. They will be paid commensurately, with the benefits and all that.

I have met in my travels over the past three years people who call themselves "Guard bums," or "Reserve bums." They are people who are single, divorced, want to be deployed six, seven, eight months a year. They are able to work the system to do it and get extra pay. There are actually a lot of people out there like that. Again, we all live in an era where we have two or three jobs. We live creative lifestyles. It is no different at less economically affluent levels of society.

The media is part of the battle space. I saw the Marines perform magnificently in Fallujah, but the Pentagon did not. It did not have a media strategy for what was easily predictable. That is, when Marines invest a city, as careful as they are, certain things start to happen. You get a certain number of civilian casualties. You now no longer have an American media; you have a global cosmopolitan media that will focus on those civilian casualties, that will bring requisite political pressure on newly emerging Iraqi authorities. This is all basic. All this was predictable. Yet the Pentagon did not have a media strategy to back up the Marines, who had a perfectly orchestrated strategy on the tactical level.

But the military on the ground, these NCOs, these noncoms, are getting really good at things. Usually, my toughest days are the first few days when I am thrown into barracks. None of the sergeants or corporals know who I am, care who I am. It takes about a week before I can even take out my notebook.

Once, I walked into a Special Forces barracks in southern Afghanistan, and suddenly everyone was friendly; they wanted to be quoted. I said, "What's going on?" The master sergeant said, "We Googled you." As he explained, "In the age of the Internet, the media is not a crapshoot. We can do a probability analysis on any journalist who comes into our midst."

So there is a lot of inventiveness going on at the lower edges of command.

Let me just end with this note. As I see it, the U.S. military faces the most thankless task it ever has, which is to provide the security armature for an emerging global civilization. As these global governance forms increasingly become more and more articulate, they will, by very definition, be less and less thankful for the very military that helped them come into existence in the first place.

Thank you very much. Now I'm open for questions.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you. That was terrific.

I would like to open the floor for questions.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Thank you very much for that. I promise that you will never get an email from me asking whether I should marry at twenty-two.

You make a very convincing case in many respects. I particularly like your analysis of the militarization of disaster relief. But it seems to me that a fundamental premise of what you're saying is that the United States military are very good at what they do. But what I want to say to you is that there is a global perception, which is part of a negative feeling about the United States generally, I suspect, that they are not as good as people like you might claim. I think there are some critical things about the United States military that make them an essential partner in the world. They have strategic lift in a way in which nobody else has. They play a role in many crises globally that nobody else can.

But I think there is a sense, a widespread sense—and here I'm really relying on stereotypes, but also calling on experience of talking to other militaries who have worked with the United States—that very often the United States military is insensitive in local environments, that, for all of your claims about the master sergeant who can speak many languages, the United States military very often, in places like East Timor or in Somalia, are in a group together, working off a PX, and not relating very effectively to the local environment.

That is one of many criticisms made of them. But I guess my real question is, how good are they?

ROBERT KAPLAN: First of all, global perceptions are based a lot on global media. In almost every deployment that I've covered, outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, obviously, I've been the only media present. It wasn't because it was secret. I don't even have the phone number of the Pentagon's public affairs office, because the Pentagon is useless. The Pentagon really doesn't even know or is not aware of a lot of these deployments, in terms of when they are going to—it's so decentralized, to the level of the area command.

So I'm the only journalist. Others are invited, but nobody shows up. I spent the whole summer, not just in Algeria, but there were also training missions on Mauritania, Chad, Niger, Senegal. The New York Times was invited, The Washington Post. Nobody decided to cover it.

What I see is that, as I said, the reality is all these small deployments that nobody covers, so they cannot shape perceptions. The people on the ground are very happy, such as the Bolivian peasant being trained by reservists who are doing "vet cats," veterinary relief for their cattle. This kind of stuff is so mundane. There are dozens of them going on every day. But if they're not covered, they can't shape global perceptions.

The bad perception in Iraq is because it has gone badly, and if it's gone badly, it is the biggest news story, and it is going to shape perceptions.

The latest poll out of Afghanistan is, after four years, perceptions of the U.S. military are very good. Why is that? Because they are not in the big cities, and they have kept in relatively small numbers. Afghanistan is a big country. Ten or twenty thousand isn't that many. But because it has, relatively, gone well, given Afghan history, perceptions are high after four years.

Iraq is coloring a lot of this.

But let me say, as good as the military is, it has to get a lot better at working with NGOs, as I said. It has to get better at training NCOs, noncommissioned officers, as I said. One thing I neglected to say in the talk that you reminded me of is that the language issue is not nearly where it needs to be. There is a reason for it. They are producing all these exotic language speakers. A lot of them disappear into the NSA, outside Baltimore.

The other problem, as I have learned, is that you will not get numbers—you can get a master sergeant and a first sergeant, but I'm talking about numbers, mass numbers, of NCOs in the regular army speaking foreign languages—until you make it integral to rank promotion. You can't encourage people to crack out a grammar book after a hard ten-hour field day, when they have to get up at 5:00 the next morning. That's the issue, integrating it with rank promotion. Once you get that, once you start getting numbers who know languages, perceptions can change.

QUESTION: Bob, thank you for another terrific talk. I have, very briefly, a nitpick, an observation, and a question.

The nitpick is, you talked about how in today's media age it's impossible for governments. I think you were speaking of a hypothetical example of China and the United States, when you said it is impossible for governments to decline assistance from those who have assets.

ROBERT KAPLAN: Harder, yes.

QUESTIONER: I'm afraid we got evidence to the contrary just two months ago [after Hurricane Katrina], when the United States declined Cuba's offer of a hundred highly trained doctors ready to arrive with disaster relief experience.

As I said, it's a nitpick. But the Chinese can also have considerations going beyond the rational, in terms of what you actually need in a crisis.

The observation is about your comment about the Pentagon's media strategy, or the military's media strategy, not having worked very well: I would suggest that we actually have to divide that in two. There is a media strategy that has worked well for the American military. We have seen it in terms of big campaigns. The way in which the media was almost managed—some would even say, manipulated—in 2003, in April-May-June, is an example of a successful media strategy.

What the military has been less good at—and it's not just the U.S. military; we have had examples of it in the UN deployment in Haiti—has been media strategies for tactical operations, actually trying to explain to the media why they tried to do A in small location B and caused damage, casualties, and so on, and often in not explaining it before (because that's impossible, for operational reasons), and explaining it after. That's an observation.

Finally, the question—

ROBERT KAPLAN: Can you hold it a second? Because I'm going to forget.

Just on the nitpick: I'm trying to look ahead. You get increasing global media power. People are increasingly hooked into the world. It is going to get harder for governments to do this, if there is a perception that people are not being helped. That's all I am saying.

On the tactical thing, here is something that I've noticed. It is very hard for militaries to do this, because now we live in an age when elites and journalists have not served in the military. The United States has not had a draft for thirty years. There is very little tactical knowledge. So there is not an appreciation of how things go wrong, why they go wrong, why 60 percent success is sometimes all you can do.

The Israelis can have an easier time, because their journalists are all reservists. Their journalists are people who, four months later, will be in uniform. So they don't need this education outreach to educate journalists in why we are having these problems, why this is a difficult operation.

It's kind of the separation of the military and media classes, which is new in history, in a way. But that's an angle of it.

Go on to the question.

QUESTIONER: The question is really about NGOs. You remember the Balkans in the early 1990s. My recollection is one of extreme frustration on the part of militaries with NGOs, in peacekeeping deployments and humanitarian action. They constantly saw NGOs as organizations that tried to do too much, often driven by media agendas, publicity, and so on, and the military then had to come and bail them out.

What has changed? In your depiction now of the military practically embedding NGOs or being embedded with NGOs themselves? Is it the media that has served to shift the parameters of this debate? I guess the question is, what is different?

ROBERT KAPLAN: What has changed is that the military used to just wish away NGOs, and didn't want to deal with them. What has changed is that the military has come to the realization that the future is with the NGOs.

That doesn't mean they automatically work better with them in all situations, but it means that it will be incorporated into training and into staff planning. In other words, in the Philippines there was a discussion of what constitutes success, the end state. How do you define success? And 1st Special Forces Group defines success as "when we can turn it over to civilian NGOs," which happened to be Taiwanese NGOs and some others, I believe, from Singapore. I can't remember. They were Asian-based NGOs that employed local Filipinos. But that's how they would define success.

Again, nobody covered the whole operation, so it hasn't gone into public perceptions.

What I'm talking about are shifts, tendencies and shifts. Again, because of the shift in perception, I think you'll see improved changes.

But let me say, it's still the American military; a lot of people are very hostile to NGOs at the lower levels. Here's what they will say. They will say NGOs have a political agenda, just like the U.S. government has a political agenda.

The best example is Nepal, if I can digress for a minute. I was there for a few weeks. I think Nepal could be a Cambodia in the making. The government's military is imperfect. It doesn't do recordkeeping. It has no proper detention facilities. It's a Third World military. But it cannot be compared to the human rights atrocities of the Maoists. The anger among Defense attachés in Katmandu is that the UN and others will not make an announcement criticizing the Maoists without an equal one criticizing the Royal Nepalese Army. The perception is that they are playing with fire, because if Katmandu falls or something like that, then the whole focus is going to shift to who lost Nepal, so to speak.

So a lot of the remaining hostility to NGOs goes to the fact that they're players now; they have a political agenda just like others do.

QUESTION: You described this sergeant from New Hampshire as a prototype that you admire. But from the data I've been reading about what is coming into the American Army today, it's anything but your sergeant. The Army is very concerned about the lower levels of quality of the recruits. I happen to have listened to the chief of the Army talk about the long-range difficulties we are facing in getting healthy people and educated people and people who will have a future in the Army. Obviously, part of that is the fallout from Iraq.

But I wonder if you address that in your book: the quality of the American soldier and where it is going to come from.

ROBERT KAPLAN: I was very privileged. This book is all about elite units. It's all about Special Forces. It's all about top Marine line infantry units.

People join the Army or the Navy for a whole bunch of reasons, not necessarily to fight. When it appears that they may actually have to fight, recruitment tends to fall during those periods. Many people join for social betterment, to rise in the social scale. This is true in armies throughout the world. So the fact that there is a drop-off in recruitment because of Iraq is quite normal. It's not where they join; it's where they end up after ten years of training, too.

That goes right back to what I said. The heart of transformation is NCO training. It is not the elite service academies.

Keep in mind also that they are going to be gradually ramping up the number of specialized units, because that's where the future lies—less in mass numbers and more in specialized units. That's why we have seen—and Peter Singer will talk more about this in December as part of this series—that is why we have seen the allure of these private security agencies. In an era when number is becoming gradually less important and the quality of the individual troop has more importance, these private security agencies can offer quality, because they sometimes will only hire people who have twenty or thirty years of experience.

But it is a problem. You are absolutely right. It won't be a problem if this becomes a mini-trend that ends after a year or two. But if it goes on for three or four or five years, it's really going to impact the military a decade from now.

QUESTION: I direct a research program called the Security-Development Nexus. I just came back from a meeting in Europe. The discussions there focused on some of the issues that you're dealing with. But the European response is not to go the military route, but to look at civilian crisis management, because most of the threats that you've identified are not really military in nature, including the humanitarian disasters.

I was wondering if you have any ideas about investing in a different type of crisis and conflict management on the American side, and also your response to the European strategy.

ROBERT KAPLAN: On one hand, if you had an official from the American military here, they would be hoping that you are right, because they are uncomfortable with a lot of these new details and responsibilities. But they would probably also say that these things are gradual and take time, and meanwhile, we have disasters occurring on a greater frequency.

But here's where I disagree with you. I think these natural disasters are primarily military operations, because you have a total collapse of systems. You have need of access and getting food and other things fast to outlying places. There is a saying in all militaries around the world: Amateurs discuss tactics, rank amateurs discuss strategy, and professionals discuss logistics. Everything comes down to logistics, particularly in a humanitarian relief operation. If there is one thing militaries, as a class, tend to be very good at, it is moving things in the supply line.

For instance, the very invasion of Iraq in 2003. There was some civilian high Defense official who said to a top general, "Why are you guys complaining and pointing out the problems? All we want you to do is drive your tanks 400 miles to Baghdad." The general went crazy. He said, "Do you know what supply lines mean? Fresh water bottles, this, that, gasoline, food, attacks from the rear, and so on."

But these are the same kinds of issues that come to the fore once there is a disaster emergency.

I hope you are eventually right. But on the other hand, the greater the natural disaster, I think, the more it becomes a military exercise, in the early phases.

QUESTION: You talked a lot about the trends in the military—more flexible deployments, a focus on noncommissioned officers, et cetera. Can you add value judgments to those? You talked about the trends, but are they good things, and the impact on American society of all this?

ROBERT KAPLAN: I think they're very good things. I think the genius of Western militaries that was exported from Europe to the United States during the winter at Valley Forge by Baron von Steuben was the radical decentralization of command.

Comparison is the beginning of all serious scholarship. I have also embedded with Third World militaries. I spent a while with a Nepalese ranger battalion this summer, which happened to be very, very, very good. But generally speaking, Third World militaries have great officer corps, born of aristocrats, and very weak, subservient NCOs. So what you get is captains and majors micromanaging everything and only getting half of what they need to done. So a lot of things happen during a discussion, but they don't happen on the ground.

What really makes a good military is radical decentralization, where the captain or major says, "I need five things accomplished," and then the staff sergeants break it down, the sergeants break it down, the corporals break down, and every little detail is done. As we all know, success is in the execution, in the operation on the ground. That's probably true of any bureaucracy.

In order to get a more effective U.S. military—effective in every way you want to think of—you're going to need more pushing out of responsibility, with the commensurate training, to NCOs.

So I think it's a very, very, very good trend.

QUESTION: I used to work in Africa, and more recently, on global population movements, migration and refugees.

I just want to ask you one basic question. You have had a great recent career demonstrating how things fall apart, and now with Imperial Grunts, which I haven't had a chance to read yet, you are showing who is picking up the pieces and how this might best be done. I am asking, do you have any suggestions for what other, broader policies might be developed to, to some extent, prevent things from falling apart as much as they are?

ROBERT KAPLAN: There is a tendency in human society that things have to get worse before people pay attention. We all belabor it, but we keep making the same mistake. Get in early. It's hard to get in early in a global media age, because the nature of the media is to run in herds towards crises. For instance, I have been trying to get attention to Nepal. Nobody is interested.

Get in early. When anyone gets in early, even when it's the American military, with all the suspicions against them, it means they can get in with just a few people, who are usually the best trained people. They can usually handpick area experts, and everybody likes them. But the more numbers you have to bring in, the more you're dealing with regular people, the more hostility they engender, the harder it is to get something done.

You can apply the same thing to NGOs and international organizations. It is to identify crises ahead of time and get in early.

QUESTIONER: Get in early to do what?

ROBERT KAPLAN: A number of things. First of all, crisis management. For instance, I'm very worried now about Eritrea and Ethiopia. My first book was on the Horn of Africa, about seventeen years ago. Eritrea could have a coup in the middle of the night, with a new president tomorrow, which would be a good thing, I've come to believe. On the other hand, they could launch another war with Ethiopia. The last one caused about 10,000 deaths.

The Ethiopian cabinet is not that stable either. You basically have two ethnically riven guerilla leaders still in control, two countries with very significant armies, very aggressive foreign policies. Ethiopia is also getting weaker and weaker. It's falling apart.

The only people who have really gone in there and tried to reason with people—and they have torn their hair out— are people like the one-star brigadier general, an American general based in Djibouti, Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, who goes around to Asmara, to Addis Ababa, and tries to conciliate. But he's a one-star general. He can't have much success. It is not front and center on the radar screen. That is just one example.

But crisis management—with satellites and everything, you can identify potential famines much more easily than you could in the past.

QUESTION: I'm having trouble reconciling the way you dismiss the idea of a draft with an answer to a previous question, that anywhere from three to five years out, if we continue fighting this insurgency in Iraq, this is going to continue to have an impact on recruitment. Maybe you can help me there.

By the way, what are our national interests in Nepal?

ROBERT KAPLAN: Nepal is 27 million people. It is squeezed between India and China, the two rising economic and demographic behemoths of the age. Indian stability is dramatically affected by Nepal. Most of Nepal's 27 million people live on the Indian border and along India's most ungovernable state to begin with, Behar. China also has a lot of ethnic difficulties in the western part, with the Uyghurs. It doesn't need another problem.

If we are concerned with continued successful Indian and Chinese evolution, we don't want Nepal to fall apart.

As far as the draft is concerned, here's the issue. If you start a draft, you're not thinking of the problem now; you're thinking of how we are going to be ten years out, fifteen years out. You don't institute a draft just to stop it five or ten years later.

For the military now for most people to do anything useful, they need at least a few years' training, because of the technology. By technology, I don't mean computers. Even to handle a basic M4 rifle now, with the scope, with all the laser devices on it, the various systems that people carry on them—it's about $10,000, $20,000 worth of equipment that the average soldier now carries, because of technology. Training to use it correctly as second nature, the way you drive a shift car, is taking longer and longer.

If you are going to have a draft for one or two years, it becomes simply impractical.

The second issue is that the volunteer American military is what it is. It thinks of itself as an elite cast. The military itself is against a draft, very vehemently so. I'm not getting into the whole area of national service, which is quasi-military, semi-military. That is a whole other issue that people can explore who know it better than I do. But to have mass conscription into the military, given the trends in technology, where we are going, given morale in the military now, I just don't see as practical.

QUESTION: In light of the changes that you are talking about in the military, what changes in the Defense budget would you urge?

ROBERT KAPLAN: Frankly, the Defense budget is so big and vast, it is not something I have looked at, at all, in the last few years. Rather than get into budgetary issues, let me give you the things that I think the top civilian leadership talks about but really doesn't focus on and needs to focus on.

Talk is cheap about language training and human skills. But unless the secretary makes it one of his top five or eight issues personally and gets a bug up his backside on it and communicates his intent down the chain of command, nothing happens. The secretary talks about it when he has to, but, really, it's not one of his major interests. The closest thing that he has a real concern for that is related to that is an emphasis on Special Forces. But that's very indirect.

I think that Special Forces needs to admit women. It needs to become more multiracial, because we're entering a coffee-brown mestizo world racially. Special Forces doesn't reflect that, and it needs to, to be more effective in intelligence-gathering operations and all kinds of unconventional war operations. Special Forces needs to evolve further. The regular army has to become more Special Forces-like.

The Navy and the Air Force have to think smaller, not bigger—smaller ships, more austere dirt runways, rather than bigger bases and bigger ships. We probably shouldn't be building more carriers, but the carriers we have we should keep refitting for decades to come, because they are very useful offshore bases. If we are going to have more disasters like New Orleans and the tsunami, carriers are perfect offshore platforms to provide aid, not just for the water they can pump, but to get helicopters onshore.

So carriers are not going away. I don't think we should build more. But apparently they are considering building more.

I think we should think about phasing out the larger boomer submarines, except for the few that are going to be refitted, where the ballistic missiles are coming out, and they are going to be fitted to provide living quarters for SEAL teams, SEAL commando teams.

We will continue to need fast-attack nuclear subs. But again, you don't need to build one for $1.2 billion. You can get another fifteen years out of one for $100 million or $200 million, by refueling the reactor. We can use them, again, because they provide great platforms in all kinds of emergencies, and in many ways, they are better listening devices than satellites.

The problem, though, with transformation is the Army. The Army is the biggest. It's a mass organization. You people in the room know that reforming a mass organization is the ultimate challenge.

The one thing about the Marines is that they're always intellectually curious. They are thinking out of the box and ahead of the curve. They are small. Because they are small, they can constantly kind of reinvent themselves.

But the emphasis has to be on the Army, I think.

QUESTION: Two aspects. One, in revisiting some of the things that you have said in terms of group-think, John Burns of The New York Times was very critical of his fellow journalists in the early part of the war in Iraq, saying that they were, in fact, getting their information from the Iraqi spokesman. They were all together. He said he saw the war very differently than they did. And it was, indeed, very different under Burns' reporting.

So, one, there is a tendency to think together, because they all hang around together.

The second aspect deals again with something that you brought up, and that is that fewer and fewer people have seen service in the military. There is also a predisposition to feel that all conflict can be resolved, that people just don't go to war, if they're rational. Well, the reality is that they do, and that conflicts are going to erupt, and, in fact, there are going to be body counts. Despite the fact that the military does receive all kinds of training in trying to reduce collateral damage, so-called—in other words, civilian deaths—there are still going to be people killed. You've talked about that.

To what extent does that put an additional kind of pressure on the military? One, they are there to, literally, kill. They have made that point. But that's not acceptable to even us in this room sometimes. How do you really wage a war that way, with the military under some pressure and the journalists saying, "You can't do that"?

ROBERT KAPLAN: Journalists run in herds because of the pressure they are under from their editors. They are terrified that a colleague is going to get a scoop on a story that their editor cares about. So they are all watching each other.

I am very privileged. I don't do breaking news. I write long magazine pieces, in a magazine whose philosophy is, if it can't hold up for a few years, it's not worth writing in the first place. And I write books. So I can be a loner, so to speak. Burns can be too, simply because of his privileged position in the hierarchy.

I would go one step further on this. There is a lot of criticism of embedding. I think embedding is one of the last chances the American media has to keep itself honest. It's the only way left where they can have a sustained relationship with the working class that is meaningful in any sense. They spend too much time with elites, whether it's American elites, foreign elites, or others. This is the last opportunity they have to kind of have a real relationship with working-class America. I'm not talking about the poor; I'm talking about the working class.

In terms of this tension, for people in the military, throughout history, their biggest hobby is complaining. In the barracks at night, everyone is complaining. If they don't complain, then you know morale is real bad, that there is really a problem. One of the things that they complain about is, "We're supposed to take this city, but we're not supposed to hurt anybody. If one kid gets injured, that's what everyone is going to write about." You should see when the captains give the briefings on rules of engagement.

I happened to be with a Marine platoon. We were fired at from all directions. It was real confusing. It was in the backstreets of Fallujah. It was so confusing that, unless you were an expert at this who had done years and years, you couldn't tell what the narrative was, essentially—who was firing, what was going on.

We got out of it. At the end of it, there was one man lying dead on the floor, a civilian. The captain knew immediately that it was one of the marines who shot him, because it was 5.56 bullet round, not a 7.62. Afterwards, the captain goes back into this filthy garage—nobody has slept for two days now—and just starts screaming and ranting in the debrief about the lack of discipline, that this could happen.

It's hard. You want an answer? I don't have one. This is just a story from the front.

Thank you.

JOANNE MYERS: I want to thank you for being our own special marine—intellectually curious and always speaking out of the box.

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