The Mirage of Empire

George W. Bush
George W. Bush; drawing by David Levine

In Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (2002) Kaplan moved away from reportage and presented a forceful statement of a realist view of international relations. Peace is a precondition of civilized life; but without the ability to deploy force, he argued, peace is in jeopardy, and along with it civilization. In my view rightly, Kaplan and other realist thinkers believe this connection between peace and the possible use of force to be a permanent feature of human affairs. However, at this point the question is who, if anyone, possesses the ability to use force effectively in global conflicts? In Warrior Politics, Kaplan answered that only the United States possesses this ability. America must accept that history has given it an imperial role:

Despite our anti-imperial traditions, and despite the fact that imperialism is delegitimized in public discourse, an imperial reality already dominates our foreign policy.

Kaplan is not alone in arguing that America must embrace an imperial destiny. While they may not talk of empire, many neoconservative and some liberal commentators have presented a similar view of the US as the final guarantor of global security. Where Kaplan is distinctive is in claiming that America’s imperial mission follows from a realist analysis of contemporary international relations, and asking how the sections of the American military that have the task of implementing this mission perceive their role. In Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground, he reports on his travels to US military bases in every quarter of the globe. Kaplan enjoyed a degree of access to US military bases and personnel that is rare if not unique among contemporary journalists. The result has many weaknesses; but it is a consistently thought-provoking and vividly evocative book (the first of several he plans to write on the subject, he tells us) that challenges many preconceptions about the place of the military in American life and the world.

During Kaplan’s travels he talked with (and came ardently to admire) middle-ranking commissioned and noncommissioned officers charged with a variety of demanding and dangerous operations. He seems especially enamored of those he met in Special Forces, “small light and lethal units of soldiers and marines,” who are able to act with a speed and flexibility denied to “dinosauric, industrial age infantry divisions.” For Kaplan, the special commando component of the US Marine Corps (SOCOM) is now the core of the American military. Operating on the front line of the “war on terror” in many far-flung countries, these elite fighters remind Kaplan of the volunteer cavalry and dragoons that fought the highly mobile guerrilla forces of North American Indians who resisted westward expansion in the second half of the nineteenth century:

Just as the stirring poetry and novels of Rudyard Kipling celebrated the work of British imperialism in subduing the Pushtuns and Afridis of India’s Northwest Frontier, a Kipling…

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