Eternal War

In the early 1990’s, Robert Kaplan went to West Africa and saw the future: Disease, overpopulation, crime, war, refugees, private armies, scarce resources, ecological disasters, and various other evils were about to reduce the entire region to a condition in which life would be as “nasty, brutish, and short” as anything ever imagined by Thomas Hobbes.

Kaplan’s vision of Africa’s future appeared in “The Coming Anarchy,” an article in the February 1994 edition of the Atlantic Monthly. He subsequently attached the same title to a book published in 2001. From the more dismal part of whatever library he uses, Kaplan summoned Thomas Malthus, “the philosopher of demographic doomsday, who is now the prophet of West Africa’s future. And West Africa’s future, eventually, will also be that of most of the rest of the world.”

While waiting for West Africa to slide into the ocean, Kaplan became an accepted authority on military matters. The Atlantic put him on salary. Military scribes called him brilliant. The American Navy, always eager for a new trick, hired him to lecture at the U.S. Naval Academy.

But by November of 2007, over a decade after “The Coming Anarchy” appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Kaplan had returned both Hobbes and Malthus to the open stacks and someone had resuscitated West Africa, which Malthus had led us to believe was as close to dead as the west end of a continent can get. Who performed this miracle? The Pentagon. Who else?

“Africa matters,” Kaplan explains with the first two words of “The Next Frontier,” a revelation from the leased wires of, November 1, 2007. With his gift of prophecy again in control of the keyboard, Kaplan writes, “The Pentagon’s decision to stand up a war-fighting command exclusively for Africa by the end of 2008 presages a new direction for the global war on terrorism.”

It’s so like the Pentagon to revive a continent with a global war.

But why would the happy warriors in the Pentagon want to “stand up” a command for Africa, which only recently, in whole or in part, was so close to death that we were ready to re-shelve it with Hobbes and Malthus forever?

Kaplan explains: “Without seeking to conquer or govern anything, the American military is pursuing a strategy of security linkages similar to those of the French 150 years ago.”

Conquering and governing cost too much. The Pentagon’s plan to save Africa and (as we will see) the rest of the world for the American Empire contains a money-saving bonus. “No permanent bases will be needed, just cooperative security facilities owned by the host country and supported by civilian contractors, used quietly and austerely by the Americans.” The writing in this sentence presents a verbal shell game, concealing all the familiar ingredients of the “War on Terror”-mercenaries, torture, assassinations, and unlimited cash for the purchase of intelligence that may or may not be true-all contained within “cooperative security facilities” used “quietly and austerely.” How cleverly we hide our evil.

But there’s even more. Kaplan goes on to say that at one time he favored “major military involvement in the Middle East.” That’s what he wanted it, and that’s what he got. Iraq and Afghanistan were pretty major. But Kaplan has changed his mind. It’s a little late, but what does he want now?

What he wants now is “a low-hanging-fruit strategy aimed at discreetly killing select groups of Islamic terrorists here and there.” This “here and there” sounds a little vague, but Kaplan has plenty of details to relieve our doubts. He refers to the kind of combat that requires “small-scale elite ground units” that will engage in long wars requiring no exit strategy, wars that will last forever if necessary. These wars will be “relentless and low-key,” involving “small-scale military strikes that do not generate bad publicity” or, one suspects, any publicity at all, given that small wars are the easiest to conduct in secret.

In 2005, Imperial Grunts crept into a bookstore near you. It explains everything about Kaplan’s new enthusiasm for low-hanging-fruit assassinations, elite ground units, and eternal war.

The first thing that grabs your attention in Imperial Grunts is a map of the world, which spreads itself across two pages at the front of the book. Lines divide the entire map into five sections, each with a name like SOUTHCOM (Southern Command) or PACOM (Pacific Command). As Kaplan recently explained, AFRICOM (African Command) will soon raise the number of sections to six. A caption above the map says: THE WORLD WITH COMMANDERS’ AREAS OF RESPONSIBILITY.

If you have any understanding of the U.S. military and the people whose interests it serves, it won’t take you long to see what this map represents. It shows the American Empire, divided into what may or may not be manageable sections. No matter where you’re located on this map, once the United States decides you’re a threat to its interests, it will label you a terrorist, and heavily armed men in your part of the world will soon send you the way of all low-hanging fruit. If you present a difficult target, those same men will simply destroy the whole orchard.

When Robert Kaplan first saw a large version of this map hanging on a wall in the Pentagon, he underwent a religious experience not unlike that of the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus. “I stared at it for days on and off, transfixed. How could the U.S. not constitute a global military empire? I thought.”

He’s not kidding, and he’s entirely correct.

At this point, Kaplan sets out to meet the American grunts who kill low-hanging fruit in the various sections of the U.S. Empire. Bob politely calls these sections SOUTHCOM, PACOM, and so on, but the grunts, he tells us, have the habit of calling everything “Indian Country” or “Injun Country.” One might find these locutions insensitive, but Bob says they’re “never meant as a slight against Native North Americans. Rather, the reverse.” For the grunts and their officers, the wars with America’s Indians taught the U.S. military how to fight the small, endless wars that Kaplan says will now be required to defend the American Empire. So off he goes to places “here and there.”

While marching across SOUTHCOM, Kaplan stops in Colombia, with “its vast untapped oil reserves,” to find Army Special Forces teaching Colombian troops how to kill low-hanging “narco-terrorists,” although an American sergeant admits that the poor quality of noncommissioned officers in the Colombian army makes it difficult to record much progress. Because this war is scheduled to last forever, the Colombian noncoms still have time for self-improvement. While waiting, Kaplan launches an obligatory verbal attack on President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, claiming that Chávez has his “fingerprints all over the narco-terrorist operation in South America.”

As I write this in January of 2008, President Chávez has just negotiated the release of two hostages by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The hostages, Consuelo González de Perdomo and Clara Rojas, are Colombian politicians. In widely reprinted photographs by Howard Yanes of the Associated Press, the women appear with President Chávez, two babies, and various adults. All but the babies are singing the national anthems of Colombia and Venezuela.

Referring to other hostages still in captivity, Chávez later told reporters in Guatemala, “I ask for help from the governments of Latin America, from the governments of the world, so we free all of them.” The Bush-Cheney administration is burned up about all this. When President Chávez is freeing hostages and holding babies, he really doesn’t look like a terrorist.

Twenty pages after calling President Chávez a narco-terrorist, Kaplan has deserted Colombia and landed in Mongolia, a country that sits on the northern rim of PACOM. Mongolia has 2.5 million citizens, all of whom easily fit within an area over twice the size of Texas.

In this distant country, Bob meets U.S. Army Lt. Col. Thomas Wilhelm. Among other goals and objectives, Col. Wilhelm wants to help the local military prevent “transnational terrorism” in Mongolia, even though the country is so large and so remote that a terrorist could spend a lifetime finding anyone to terrorize. Before Bob packs his bags and heads for someplace with more violence to depict in his quiet and austere way, Wilhelm points out that “the rise of Christian evangelicalism helped stop the indiscipline of the Vietnam-era Army.”

Col. Wilhelm’s reference to God’s saving grace among the U.S armed forces provides a convenient entrée to one of Kaplan’s major themes in Imperial Grunts. Everywhere he goes, he finds God on his side. And this deity is no flabby Methodist, Presbyterian, or Lutheran God. He’s a Southern Baptist God who grants salvation only to born-again, evangelical Christians.

Later, in Afghanistan, Kaplan meets Capt. Lee Nelson, an evangelical chaplain who is also the minister of a Baptist Church in Florida. After watching Capt. Nelson perform his duties, Kaplan has an epiphany: “the martial evangelicalism of the South [gives] the U.S. military its true religious soul.” Then Kaplan meets another southerner with soul, Tony Dill, a major with the Special Forces. Among other achievements, Dill once parachuted onto the infield of a racetrack while a NASCAR race was in progress. Kaplan doesn’t say who won the race.

After returning to the United States, Kaplan experiences yet another epiphany. “The Deep South was heavily represented in the military,” This is also true of the Middle West, Puerto Rico, East St. Louis, and Pittsburg, but Kaplan doesn’t mention it.

At this point, Kaplan starts to sound like a combination of Jimmy Swaggart and Barney Fife:

The American military, especially the NCOs, who were the guardians of its culture and traditions, constituted a world of beer, cigarettes, instant coffee, and chewing tobacco, like Copenhagen and Red Man. It was composed of people who hunted, drove pickups, employed profanities as a matter of dialect, and yet had a literal, demonstrable belief in the Almighty.

Having finished this collection of Hee Haw generalizations, Kaplan gives us the lowdown on the Marines. Sadly, he has to report that these guys aren’t all southerners. “They [are] simply generic working class from all regions of the country.” They have a much longer tradition than the Army Special Forces. They have unlimited faith in their own ability. And they’re experts at low-hanging-fruit removal, having contributed the Small Wars Manual to the library of American military strategy.

The farther Kaplan goes into the land of Copenhagen and Red Man, the more embarrassing he becomes. While still with the Special Forces in Colombia, he says, “I was beginning to love these guys,” referring to “three well-spoken men with tattoos,”

Back with the Marines in Iraq, a general tells Kaplan how to deal with the locals: “Wave at them, but have a plan to kill them.” But don’t let the job of killing obscure the spiritual side of the Marines. “In fact, the U.S. Marines came from the East, from the Orient. That was their spiritual tradition. It was the legacy of their naval landings throughout the Pacific,”

Bob, get hold of yourself. Help is available if you need it.

Despite Kaplan’s love for the “martial evangelicalism of the South,” at last report he hadn’t found a nice cottage in Mississippi, Alabama, or anyplace else in the South where he could settle down, talk dirty, and chew tobacco. Instead, when Imperial Grunts first appeared at your supermarket checkout line, he was still living in western Massachusetts, whose people he dismisses as Democrats, pacifists, and bad journalists.

Because of Kaplan’s occasional sappiness, it would be easy to ignore him. But that would be a mistake. Kaplan is entirely humorless, and what he reveals isn’t funny. With Imperial Grunts, he lays out America’s long-term plan to loot those countries of the world least able to defend themselves. And if they don’t like it, tough shit. The Pentagon is ready for Eternal War.

PATRICK IRELAN is a retired high-school teacher. He is the author of A Firefly in the Night (Ice Cube Press) and Central Standard: A Time, a Place, a Family (University of Iowa Press). You can contact him at