Friday, May 29, 2009

A Different Perspective

Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground
by Robert Kaplan

I highly doubt that I would ever have picked this up to read on my own. It just is not the type of book that would normally grab me. A church member had read it and thought it provided some useful insights. I also had read Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts several years ago and knew him to be a clear writer who presents information well, so I decided to give Imperial Grunts a try.

I'm glad I read this, although I don't think it is one that I will read over and over. I have very ambivalent feelings about the military. I deeply appreciate their service to our country and am fully aware of the sacrifice that our servicemen and women make to preserve freedom and promote democracy. I pray for their safety on a daily basis. However, I am also against war in principle and pray just as fervently for the day to come when world leaders find ways other than violence to work out differences. Wouldn't it be great if the military (as we know it anyway) were rendered obsolete? I think it is possible to support the troops and be grateful for them while at the same time hoping that the world changes to the point that we put them out of business.

Kaplan's book is great for giving us the larger picture of life inside the military. He spent time embedded with American military units in a variety of places including (among others) Colombia (fighting drug lords), the Philippines, Camp Lejeune, Djibouti, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He got to know committed soldiers as individuals and human beings, and observed their day to day lives in an intimate and honest way. His excellent writing conveys their hardships and frustrations, but also their fervency, fear, dedication, and desire for excellence.

I am not one who normally rags on the supposed liberal media or who believes that newspapers and television journalists intentionally present information that is not true. I do see from Imperial Grunts, though, that there is a lot that goes on under the radar that is either unreported for security reasons or under reported because scandals like Abu Ghraib take center stage. For every serviceman or woman who engages in questionable interrogation tactics or other abhorrent behavior, there are probably 100 who want to forge a peaceful world and who make relationship with the local people, wherever they are serving, a top priority.

It was gratifying to read about the efforts that our military makes to win the hearts and minds of the people in the places where our military maintains a presence (whether in a wartime, combat location or a peacekeeping detail). The American military provides a lot of personal health care, builds a lot of schools, distributes a lot of food, and gives a lot of kids gum that it does not get much credit for. Some of this is because the American military works in a low key and gives the credit to the local military in a sincere effort to build credibility and indigenous leadership.
Most of these women and men do not want to engage in violence, and see combat as a last resort. However, it is unfortunately part of their jobs and that will not change anytime soon. It was nice to read about other more positive things that they do.

Imperial Grunts also describes some bloody combat operations in great detail, and it is clear that there are some guys who relish it (shudder). My guess, though, is that they are a minority. Most just see it as part of their responsibility, a price that has to be paid for a more peaceful world. I remain unconvinced that war is the way we should go, but after reading this I have a greater appreciation for the breadth of activities that the military personnel engage in. Given my theological objections to war and my personal commitment to peacemaking, there were parts of Imperial Grunts that were hard to read, but I am glad I did. Without radically changing my views, Kaplan's book did round them out a little, and that is almost always a good thing.

Reverent Reader


At 5/29/09, 7:36 PM , Anonymous Pam said...

Looks good from this end!


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