Way of war that binds US sol­diers

Stephen Loosley

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

IT was a Ger­man who es­tab­lished the foun­da­tions of the mod­ern US mil­i­tary cul­ture by cre­at­ing a corps of pro­fes­sional, ded­i­cated non- com­mis­sioned of­fi­cers, en­cour­aged al­ways to use their ini­tia­tive. Robert D. Ka­plan writes of this his­tor­i­cal con­se­quence of the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion­ary War in Hog Pi­lots, Blue Wa­ter Grunts : ‘‘ The Prus­sian baron Friedrich von Steuben, dur­ing the 1777- 78 win­ter at Val­ley Forge, had laid the ground­work for this NCO corps.

‘‘ Thus he pro­vided the bedrock for the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary: the rad­i­cal de­cen­tral­i­sa­tion of com­mand, so that the gen­eral di­rec­tive of ev­ery of­fi­cer was bro­ken down into prac­ti­cal steps by sergeants and cor­po­rals and petty of­fi­cers at the far­thest edges of the bat­tle­field. Of­fi­cers gave or­ders, NCOs got things done.’’

It is this per­spec­tive that guides Ka­plan’s most re­cent ac­count of his global ex­pe­ri­ences with the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary op­er­at­ing abroad, or op­er­at­ing from within the US with im­pact abroad.

Ka­plan is fol­low­ing the suc­cess of his ear­lier work, Im­pe­rial Grunts , which also recorded the ex­pe­ri­ences of US fight­ing men and women de­ployed from the Sa­hara to South Amer­ica. Fal­lu­jah in Iraq cap­tured the head­lines at the time. But Ka­plan was equally in­ter­ested in those small units, in­volved in counter- in­sur­gency and train­ing lo­cal al­lies, en­deav­our­ing to meet the chal­lenges of small wars. He re­tains this in­ter­est.

It was Alan Clark in The Don­keys , his study of the Bri­tish ex­pe­di­tionary force on the West­ern Front in 1915, who pop­u­larised the de­scrip­tion of coura­geous troops be­ing led by in­com­pe­tent dolts as ‘‘ Li­ons led by Don­keys’’, a phrase coined by a Ger­man mil­i­tary strate­gist, Max Hoff­mann.

Hog Pi­lots, Blue Wa­ter Grunts By Robert D. Ka­plan Ran­dom House ( US), 428pp, $ 48

In Ka­plan’s world, how­ever, bonds be­tween of­fi­cers, non- coms and fight­ing men and women are usu­ally very strong, based on mu­tual trust and re­spect. In the uni­verse of the grunts, the don­keys are to be found not in com­mand in the field but in bul­let- headed pol­icy- mak­ing in the Pen­tagon in the era of Don­ald Rums­feld.

Ka­plan con­fronts the dilemma in th­ese terms, quot­ing the Por­tuguese poet Fer­nando Pes­soa, who once ob­served that men of ac­tion are the un­wit­ting slaves of men of in­tel­lect.

‘‘ Pes­soa’s cat­e­gories may be too grand and too neat, but there is a core of truth in his ob­ser­va­tion. It’s cer­tainly true that in re­gard to Iraq, th­ese sol­diers and marines had to deal with the con­se­quences of ideas about lib­er­a­tion, oc­cu­pa­tion and democ­racy that were the prod­uct mainly of civil­ians in Wash­ing­ton with or ( usu­ally) with­out ex­pe­ri­ence on the ground.’’

Ka­plan first came to promi­nence nearly 20 years ago and earned much of his rep­u­ta­tion for in­sight and ob­ser­va­tion in an ar­ti­cle in The At­lantic ti­tled ‘‘ The Com­ing An­ar­chy’’.

He em­ployed West Africa as a metaphor for the fu­ture of mankind, with rich elites guarded by private armies liv­ing in fortress com­pounds in af­flu­ence, sur­rounded by shanty towns teem­ing with crime, poverty, drugs and dis­sent.

It was a com­pelling ar­gu­ment. Could the set­tled planet’s fu­ture ac­tu­ally be found in the streets of down­town Mon­rovia? He pro­ceeded to con­firm his po­si­tion as one of the most in­flu­en­tial jour­nal­ists in print.

His trav­els in East­ern Europe and Cen­tral Asia in the wake of the col­lapse of the Soviet em­pire, doc­u­mented in Balkan Ghosts and East­ward to Tar­tary, pro­duced mi­nor clas­sics analysing so­ci­eties com­ing to grips with the dis­ap­pear­ance of Marx­ist- Lenin­ist or­tho­dox­ies while be­ing con­fronted by raw cap­i­tal­ism.

As with the best of mil­i­tary books, Hog Pi­lots is writ­ten over­whelm­ingly from the per­spec­tive of fight­ing men and women on the front line. It dis­tils the ca­ma­raderie, the jokes and the bitch­ing, the brav­ery and de­vo­tion to com­rades of the best of com­bat lit­er­a­ture, from Erich Re­mar­que’s sear­ing All Quiet on the West­ern Front to the bru­tal hon­esty of Fred­eric Man­ning’s The Mid­dle Parts of For­tune .

A cen­tral theme of Hog Pi­lots is the ev­i­dent spirit of self- sac­ri­fice and small- unit co­he­sion

that char­ac­terises US mil­i­tary peo­ple de­ployed abroad. Scott Fitzger­ald be­lieved this spirit had been lost in World War I, but it was not to be. Ka­plan cites William Manch­ester’s evoca­tive mem­oir of his marine days in the Pa­cific dur­ing World War II, Good­bye Dark­ness , with its em­pha­sis on the com­mit­ment of sol­diers to one an­other, as still em­body­ing the cul­ture of the US mil­i­tary un­der fire.

Hog Pi­lots is an in­tensely ab­sorb­ing book. There is hardly a para­graph that lacks in­trin­sic in­ter­est, and he has not lost his eye for ei­ther the ac­cu­rate or the ab­surd.

Ka­plan trav­els with in­fantry­men and sub­mariners, marines and pi­lots, sailors and spe­cial forces. They walk with clar­ity and hu­man­ity through his pages, from Bo­sun’s Mate Andrew Rader of Ne­wark, New Jer­sey, on the USS Ben­fold, to Lt- Col Paul W. Tib­bets IV of Mont­gomery, Alabama, of the 393 Bomb Squadron in Guam, the grand­son of Paul W. Tib­bets Jr, who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Ka­plan is lit­tle con­cerned with geostrate­gic the­ory, but he makes the oc­ca­sional com­ment in pass­ing, as in not­ing that the US’s with­drawal of aid to the Nepalese mil­i­tary fight­ing Maoist in­sur­gents was quickly re­placed by Chi­nese mil­i­tary as­sis­tance.

But Ka­plan is def­i­nitely con­cerned with the dis­con­nect he sees be­tween the US war­rior class in its armed ser­vices, of­ten drawn from the states of the old Con­fed­er­acy, and the po­lit­i­cal, in­tel­lec­tual and busi­ness elites that gov­ern in Wash­ing­ton and New York.

This leads di­rectly to the prob­lem of how to fight a mid­dle war, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, against the de­mands of the 24- hour news cy­cle in an open democ­racy. The lessons of Viet­nam have not yet been learned. Ka­plan does not an­swer this ques­tion. But in the ab­sence of a cit­i­zen army, com­posed of draftees, a crit­i­cal ques­tion for any democ­racy is how geostrate­gic the­ory can be turned into pol­icy ca­pa­ble of im­ple­men­ta­tion by a pro­fes­sional mil­i­tary caste.

Mean­while, the grunts sim­ply con­tinue to dig in, to fly the air­craft and to re­main on sta­tion off­shore. Their sto­ries are worth read­ing. Stephen Loosley is a for­mer sen­a­tor and for­mer ALP na­tional pres­i­dent.

Fight­ing fit: The hi­er­ar­chy within the ranks un­der­pins the strength of the US mil­i­tary

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