Way of war that binds US soldiers
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.
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