Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground
By Robert D. Kaplan
Random House, 2005, 448 pp.
Waging Peace: A Special Operations Team's Battle to Rebuild Iraq
By Rob Schultheis
Gotham, 2005, 304 pp.
These two books are similar in style and outlook, both having been written by journalists who have spent time in the field with U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in the case of Kaplan, in Yemen, Colombia, Mongolia, the Philippines, and Ethiopia as well. The authors write about their temporary comrades with affection and often admiration, conveying their working conditions, gripes, and earthy humor as well as their patriotism and sense of mission. A familiar contrast is drawn between the softness of safe, civilian life and the lives of those doing America's business in harsh and often hazardous settings.
Kaplan's book is wider ranging. His underlying thesis is that the places he visits represent the periphery of a new American empire, whose fate will be determined by how its foot soldiers -- the grunts -- engage with the local populations. The analogy is to the frontiersmen of the nineteenth century: everywhere he goes he is welcomed to "Injun Country." It is probably best not to worry too much about the thesis, which is half-baked, and instead enjoy the insights and reportage from a master of this sort of extreme travel writing. In Iraq, he conveys the tension between the recognition that victory requires winning hearts and minds and the demands of survival. When he first joins the marines, they are sporting mustaches to blend in with the local population; when they prepare for their April 2004 battle of Fallujah (the account of which is vivid and depressing), they shave them off.
Schultheis is even more focused on the hearts-and-minds side of the equation, as he works with an army civil affairs team in Baghdad trying to make life easier for the battered inhabitants and help the country rebuild. This task turns out to require considerable ingenuity, as well as commitment, especially as the insurgency gathers pace. Like Kaplan's, Schultheis' main reportage runs up to the crisis point in Fallujah and the calamitous revelations about the abuses at Abu Ghraib, after which relations between the Iraqis and the Americans do not get any easier. To "salvage" Iraq, Schultheis recommends giving civic affairs even greater prominence and budget, improving language training, getting the public involved, and "tripl[ing] the real number of troops in Iraq until real security has been achieved."