From the introduction of Imperial Grunts, by Robert D. Kaplan:
Imperialism is but a form of isolationism, in which the demand for absolute, undefiled security at home leads one to conquer the world, and in the process to become subject to all the world’s anxieties. …By the time an imperial reality becomes truly manifest, it is a sign that the apex of empire is at hand, with a gradual retreat more likely than fresh conquests.
(The first sentence is attributed to Erich Gruen, from The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome. )
There is a lot to learn from this book, both from the civilian noncombatant side and from the political realist’s side. I’m attempting to do some illustrations for this book as a self-commissioned project, and I find the conflicting messages it contains hard to boil down into digestible images. One one hand, the special teams we place in foreign countries (and there are a lot more than you think there are, in places you never imagined) are training indigenous armies, helping the local populations with health and sanitation projects, and providing security for government officials. On the other hand, they are severely limited by the Rules of Engagement to certain numbers of advisors, specific locations of operation, methods of training, and ability to engage in combat, which limits their abilities to influence real change. While these limitations are debatable on a case-by-case basis, the idea that narcotrafficking in places like Columbia could be severely curtailed by a 6-month field operation by one Alpha team (suggested by an SF operative in the book) is a tempting one.
That fundamental reality, in contrast to the wild west atmosphere of Mongolia experienced by the Alpha teams stationed there, is a jarring one. What I’m attempting to convey is a sense of ability and professionalism—I don’t think any of these soldiers is bloodthirsty or evil, even if I might not agree with the policy that put them where they are—with the underlying sense of frustration I feel from the stories they tell. These are guys who live in a storage container inside barbed-wire fences in 105° heat for months at a time, in constant danger of assassination, who then immunize the local population and help dig wells for their crops. It’s also fascinating to read about the newer generation of non Vietnam-veteran soldiers complain about the hangovers still lingering from that war—and realize that those lessons are important. I’d like to believe that the initial U.S. involvement in Vietnam (a handful of Special Forces advisors to the democratic government in the early ’60’s) was not begun with the eventual ramp-up in mind, but I also see increased combatant-level involvement in foreign countries as the slippery slope it is. Finally, it’s refreshing and humbling to read about the individual soldiers, who are handpicked because of their abilities, intelligence, and maturity—a far cry from the Rambo/loose cannon propaganda we Americans are fed daily. As mass-market entertainment, the solutions on the current TV show “The Unit” are tidy 45-minute happy endings, but they reflect a childish, immature view of real world problems.
I’m only halfway through the book now, but I’d recommend it for anyone who is interested in the way America is attempting to fight smaller wars on multiple fronts in the 21st century, based on the idea that a few men with the right ideas can force a major turn of events:
The notion that vast historical forces could be tipped by the right individuals exerting pressure in the right spot has always offered an attractive antidote to fatalism.
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I’ve also been working on self-commissioned illustrations for an article that ran in the New Yorker a month or so back, about the Administration’s ignorance and subjugation of science for its own purposes. The New York Times magazine ran an article a few months ago on the same subject, and it’s something that resonated with me.
This is my first tentative set of steps back into the conceptual pool, and it’s going slowly and painfully. My brain was wired pretty well when I was in college to think editorially, but those muscles are weak and puny now. I’ve been hitting up against this wall for a week now, and while I have some things resolved I still can’t make the whole thing work correctly.
But now I’ve spent enough time writing and not enough time thinking. Back to work.