Imperial Grunts by Robert Kaplan

You’re likely reading this review in the comfort of your home or office, perhaps a cup of warm coffee nearby. It won’t enter your mind that while you’re reading, thousands of American soldiers serve their nation in small bands of five or ten or thirty men. They serve not in Iraq or Afghanistan but in even more remote outposts around the world. These “imperial grunts” are the subject of Robert Kaplan’s engaging book.

American power stands unrivaled in the early years of the twenty-first century. No other nation can match combined American military, economic, and industrial might. It spans the globe. To tend this latter-day empire, the United States relies primarily, though in many cases quietly, on isolated units of American soldiers who do their duty in the great swath of under-developed African, Asian, and Latin American nations.

They are grunts because their duty is unglamorous and underappreciated. The soldiers work with local military and police in their respective outposts, which Kaplan refers to as “Indian Country.” They seek to train them in fighting, maintaining law and order, and above all, serving a constructive role in civil society. Frequently, they assist with public works and humanitarian efforts. In addition, they collaborate with police and armies to teach them how to resist corruption. At the same time that American soldiers promote professionalism, they are attempting to win the proverbial “hearts and minds” of the surrounding populace in a given country. It is thought that such a civil climate is conducive to friendly relations with the United States. Ultimately, this is the outcome sought by America’s imperial grunts.

Kaplan tells a series of stories about American soldiers pulling grunt duty. They are fascinating, inspiring, and at times, frustrating. You will read about the various pathways these soldiers followed into the military and their impressive records of service since the 1980s. I can almost guarantee that you’ll be proud of them. The frustrating aspect of Kaplan’s material is that you have the growing sense that much of the soldiers’ work is fruitless. Real, lasting change, especially in promoting civil society and positive relations between the host country and the US, does not appear likely. It’s clear that for many of America’s imperial grunts, they can only hope that their exertions will pay dividends.

The leadership takeaways are numerous. American unit commanders, usually with the rank of captain or lieutenant, lead small groups of privates and subalterns. They operate with minimal oversight and sometimes scarce resources. This combination places a high value on initiative, creativity, and flexibility. These leaders have to be comfortable with situations not defined in managerial rulebooks. They must make their own rules as they go. Coping with a lack of clarity is mandatory. Alliances and networks are critical for their success, often filling gaps caused by their remote stations. And through it all, they generate their own enthusiasm, motivation, and perseverance.

Another takeaway from Kaplan’s book is in his description of the respective regional commands that make up the American military. Regional commands include Central Command, Southern Command, Pacific Command, and so forth. Tellingly, each of these commands has a distinct history, a set of people, events, and experiences that help account for its current identity. I immediately viewed the varying regional commands as versions of different departments in an organization. How they behave today in an organization can, in many ways, reflect their respective history. This history will play a key role in how a department deals with change.

There is urgency to Kaplan’s work. Under President George W. Bush, the American military has taken a large role in the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). That role has two parts. One is what we view as the traditional function of the military-waging wars. The other is in collaborating with friendly governments to disrupt and destroy terrorist organizations. This latter part involves the duty done by America’s imperial grunts. Imperial Grunts is a compelling look at the modern American military.