Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts : The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground
In this extraordinary book, Robert D. Kaplan lets readers experience up close the American military worldwide in the air, at sea, and on the ground: flying in a B-2 bomber, living on a nuclear submarine, and traveling with a Stryker brigade on missions around the world. Provided unprecedented access, Kaplan moves from destroyers off the coast of Indonesia to submarines in the central Pacific, from simulated Iraqi training grounds in Alaska to technology bases in Las Vegas, from army and marine land forces in the heart of the Sahara Desert, to air bases in Guam and Thailand and beyond.
Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts provides not only a riveting ground-level portrait of the Global War on Terrorism on several continents, but also a gritty firsthand account of how U.S. soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen are protecting sea-lanes, providing disaster relief, contending with the military rise of China, fighting the war in Iraq, and crafting contingency plans for war with North Korea and Iran.
Expanding on Kaplan's acclaimed Imperial Grunts, the first volume of his exploration of the American military, which "offers the reader an enlightened way to understand what is happening in the world" (San Francisco Chronicle), Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts shifts focus to the Pacific, where emerging Asian powers present vexing diplomatic and strategic challenges to U.S. influence. In this volume, Kaplan completes his analysis of army Special Forces and the marines, while also taking readers into the heart of the myriad tribal cultures of the air force, surface and subsurface navies, and the regular army's Stryker
brigades. Kaplan goes deep into their highly technical and exotic worlds, and he tells this story through the words and perspectives of the enlisted personnel and junior officers themselves-men and women who, as he writes, have "had their national identities as Americans engraved in sharp bas-relief."
This provocative and illuminating book, like Imperial Grunts before it, not only conveys the vast scope of America's military commitments, which rarely make it into the news, but also shows us astonishing and vital operations right as they unfold-from the point of view of the troops themselves.
After 9/11, Atlantic Monthly correspondent and bestselling author Kaplan (Balkan Ghosts) spent five years living with U.S. troops deployed across the globe. He first reported on his travels in 2005's Imperial Grunts, an incisive and valuable primer on the military's role in maintaining an informal American empire. In this shrewd and often provocative sequel, Kaplan introduces readers to more of the soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen who staff the empire's forward outposts. Although the author's travels take him to Iraq, he spends most of his time with imperial maintenance units that are training indigenous troops, protecting sea lanes and providing humanitarian relief from Timbuktu to the Straits of Malacca. Kaplan clearly admires the American troops he meets, though he sometimes questions their civilian masters. He saves his harshest judgment for his fellow journalists, whose relentless criticism of anything less than perfection amounts to media tyranny, in his view. Kaplan sees the war on terror and the re-emergence of China as the U.S.'s two abiding challenges in the 21st century and argues that, after Iraq, the military will seek a smaller, less noticeable footprint overseas. Kaplan combines the travel writer's keen eye for detail and the foreign correspondent's analytical skill to produce an account of America's military worthy of its subject. (Sept.)
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September 08, 2008
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Excerpt from Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts by Robert D. Kaplan
America's African Rifles
With a Marine Platoon
African Sahel, Summer 2004
In the early summer of 2004, just as the United States was dismantling the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, sending home its effective proconsul, L. Paul Bremer III, U.S. Marines and Army Special Forces were in various stages of deploying to the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert, the Sahel, one of the few battlegrounds left in the Global War on Terror for the U.S. military to enter, as it was already deployed in so many other parts of the world.
Local alliances and the training of indigenous troops have been a traditional means of projecting power at minimum risk and fanfare. This was true of Rome even in regard to adjacent North Africa, to say nothing of its Near Eastern borderlands; and it was particularly true of France and Britain, two-thirds of whose expeditions were composed of troops recruited in the colonies.* As Tacitus writes, "We Romans value real power but disdain its vanities."1 Taking Tacitus to heart, I went to
* See Sallust's The Jugurthine War, composed between 44 and 40 b.c., and Douglas Porch's introduction to the Bison edition of Col. C. E. Callwell's Small Wars: Their Principles & Practice (1896; Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1996). These are but two examples of a vast military literature about how imperial powers used their influence.
the Niger River region of the African Sahel, or "coast," a belt of savannah and scrub on the Sahara's southern edge, to witness a version of America's reach that was radically different from Iraq, certainly more modest, and hopefully more successful.
Among the great rivers of Africa, after the Nile and the Congo there is the Niger, which medieval Arab geographers such as Ibn Battuta called "the Nile of the Negroes." The Niger rises within 492 feet of the Atlantic Ocean in the jungly, mountainous borderland of Guinea and Sierra Leone and flows northeast into Mali, past the desert caravan centers of Timbuktu and Gao. Then, arcing southeast through Niger and along the Benin border, it drops down into Nigeria, breaking up into an immense delta amid the malarial swamps of the Bight of Biafra. The curvilinear journey of 2,600 miles from the sea deep into the desert, and back to the sea again, seems almost contrary to the laws of nature.
Herodotus, in the course of his travels in the fifth century b.c., heard mention of the river. In the vicinity of eastern Libya he was told about a group of young and adventurous Nasamonians, who lived in nearby Syrtis along the Mediterranean coast. These Nasamonians had packed a good supply of food and water and set off into the interior of Libya. After traveling for many days southwestward through the desert they came upon a region of sparse vegetation where they were attacked by black men "of less than middle height," speaking an unintelligible language. These "dwarfs" carried the Nasamonians through a marshy country whereupon they sighted a "great river with crocodiles" that "flowed from west to east."2
The Niger was no less remote to twenty-first-century Americans than it had been to the ancient Greeks. It passed through some of the poorest and most unstable countries in the world. The Sahara Desert had effectively cut West Africa off from the traffic of peoples, ideas, and technology that moved between the Mediterranean and Eurasia from the classical age onward. Islam itself was weakened in the course of its arduous journey south. The Tuaregs, for example, a Berber people who began moving south from the central Sahara to the Niger River about a.d. 1000, were only nominally Muslim. They built few mosques; few of them made the haj to Mecca. Tuareg men wore veils; not Tuareg women. The word "Tuareg" itself is Arabic for "the abandoned of God." The flowing robes and headdresses of Tuareg warriors recalled not Muslims but medieval Christian knights.3
A Tuareg empire grew up around the caravan city of Agadez, only to be conquered by the empire of Songhai. The empires of Songhai and Mali later overlapped near the middle part of the Niger River, the part with which Ibn Battuta was familiar, and where U.S. Marines had recently ensconced themselves.
These medieval imperiums had raised impressive armies and bureaucracies, with their names enduring through the ethnic identities of the inhabitants. Yet given the sleepy underdevelopment that now defined the region, such mighty kingdoms might as well have been ghosts.
By 1900, the French had conquered much of the Sahara and adjacent Sahel. But as other imperial powers had learned and were still to learn, conquest came easily; remolding a difficult terrain in one's image was another matter. The Tuaregs, as though precursors of modern-day Islamic terrorists, faded into the landscape and waited out the occupiers.