June 17, 2004


In the Line of Fire: Journalist Robert D. Kaplan joined U.S. Marines as they stormed Fallujah, and returned to share his impressions (Atlantic Unbound, June 15, 2004)

When The Atlantic Monthly's correspondent Robert D. Kaplan signed on this spring as an embedded journalist in Iraq, he had no way of knowing what the experience would bring. [...]

Before the call to arms came, he had felt a strong sense of kinship with these fighting men; like him "they had soft spots, they got sick, they complained." But differences announced themselves as soon as the battle preparations began. Kaplan was struck first by their strict adherence to hierarchy—what he refers to as "the incontestability of command." Whenever the most senior officer present in a given planning session made a decision, there was no further argument or discussion; deliberations simply moved efficiently on to the next matter at hand. Kaplan also became keenly aware of the pervasiveness of Christian religious sentiment among the troops. "The spirit of the U.S. military is fiercely evangelical," he writes, "even as it is fiercely ecumenical." Indeed, a few hours before the scheduled attack, a military chaplain issued a blessing in which he reminded them that it was Palm Sunday and referred to the task at hand as "a spiritual battle" and to the Marines themselves as "tools of mercy." The most stark reminder of the difference between himself and the men among whom he was embedded, however, didn't come until they were in the thick of battle. On the second night of the operation, Kaplan was with a group that had penetrated far into the city when it began to take enemy fire. Kaplan struggled to suppress his own natural instinct to flee. To his amazement, his companions ran straight toward the gunfire. [...]

During the 1980s you spent time among the Islamic holy warriors (mujahideen) in Afghanistan as they battled the Soviets. How did your experiences there compare with your more recent travels with the U.S. Marines? Were the dangers you were exposed to and the privations you endured in Afghanistan similar to what you dealt with in Iraq? How did the two very different kinds of fighting groups compare?

Traveling with the muj was much rougher. The food was awful and the relationships were somewhat stilted because of the language difficulty. By contrast, I never saw staying with the Marines as work: it was always fun. But I think the Marines could benefit in some ways by becoming more like the Afghan warriors. I believe our military future will consist of a mixture of high-tech warfare and radical low-tech unconventional warfare, which will require the ability to live off the earth like the nineteenth-century Apaches. Iraq was one of the last classic infantry wars. The Special Ops branches of the various services will dominate the future.

You describe the Marines as having a strong religious streak, which gives them "a stark belief in their own righteousness and in the iniquity of the enemy," but which also inspires them to show "compassion for innocent civilians." Given how difficult it seems to be in Iraq to sort out the troublemakers from the innocent bystanders, did the Marines have trouble determining which attitude they should take toward the Iraqis they encountered?

All the time. But the way you show compassion without needlessly putting yourself at risk is through professionalism and strict adherence to Rules of Engagement. If someone has a weapon in a hostile situation you can shoot; if not, you can't. When you detain a group of people you separate them so that they can't coordinate their stories. Beyond that you don't mistreat them, unless there's a specific purpose for the harsh treatment, and even then the treatment has to be very controlled. What I'm saying is that there is no inherent contradiction between humanitarianism and tough, controlled measures meted out to High Value Targets.

You observe that Iraqis tend to be responsive to strong shows of force—"the chieftain mentality," you write, "is particularly prevalent" in Iraq. Does that suggest to you that the U.S. military in Iraq should be focusing more on displays of power than on displays of kindness and cultural sensitivity? (How effective are gestures like having U.S. troops in Iraq grow moustaches?)

The moustaches were very effective, according to what Iraqis told me. The Marines made it quite clear to the Fallujah insurgents in the first days there how tough they were. And the Army has been displaying the same kind of toughness in the Shiite south. But toughness and cultural sensitivity can go hand in hand. As General Jim Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, says about his Marines in regards to the Iraqis: "No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy."

Mr. Kaplan underlines the degree to which this is a religious war fought by crusaders--as most American wars have been--and implicitly raises an interesting question: in a society where the two parties are diverging so completely on the question of religious faith and the military tilts so heavily towards one party's position, is there a danger that at some point a vital institution might become totally alienated from the political leadership of the country. The Clinton administration gave us a small foretaste of the possibility.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 17, 2004 8:44 PM

This is fascinating, because I have been pondering this very question for some time now.

The fact is, the military is a Republican (big R) institution basically, due to the all-volunteer make-up. And I CAN see how a mutiny might happen.

Oh, it wouldn't mean a bunch of renegade offiders overthrowing a President or seizing the Pentagon. The fact is, such a mutiny could happen and you and I would never know it.

It would simply mean something like Kosovo would be happening, the UN, the EUro-tranzis, and a Democratic President would all agree that "something must be done", and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs would say... "No. Not our fight, not our problem. We didn't join to fight for a UN neo-socialist agenda." And the chiefs would agree. And their sub-commanders would agree. And THEIR sub-commanders would agree. And then highest level congressional Republicans would quietly inform the Democratic President that he and his friends will need to find another Army to fight on behalf their agenda.

Very uncomfortable situation in development, I wonder.

Posted by: Andrew X at June 18, 2004 8:07 AM

In the mid nineties (during the heart of the
Clinton administration) The Atlantic published
an article that emphasized the divergence of
the military ethos (religion,authority,meritocracy) with the
prevailing societal liberalism. I wonder if it
was Kaplan who wrote this?

The article was full of quotes suggesting that
when the officers swear to uphold the constitution
they are making subtle distinctions between the
old-republic and whatever form of mobocracy we
happen to have today. It was clear that the
officer core did not feel allegiance to Clinton.

There were also many quotes in which young officers basically sais that the mass of Americans
were fat, stupid and lazy (not far off the mark)
and that they did not deserve the Republic that
was passed down to them.

The essential thesis of the article was that an
all volunteer force was not good for democracy
because it nurtured an elite corps while the
WWII era military (up through Vietnam) gave a better chance for officers to come up through the
ranks so to speak.

My personal view is that we don't use the threat
of annihilation well and that warfare should not
be combined with any ambiguous motives such as
salvation and "bringing democracy".
Remember the Crusades were not particularly successful.

Posted by: at June 18, 2004 9:29 AM

The Crusades invented Christendom--they worked brilliantly.

Posted by: oj at June 18, 2004 9:41 AM

Anonymous, yes that was Kaplan. He wrote a series of articles for The Atlantic on the cultural aspects of the US, and one was on the military.

As a former Marine, all I can say is "Oooohhh Raaahhh!!!". If Kaplan took a headcount, I'm sure he would turn up a few atheists and blow OJ's thesis to heck, but lets not quibble. Of course, as Kaplan's earlier article pointed out, the trend toward a more exclusive, and elitely conservative professional military which is at odds with the culture is a resent, and growing trend. It matches my experience also. When I joined the USMC in 1980, I did not experience a Corps that was overtly religious. In fact, as I was rather intensely religious at the time myself (I carried around a pocket New Testament with me during OCS), I was considered a religious oddball. Open talk of God among the ranks didn't make people very comfortable. Of course, this was the class of 1980, the Baby Boomer brigade. What do you expect, right?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at June 18, 2004 11:00 AM

I doubt there would ever be a mutiny like Andrew X states. To circumvent the rule of civilian control would mean defying a tradition of 200+ years going back to Washington. Who has the mental fortitude to do that? Not the entire chain of command.

After Congress gives the approval and the President gives the order, and the JCS says no, that general gets his ass fired. As well as anyone else who says no.

And the Republicans will agree, because the minute you allow the military to decide foreign policy you're at Caesarism.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at June 18, 2004 11:52 AM

When the Clintons were deified (i.e. inagurated) back in '91, I said that the only hope the US has now is a military coup.

When Our Betters in the government hate their own military (Vietnam baby butchers!), treat them with contempt (Vietnam baby butchers!), then expect them to do their dying for them when their Enlightened asses are inconvenienced in any way, they're asking for Caesarism. If the soldiers can't trust their own country and civilian leadership, who can they trust? Their mates and their commanders.

P.S. Remember the Sixties poster slogan "War is not healthy for children and other growing things"? Ever notice war BECAME very healthy for children and other growing things the instant Baby Boomers were no longer in danger of being drafted and sent to The Nam? Indeed, under The Baby Boomers Clinton (all genuflect and burn a pinch of incense before their images), it somehow became our duty to get involved in every wanna-be Vietnam in the world; never mind the Gen-X "growing things" in uniform who were the ones being shot at.

Posted by: Ken at June 18, 2004 12:43 PM

Chris, I wholeheartedly agree with your uneasiness (probably an understatement) with the scenario.

But I refer back to the "you might never know it" element. The fact is, the military and conservative leadership would probably see the train coming down thse tracks, and would head it off. In other words, they wouldn't disobey the President, they would make it quietly clear to him/her, "Don't even ask."

My point is, firing the JCS might be tough if the high command makes it clear that you will have to fire a LOT more than just him. Thus, the President is in a hell of a bind. Firing General MacArthur is one thing.... firing ten or twenty of the top commanders at once, while hundreds of officers just below them make it clear that they agree with those officers, so now conservative politcal leaders proceed to eviscerate that President on these grounds... etc etc. That heat might be just to much to bear. And so the President's hand is forced, and he never cuts orders that he may very much believe in.

What is different today, other than the general Republicanism of the Armed Forces, is that they are quite aware of the contempt poured upon them by tranzis, aware of the willingness of tranzis to see US soldiers die if it servers tranzi interests, and aware of the number of Westerners in this world who hold liberty and the US in contempt. Now we will ask such soldiers to givetheir lives in a tranzi effort?

Gotta seriously wonder.

Posted by: Andrew X at June 18, 2004 1:36 PM

Little perspective here, please.

Pre-1940, the offficer corps also was inbred, cut off from society and largely hereditary.

That's what you get when you don't have the draft.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 18, 2004 2:23 PM

Harry, we never drafted officers.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at June 18, 2004 2:37 PM

Yes, but we used to sensibly do away with any semblance of a military between wars. Now we keep a massive standing army and have no need of wartime drafts. There would have to be some question about whether a military this large and conservative would necessarily tolerate a second attack on the Constitution by New Deal types.

Posted by: oj at June 18, 2004 2:39 PM

The US military is not capable of seizing power. Sure, they can be politically active, as when they quite vocally objected to Clinton's plans to allow homosexuals, but the whole bit about "uphold and defend the Constitution" isn't just a bunch of pretty words. Soldiers follow orders, and civilians make the orders at the top. The fear should be what would happen if conservative Southerners and rural Americans, who dominate the military nowadays, decide to stop entering the service because they feel it doesn't represent what they think it should anymore. Then who would be left to serve?

Posted by: brian at June 18, 2004 6:00 PM


What if upholding the Constitution required stopping a Left wing government?

Posted by: oj at June 18, 2004 6:07 PM

oj: How many family members do you have in the military? They don't think that way.

Posted by: brian at June 18, 2004 6:22 PM

No, we didn't, Robert, but when we had the draft, we ended up with a lot of non-professional officers.

As my father, a professional Navy officer, often reminded me, Texas A&M produced more officers for the Army than West Point.

The objection to a large army in peacetime is valid as far as it goes, which is nowhere any more.

It made some (not a great deal of) sense in 1790. Considering how much training it takes to fight now, you can't shut down in peacetime.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 18, 2004 6:38 PM


Why? There's never any immediate need and were there we've nukes.

Posted by: oj at June 18, 2004 7:08 PM


Your family would stand by as a regime destroyed the Constitution? Were their fingers crossed when they took the oath?

Posted by: oj at June 18, 2004 7:10 PM

oj: No American should stand by while the Constitution is shredded. Each and every one of us has an obligation to protect it. We shouldn't expect soldiers to follow some general who might decide it was up to him to save us. If that were necessary we wouldn't be worth saving.

Posted by: brian at June 18, 2004 7:23 PM

Human history is rife with examples of generals and the military stepping in to save their countries, not always for the better, but often.

Posted by: oj at June 18, 2004 7:34 PM

America is exceptional.

Posted by: brian at June 18, 2004 7:37 PM

Even we suffered the New Deal

Posted by: oj at June 18, 2004 7:48 PM