5 Stars! I hated this book…at first. Why? I bought it in 2007. Kaplan’s main thesis is that we are an American Empire, in the vein of Roman, Venetian and British empires. At first I thought, oh shit, Kaplan has gone Code Pink on me. I just retired from the military and he is calling me an imperialist. Not exactly what I wanted to hear. I put the book away until now. But this is a fantastic story that demanded to be read. Kaplan’s main theme:“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. That is why empires arise at the fringes of consciousness, half in denial…Rome never thought it was building an empire until it already had one, and had already reached the limits of its expansion…Empires are works in progress, with necessity rather than glory the instigator of each outward push… America’s imperium was without colonies, suited to a jet-and-information age in which mass movements of people and capital diluted the meaning of sovereignty.“
Kaplan places the beginning of the American Empire from just after the Revolutionary War, with the efforts to move the large, threatening powers of England, France and Spain from our rear. We just kept pushing outward until we reached the Pacific. WWII and the subsequent Cold War were the big modern era reasons to continue empire building bringing us to where we are today. The proof of our empire is the opposition to it, according to Kaplan.
Okay, that is the big theme but he spends the rest of the book visiting various theaters of low and high intensity conflict. And he introduces us to an amazing group of “grunts” out in the field. He begins in Yemen in 2002 and finishes in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004. In between he visits the drug war in Colombia, the steppes of Mongolia, The Philippine Islands, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa. Along the way he goes off on tangents to Sub-Saharan Africa, Bosnia, Cambodia, etc. Kaplan is unmatched as a travel writer and he has some big cojones as you follow him into some really hairy places. But he just dips in and out, while the “imperial grunts” remain and carry on with their various missions. The sheer variety of places and missions assigned to the military is truly astounding, even to someone like me who knows the way around. I found myself wanting back in and immensely proud of these young soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen.
The book moves along briskly, never boring or preachy and never spending too much time in any one place. Yemen and Colombia do not appear fun places to go but I really want to go back to the Philippines based on his description. Mongolia sounds intriguing, along with Eritrea and Djibouti. Afghanistan and Iraq, not so much. Ever been to Lamu? You will want to. What you will also want to do is spend some time with the young NCOs and junior officers out maintaining the “empire”. If your opinion of the army grunt is along the lines of a Stephen King, i.e., only the dumb ones join, you will be pleasantly surprised. The book is not dated at all, and it is interesting to compare what is happening now in Yemen, Afghanistan and other locales to what Kaplan describes in 2002-2004. Try it, you’ll like it.