Friday, June 30, 2006

More Bad History, Writing and Thinking

I had only half finished reading Bissell's takedown of Kaplan. I continue.... I won't quote the discussion of how Kaplan turns his laser-pointer-like gaze and nineteenth-century racial and sexual sensibilities on the US and Canada: it has to be read in full to be believed, anyway. I'll move on to his most recent work:
“Indeed,” he writes, “by the turn of the twenty-first century the United States military had already appropriated the entire earth, and was ready to flood the most obscure areas of it with troops at a moment’s notice.” To say the least, the notion that the United States effectively rules the planet is an emaciated one. Does Kaplan not remember the endless haggling the United States was forced to do on the eve of the Iraq War to enable its use of other nations’ airfields? Do other nations’ desires and integrity really mean so little to Kaplan? But at the Pentagon, we learn, Kaplan gazed upon a Mercator projection of the US military’s areas of responsibility and saw a planet chopped up into jagged rectangles of command (CENTCOM, EUCOM, PACOM, and so forth). He “stared at it for days on and off, transfixed. How could the US not constitute a global military empire?” But sometimes a map is just a map.
To be sure, there are certainly imperial aspects to US involvement around the world, but to argue that US goals are “exactly” like those of the Soviets, Persians, French, British, or Spanish is analysis along the lines of History Channel voiceover.
Then you get to the point where, as Bissell says, the book becomes a "thesaurus of incoherencies"
So what is Kaplan’s understanding of imperialism? “Imperialism is but a form of isolationism, in which the demand for absolute, undefiled security at home leads one to conquer the world.” Okay. But then: “The grunts I met saw themselves as American nationalists, even if the role they performed was imperial.” Got that? And: “America’s imperial destiny was to grapple with countries that weren’t really countries.” It is? They aren’t? “Imperialism was less about conquest than about the training of local armies.” Oh. “All America could do was insert its armed forces here and there, as unobtrusively as possible, to alleviate perceived threats to its own security when they became particularly acute.” But you just said— “The Americans wanted clean end-states and victory parades. Imperialism, though, is a never-ending involvement.” Before long you’re wondering if taking a good old-fashioned American dump in a US-dug latrine in Yemen is not also “imperialism.”
The US Military, especially our men (and women? Doesn't seem to be) in uniform is the subject of Imperial Grunts
“The American military is a worldwide fraternity,” Kaplan writes, filled with “singular individuals fronting dangerous and stupendous landscapes.” The soldiers “talked in clichés,” he informs us. “It is the emotion and look in their faces—sweaty and gummed with dust—that matters more than the words. After all, a cliché is something that only the elite recognizes as such.” That is surely why, Kaplan says, “these guys like George W. Bush so much. . . . He spoke the way they did, with a lack of nuance, which they found estimable because their own tasks did not require it.” Besides, those cliché-conscious elites are yellow anyway. As one soldier tells Kaplan, “I believe character is more important than education. I have noticed that people who are highly educated and sophisticated do not like to take risks.” Kaplan himself seems to have come to share this harsh essentialism.
Kaplan argues that Evangelical soldiers, whose entire worldview is founded upon accepting that everyone who is not a Christian will roast on Beelzebub’s spit, is in actual fact the US military’s strongest asset, seeing that “morale could not be based on polite subtleties or secular philosophical constructions, but only on the stark belief in your own righteousness, and in the inequity of your enemy.” God will just have to sort them out.
In soldiers, according to Bissell, Kaplan sees the antithesis of "elites" whose subtlty, education and sensitivity are ill-suited to the simplistic world which Kaplan sees. If it sounds one-sided and unrealistic, there's a reason
After quoting one National Guardsman as saying, “We’re like tourists with guns,” Kaplan writes: “While the media was filled with lugubrious stories about the great sacrifices being made by reservists in Iraq and Afghanistan, these guys were having the time of their lives.” Last summer I was embedded with the Marines in Iraq, and I certainly noticed some of soldiering’s satisfactions, even a few of its hard-won joys. I also saw men and women tensely grinding their dinner between molars and crying while talking to their loved ones back home; I saw equal amounts of frustration and confusion, and, in one particularly awful occasion, some wounded Marines brought into a surgical ward. A screaming, burned Marine is not having the time of his life, and neither are his friends. I am sure the US military has its share of cheerful characters—the burned Marine may have been having a ball until the day our paths crossed—but Kaplan continually, and in my opinion criminally, refuses to dig beyond his baseline feeling that soldiers are super. It is both a literary and moral failure.
I would like to end, in fairness, with the one line from Kaplan quoted by Bissell that actually strikes me as worth consideration:
“Imperialism is but a form of isolationism, in which the demand for absolute, undefiled security at home leads one to conquer the world.”
That's a pretty good summary, actually of the world-systems-theory version of Imperialism, the gradual extension of control over economic or territorial peripheries in order to maintain access to raw materials and markets, to stabilize the economy and protect the citizenry of the metropole. The difference, I guess, is in what you do with that knowledge.

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