HH: It’s a long interview with an author who deserves a lot of time. Robert D. Kaplan is the author of the new book, Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military In The Air, The Sea, And On The Ground. Previously, Robert Kaplan’s been on this program as the author of Imperial Grunts and on a number of other occasions, on a number of other subjects. Welcome back, Robert Kaplan, great to have you on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
RK: It’s my pleasure to be here, Hugh.
HH: You know, I want to begin in the 9th chapter of this, your second book on the American military, as you were driving out of Timbuktu, 11 hours beyond the gates of Timbuktu. Use that as a metaphor for what you were doing and why you went the places you have gone.
RK: Well, Timbuktu is not the edge of the Earth. The edge of the Earth is miles beyond Timbuktu, north into the heart of the Sahara desert. And I was with a company of American Special Forces officers, about twelve of them, all non-commissioned officers except for a captain. And you would think what is the U.S. military doing in the heart of the Sahara desert. Well, we’re not only in the heart of the Sahara desert, we’re all over the Pacific ocean, we’ll all over South America, and all this is occurring while we are fighting a war in Iraq and in Afghanistan. And what I tried to do in the course of the years in which I embedded with the military was to show the whole thing. Not to ignore Iraq, but not to be limited by it, either, because one big deployment might overstretch us like Iraq, but dozens upon dozens of smaller deployments will do no such thing. So I was with a company of American Special Forces officers who were investigating just what was in the center of the Sahara desert in terms of al Qaeda movements, humanitarian, prospects for humanitarian relief, just getting to know Africa. Because in this global world war on terrorism, really is a global war.
HH: Now your accompanied by, extraordinary in the course of this book, an extraordinary array of Americans, one of which on this particular trip is an Evangelical staff sergeant from Oklahoma who doesn’t want to be identified, because he doesn’t want his deeds to serve himself. I thought that was another metaphor for the extraordinary people you’ve spent the last many years with.
RK: Yeah, the people I…what I did was I didn’t report on anybody in this book. I befriended a lot of people, and revealed them to the reader as they revealed themselves to me. And the best of these people didn’t want any publicity, not because they were afraid of being written up badly, but because they were afraid of getting public recognition for anything they do. For them, the real sweet thing is to do it and not get recognition, if you can believe it. And this Evangelical staff sergeant, he drove most of the way through blistering sandstorms, he slept only six hours, which was interrupted by an hour and a half of guard duty, and he got up the next morning to fit little African children for eyeglasses as part of a civil affairs project that this Special Forces A-team was doing. And just, you know, just dealt with one child, one woman after another throughout the morning without any complaining about lack of sleep or anything.
HH: Let me tell the audience, this is a remarkable read, you’re going to want to get Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts, and just an example of detail, “Following sun up, Captain Tory, an Evangelical staff sergeant from Oklahoma, set up an eye clinic inside one of the ruins. They unpack little boxes of adaptable eyewear, an ingenious, low-tech device manufactured by the U.S. Agency for International Development. These were round, Harry Potterish horn-rimmed glasses of zero prescription which increasingly strengthened as you pumped a clear gel solution attached to the frame inside the glass. The SF, Special Forces guys called them, ‘never get laid again glasses,’ because of how they made you look.” Now that has got an eye for detail, pardon the pun, Robert Kaplan, but I guess it is in those very small things, as well as the B-2’s that we’ll talk about later, that the genius in the American military lies.
RK: Yeah, it all lies in the details. For the price of one F-22, you could populate all of Africa with SF-A teams doing humanitarian relief. But that is not necessarily a criticism of an F-22, because I get that later in the book when I talk about the B-2 and other expensive bombers, which are sort of an expensive form of health insurance to keep the Chinese honest about their intentions in Taiwan. But you know, we get bargains in our military budget, and we don’t. The B-2’s, the F-22’s, there’s no bargains there. But in terms of what we can do on the ground in a place like Africa, we get a lot of bargains like this deployment that I embedded on.
HH: Now Robert Kaplan, having set the table and hopefully got the hook into the listener, and I don’t think it’s very hard to do with this book, I want to back up and tell them a little bit about you. Your bio reads you’re a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, you’re the author of 11 previous books on foreign affairs and travel, many of which are just riveting, some of which have brought you audiences like President Bush at the White House, and an appointment at the United States Naval Academy as the class of 1960 distinguished visiting professor in national security at the USNA. Tell me what your, what’s your motive? Why are you doing this?
RK: My motive is, as I said earlier, is without this book, these people would not have a voice, Hugh. And by these people, I mean all of the sailors in the U.S. Navy who are aboard submarines and aboard frigates and destroyers, all these Special Forces officers who are on deployments in Africa, South America and Asia, all these forgotten deployments, number one. And even many of those in Iraq and Afghanistan, where all you read, often, is troubling news. And what I’m doing is I’m not whitewashing anything. I’m befriending people and letting them reveal themselves to the reader as they reveal themselves to me. Without a book like this, these people would stay hidden, they would be silent. And I really believe that they deserve, you know, they deserve their voice, their recognition, too. That’s what’s really motivating me.
HH: After the first break, I’m going to come back and talk about the plan you adopted to get this book and the future books done, and the one in the past, Imperial Grunts. But before we come back to the specifics of Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts, I want to talk and end the first segment about Iraq, because you have a chapter on Iraq, you were there before, you’ve been back, obviously. What is the impact of Iraq on the American military?
RK: The impact, it’s strained it. It hasn’t devastatingly strained it, but it strained it in the sense that every deployment where I embedded, whether in South America, Asia or Africa, there was always complaints about they didn’t have enough planes, they didn’t have enough equipment, that the best linguists were not there, because everything was being sucked by Iraq, you know, was being sucked up by Iraq. Now they came up with ingenious solutions to a lot of these things, but you could feel the impact on the American military throughout the world on Iraq. But there’s something else here, Hugh, it’s that if you set aside the manpower strains that Iraq has surely imposed, Iraq has also invigorated the quality of the American military to no small extent. A military is only as good as its staff colleges. And people have been coming back from Iraq and from Afghanistan with a horde of lessons learned to reinvigorate curriculums at West Point, many other places as well. It’s really turned the U.S. military into a, the Army especially, into a lean and mean battle-hardened military that knows a lot more about the world today than it did several years ago.
HH: We’ll spend some time talking about those specific lessons. But before we get to the break, there’s a spectrum of opinion on Iraq that ranges from Thomas P.M. Barnett’s view that we’ve just got to get out of the way of the inevitable Sunni-Shia slaughter, and until that comes, we won’t get stability. And then there’s the Victor Davis Hanson view that maybe what we are seeing is the 1864, the equivalent of the 1864 march on Atlanta by Sherman, and a turning in the war. Stepping back from the specifics on the military and Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts, what do you see unfolding, Robert Kaplan, in Iraq?
RK: What I see unfolding is that there will be gradually a very uneasy Sunni-Shiite armistice. But that will not be the end of it. Iraq is going to have major repercussions on politics in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Morocco. It’s really going to…what it’s really going to do is in a very uneasy, messy fashion is going to usher in more openness and decentralization in the Arab world. The next generation of Arab autocrats will not be able to rule as autocratically as the current generation, because of a lot of the changes that Iraq will have imposed. In terms of Iran, I think that Iraq may turn out to be Iran’s poisoned chalice, that the Iranians have been able to be spoilers in Iraq, but it’s unclear that they can make a peace any better than we have been able to.
HH: At the conclusion of the chapter, you write, “Excepting the collapse of Turkey’s empire, the creation of the state of Israel and the Iranian revolution, neither anything nor anybody in a century has so jolted the Middle East as had George W. Bush.” 30 seconds to our break, is that a good thing in your view, Robert Kaplan?
RK: It’s unclear yet. We’ve seen the bad effects of it. You can’t erase tens of thousands of deaths and say yeah, but it’s been worth it for the sake of strategic positioning. But I think the ability to get al Qaeda to fight against its own Sunnis, to get Sunnis to revolt against al Qaeda, and to upset the complacency of Sunni Arab police states in Iraq and Saudi Arabia will turn out to be hopefully a good thing.
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HH: Before getting into the tall grass of the book, Robert Kaplan, explain to people your project, and how it began with Imperial Grunts, where it’s gone with this book, where it’s going to continue, and how you chart your course in surveying the American military in the air, the sea and the [ground].
RK: Well, I wanted to take the traditional genre of literary travel writing and apply it to the American military, to go around the world and meet people the way I did for years with previous books, except this time, I would limit myself to American soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors. So it was to take a genre not usually applied to the American military, and apply it as such. My plan was to embed in as many missions as possible, not limiting myself to Iraq and Afghanistan, but to include Naval missions in the Pacific, on surface and subsurface war ships, to embed with Air Force units around the world, and with a particular emphasis, and with the Army, with particular emphasis on Army Special Forces and Marines, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, as I said, but in the heart of Africa, in South America, in Asia, and to kind of always cover things that generally didn’t get covered much. In other words, we were having all these exercises, these Special Forces exercises in sub-Saharan Africa for years. But the media was invited to cover it, but it failed to. So I figured I would cover it. We always read about F-15 and F-14 and F-16 fighter jets, but we don’t read much about B-2 bomber pilots, or A-10 Warthog pilots. So I figured I would cover it. My aim was to be a gap filler, to give voice to people who are ordinarily invisible to America, but are out there on the front lines all around the world. It really is a global war on terrorism. And to convey that, I had to travel the globe.
HH: Now you visited, and it’s a very moving little anecdote, the grave of Ernie Pyle. For the benefit of our younger audience, why don’t you explain who he is and why you went there.
RK: Well, Ernie Pyle was a World War II newspaper correspondent who had covered, who had used the words we and our in his narrative to show that he was one with the troops. This was during World War II when such an attitude was not controversial. He traveled all over with the troops throughout World War II, and was finally killed, literally, in the last days of the Battle of Okinawa, the last big battle of World War II in the Pacific, and in fact, of World War II totally. Because after Okinawa, there was just the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So he had just, you know, he was killed literally in the last days of the war, and he’s buried at the military ceremony in Honolulu.
HH: Now are you approving of his style, and are you consciously trying to emulate it in this book?
RK: Well, you know, as a practical matter, when you’re one American civilian embedded with 20 or 30 or 50 or 300 American troops, whether in Special Forces A-team, or on a destroyer, not to use the words we and our is very awkward. You know, it leads you into factual inaccuracies, because you’re doing things with them. You’re an American, they’re an American, and so not to use we and our becomes a very awkward construction. But I think that seeing that they were Americans, I was American, I was following them around, I thought that adopting the style of correspondents like Ernie Pyle and Richard Tregaskis and Robert Sherrod, and other World War II correspondents, was quite appropriate.
HH: Now tell me, what does it take to get the men, and some women, but it’s primarily men of the American military to talk to you, and to genuinely be candid?
RK: Well, that’s a great question, Hugh. I can tell you, it’s not always that easy. I spent a month embedded with a Special Forces A-team in southern Algerian in the middle of the summer.
HH: It’s an amazing chapter, by the way. We’re going to spend a section on that entirely.
RK: Right, and I can tell you the first ten days, I almost got nothing in my notebook. And all the gold came in the last ten days of the month, after I’d been with them for three weeks. And the reason is they won’t open up to you until they know you and trust you. And you can’t get them to trust you by telling them to trust you. You just have to hang out and be one of the guys in this case, and show them, you know, the thing is to pass the asshole test, to show them that you’re not an asshole. And all you can be is be yourself, because they will see through you very fast. You know, as I said earlier, I didn’t seek to report on people or to interview people, but to make new friends, and reveal them in the pages of my notebook as they revealed themselves to me. So you know what it takes to get them to open up to you, Hugh? It takes time. Time is the critical factor. If you’re just embedded for three or four days, if you’re on a tight newspaper headline deadline, you’re not going to have the time, and you’re not going to get the gold, usually. But if you have a month to spare, you can be relaxed about it, you’re not in anyone’s face, you’re not rushing them, and it just all comes to you almost organically.
HH: Now Robert Kaplan, both Imperial Grunts, and I’m certain Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts, is going to be greatly revered by the active duty members of the American military. But does American journalism avoid this kind of journalism as a matter of cost, as a matter of ideology? Why don’t they do this?
RK: Well, actually, because what I’m doing isn’t really journalism in a way. It’s more like old-fashioned travel writing, or it’s more like journalism from fifty years ago. You know, American journalism, you know, in the Woodward-Bernstein age is about discovering problems. It’s about revealing inconsistencies. It’s about finding out the story, and the story has to be something that’s gone wrong in some way, shape or form. But if you’re idea is not to find out what’s wrong, it’s just to kind of reveal people, to show them, to send almost like a postcard to the reader as to what it’s about, you know, what these people are seeing, feeling, what their challenges and frustrations are, that’s not really where American journalism is at the moment.
HH: And for the benefit of the audience who didn’t hear our first interview about Imperial Grunts, and are just hearing about Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts for the first time, how did you develop the actual agenda? This is not the Pentagon saying Kaplan, go to Korea, and then we’re sending you to Algeria, and then you can go to Mongolia. How did this particular order of appearance arrive?
RK: Well, first of all, I didn’t deal with the Pentagon at all. I don’t even have in my rolodex the phone number of the public affairs office at the Pentagon. The American military is radically decentralized. People at the Pentagon have no idea when there’s going to be a deployment to Senegal or Chad or Mauritania. All that’s done at the level of the geographic area command, the combatant command. So you need contacts with middle and upper level, and an upper middle level officer is at European command, at Pacific command, at Central command. I constantly worked contacts at the level of major and lieutenant colonel, or lieutenant commander in the case of the Navy. Those were the people who got me where I was going. And I had to drive them. I had to constantly repeat I want to go on a submarine for a few weeks.
HH: And then it happens.
RK: And then it happened.
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HH: Robert Kaplan, I want to read three paragraphs as a means of illustrating a common theme throughout Hog Pilots. These appear on Page 189 and Page 190 that concern Master Sergeant Butcher of Springfield. “Once we get our ammo tomorrow, we’ll be happy, said the team sergeant, Master Sergeant Ken Butcher of Springfield, New Hampshire. Staff Sergeant Michael Hare of St. Paul, Minnesota, the 18 Bravo weapons specialist cut in, derisively. “Any soldier who doesn’t like to shoot all the time should leave the Army. And unfortunately, there are a lot of those around.” “Everyone in America should own at least five guns,” someone else answered. More nods. Master Sergeant Butcher owned 38 guns. Everyone agreed that whenever you read in newspapers about a kid shooting someone with his father’s gun, it was because the father kept a gun in the closet and told the kid never to touch it, which of course he would. Rather than a working gun, it served as a macho item that the father owned to show to all his friends. With one or two exceptions, these sergeants all owned working guns, and had taught their sons and daughters gun safety. “My son is too young to shoot,” Ken Butcher explained. “But whenever he hands me his plastic cap gun, he knows to disarm it first.” Ken Butcher has handled humanitarian and military emergencies in 73 countries in the course of 17 years in the Army. Accepted at Dartmouth, he enlisted instead and never regretted it. He never even wanted to go to officer’s candidate school at Fort Benning, Georgia. He had worked with the anti-Saddam Kurds in northern Iraq. And then for nearly a decade, he was all over the former Yugoslavia interrogating local politicians and suspected war criminals, helping Romanian and Hungarian elements of the international security force, providing protection for visiting heads of state, and so forth. He was in Zaire in 1997 when it felt apart, in Liberia in 2004 when it, too, disintegrated. He was in Sierra Leone twice during mayhem there, and he had tutored the cabinet of Azerbaijan in disaster management. He had called in a JDAM strike in Spin Boldak, in Eastern Afghanistan, in 2001, helped Armenia recover from an earthquake, and traveled on horseback and snowmobile through Canada’s northwest territories, among a plethora of other assignments, an experience that would make Harrison Ford drool. Months later in Mali, I had mentioned Butcher’s name to an SF buddy of his, Special Forces buddy of his, who told me how Butcher had, ‘MacGyver’ a solution to a frozen fuel line in a snowmobile using only a Leatherman. This all was after guarding Pershing II nuclear missiles in Germany in the last days of the Cold War. Butcher’s musculature seems slightly crushed in on accounts of years of rucking and parachute jumps. Under short, dirty blond hair, he had a blunt, ground-down, rural New Hampshire way of speaking that recalled the poetry of Robert Frost. This was enhanced by a no bull-blank expression that at proper moments turned wistful. It reminded me of tough and reserved kibbutzniks of yore. Butcher was happiest embracing the suck.” You know, Robert, that’s an amazing piece of writing, but it’s also an amazing man, and I guess he’s not all that rare.
RK: No, he’s not all that rare, and getting him to reveal all this stuff was not the easiest thing, because he really didn’t want to talk about it. You know, this occurred many, many days into my knowing him. You know, he’s not rare within the Special Forces community. He would be a bit rare within the larger Army community. But if there’s one thing that kept coming back to me, it was the amazing resumes of these non-commissioned officers.
RK: They read like the resumes of our best foreign correspondents.
HH: Now you also make a couple of points about general…I want to do before we go to these particular assignments. One is that Alaska and the frontier ethic is completely pervading our military, and the second is that good farmers have always made great warriors, and they continue to.
RK: Yes. And one of the things is that you know, the family farm is dying in America. But on many of the SF A-teams in which I embedded, the Special Forces A-teams in which I embedded, there were sometimes half of the team had grown up on family farms. So the number of farmers in SF detachments, and in the Army, too, is much greater than in the country as a whole. And I think there’s a link between a rural existence and a good fighting soldiery. And we’re certainly losing that as the family farm dies off, as we become more of a suburban and exburban generation. You know, the whole idea of something rural is going to disappear in American society.
HH: You know, Victor Davis Hanson, I’m sure, classicist and military historian, would agree with that. We’ve got 30 seconds to the break. What percentage of people talk about Alaska and the frontier in the military with wistful tones, Robert Kaplan?
RK: More than you would think. For instance, you would think who cares about Alaska? It’s one other place. But in fact, the best U.S. Army units that I’ve encountered, the ones that are closest to SF units, tended to be those from Alaska, the Stryker brigades based in Fairbanks and up near Anchorage, and I think it’s because, and we can go into this in the next segment, but there’s something about Alaska, the very brutality of its climate, that develops tighter unit cohesion, and thus, better soldiers.
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HH: We went to break, Robert Kaplan, we were talking about one of those themes that recurs through your various deployments. You run into a number of American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines with a fondness for Alaska. Many have trained there. Some have been…I know Alaska like many Americans do, from the side of a cruise ship saying boy, this is a big place. But there’s a cult in the military of Alaska.
RK: Yeah, there certainly is. And the colder the better. They almost look down on Anchorage as too much like Seattle and San Francisco. They call Anchorage the banana belt, because it’s so much warmer and more tropical than Fairbanks and the central part of the state. They like it because it’s hard. They like it because the hunting is good. The Air Force loves it, because there are very few low level noise restrictions. And also, training in the Arctic cold is much harder than training or deploying in any kind of climate. Here’s why. Hot countries, you’re just uncomfortable with heat and sweat. But cold climate, below freezing climate, you’re more than uncomfortable. You could actually die if you don’t plan ahead or get frostbite, or lose your fingers or your toes if you haven’t packed, if you’ve forgotten your gloves or something, or you forgot to pack your long underwear or something. So the Arctic demands much better preparation, much better logistical preparation and planning, so that it’s almost as if…Alaska’s where we’re training a lot of the Stryker brigades for deployment in Iraq, where I’ve seen whole Iraqi Arab towns set up in the heart of the Alaskan tundra, complete with Mosque calls in Arabic, and street signs in Arabic, and training in that Arctic cold, doing everything with gloves on, it makes Iraq itself a little easier once you get there, because you no longer have to wear your gloves, you no longer have the cold. There are a lot of things you had to pack you don’t have to pack. So it’s kind of like walking with weights, and then taking the weights off.
HH: There’s also I think a tremendous insight, which I’m sure the military already has internalized, even if they don’t articulate it, which is if your logistics are the essence to success, the people who learn their logistics in the Arctic are going to perform much better when they have to do the same sort of thing in any situation. And so it improves the NCO corps dramatically.
RK: Oh, yes, it certainly does. It’s just a much more intimate indoors interiority of a climate up in Alaska, which brings units closer together. And if you think about it, the Stryker brigade combat teams which have basically rescued Mosul…you know, an update on my chapter in Mosul is Mosul’s doing a lot better now. There hasn’t been a major attack since last spring there. The Stryker brigades that rescued Mosul, that did such fine work in Baghdad last summer, were all Alaska-based brigades.
HH: Now I want to switch over to the seas now, to the Benfold, the destroyer on which you deployed and embedded for a long period of time. Now I think this is the ship that my cousin served on in the Iraq war, and it’s the ship that does the complete staff change. Everyone deploys onto it, and so they can stay deployed for the longest period of time.
RK: Yeah, it’s called a sea swap, Hugh.
HH: Yeah, they don’t like that. He didn’t like that, either. I see you noted that in your book. The sailors hate that. Why?
RK: Yes. Yeah, because sailors…once you go to the Navy and the Air Force, Hugh…you see, our soldiers and Marines, they’re just plain warriors. But in sailors and airmen, they have their relationship triangulated by technology, meaning that they have a particular love for the air or Naval platform. They love their destroyer, or they love their submarine, or they love their B-2 bomber or whatever. And when you just tell them that all destroyers are the same, you’re going to serve six months on this destroyer, six months on another destroyer, you really, you’re really undermining their very morale in a deep sense. And when I was embedded on the Benfold, there had been a sea swap. A lot of the sailors had come from the U.S.S. Higgins, which had served in Iraq, which had fired some of the first shots of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the sailors had a particular love for the Higgins because of the name of the boat, because it was one boat, one ship, where the name was not based on a World War II or a Korean war Medal of Honor winner, but on someone who had died in Lebanon in the 1980’s. The fact that it was a much more recent hero engendered a whole new meaning to these young sailors.
HH: Now on your time on the Benfold, you also report, and I tested this out against my friend Joseph Timothy Cook who’s a Vietnam-era Naval aviator, flown off of carriers, that the chief’s mess, and the aura of the chiefs is so real, and that no one goes into the chief’s mess, and he said good eye for detail, Kaplan. That’s an interesting aspect I had never heard of before.
RK: Yeah, you know, of all the non-commissioned officers in the U.S. military, none have quite the aura of Naval chiefs. And the word itself chief, it connotes authority. These are what I call the 1950’s, prosperous, uber-working class type of guys. They’re almost from an earlier generation. You know, they seem like the kind of people I remember from my dimmest, earliest childhood, people who had beautiful homes not because they were investment bankers, but because they were an electrician or a plumber, or something like that. And in the officer’s wardroom, non-commissioned officers will walk in and out if they need to. But no officer will ever walk into the chief’s lounge on a surface or sub-surface warship without being invited, because it’s almost like a cult.
HH: Now you write also about Petty Officer Second Class Robert Contreras of San Fernando. “The Navy made him the geek he was always meant to be.” We’ve got a minute to our break for the second hour, Robert Kaplan. What do you mean by that?
RK: What I mean is he was always the science whiz in school, very, very bright, a lot going on in his mind, a bit awkward. You know, he was someone who would turn into like a geek who went to a top school or something, but he grew up in very modest circumstances with family problems. He got into trouble, he had disciplinary problems. So this geek side of him was hidden, almost. But once he was able to join the Navy, and they did all these batteries of tests on him, you know, these intelligence tests, and it turned out just how talented and brilliant this kid was, the Navy revealed him, it was able to reveal a whole new side to him.
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HH: Robert Kaplan, we’ll come back next hour and start with going below the sea on the submarine chapter. But let’s finish up on the Benfold, where you were deployed on a destroyer. You say that the Navy, this sort of Navy is vanishing, but the next generation of ships may not even have outdoor platforms, and that this is odd, really.
RK: Yeah, when you look at the designs of the new DDX destroyer that, by the way, if they ever build it, it’s going to cost about $4 billion dollars per ship, there’s almost…you know, the whole notion of a deck, of deck plates, is sort of gone. It’s almost like when you look at the drawings of these things, they’re like submarines that are on top of the water. Everything is modular, and so I pointed out that to be embedded on a destroyer in the early part of the 21st Century was very, I was very privileged, because I was on a destroyer while it was still a real ship, where there was still a deck life, you know, where you could walk around. And I can tell you, probably very few experiences I’ve had in my entire life were like crossing the Pacific on a destroyer back from the South Seas, from Southeast Asia, all the way to Hawaii. You know, you look at a map and you see how there’s a lot of ocean in the world, but until you really experience it, you can’t really appreciate it. There’s so much salt in the ocean that just taking a walk on the deck on the Benfold, you put your fingers through your hair and it’s full of these salt particles.
HH: Now you write, to close out this hour, “whereas the Marines are a cult, the Navy is a calling.” You’re not meaning to denigrate the Marines, but you’re trying to distinguish. Can you expand on that a little bit in the minute we have left in this segment?
RK: Yes, there’s just an intensity with the Marines. The Marines are like a successful gang. They’re like a reformatory that works, that’s really reformed people into better citizens. You know, they’re a gang that works. The Marines take people, they break them down, and then they rebuild them up again as solid citizens. But the calling to be in the Navy, to go on ships or boats, in the case of submarines and aircraft carriers, really is a calling in the sense that the officers that I met were not always that physical. There was just something in them, some hidden gene, which was a calling to go to sea.
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I now want to get into the guts of the book and do a few deployments. And obviously, we can’t recreate a 400 page book, Robert Kaplan, but I want to give them a sense of where you’ve been and what you’ve done. And I’ll tell you, when you go on this USS Houston, this nuclear submarine, I got claustrophobia reading about this. I don’t do well in MRI machines. But this is…how did…is this the closest to the most uncomfortable deployment you had?
RK: Well, in a way, it wasn’t, because remember, you never sweat, you don’t get dirty. As they say, on a submarine, it’s 69 degrees and fluorescent every day of the year and all times of day. You can walk around in a T-shirt, running shoes. It’s not like 120 degrees in Iraq, where you rot through your clothes. Also, in terms of the claustrophobia, that when you first get down there, you say how am I going to survive this. I mean, even the urinals and the sinks fold out from the walls. The chairs have hidden recesses in the back where you can put books and manuals. Every ounce of space is utilized. There’s one exercise machine for 154 men, and it’s squeezed between computer banks. So you say, how am I going to do this. I mean, your dirty laundry is in a slip on the side of your bed, so you’re sleeping right next to your dirty laundry, because there’s no other space for it. But as the hours and days go on, and you get used to this environment, and you figure out ways to save space yourself, and how to wiggle into this and wiggle into that, my nose was, when I was lying in bed, was about two inches from the pipes up above. It just becomes normal. I mean, you adapt. People adapt.
HH: You write, quoting one of the submarine sailors, “It’s like being stuck in the boiler room of your high school for several weeks.” I understand you adapt, but as you also write, these guys are called to this. This is what they love to do.
RK: Oh, yes, because it’s very much an elite. The submarine service is a volunteer service within a volunteer service. Nobody’s put on submarines unless they volunteer, and no pressure is put. It’s very distinctly an elite. They tend to have the highest test scores, the highest math scores. I’ve never met more impressive non-commissioned officer than those in the nuclear power plant of a fast-attack submarine. So they feel themselves superior doing this. And many of…you know, you meet people who have been underneath the North Pole like fifteen times.
HH: Now I want to talk about why the strategic element of the submarine service, and it’s a theme throughout Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts, and a welcome one, from my perspective, which is China, China, China. Why this obsession with China?
RK: Because basically, what I found out, embedded in the military months at a time every year for the past few years, there are two overarching themes to our military deployment. One is the global war on terrorism, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and the other is facing up to the challenge of China as a new future peer competitor. Now that doesn’t mean China wants to go to war with us, it doesn’t mean the military is warmongering. But the military has to play the role of the constructive pessimist. So it has to accept the fact that China, for instance, is both buying and acquiring new submarines at five times the rate that we are, that it’s developing anti-GPS satellite technology, that it’s concentrating on missile technology that can hit moving targets at sea. The Pacific Ocean, Hugh, has been an American lake for the last sixty years. But the next sixty years, the American military, and particularly the Navy and Air Force, are going to have to adjust to a more multi-polar environment in the Pacific. And what this all boils down to is that the exercises, the constant combat exercises that are run on destroyers and submarines all the time, when they talk about Country Orange, or Country X as the adversary country, it’s almost always China, though they don’t admit it as such.
HH: Now Robert Kaplan, you also…we’ve got 54 of these Los Angeles class fast-attack nuclear submarines. And I hadn’t really quite ever thought about what they do all day, but you describe it in detail. They run exercise after exercise, drill after drill, to the point of, I don’t know, is it maddening the repetition?
RK: I’ve never been so tired, and with things to do, than I have been when I was embedded on a fast-attack nuclear sub or an Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer. It’s exercise after exercise. You know, they say every Marine a rifleman? Well, every sailor a fireman, because whether a ship is attacked at sea, whether there’s an engine malfunction or whatever, it almost always results in fire. So sailors have to be expert firemen. So there are fire drills all the time that get quite real with smoke, with masks everyone has to wear, the hatches are sealed shut, parts of the ship are cut off form the other part of the ship. These things get really, really intense, and they last for a long time.
HH: Quoting from Page 147, “At several hundred feet beneath the surface, you might as well be in the Space Shuttle. Anal retentiveness was a matter of survival. Yet to know such a fact was not at the same time as appreciating it through a sustained close encounter. ‘It’s like being bad in 7th grade,’ said one enlisted man. ‘If you do something stupid, your crewmates never let you forget it.'” Does that cause bad humor or an excess of good humor, Robert Kaplan?
RK: An excess of good humor, because what it drives home every minute of the day is that these people are an elite, and they consider themselves as such, and they make things hard on each other. They challenge each other. Everyone is always challenging someone else on these ships and boats to be better, not to screw up, not to get this wrong, because the sea, seven hundred feet down, where the pressure of the water is like an elephant stepping on your finger, the sea that far deep is a zero defect environment, like space.
HH: Now occasionally, an American politician will step in it, and somehow insult the American military by suggesting they’re in this because they can’t get jobs elsewhere. I stand up now as an example from this chapter, Lieutenant Junior Grade Anthony Williams of Fayetteville, Georgia, graduate of Georgia Tech, a chemical radiological assistance in a reactor complex. “Lt. Williams,” you write, “was very passionate about ideas as I learned during a discussion we had about the future of American democracy, about which he was deeply worried.” Again and again in Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts, Robert Kaplan, these are very well read, deep thinking American soldiers.
RK: Oh, yes. No, especially when it comes to the Air Force and the Navy, a lot of these people, particularly the officers, could get much higher paying jobs elsewhere. They are there because of the feeling they get serving, and because inside the military, they feel like they’re really doing something particularly interesting in their lives, that they’re members of an elite, that they would not be in corporate America. But to say that these people don’t have a choice is factually wrong. In fact, one of the reasons why the Air Force in particular offers such a cushy lifestyle to its officers and airmen, to a much greater extent than the Marine Corps does, is because they want to keep them. They know how a lot of their people are easily employed by corporate America, and they don’t want to spend all this money training them just to see them leave.
HH: Now let’s talk a little bit about the strategic significance of the submarine service. While the recent past had been carrier strike groups centric, the future, you write, would emphasize force multiplication, get close real fast to a coastline to collect data or sink a ship when no one thinks you’re there, perhaps even frightening away the enemy before he has time to muster his forces. And you go on to write about putting Special Forces ashore via submarines. These have become, well, the ultimate, as you write, “The sub was where the true intentions of a nation were revealed.”
RK: Yes, that’s true, because remember, throughout the Cold War, the war under the seas was quite high. We were getting right up near the Soviet coast. We were tracking the Soviet boomers, they were tracking ours. The most tense moments of the Cold War were under the sea. And in fact, what a submarine allows a president to do, you can have, for example, a Democratic liberal president with a multilateral foreign policy, but who can on the side, he can conduct a very unilateral foreign policy with his submarine fleet. So that’s my point in saying that the submarine is where the intentions of a nation are revealed, because the submarine is really, in effect, the most secret part of our arsenal. I mean, there are leaks all the times from the CIA, or from the intelligence community. But there are no leaks, no information comes out of submarines. They are moving intelligence factories powered by nuclear reactors under the sea. They can pull down cell phone conversations on shore, and do a lot of other things.
HH: It’s an amazing chapter.
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HH: Robert Kaplan, I want to visit with you in this segment and the next one, a couple of places you’ve been before and returned to. One of them is the Philippines, and we go from these massively expensive tactical submarines and attack destroyers to a couple of guys embedded with the Philippine military. Tell us about Colonel Linder and what he’s doing.
RK: Yes, well Colonel Jim Linder was the Army Special Forces officer who ran the whole special operations program in the southern Philippines, which is a Muslim community. Col. Linder basically had the following job to do. He had to convince the whole population of Muslims that American soldiers with American flags on their sleeves were basically the good guys hunting down al Qaeda. And he was able to do that quite successfully, because the whole context of operations in the southern Philippines is so different than it is in Iraq and Afghanistan. We haven’t been firing any shots in the Philippines. We have been building health clinics, doing a lot of humanitarian work, and we’ve been empowering the armed forces of the Philippines, the Philippines’ own military, to do the hunting down of terrorists on their own with logistical and training support, and with technical intelligence that we’ve been able to provide them. And Col. Linder himself was just one of these guys who exudes authority. He exuded quiet authority in the sense that you wanted to listen to him. And he was very much a warrior diplomat, because much of what he did was go around speaking and cajoling with Muslim politicians in this part of the country that was very weakly governed by the government, the Filipino government up in Manila.
HH: You know, you meet him in Zamboanga, and my ears perk up, because that’s where my father was deployed in World War II. And I love this little speech he gave you and to crowds of Filipinos in Jolo and Basilan. “‘I will fortify the moral high ground,’ says Col. Linder. ‘People will attack me with stories about Abu Ghraib and the killing of Filipino civilians a hundred years ago by American troops, actions which I cannot defend. And I will respond that my troops can build a school, or fix a little girl’s cleft palate at a med-cap, whereas all the guerrillas of Abu Sayyaf and Jamaa al-Islamia can offer is a suicide vest. I will build my fortress on deeds, because I know that the only force protection I have is the goodwill of civilians. All the guns in the world won’t keep an IED from going off.'” Wonderfully put. Is it working?
RK: Yes, it’s working very well. In fact, most of these small deployments are working very well. We should be careful not to draw generalizations from Iraq. It’s working so well that in 2002, the United States military went into an island called Basilan in the southern Philippines, the most strategic island in the Sulu chain, all Muslim inhabited, the lair of Abu Sayyaf, the lair of al Qaeda organizations like Jamaa al-Islamia. And the Americans cleared it, they held it, they turned it over to the Filipinos who…and since then, there’s been very little, if any, terrorist activity on Basilan. And that was 2002. In 2005-2006, we went further down the chain and did the same thing on Jolo. So this is an operation that’s been working. It’s been sort of a textbook success story.
HH: Now does the American military plan these things years in advance, because you’ve been here twice. When you were there three years ago, had they intended to be where they are now, or are they adapting as circumstances change?
RK: Well, they’re much further along than they intended to be. They never thought for a moment that they would be able to subdue Jolo, a real jungle environment, crawling with Abu Sayyaf and Jamaa al-Islamia Islamic insurgents. They always thought that Jolo would be too much of a challenge. But given the success they had on Basilan, they worked with the Filipino military on Jolo, and now Jolo’s been completely turned around. So they’re further along than they thought they would be.
HH: Now in the middle of this description of what’s going on in the Philippines, you include, as you do often, a couple of meditations on why our military is where it is. This one occurs over on Pages 313-314 where you talk about what authority means, how you get it, and the frontier legacy in the American military. Expand on what that legacy is, and how that authority develops.
RK: Well, remember, the American military, particularly the Army, has had its culture, its personality determined by the fight to settle the American West, to wrest control of the American West from the native indigenous inhabitants. This is not a nice story, but it happens to be the history of the U.S. Army. And we built around a frontier fortress sort of ethos, much different than the British military, whose ethos has been much more naval oriented than our own. And this has given the Army, and because of this, because we settle the frontier so fast, you know, a whole continent in just a few short decades, it happened mainly because of very clear and decisive command, so that there’s a high element of simplicity in the way the Army speaks. So when you hear phrases like good guys and bad guys, and those kinds of things, I mean, it sounds corny, it sound hokey. But this phraseology comes ultimately from the U.S. Army’s struggle to settle the American West.
HH: I want to read the conclusion of the Philippines paragraphs. “The air of uncertainty prevalent in 2003 was now less so, to a point where big business in Manila, such as this restaurant chain, felt safe enough to invest. Basilan had now telephone towers, asphalt roads and bridges, more schools, higher agricultural production. Power outages occurred because of demand surge as a sign of uneven development, but of development, nevertheless. The Philippines,” you conclude, “perhaps more than any other place in the world since 9/11, was a success for the American military. It wasn’t a dramatic or a large-scale success, but something had happened that had a continuing upward curve, a significant and strategic island chain with a Muslim population which had been outside the law, and whose local bandits and insurgents were demonstrably linked to world terrorist organizations, was being reclaimed by a legitimate central government, a government that was in turn a U.S. ally and a democracy.” You know, that’s huge, Robert Kaplan. What it prevents, in terms of cost and disaster down the road, I don’t think you can really quantify.
RK: No, what this is all about is get in early, get in fast, get in below the media radar screen, get in when you still have a chance to make mistakes, so that when you do make mistakes, it won’t hurt your reputation so much, experiment with trial and error, and you can really have a success story. And we’ve been doing this in a number of places. What it’s about, it’s about taking on a challenge when it’s still on Page 11, so that it never even reaches Page 5 or Page 1. You want to avoid future Iraqs, and the way to avoid future Iraqs is not to go isolationist, Hugh, but to be engaged in even more places than we have been.
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HH: As I’ve said, I’ve got a very small bookshelf of indispensable books. On it is The Looming Tower, America Alone by Mark Steyn, Robert Kaplan’s Imperial Grunts, and now this one goes on there, if you want to understand the world we live in. Robert Kaplan, I used to tell people when I was recommending Imperial Grunts, that they had to read it if only to read what you wrote about Colombia, because we just didn’t know. I didn’t know what was going on down there, and how we were trying to stop it. You went back. Tell people about then and now, and what you found on your second trip to Colombia.
RK: Well, let me put it this way. Handicap for size the president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe Velez. He’s probably the most successful democratically elected ruler or politician on the Earth today. He’s in his second term with a 70% approval rating. He’s, more than anyone in decades, he’s really taken the fight, and alleviated his country’s suffering from narco-terrorists. When I was in Colombia in 2003, there were many parts of the country that I couldn’t go to, because they were insurgent-controlled. By insurgents, I mean narco-terrorist drug armies. When I went back in 2006, I went to places along the Venezuelan border, along the Ecuadorian border, that I simply couldn’t have gone three years ago, but these areas had all been reclaimed. He’s managing to disband one drug army. He’s got a second one on the ropes. And now he’s facing up against a third. He’s had like a Ronald Reagan foreign policy towards the drug armies, and a very liberalish domestic policy in terms of health care and other issues like that. He’s really been an incredible class act, and we’ve helped him by deploying Army Special Forces in Colombia, and Navy and Marines to train his people.
HH: Now I want to emphasize the dramatic nature by a couple of sentences here from Page 325. “The last place I visited in Colombia three years ago was Arauca…
HH: I’m going to mispronounce every single name in this book, but you come back and are very graceful in correcting it. “In February, 2003, when I had been last there, Arauca province was considered the most dangerous in the region. To say there had been a dramatic change since then would be a serious understatement. Proper cafes were now open, storefronts painted, crowds flooded the street, at night, too. Rather than a rat hole, Arauca looked like a normally poor and unsophisticated provincial town.” As I said last segment about the Philippines, this is huge, Robert Kaplan.
RK: Yes, it is. I mean, I suppose that now, that there’s been a big turnaround in Anbar Province. For instance, I covered the original attack on Fallujah in April, 2004. And had I bought property then, I would have made some money, because Fallujah’s a lot safer now than it was in 2004, and a lot more at peace. Well, the same thing has happened in Colombia, but even more dramatically so. I mean, there were towns in Colombia in 2003, whole sections of the country, where you had to wear body armor, you had to go around in full kit, full battle rattle, the whole way. Now, you can just walk around, sit, have coffee, take a stroll in the evening, and all this has occurred without nary a news headline or news story about it. And it wasn’t accomplished by any quick fix, sophisticated new military solution that you could write home about. It was attrition of the same, over and over again, the classics lessons of counterinsurgency. Separate the population from the insurgents, give the population a stake in the outcome, provide them with security. It’s working in Colombia.
HH: Now Robert Kaplan, across the border in Venezuela, a person that many refer to as the Mugabe of South America, Chavez, is taking hold. Your Special Forces operators knew that three years ago. What do they say now?
RK: He’s giving rest and relaxation. He’s giving succor to the drug armies. They know that they have a safe rear base in Venezuela where they can regroup. So he’s a real problem, because not only is he a problem with us, and his alliance with Iran and all of that, but he’s been trying to actively destabilize the democratically elected government in Colombia. You know, there’s some myths out there that I can’t seem to dispel, Hugh, that we have all these military missions around the world propping up dictators and all of this. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Congress wouldn’t allow it. The moment a country stops being a democracy, our military aid program has to stop, as I found out in Nepal. But in Colombia, what we’re propping up is an organically developed model democracy.
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HH: We’re going into the air now with the B-2 squad that you deployed with for a while. This is a very different chapter than this other…This is just a very different feel. It comes through in the writings. These are the superdestroyers, Robert Kaplan, of our Army and military, I mean.
RK: Yes, it is. You know, keep in mind, a destroyer costs over a billion dollars, but it’s manned by 330 sailors and officers. A fast attack nuclear sub costs over a billion dollars, and it’s manned by about 154 sailors and officers. But a B-2 costs over a billion dollars. It costs about the same as a submarine or a destroyer, but it’s manned by only two people, you know, a pilot and a mission operator. So you know, if you divide by money, the amount of responsibility that anyone may have in the U.S. military, probably no greater responsibility is put on anyone in the U.S. military than on the pilots and mission operators of these B-2 bombers.
HH: Now can you explain for the audience the statement that I referred to in the last segment that the B-2’s, the 21 B-2’s, represent, “the most terrifying, frighteningly complex conventional struggles that might lie ahead.”
RK: Yes. You know, each war is generally not a good predictor of the next war. Vietnam was not at all like Korea and World War II. World War I was not at all like the Franco-Prussian War. This war in Iraq is not at all like the first Gulf War of 1990-91. And therefore, the dirty land counterinsurgency we’re fighting in Mesopotamia will probably give no inkling to what future wars may be about. And they won’t be conventional, they won’t be unconventional. They’ll be a mixture of the two. They’ll be about combining things like Special Forces A-teams, with a Marine unit, with a fast attack nuclear sub, with a B-2 bomber, all kind of coming together like bees in a hive to execute an attack on a specific country, and then separating out just as fast. It’s almost like a complex symphony in three dimensions.
HH: Now I want to take this opportunity, because you’re with the B-2 pilot, to talk more generally about the Air Force. There’s a lot of inter-service rivalry, and understanding about each other that the civilian world never glimpses. Occasionally, I’ll get an e-mail like the USAF v. USNA by Bob Norris, which is fairly famous among aviators, discussing the difference in the cultures. But you spend some time explaining for civilians like me why the Air Force is just different. And I’d like you to expand on that for people, beginning with the fact that the academies of the other two are on the Coast, and the Air Force is in Colorado. It’s just very different.
RK: Yes, remember, the Air Force is new. You know, the Marines, the Navy, the Army, go back to Revolutionary War times. But the Air Force grew out of the Army in 1947. It lacks the tradition. The Air Force Academy, on the front range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, has a very tubular, abstract architectural cold element, whereas the service, whereas West Point and Annapolis are completely different. The Air Force is really the technical service of the U.S. military more than others, you know, like spearheading the military’s increasing involvement with outer space. And so the Air Force is open to change much more than the other three services, because technological change is really what defines it. It’s what it’s really all about. The Air Force also, you know, is very attached to its Vietnam role because of the pilots in the Hanoi Hilton. So you know, the Air Force doesn’t have an earlier tradition like the Army and Navy and Marines. So it’s really used Vietnam, and to a lesser extent, Korea, as a way to kind of create that historical tradition.
HH: Next hour, I’m going to talk in depth about your A-10 embed experience, but let’s use this paragraph for the moment. “While the Air Force was run by aggressive F-series fighter jocks, witness who the top generals were, B-2 guys were, in a deeper sense, the ultimate Air Force pilots. This Air Force mentality can be explained through a comparison with Naval aviation. Whereas Marine pilots were primarily about close air support, and Navy aviators had the reputation of being screaming off the carrier deck daredevils, Air Force pilots had the reputation of being more operationally conservative. Navy aviators, alone in the ocean without having to bother about issues like noise restrictions, had fewer rules. Naval aviation is what you could do with an airframe. The Air Force was about what you couldn’t. Begotten by big Army in ’47, the Air Force had its character molded by the Cold War Strategic Air Command, the core of our nuclear delivery system, in the event of Armageddon. Because of its awesome strategic responsibilities, Air Force pilots were simply more by the book than their Navy brethren.” Will they resent that, Robert Kaplan? Or will they nod in agreement?
RK: They’ll do both, probably. You know, these are uncomfortable truths, but they’re really basic truths that people can’t disagree with.
HH: What about, when you write Kosovo in ’99 was a breakthrough war for the Air Force…I don’t want to hear that, but tell me why it’s a good thing.
RK: Well, it partly was, because we deployed B-2…remember, the B-2 was not supposed to be about humanitarian relief. It was built in order to get the Soviets to spend themselves into the grave in order to counter it. But what the B-2 provided for President Clinton in Kosovo was an ability for part of his Air Force to deploy from the Continental United States, refuel in the air several times, bomb targets from 35,000 feet at no danger to itself, and come back to the Continental United States without the use of any foreign bases. So it gave the President an extra piece of leverage. It enabled him to fight a limited war, where he didn’t want to go in on the ground, and it showed that the B…and it was also a breakthrough in the sense that it wasn’t about many planes dropping bombs on targets. The B-2 role in Kosovo was how just a few planes could hit many targets, because it could drop up to, each plane could drop up to about 80 bombs.
HH: Was there controversy about using one of…I mean, there are only 21 of these things, as you point out. I mean, we’re not making them anymore, they’re phenomenally expensive. What about putting one of those at risk in one of these low conflicts?
RK: Well, you can flip that, Hugh. You can flip it by saying the very fact that we were willing to use it in Kosovo, and also in Afghanistan and Iraqi Freedom, we were sending a message to our present and future adversaries that we feel no compunction about using this platform. We’ll use it all the time, so watch what it can do, because it can go in virtually undetected, it can drop heavy bombs into underground bunkers, and get out undetected. And most importantly, we use it a lot.
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HH: You write, going back to the B-2’s, Robert Kaplan, that the B-2 and the F-22 keeps China from locking the U.S. out of the Taiwan Strait. How so?
RK: Well, because of their stealth capabilities, and the fact that they’re forward deployed in Guam, or in Alaska, and places like that. What it does is remember, we’ve had a big war going on in the Middle East for years, but it’s only had an indirect effect on stock markets. A war in Asia between the U.S. and China, for instance, even if it lasted just a few days, would completely roil Asian stock markets. We don’t want a war in Asia. We never want to have to go to war with China. We don’t want an accident or a series of mistakes to lead to a war. And one of the ways you do that is you make it clear to the Chinese general staff that we will defend Taiwan. That way, they don’t even think of any military action to get control of Taiwan. You know, they’ll just try to get control of its economy organically as the years go by. And one of the ways we show the Chinese that we’re serious about Taiwan is our forward deploying of F-22’s and B-2 bombers.
HH: And a last question this hour, we’re going to come back with I think the most riveting chapter, is the Algerian chapter in Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts, but peppered throughout the book, Jack London, Jules Verne, Robert Service. Did you intend to set out to write about the people you most admire in the course of writing about the military you admire and report on?
RK: No, I didn’t. It just came to me. Remember, the books you read are heavily dependent on the people you meet, because if you think about it, you read a book because someone’s recommended it to you. You met someone at a party or something who spoke very highly about a book. And the people I encountered in the U.S. military were aficionados of Jules Verne, of Jack London, of the Canadian poet, Robert Service, and others. So the military very much influenced my reading habits.
HH: You know, I have met many, many Marine Corps officers over the years, because my wife was born into a Marine family. They all know their Robert Service by heart. It’s amazing.
RK: Yes, and it was Tom Wilhelm, an Army foreign area officer in Mongolia who I wrote a chapter about in my earlier book, Imperial Grunts, who really pointed out to me the joys of reading Robert Service.
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HH: I want to go to Algeria with you, Robert Kaplan, because I found this to be the most striking chapter of many striking chapters. How did you get there? And what did you think…give us the circumstance, physical first, of when you went there and how long you stayed.
RK: Well, I wanted to embed in a number of missions in sub-Saharan Africa that Army Special Forces were doing. And the European command had invited a number of top foreign correspondents from American media to go, but many of them couldn’t go. They were willing to cover it from Senegal, in Dakar, as a overview, all of these deployments. But they weren’t willing to invest a lot of time on the ground with any particular unit. So I was alone with twelve members of an SF A-team not just in Algeria, but in the extreme south of Algeria, meaning 1,500 miles south of the capitol of Algiers. I was closer to Nigeria and the Gulf of Guinea than I was to Algiers, even though I was still in Algeria. And you know, listeners should go to a map and just see how far south Algeria goes. This was the Sahara desert in the height of summer. It was so hot and so dry that I almost never use my towel to bathe, because the moment you turned off the water in the makeshift showers, you were like instantly dry and your hair frizzed up. That’s how dry and hot it was. There were scorpions all around, and it was…and everyone lived in the same tent. Now the Algerians were very gracious hosts. They had built several tents for us. But it was just amazing the way everyone congregated. We would rather be close together in one tent than to have just three or four guys in three separate tents. You know, that’s an indicator of the togetherness of this A-team, and just how unified they were.
HH: Now the reason I was riveted by this is because I know the history of Algeria both in terms of the war against the French for independence and their own insurgency with an al Qaeda off-shoot. But if you could summarize for people why Algeria is of such strategic importance to the United States?
RK: Well, first of all, this was the first American military mission to Algeria since Eisenhower’s Operation Torch in November of 1942, because after the War ended, Algeria shortly after had a war with the French for independence, where a million people were killed. Then Algeria became one of the most radical extremist countries in the whole Arab world. It led the third world movement, the anti-American, anti-Israeli third world movement. And so, relations with us were very, very low key for a long period of time. Then, Algeria had a civil war in the 1990’s, and this was very instructive, because the Algerian military essentially fought a counterinsurgency against Islamic militants that was every bit as brutal as the one in Iraq, and they one. They won, more or less, hands down. And the media rewarded them, with their victory, by just stopping to pay attention to the story. So it wasn’t clear what had happened, it was just that sometime in the late 90’s, you stopped reading about Algeria as the media moved on elsewhere, because the Algerian government, for all intents and purposes, had defeated this particular group of Islamic militants. But the U.S. military had taken notice of Algeria’s success. And because the Algerian government felt itself deserted by countries in Europe, by its own so-called Arab allies, it really led to a change of heart in the people in power in Algiers. And afterwards, they wanted a closer working relationship with the U.S. military. And this Special Forces A-team deployment was the ultimate fruit of all of that.
HH: Now Robert Kaplan, tell me if I’m wrong, but it strikes me that we have going in Algeria what we hope to potentially get in Iraq, eventually, a military and a government open to spreading stability and some transparency, while crushing extremist Salafist ideology at the same time.
RK: Yes. No, what we hope to accomplish in Iraq is what has been accomplished in Algeria, and has been accomplished in Colombia against another sort of extremist. The problem in Iraq is that we don’t have the advantages that the Algerian government had. The Algerian government allowed in no media, number one, and it could get away with that, because it had no pretensions at the time to democracy, though now, it’s a democratically elected government. It was also dealing with its own people. This Islamic insurgency was an Algerian Islamic insurgency, so the government had no problem with language, it completely understood the culture, and so it had, it could block out the media. It understood the culture and language perfectly. And thirdly, its population was willing to put up with the cruelest of techniques that the government employed, so that the Algerian government was able to win, Hugh, with methods that we simply cannot employ and should not employ.
HH: Right, but they also are able to teach us now, this is something that I thought was an amazing insight. You mentioned it in the first hour of our conversation today, that our staff colleges in the military are now benefiting from the return of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who have deployed forward, and are learning how to fight this war. In Algeria, they’ve been teaching, even as our guys teach them tactics, they’re teaching us the situational deployments of the bad guys, and they’re teaching them how they set up camp and all this sort of stuff. Very much a two-way transaction.
RK: Oh, very much so. This was not like observing training missions in Mauritania or Mali or elsewhere. For everything we were teaching them, they were teaching us about how to infiltrate terrorist compounds, how to attack them. So it was very much a two-way street. Also, because the Algerian government was friends with all the wrong sorts of people during its decades of radicalism, it has real contacts in the Arab world, which have been very useful to us in Iraq. You know, Algeria has been a quiet provider of intelligence to us in our battle in Iraq.
HH: You also mention that in the Algerian army is a recurring problem in third world armies, that their non-commissioned officers are so far behind the American…of course, the American tradition is extraordinarily successful and esteemed. But that’s what they lack in the third world, the ability to make decisions.
RK: Yes, that’s what they lack. Remember, our NCO corps was really started to be formed at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778, when Baron Friedrich von Steuben, through his decentralization of command, established basically the principle of an NCO corps, which you find in Western militaries, the British, the French, you know, all have it. But you don’t find it in a country like Algeria where the major, the lieutenant is overloaded with tasks to do, which means he doesn’t perform them all that well, because he has to basically discipline his corporal, discipline his private, whereas in the American system, that is done by sergeants. It’s things that the major doesn’t have to deal with.
HH: Can the Americans convey that? Are they successful in conveying that to the Algerians?
RK: They’re successful in conveying it, but an NCO corps, it’s kind of like winning an insurgency. It’s not a decision, it’s a process. I mean, first of all, you need a lot of extra money you’ve got to put into it to raise salaries for NCOs. You have to establish training schools, you know, NCO schools, higher education, all this. You have to provide family support. If your NCOs are going to be talented and well-trained and confident, they’re going to be the product of education and training academies. So it’s a big investment for a military.
HH: Now before we move on to the A-10s after the break, I want to talk a little bit about these Special Forces operators, and their attitudes. One of them is they hate Al Jazeera.
RK: Yeah, they hate Al Jazeera. But let me point something out about Al Jazeera. I understand why the military, in fact, many Americans hate Al Jazeera. But remember, as to Arabs, Al Jazeera is provocatively pro-Western. You know, you’re dealing with a culture and a society that for decades just had the dullest national media, which merely mouthed the pronouncements of the dictator. Now, you have a semi-independent television station which is prone to all the hopes, fears, conspiracy theories, prejudices of any society. And just like you see America through CBS or Fox News or CNN, you see a lot of the ideas prevalent in the Arab world through Al Jazeera. You know, the Arab world now really has a mass media that it never had before, but lo and behold, this mass media is going to reflect feelings on the street in the Arab world, some of which we’re not going to like.
HH: A minute to the break here, just an odd question harkening back to the first hour. Do these guys like you, Robert Kaplan, by the end of your deployment? I mean, you’re such a foreign presence to these people.
RK: Well, you never know if people like you, because you know, most people are very diplomatic. If there’s something about you they don’t like. They may not even say it. But I felt…the way you test it is will they still talk to you afterwards, like after they’ve seen what you’ve written, or two months later when you’re no longer reporting. And I’ve developed quite a lot of friendships in the American military through this project.
HH: I’m not surprised by that. It’s amazing reporting.
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HH: Before we leave Algeria, Robert Kaplan, as we were talking about last segment, the men and women of the military that you’ve served with have been obviously studying this new enemy, the Salafist extremists that they find in Africa and the Middle East and around Europe, as well as the Shia extremists that they have to keep their eye on in the Middle East. How much do they understand about the enemy? How often do they talk about them? And what motivates them, and how important it is to get inside their uda-loop, their decision loop?
RK: It’s very important, obviously, Hugh. They don’t talk about the enemy so much. The enemy is fairly abstract. You know, it’s just something they have to do. They’re concerned with more what I would call kinetic things. In other words, this is where the location is, this is what they have to hit, here’s how they’re supposed to carry it out. It gets really quiet and technical.
HH: You have a strategic element of the military, though, obviously, like David Petraeus, who we all saw last week testify, and redid the counterinsurgency manual for the United States. You mentioned earlier in the program that all the lessons that are being learned from all the places in the world are going back to the staff colleges. The grunts that you talk about, the pilots that you fly with, do they think about this changing in doctrine? Or are they just simply executing a higher command’s doctrine?
RK: It’s both. What you hear from a lot of junior officer and non-commissioned officers is that they didn’t train me for this, but I’m learning on the job. In other words, I was trained to be an artillery officer, but now I have to meet and greet, and get to know my Iraqi police counterpart and work with him, and not get really angry if he’s ten minutes late or twenty minutes late, or sometimes, he doesn’t even show up. I have to find him.
HH: Let’s switch over now to the Air Force, to some things they had to learn there like mid-air refueling. Hog pilots are A-10 pilots. Can you explain to the audience in a way that just summarizes, because I can’t get into it, it’s a fascinating chapter, who these guys are and their place in the Air Force hierarchy?
RK: Sure, it’ll be a pleasure. It’s officially the A-10 Thunderbolt II, but they call it the Warthog, because it hovers low the ground, it provides close air support. The Air Force wanted to kill the plane after the first Gulf War, so the Army said okay, you don’t want it? We’ll take it. Well, the Air Force quickly changed its mind. The A-10 Warthog, or hog, constitutes an argument against beauty, Hugh. It can loiter amid enemy gunfire, because it’s tough. It’s tough because it’s got so much built-in redundancy, separate engines, separate hydraulic systems, double tails, double everything. If one part falters, another takes its place. You know, the engines are mounted high so that the wings shield the engine from ground fire. Because the engines are mounted high, they’re less susceptible to foreign objects like gravel. That’s one reason why the A-10 can work out of dirt landing strips. You know, the Air Force hates the plane because it’s not high tech. It’s low tech. It’s Rudyard Kipling’s cheaper man, Hugh. It looks ugly, it looks like something out of World War II, and in fact, I’ll tell you, the A-10 pilots are the last of the old Army, World War II Army air corps pilots. They basically hate the rest of the Air Force, which is dominated by strategic bomber pilots and F-series fighter jocks. The A-10 pilots, though they’re Air Force, they love the Army, they love the Marines. As far as they say, we’re ground fighters. We just kill from the air.
HH: You know, I got a couple of particulars in this chapter, one, an A-10 really was a plane fitted to a gun, the GAU-8 Gattling gun, whose seven barrels fired 3,900 30 millimeter rounds per minute. That is quite a weapon. And how often are we using it in the global war on terror?
RK: We’re using it a lot. First of all, to go back before the global war on terror, remember the highway of death in the first Gulf War, where a lot of retreating Iraqi soldiers were gunned down, leaving, running away from Kuwait? That was all A-10 Warthog. That was all hog, as they say. In Afghanistan, A-10 pilots are flying all the time, almost around the clock, the same in Iraq. You know, as more high tech we go, there’s a lesson here. The more high tech you go, the more low tech you seem to need some platforms. This is the ultimate counterinsurgency airplane.
HH: Now I also want to talk about these people who met you in Thailand, this retired, I guess gunny sergeant, I can’t quite remember. There’s a cadre of Americans who are ex-military around the world who are actually running as our military, smoothing things along, so when A-10s arrive from Korea, it just works.
HH: I think that was a fascinating thing.
RK: Yeah, well, you’re referring to a man named Dan Generet.
HH: That’ s it.
RK: Yeah, Dan Generet is an African-American from Walterboro, South Carolina, grew up in a poor neighborhood in New York City. He’s a retired master sergeant in the Air Force. He’s typical. He lives in Thailand, he speaks Thai, he’s the private contractor as the U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Station, so that the Thai military doesn’t deal with the American military. It deals with Dan. Dan’s the interface between the American and Thai militaries. So each have a degree of separation. And when American pilots fly into U-Tapao, Dan’s the one who tells them what they can do, where they can stay, how much money it’s going to cost. He keeps them out of trouble, and the Thais are very glad to have him there. And I’ll tell you something, Dan may not be in the chain of command, Hugh, but he’s more important than anyone in the chain of command when something goes down. Remember the big tsunami relief operation?
HH: Might be another one underway again.
RK: December, ’05, January ’05?
RK: December, ’04, January, ’05? Well, that worked partly because we were able to ramp up U-Tapao Naval Air Station very quickly as a major staging post. And that happened because of Dan Generet, a private military contractor. So with all the negative stuff you’re hearing about private military contractors, it’s a big field, it’s a big area, and some of them are doing amazing work.
HH: But I can’t remember where I read this in the book. You encountered a guy who just kept you cooling your heels in Kuwait whoever who was a private military contractor.
RK: Oh, yeah, there was a bad one.
RK: You meet good ones, you meet bad ones, Hugh.
RK: This was a guy who took my passport, said I’ll get it back to you in a few minutes, and I got it back like eight and a half hours later just moments before I had to board a C-130 bound for Baghdad. And because I didn’t have my passport, I couldn’t go into the DFAC, or dining facility, in order to get a midnight meal like everyone else. And he was very nonchalant about it. He was clearly hassling me. He was a private contractor, and who everybody disliked, by the way.
HH: Yeah, it’s the ten percent rule. In any organization, ten percent of them are going to be people who have wonderful names we can’t say on the air.
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HH: I went to break, Robert Kaplan, quoting Captain Custer Kelly talking about the Sandy-1s and the Sandy-4s. Two reasons here, one, explain why that matters to him, and how general is this understanding of those who have gone before them to the modern American military.
RK: Remember, Hugh, that the Air Force is a new service. It only started in the late 1940’s, it grew out of the Army. And Vietnam really gave the Air Force some real emotional tradition, because many of the people in the Hanoi Hilton, many of the prisoners of war, were Air Force pilots. They were real warriors. And A-10 Warthog pilots trace their squadron history back to Sandy search and rescue pilots. Sandy was a call sign like misty was a call sign. The Misties were, they were fast area, they were fast facts. In other words, they set up the bombing runs, hovering in the air, searching for targets. The Sandies, another call sign, basically when a pilot was shot down in North Vietnamese territory, it was a squadron of Sandies that went in and tried to rescue him to keep him from being tortured or killed or imprisoned for many years. And there’s a link, because a lot of these guys who are now A-10 pilots carry around a coin in their pocket. It’s a Misty or a Sandy coin, which reminds them all the time of their forbearers, two generations removes, who were rescuing Vietnam-era pilots. And they get real emotional about this. For many people, the war in Vietnam was just a cause. But for people in the military, it was a war with its bad moments, its positive moments, its horrible moments, its beautiful moments, and its very, very heroic moments, such as the risk taken by these Sandy search and rescue teams.
HH: Now I want to jump from there, and people have to read that chapter, to Nepal, because you ended up in Nepal with the Gurkhas.
RK: That’s right.
HH: And this is just incredible to me. Tell people what you were doing in Nepal, and the Gurkha tradition, and how we’re working into that in the new war on terror.
RK: Well, I was in Nepal to follow around an Army foreign area officer, a FAO, who was a specialist in Nepalese culture, who’s there to assist the Nepalese military in fighting Maoist insurgents. And it was a very interesting trip, because people have this image of the U.S. military going all over the world as a busybody, propping up dictatorships. It’s so false. In fact, the only regimes we prop up through training missions are of certified democracies, certified by Congress, which we have not imposed on them, that they’ve evolved organically on their own as democracies. And I was in Nepal at the time when the king curtailed parliament, parliament did not meet, so that our training missions there had to stop. They had to stop until parliament reconvened, because we could not even for a short period of time train or assist foreign troops who were not governed democratically. So this was a real indicator in just how under such a tight leash our training missions all over the world are that I covered. The Gurkha tradition, the Gurkhas refer to a town in western Nepal called Gorkha, and they’re hill tribes. They’re not an ethnic derivation, they’re just a name that the British gave for the fighting hill tribes of Nepal, which the British allowed into their military, and fought with great distinction in many wars between the late 19th Century right up to Iraq and Afghanistan. And I was with an Army foreign area officer who was trying to assist a battalion of Nepalese soldiers in the Gurkha tradition.
HH: And what are we helping them to learn? They’ve been fighting wars a lot longer than we have.
RK: Yes, they have, but there are many things we know how to do with modern weaponry, troop formations, training that we can give them, communications.
HH: The idea that we are as far removed as Colombia is from Nepal is pretty astonishing, Robert Kaplan. Is this accelerating or declining?
RK: What? What do you mean?
HH: The number of deployments.
RK: They’re fairly steady, several dozen a week in many of these countries. As I said, one big deployment that really overstretches one particular service, the Army, like Iraq, can constitute overstretch.
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HH: I have a couple of big questions to sort of wrap up our penultimate segment, Robert Kaplan. At the close of the book, you tell a little story. “At the 2006 Stanford commencement ceremony, a Marine general whose son was the lone graduating student from a military family said he was struck by how many of the other parents had never even met a member of the military before he introduced himself.” This echoes a point made by Thomas Ricks and others that the civilian-military divide in this country is deep and getting wider, and that’s very alarming.
RK: Yes, it is, and it’s the result of almost a third of a century of a volunteer military that has evolved, Hugh, into sort of its own separate cast, the same way many other professions do, the same way plastic surgeons, lawyers, others…well, the military is separated on bases, it does a lot of work overseas of a highly technical nature, and so military families, and military men and women, live in a whole different cultural universe than the larger segment of society. And the result is that society at large looks at the military with a mixture of suspicion on one hand, and awe on the other.
HH: The awe is what I find, as well as the appreciation, more often than not. I also have lectured at the Naval Academy, and am lecturing at the Air Force Academy next month. I know a lot of the service members who get appointed there. And so I know they come from all over the country. How do you bridge that gap, then, if in fact it’s a bad thing?
RK: Well, first of all, everything is relative. And our civil-military relationship, compared to that of Europe, is very, very good. Europeans look at their military as civil servants in funny uniforms, which they support for humanitarian and soft peacekeeping operations, but which they’re loathe to support in any sort of combat operation, which is what militaries are about in the first place. So our civil-military relationship is full of tension, but I wouldn’t call it altogether unhealthy. I think that one of the ways you can bridge the gap, because I believe that a draft is simply impractical in this day and age, because war has become so technological, so many things to learn, equipment to learn how to operate, that a draft wouldn’t keep these people in uniform long enough to make this training worthwhile. So I think one of the ways you can bridge this gap that I mention is a stronger, more beefed up reserve and guard contingent.
HH: Let me also ask you about inside the military. “As for the combat arms community itself,” you write on Page 378, “warrior consciousness will further intensify, even as the identities of each of the four armed service become less distinct. It’s an exceedingly slow process, more noticeable at the top levels of command then elsewhere.” But you also fret just above that about the loss of the warrior mentality. So what are you talking about? And how do you prevent it dribbling away?
RK: Well, you know, as societies become more prosperous, more upper middle class, more globally connected, they’re less and less likely to support war, to want to go…I mean, of course, you should never want to go to war. But they’re less and less likely to feel any sort of tie to a professional military. They see it as sort of like an anachronism, something from the medieval age. So society as a whole is less likely…you know, feels more and more disconnected from a warrior military, even as the military itself becomes more and more of a warrior cast. The distinctions between…you know, there’s more and more joint operations between the Air Force, the Navy, the Army and the Marines, more and more stuff is joint. Even the uniforms are starting to look more and more similar, so that the various services have more and more to do with each other, and thus, the distance between them sort of slowly collapses. So it’s less Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy than it is more and more just purple warriors. I use the word purple because purple is the color of jointness. It’s the overlapping of Navy brown, of Air Force blue, of Army grey, et cetera.
HH: Let me ask you two questions. Is the military big enough? And are we paying the enlisted ranks enough?
RK: We’re not paying the enlisted ranks enough. We can always pay them more. And not only are they not being paid enough, we’re not doing as much as we could to get them the education that they need, because we’re going to have more, we’re living in a world, in a media fishbowl world where the actions of a lowly sergeant or chief petty officer in the case of the Navy, can have strategic consequences. We’ve seen what happens when lower ranking Marines, et cetera, misbehave, or don’t carry out something right. So we need to make these people as sophisticated as possible. It used to be that if you were a lieutenant or a captain, you were expected to have a college education. Well, we’re going to need that for our sergeants and petty officers, too. It’s not enough for a sergeant to have a high school education. In the future, he’s going to have to have a college education, and he’s going to have to know at least one foreign language.
HH: What about the size of the Army and the Navy, in terms of brigades and ships?
RK: Well, first of all, our Navy is declining. At the end of World War II, because of all the commandeered supply ships, we had a Navy of over 6,500 ships. That quickly went down to around 600 during the Cold War. Throughout the Cold War, the size of ships in the Navy were hovered around 600. Now we’re down, throughout the Clinton 1990’s, it went down to 300. And at the rate we’re going, you know, former secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, claims that we’re headed towards a 150 ship Navy, even as the Chinese are growing their navy, the same with the Japanese, the South Koreas, the Indians. If you look at ships, numbers of hulls, you’ll see…and I’ll be writing about this in an upcoming edition of the Atlantic Monthly in November. If you look at navies and hull numbers, we’re going from a unipolar American Naval world to a multipolar world.
HH: Oh, that’s very, very troubling, and hopefully, it will be reversed.
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HH: Thanks to my guest, Robert D. Kaplan, author of Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military In The Air, At Sea And On The Ground for spending this much time with me. It’s an important book, because the military’s important. Civilians need to understand it. A couple of closing questions, Robert Kaplan. I was trying to think of a number of ways to pose this, and I came up with if your editor came to you and said you’re going to have to do all of your deployments again except one, you can skip one of them, which one would you skip?
RK: I really can’t say, because they were all so good. In each of them, I learned so much. And every one opened up a whole different world to me.
HH: Which was the least comfortable, most physically taxing of them?
RK: All right, well that was easy. That was Iraq during the first battle of Fallujah.
RK: Where you didn’t bathe for days, weeks on end. You often had to run, dodge bullets. You were always cold or you were hot. You were never comfortable, because you couldn’t just take off your body armor, and take off an undershirt or something like that. And body armor has this way of making you even hotter in hot temperatures, but doesn’t keep you warm in cold temperatures. It’s the worst of both combinations.
HH: Of the other men and women of American journalism who occasionally or often travel with American military, whose work do you respect and admire?
RK: I respect Michael Yon a lot, the blogger.
HH: Right, right.
RK: …because of all the work he does staying there. And I respect Greg Jaffe of the Wall Street Journal.
HH: And then finally, what’s next, Robert Kaplan? Is there another book along the lines of Imperial Grunts and the new Hog Pilots out there?
RK: There may be, but what…I’m going to keep writing about the military, about Medal of Honor winners in the future, and other things, because I think that there’s just so much that the military does that doesn’t get covered. We’re too concerned with making victims out of them. Rather than cover technically what we do, we cover them as if, with a sense of pity, as if they’re the latest victims. And you know, it’s almost therapy…we’re covering the war for the sake of therapy for ourselves, rather than describing the war and what’s actually going on tactically, technically on the ground.
HH: And are you staying at the Naval Academy? Or have you moved onto a different base?
RK: I’m still at the Naval Academy as a visiting professor this semester. It’s my third straight semester there.
HH: Well, I look forward to talking with you about the Navy when the Atlantic Monthly article comes out.
RK: That’ll be a pleasure.
HH: Once again, the book is Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts by Robert D. Kaplan. Thank you, Robert, talk to you again soon, thanks for your service to the military, and for a wonderful book.
End of interview.