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Robert Kaplan on the Kerry gaffe.

Friday, November 3, 2006
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HH: Joined now by Robert Kaplan, teaching this semester at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. He is what many people call the Kipling of the American military. His most recent book, Imperial Grunts, in paperback, available at Amazon.com, one of the must-read books of the last two years. Robert Kaplan, always a pleasure to talk to you again.

RK: Same here, Hugh. It’s a pleasure to talk to you.

HH: Setting the stage first, Robert Kaplan, when you heard John Kerry’s comments on Monday, just on Monday, what was your immediate reaction?

RK: My immediate reaction was that it was very snobbish in general. Number two, he’s completely out of touch in terms of the military that exists today. It may, it just may have been characteristic of a military decades ago, but certainly not now. And three, that it would really anger a lot of people in the service. He’s talking about, you know, he’s basically implying that if you’re not educated, you get sent to Iraq. Well, all the officers in Iraq have college degrees. A number of them have post-graduate degrees. A lot of the reservists are doctors, lawyers, people like that. And all the NCO’s, more and more NCO’s than you think actually have some years of college as well.

HH: It’s also been my experience, and it’s really been an overflowing e-mail box, that a lot of the enlisted men and women are also very sharp, choosing to serve their country in a time of war, and they’ll pursue education later. In fact, a wounded Marine I met down at Pendleton was doing that. He’s getting discharged, because he’s recovering from his wounds, but he can’t serve anymore. He’s going right back to college now. Robert Kaplan, after Kerry issued his statement, I asked service men and women to let me know if they thought it was apology. Overwhelming number of them say no. I know you’re on your way to a base tonight. Maybe we’ll be able to check up with you on Monday. What do you expect to find out there?

RK: Well, I’m going to Fort Bliss, Texas, to speak at the Sergeant Major’s Academy in the Army. And then I’m going to Fort Leavenworth. And you know, obviously, the subject will come up. I expect…first of all, I expect that people will obviously be enraged. On the other hand, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to make them like the Republican Party more, and the Democratic Party less, because people do, you know, smart people do make a distinction between Kerry and the rest of the party, and some real prominent people from the rest of the Democratic Party did really attack him hard.

HH: Oh, again, I don’t think it’s a partisan issue to react to the honor of the…

RK: Yeah…no, and I don’t think…well, some will see it that way, but…so it could hurt the Democrats. But I don’t think most will, precisely because most soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors, are smarter than Kerry thinks they are.

HH: Now I want to go, though, to the reaction in the American military. I often hear how much the media say they support the troops and admire the troops. But if that were the case, they’d listen to the troops. And in the coverage of the Kerry meltdown, I have seen very little, to almost nothing, in terms of what did the military think about that. Did you see coverage, Robert Kaplan…

RK: No, I didn’t. I kept looking for pieces like a reporter talking to troops in Iraq, talking to troops in Afghanistan, interviewing troops on bases. Now I may have missed something. There’s so much around, you don’t see it all. But I certainly didn’t see anything of that sort, which I certainly…you know, it’s a story that a major newspaper would jump on.

HH: And why not?

RK: And let’s get out there to one platoon, you know? To one base. It’s so easy to do, just to go and ask 20 people.

HH: But is it because they don’t know how to do it? Or they’re afraid of what they’re going to hear, Robert Kaplan?

RK: Look, I don’t know. There are a lot of great individual…you know, some of the individual journalism in Iraq is brave and stellar. But I do think there is a general vague proclivity that they may not…they may not like what they’re going to hear. Basically, the problem with the media, in terms of covering the military, is that they’re comfortable with stories that portray the military as perpetrators or victims, not as warriors, which is how a lot of people in the combat arms community, the real triple level volunteers, see themselves, as warrior.

HH: There’s also, and you’ve covered this in Imperial Grunts quite a lot, a very highly defined sense of honor in the professional military, that I think was engaged by this slight, and is not…

RK: Oh, sure.

HH: …and is not yet satisfied.

RK: Right. It’s such a level of honor that that’s why so many officers, like for instance, in Army Special Forces, or the rest of the special operations community, they don’t like the idea of a draft. Even if you make a good argument to them that the draft is good for the country, Hugh, they don’t like the idea, because they consider themselves an elite, a professional warrior, honorable, edicated elite. And they feel a draft would lower the quality of that elite. Now that may be true, it may be false. But they see themselves as an elite. So for a United States Senator to say that they’re dumb, you know, that’s the height of being enraged.

HH: Now Robert Kaplan, in the course of writing Imperial Grunts, you went all over the world, and you kept echoing…I remember the colonel in Mongolia, for example, how these men and women were making American foreign policy on the fly, and they had to, and they were doing a pretty good job of it, and that when they returned en masse from the wars, or their time in the wars, they would change the face of American politics. Do you stand by that prediction?

RK: Well, in this way. Not so much the colonel in Mongolia, but what I meant there was there are so many lieutenants, master sergeants, captains, Army and Marines, in Iraq and Afghanistan, also in Kosovo and Bosnia in the 90’s, who basically ran little towns. They’ve been mayors of towns. They’ve had real, honest to goodness civil affairs experience, in building democracy from the ground. And so traditionally, in American history, people come back from wars and go into politics often, in the sense that politicians are often people with military background. And this generation of people with military backgrounds is going to have more civil affairs, practical democracy experience, than any previous generation. So to me, it’s normal that a good number of them will go into politics. I don’t expect that they’ll be predominently Republican or Democratic. What they will be, predominently, Hugh, is very pragmatic, kind of mixing pragmatism with idealism.

HH: Now Robert Kaplan, you’re at the Naval Academy this year, and so you’re dealing with the next generation of warrious. What’s their quality, in terms of preperation, intelligence, and agility of mind and body?

RK: Well, the Naval…the service academies, you deal with real elites. You deal with kids with high SAT scores. The average Naval Academy student is taking courses like calculus, engineering, math, a foreign language or two, often something yoy don’t often see, some real hard, bone-crunching, exotic language. So this is really…academically, it’s high. It may not be as high as the best Ivy Leagues, but it’s certainly one level below, and they work a lot harder, because the schedule…I mean, there are no flaky courses at the service academies.

HH: Last question, Robert Kaplan, author of Imperial Grunts. And maybe we can catch you next week after you’ve talked to the Master Sergeant Academy. It must be an interesting group down there. Kerry’s statement yesterday…what did you think of Kerry’s statement?

RK: I was absolutely stunned by it, that it wasn’t really a slip of the tongue, the kind of embarrassing mistake that all of us make from time to time and get caught on, and wish we hadn’t said. It seemed very deliberate. And you know, it was grammatical, and it was just so over the top, it was so clear as he said at what the reaction would be. I was just stunned.

HH: Robert Kaplan, I look forward to continuing the conversation, author of Imperial Grunts. Thanks for spending time with us on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

End of interview.

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