Wandering in the Wilderness


An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America's Future, by Robert Kaplan, New York: Random House, 393 pages, $27.50

Robert Kaplan appreciates that history is a messy business in which weird accidents abound and every event has at least 50 causes. He also realizes that the most important historical trends don't take place in Washington and that most of them haven't shown up yet on network TV. It is "mundane, gradual changes, so easily overlooked," he writes, "that shape the future." Not big events or big ideas, but incremental, often unplanned processes.

That insight is one strength of An Empire Wilderness, Kaplan's impressionistic account of his journeys through the American West. Kaplan, a contributing editor at The Atlantic Monthly, travels to the decaying ghettos of the Midwest, the prosperous edge cities of Southern California, the rough-edged towns of central and northern Mexico, the sparsely populated (and rapidly Mexifying) Southwest, the equally sparse (and rapidly emptying) Great Plains, and, finally, the lush Northwest, the area he finds most promising. He concludes that the nation is on the edge of dissolution: that regional and professional loyalties are overwhelming the national idea, turning us into "an empire…a subtle, ambiguous one of geographically determined, loosely connected posturban forms; a dry-land version of city-state Greece, in which ruthless economic competition replaces ancient wars."

The new America is both localist and cosmopolitan, Kaplan suggests: We've reached a day when businesses in Omaha deal directly with enterprises in Tokyo and St. Petersburg, while federal and state governments find themselves increasingly out of the loop. Washington, D.C., he predicts, will be reduced to "imperial oversight," providing a "protective shield" against terrorists, natural disasters, and little else. As Mexico and Canada dissolve as well, he continues, North America will evolve into a patchwork of smaller authorities, some prosperous and some dirt poor.

Kaplan isn't entirely happy with this vision, but he doesn't think it can be reversed and he isn't sure it ought to be. "While we insist upon the illusion of a permanent continental nation that has existed less than a third as long as the Moorish occupation of Spain," he writes, "we may find that we have become instead the creators of its diluted successor, which may be the most we can hope for." In its fatalism, this book steadfastly refuses to turn into a policy wonk's bible. That, too, is a strength.

The book's biggest weakness is its author's prejudices. Put bluntly, Kaplan doesn't like poor people. He frets about them, yes, and he thinks society should do more for them. But he neither understands nor respects them, and he regards them with a barely masked contempt. He is obsessed with their girth: I lost count of how many times he described one or another as "grossly overweight." He also has an eye for bad complexions and untidy homes. In the Great Plains, he declares that the poor people's houses "needed paint," as though the tenants might not have priorities more pressing than keeping their outer walls spic and span; he also notes the appliances that "littered" their yards, apparently unaware that this is not slovenliness but economic sense. (The so-called litter will undoubtedly be stripped and recycled.) Throw in his horrified descriptions (secondhand, of course) of trailer park life, and a vivid picture emerges: Poor people are fat, pimply proles with junk in their yards, living for crack and cable TV.

In Mexico, oddly, this bigotry fades. In Culiacán, Kaplan visits a popular shrine to Jesús Malverde, the "Big Narco Saint," where drug lords stop to pray for good fortune. "As crass and brutal as the shrine was," he writes, "it was real: the poor had built it with their own hands from scraps of junk, without planning or authorization from the authorities, and now they were filling it with their emotions. It was a true holy place." Could this be the same writer who, driving through U.S. bayou country, complains about "a monotony of bait shops, pawnshops, and junkyards with faded stenciled signs"? (I've driven through the same landscape and found it anything but monotonous.)

And it is in Mexico that, for once, Kaplan finds a poor person physically attractive. "Isn't Mexico a great country!" he then writes, quoting with approval a U.S. businessman. "Even the poor women are beautiful!"

Thankfully, not all of Kaplan's biases are set in stone. He understands that the land he's visiting is a work in progress, and, in that spirit, he's not afraid to let his opinions evolve.

Early in the book, he travels to St. Louis, on the assumption that, as the definitively average city, it will in some way reflect America as a whole. In an odd way, it does. "What I discovered," he writes, "is that St. Louis no longer exists. After days spent looking for it, I never quite found it." The St. Louis metropolitan region, which included only five incorporated towns in 1876, today contains 92, some of them minuscule. One, a wealthy township called Country Life Acres, consists of a single street and a handful of citizens.

Initially, Kaplan bemoans this situation. To him, the tiny towns are just a form of segregation, a way the rich and white can escape the presence and problems of the poor and black. Then he discovers that a third of the area's incorporated townships are African-American. Evidently, it is not just the well-heeled Caucasians of Country Life Acres who prefer political autonomy. Furthermore, "There is substantial black resistance…to the black-dominated city of St. Louis rejoining the wealthier, white-dominated St. Louis County, because blacks do not want to lose political influence even if they might benefit financially. Like it or not, the record is clear: on a local level, blacks want to govern themselves."

This resigned realism appears in other contexts, too, most notably the drug war. "Only when I was several hundred miles north of the border did people talk about the war on drugs as a serious endeavor," he writes. And, sounding even more radical, "The conventional wisdom in southern Arizona is that drugs are the substitute economy that helped Mexico survive the 1994-95 peso crisis without violence" (emphasis in original).

That is not Kaplan's only surprising observation. He goes to Orange County expecting to hate it; instead, he "came away respecting it, more stimulated than I had been by many `exotic' and `romantic' cities that I had seen throughout the world." It is, he decides, cosmopolitan and prosperous, a new sort of landscape that is neither traditionally urban nor traditionally suburban. (It is also, he notes, less congested than stereotypes suggest: The average commute time is a mere 15 minutes.)

Similarly, while visiting Vancouver, Kaplan admits that the dense and lively urban life he enjoys there has less to do with what the city government has done than with what it hasn't. After Eisenhower created the Interstate Highway System in 1956, Vancouver was invaded by consultants clutching plans for new freeways and tunnels. The Canadians rejected the outsiders' advice, deciding they'd rather not rip out their city's urban core.

Kaplan also notes that "Vancouver is governed less like a traditional city and more like an Orange County-style urban confederation." It actually consists of 20 separate municipalities, which together elect a regional council.

None of this shatters Kaplan's views, but it does shake them; and he bears these experiences in mind when he visits Portland, Oregon, a heavily regulated city. He likes the town, but he's also wary about it: "The very temporariness of American civilization…as indicated by the Bransons and Tucsons and Albuquerques and Orange Counties, with their overnight theater-prop development, is the image of our dynamism. Portland may be beautiful with its architectural accumulation and civility, but too many Portlands, too tightly held, might stultify us."

Kaplan's book begins and ends on military ground. It starts in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, an army base and war college. It concludes on the battlefields of Vicksburg, Mississippi, which Kaplan visits with 54 officers from Fort Leavenworth. His observations illustrate his ideas about the American future while reminding the reader of his social biases.

Kaplan sees a military rapidly hardening into a specialized caste. The demands of high-tech warfare have transformed the commanders' work, he reports: "The draft has become obsolete," an officer tells him, "because of the way warfare is changing. War has become so technological that it takes too long to train people who will serve for only a year or two." Those who have mastered these specialized skills learn to speak an equally specialized jargon. They live in settlements isolated from the coastal cities favored by other elites, and, in subtler ways, from the inland communities that surround their bases.

They are, in short, another subculture in a splintering country. But this subculture derives its identity, its sense of self, from its loyalty to an unfragmented American nation, however abstract that allegiance may have become. Its mission is evolving, away from what Kaplan pretentiously calls "the Homeric age of the Civil War, World War II, and the Cold War" and toward "the role of first among equals in a lean and mobile global strike force, in which blood-and-soil traditions have all but vanished." But this shift is frustrating for the soldiers. To judge from Kaplan's account, a defensive super-nationalism may be taking hold among them, even as their attachment to the actual nation fades.

When Kaplan speaks to these officers about the future of warfare, the prevailing vision involves a host of small missions around the globe: rescue operations, civil disturbances, battles against urban guerrillas. An alarming number of them see the military turning its attention inward, doing the same things here it does in Bosnia. Many even feel that the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits using the military as a domestic police force, should be repealed.

This raises the specter not of dissolution but of centralization. It's one thing for the professional classes to live separately from the rest of America; it's quite another for them to have so much power over everyone else, particularly people they neither like nor understand. Kaplan's aforementioned prejudices are at play in rural areas, where yuppie newcomers try to prohibit poor people from keeping couches on their porches or cars on their lawns. They are at play in urban areas, where planners try to rip out and redo whole neighborhoods that don't fit their vision. They are at play in the suburbs, where self-proclaimed "regionalists" are trying to squelch the independence of mini-townships like those around St. Louis.

And they are at play in the military. Near Vicksburg, in Tunica County, Kaplan and some soldiers enter a casino. There they observe the teeming mass of gamblers, whom Kaplan describes with his usual eye for the intersection between poverty and ugliness.

"And we risk our life for this," a major comments sourly. "Kind of makes you go warm and fuzzy inside."