The Kaplan Review: Strife-Loving Travel Writer Fails the Old Tom Bissell Test


He's met more warlords than you have met fast food clerks; he collects Atlantic Monthly cover stories the way lesser mortals collect parking tickets. He's Robert Kaplan, relentless strider through and chronicler of a big, bad world out there rapidly swirling into poverty and chaos with only U.S. troops to shore up the fragments against all of our ruin. He's been assaulted with a literary baseball-bat beatdown from Tom Bissell in Virginia Quarterly Review for being in general ignorant, dull, and dangerous, and obsessed with potted lessons from a, to Bissell's mind, often unusable past.

Many of Bissell's barbs miss their mark, to be sure (for example, I think Kaplan understands the imperial nature of modern American foreign policy better than Bissell appears to from his discussion of Kaplan's Imperial Grunts toward the end of this long essay), but here are some jabs that this fan of cross-writerly venom enjoyed:

Of late, however, there have been alarming indications that Kaplan has undergone some sort of imploded political transformation. His books have grown more vague but also more strident; angrier, but also more complacent. He has, in short, begun to write like a man who knows his audience, with a correspondingly fatal confidence that his words will be contemplated in high governmental and military aeries indeed.
[Bissell notes Kaplan's] love of intellectual shortcuts and invincible humorlessness. Kaplan's real and growingly evident problem is not his Parkinson's grip on history, or that he is a bonehead or a warmonger, but rather that he is an incompetent thinker and a miserable writer.
When Ulug Beg [Kaplan's translator] slurps as he eats Kaplan calls him "crude" and wonders if Ulug Beg's manners might be explained this way: "Could these be pre-Byzantine Turks? Could this be what Turks might have been somewhat like before the great Seljuk and Osmanli migrations to Anatolia"? The Seljuks migrated to Anatolia around 900 years ago. That Kaplan does not understand how offensive such eugenic explanations are for one young man's eating habits is appalling. That he does not recognize the basic implausibility of such an explanation is beyond reason
Kaplan has traveled from the belief that America should only "insert troops where overwhelming moral considerations crosshatch with strategic ones" to arguing that "September 11 had given the U.S. military the justification to go out scouting for trouble, and at the same time to do some good," seemingly without understanding that he has even changed. Doubtless both [he and Bush] would sit any skeptic down and soberly explain that September 11 changed everything. What September 11 changed, however, was not the world itself but their understanding of America's role in the world. For President Bush and Robert D. Kaplan, September 11 primarily means never having to say you're sorry…..This has resulted in a collision of second-rate minds with third-rate policies. While one man attempts to make the world as simple as he is able to comprehend it, the other whispers in his various adjutants' ears that they are on the side of History itself.
Wherever Kaplan travels, we are assured that whatever is happening there is going to have vast consequences.
It takes a special kind of man to waltz into a foreign city, tar the entire populace as recessive Nazis, and then refer to them as animals.

What [his book] Warrior Politics really gives Kaplan is the chance to show what he and a bunch of geniuses have in common. First, Churchill, whose "unapologetic warmongering arose not from a preference for war, but from a breast-beating Victorian sense of imperial destiny–amplified by what Isaiah Berlin calls a rich historical imagination." That sort of sounds like someone we know. Onto Livy, whose "factual errors and romantic view of the Roman Republic should not dissuade us from his larger truths." Sound familiar?
An Empire Wilderness…describes his journeys around the American West. What does Kaplan find? Ethnic tension and unstable governments, what he calls the "coming medievalization of the continent." Renaissance fairs and President E. Gary Gygax? No, he means the "globalized settlement" like the one he finds in Kansas City, with its "cappuccinos, French pastries, and designer seafood in the midst of the formerly beef-eating prairie." Designer seafood?…"How much longer, I wondered, will the patriotic marches of John Philip Sousa move America's inhabitants?"

On he goes, antennae bristling for all indications of the de-Sousafication of the American landmass. In Los Angeles, "The crowd here was young, heavily Oriental, and fiercely middle-class. . . . I sat down at an outdoor Thai-Chinese restaurant for an early dinner. The manager was Japanese, the hostess Iranian, and the other help Mexican immigrants." He walks into a Chinese grocery and says, "I could have been in Hong Kong or Taiwan." If he had continued and said, "or in a Chinese grocery in Los Angeles," he might have been onto something.
When [Kaplan] gets near Canada, he makes a startling discovery: "Canada can't hold together," he quotes a former mayor of Missoula, Montana, as saying. Kaplan agrees that things look pretty bleak for Canada, and writes, "So far, most Americans have not thought much about the psychological effect of the peaceful disintegration of an entire Atlantic-to-Pacific middle-class nation on their northern border." There is at least one obvious reason why they have not much thought about this. In Vancouver, Kaplan writes, "we may be seeing something else, too: the erotization of race." The reader leans forward; this will surely be priceless. "As another Vancouverite told me, if you walk down the street and look at who's holding hands with whom, you'll observe that whites find Asians, particularly Asian women, with their small-boned symmetricality, highly desirable." I hear they have tiny little snatches, too.
Who, then, are Kaplan's books for? The liberal elite he lectures as being too pampered and cosmopolitan to understand his Manichean world? An untraveled American reading public looking for reassurance that the nations beyond their borders are hostile, crumbling, and in need of some harshly applied American elbow grease? Right-wing think tanks in search of on-the-ground folderol? Policy-makers casting about for some troublesome new chimera to chase along the crags before the next electoral cycle? One wonders if Kaplan himself knows the answer to this question.
[Kaplan writes] "I thought that if you were a male of a certain age during World War II and had not served in some capacity, you were denied the American Experience." Not some part of the American Experience, mind you, but the American Experience. Let us reflect on this. If you have not killed a fucking kraut or zipperhead with your own two hands, you are not an American. "Now I realized that many of my own generation had been denied it as well. . . . Perhaps it was a safer, more enriching global experience that we were having, but whatever it was I knew now that it was not fully American."

Our own Jesse Walker reviewed Kaplan's Empire Wilderness here in 1999.