Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 384 pp., $28)
If you wanted a vivid sense of the scene in 1980s Pakistan and Afghanistan when the United States was sponsoring the mujahideen insurgency against the USSR, you could not have done better than read Robert D. Kaplan’s Soldiers of God (1990). Kaplan was there, met everyone, and captured the atmosphere better than any of his contemporaries.
The celebrated and prolific national correspondent for The Atlantic has in recent years become similarly indispensable for his dispatches from the remote corners of the world where America’s elite forces have been prosecuting the conflict formerly known as the War on Terror. These pieces of reportage have been collected in his fine albeit embarrassingly titled book Imperial Grunts (2005) and its sequel, Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts (2007). Kaplan has also tried his hand at Thomas Friedman–style analysis and prediction, with such titles as The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War (2000) and Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (2001). These are mostly padded-out essays, but stimulating nonetheless, and they tend to be much better informed about the on-ground reality of troubled foreign parts than the competition. Then there are Kaplan’s travel books, including The Ends of the Earth (1997) and Eastward to Tartary (2000). These are more or less in that classic British travelogue style, in which an intrepid writer goes to remote places, takes picturesque forms of local transport, and uses his adventures as pegs for breezy lessons in local history and culture and some trenchant political observation.