Earning the Rockies, by Robert D. Kaplan

The first Kaplan I read was “To the ends of the earth”, an account of travels through dusty, broken lands. I became a fan of his writing on the instant. This book is about the United States: dusty in places certainly, broken in places perhaps, but vital, he argues, to the future of our world.

It is a book full of quotable truism. “Comparison”, he opines, “is painful and not always polite, but it is at the root of all serious analysis”. This is something we learned in geography in school. Our teacher laboured to teach us the importance of the word “whereas”. Kaplan’s father, a truck driver, gifted Kaplan with what he calls a “cruel objectivity”. This work is neither cruel nor objective. Not a hymn of praise to America, more a reasoned defence of the American imperial project, which he argues, has grown out of the physical geography of the American continent. He seeks to “rediscover what is vital, yet forgotten, what is commonplace, yet overlooked.”

He roots the book in the influential work of an almost forgotten man of American letters, Bernard DeVoto. DeVoto’s understanding of the American West was like Devils Tower, Wyoming, towering over the surrounding plain of knowledge. Kaplan’s book is one whose moral and philosophical heart is west of St Louis, at the one hundredth meridian. It is a book that acknowledges the continuing power and importance of the frontier in American thought. Kaplan has to deal robustly with that depressingly popular school of thought that the settlement and conquest of the American West was just a terrible crime. Those grave injustices can’t be swept aside, of course. They are dealt with very well in such seminal works as Dee Brown’s “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee”, which should be required reading for all students of the American West.

I rather like his travelogue style of writing. His observations of places like Wheeler, West Virginia, and Portsmouth, Ohio, are fascinating commentary about the human condition as well as a discussion of the American psyche. Rather like Neil Sheehan in “A bright shining lie” (reviewed here), he draws attention to the Scots-Irish or “redneck” heritage, noting that “America as a democracy has a highly developed warrior ethos”. Americans are a fighting people, he suggests. Civil society in the USA has a far closer and more respectful relationship with the military than you’ll find elsewhere in the world.

Of the politeness found throughout the United States, particularly perhaps in the South and in the Mid-west, he suggests that it is just politeness – it goes no further than that. He writes that we must not confuse politeness with hospitality, such as that found in the Middle East or in Africa. Hospitality helps social stability, he writes, but politeness helps efficiency and production.

His road journey is completed at San Diego when he reaches the Pacific and sees the gathered grey hulls of the U.S Navy. At that point he does get a little misty-eyed, like Natalie Merchant’s youthful soldier in her song “Gun shy”:

So now does your heart pitter pat with a patriotic song
When you see the stripes of Old Glory waving?

The final third of the book seems quite distinct from the rest, and was not quite as readable – although still interesting. The mordant pen of an observant and humane travel journalist is gone. It is replaced by that of the geopolitical analyst with a distinct, refreshing, and quite understandable bias for, and love of, the United States of America. Modern left-wing liberal culture, particularly in western Europe and in the UK, does tend to be dismissive of the USA.

He does mis-step on occasion and say some odd things. To describe Israel, the Baltic states and Taiwan as “robust, venerable and iconic democracies” (as he does on page 136 of my copy) is pushing it a bit, to say the least! But mostly he is right on the money, as when he writes that the European Union, and globalisation itself, would be impossible to contemplate without the “overarching fact of American power“. That’s the plain truth, if an unpalatable truth to some. The bill for defence of western Europe, from Pearl Harbor down to the present day, has been paid for by American taxpayers and in American lives. Because the Americans have 300 warships, the Royal Navy can get away with a few dozen. European nations are able to spend as little as 1-2% of their GDP on defence, primarily because the Americans spend twice that much.

A note on sustainability: he notes in one place that California and the great cities of the American southwest, use the water of the Colorado River in a wasteful, unsustainable way. In another place, he notes that most European countries maintain an unsustainable level of social welfare, broadly made possible because of American power. It’s the juxtaposition here that interests me. These two unsustainable practices may be connected or linked in some way. There’s no maybe about the fact that both will change.

What would America and the world look like today had the continent been settled eastwards from what is now California, rather than westward from the water-rich Thirteen Colonies in the east? Or if the USA had never existed at all? Or if the United States ceased to exist? Not many writers have dared to even think about that last. The continuance and survival of the USA is not inevitable.

The travelogue in the first part of the book is deftly observed and humane. The second part, his analysis of world order as seen from San Diego, is more partisan and more complex to read and understand. In places I don’t agree with his analysis and in places it is arguably disingenuous.

Kaplan’s central premise is that the world needs the USA, and that the USA is an exceptional country with exceptional, even imperial, responsibilities on the world stage. He argues that the reasons for that derive from the physical geography of the American continent – there is no other like it. Similar conclusions are drawn, on a more general basis, by Tim Marshall in his excellent book “Prisoners of Geography”.

This is a book about America, for Americans, and America-phobes need not pick it up. Their view, in the end, is not sought. “Finding the Rockies” was very interesting, very readable, clear sighted and instructive – one of the best books I’ve read this year.

The watermill

The watermill stood at the end of a quiet lane that wound along the valley side through the trees. One came round a corner and up a little rise, and saw it, red brick against the green hill. I first saw it a child, when I’d been taken there on holiday. In the back seat of the car, bare legs against the hot vinyl bench seat, I’d bumped and jolted along that road – no more than a dirt track in those days. When we got round that corner, I saw it, and like my parents before me, I was transfixed. I’d loved that place ever since.  I brought my wife there and introduced her to it, and later, our kids too.

We’d stayed near there on holiday several times in all the ensuing years, growing to love that sweet, familiar little land.  The steep, secret valleys, the winding roads through the woods. The lichen and the stone walls.

I’d stood and listened to the somehow tamed and domesticated sound of the river as it poured over the weir into the mill race. I’d watched as the water poured over the ancient paddles, listened as the tired old wheel creaked round, squeaking and grumbling with age. As if it were saying, Go away! leave me in peace, leave me to sleep in the afternoon sunshine

And we’d been delighted when someone brought that mill into life and made it work again, turning  it into a tourist attraction.  It actually ground wheat into flour. Again and again we’d returned to this place in the rounded hills, to the secret watermill. We’d smelt the flour being ground, the dust sharp in our nostrils. We’d bought that flour and carried it away with us, baked bread with it as soon as we could, on the Sunday after getting back home from holiday. We’d tasted that bread, made from flour we’d seen being ground ourselves. We’d seen the wheat, we’d watched it poured out, and we’d heard the flour ground out. We’d heard the rumbling rollers, the grinding grey stones. Almost like it was our own.

And then the chance came to own the mill. In the afternoon of our lives, the means to do as we’d always wished, coincided with the opportunity to do so as well. We could buy the mill. And so we did; we bought it and we went to live there.  We went down the quiet lane by the river, to sit and listen to the grinding stones and the weir, at the brick mill under the green hills.

On this day in history?

One year ago, 9 May 2020

My diary records this: Andrew Marr, in his “history of modern Britain”, writes that “in the New Labour years, as under John Major, a sickly tide of euphemism rose ever higher, depositing it’s linguistic scurf on every available surface”. True. That said, saying what I think is not part of the programme. There are even thoughts that these days I feel I cannot afford to have. I am someone with deeply libertarian and individualist instincts. I live at a time when authoritarianism and collectivism seems to be everywhere on the increase. Not only that, but authoritarianism and collectivism seem to be increasingly popular. In such a world I would do well to keep my opinions to myself. One of the things I fear most of all is being in a place where I have no time, peace, or private space in which to think. I fear being in a place where being a private individual or spending time alone is discouraged or even not allowed. Some might say, “why would you want to be alone?” but to that I say, “get thee behind me, Satan!”

Five years ago – May 2016

After business in London, my wife and I went to the Clarence on Whitehall, and had an indifferent supper in their excellent upstairs dining room with the skylight and the huge wall map of 18th century Westminster. I had a forgettable burger and a pint of Camden IPA, she had venison shepherds pie and a glass of Pinot Grigio. Total £40.  Good atmosphere, friendly waitress, ordinary food. Then, we strolled up Charing X road and outside the entrance to the Portrait Gallery, we encountered a large crowd, including paparazzi straining for a view with their cameras. We found out that they were awaiting a view of Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge.  In due course, limos and close protection police swept up, and the lady duly emerged to applause and cheers.

What struck me about this stroll in central London was that apart from mobile phones, cameras and the mechanisms used to propel the vehicles, there was nothing in the scene on Charing X road that someone from Pepys’ time would not have understood. What was going on? People were strolling, eating, drinking, chatting. Courting. Buying and selling. The fundamental activities that make up human life in any age.

Ten years ago – May 2011

Jargon: I don’t like the expression “X has a heart for Y” where X is a person and Y is a situation, a country or a problem. Someone at church speaks of having a “heart for France”, the sincerity of which, I do not doubt. But will we “get behind” their “heart for France”, though? Someone notes that as leaders in church, we must articulate a vision to the congregation.

I use the word “vision” here strictly in the modern management jargon sense of “Vision and purpose”, not at all in the prophetic sense of “dreams and visions”.

But leaders, particularly in a church, can end up with a vision statement that their people do not “get behind” – the people may not share that vision. That can be heart-breaking. We have seen all of this ourselves in the past. It’s all very well having a vision for the church if there is no room for discussion, dissent or even plain disagreement. Claiming that it comes from God, even as a clergyman, is a dangerous place to go. Because if you do, you can then brook neither dissent nor disagreement. And we have seen clergy getting into the greatest difficulties by refusing to discuss or entertain dissent. This is not somewhere you can go, neither as a clergyman nor as a boss or a leader in civil society, without the most profound and dire consequences.

Fifteen years ago – May 2006

A church men’s weekend at Wrotham, Kent: Good stuff throughout though more “martial” and less spiritual than I would have liked. That is not to do it down or minimise the efforts of the guy who organised it. In conversation on the Friday night someone mentions a book on courtesy and etiquette amongst the English which I ought to read. I learn that I must take myself less seriously, and also that I must think more deeply – I was comprehensively thrashed at chess by one who I have not considered to be a deep thinker. Clearly he is a deeper thinker than I!! I am encouraged to believe in myself – and to write more.

Twenty years ago – May 2001

Mike Breen of St Thomas Crooke’s Sheffield, spoke to us at a leaders weekend, on Moses, whose life was in three parts. He quoted D.L Moody who said that all people, all Christians, were in one of three phases of life. These were, being made or built, being broken – the desert place, and being used or blessed. It can be a cyclical thing rather than phases – we might be in the desert more than once, used or blessed for a season, made or built for one purpose or another.

Later, off to the Beardmore Hotel in Glasgow with Mrs. H, in a rented car. A pleasant and successful drive up there in a little over four hours. One thing I remember about the long haul up the M6 was the hills around the Lune valley highlighted against a dark and stormy afternoon sky, very beautiful. Visited a number of Charles Rennie Mackintosh sights including the College of Art. Next day, up Loch Lomondside, a nice long walk, cruise on the lake, then round down the side of Loch Long to Helensburgh to see “The Hill House” which was a remarkable place with the most excellent light, even indoors.

A bright shining lie, by Neil Sheehan

I cannot now recall who recommended this book to me. It might have been John Le Carre, but I think it more likely that it was Max Hastings, in his comprehensive account of the Vietnam War, which I brought after a visit to Ho Chi Minh City in 2019. The copy I bought – from the online Oxfam bookshop was as large and heavy a paperback book as ever I have had, and really could only be read when placed flat on a table or on your lap – too heavy to hold.

It is a biography of an American named John Paul Vann, and an account of the Vietnam War. It is lovely writing, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and very much in the journalistic style of Robert Kaplan, in that there is fascinating detail in the cracks and interstices of his account. One learns much, by literally, reading between the lines. At the start there is page after page just describing the pall-bearers at Vann’s funeral – but these pages contain timeless nuggets of news, gems of information about American political history.

The man who gave John Vann’s eulogy noted of him, “I’ve never known a more unsparingly critical and more uncompromisingly honest man”. Inspiring? We shall see. I personally am neither unsparingly critical nor uncompromisingly honest. Earlier, Sheehan writes of Vann that “he had no physical fear”. Being fearless is not the same as being courageous; being fearless, at least, is no virtue.

Sheehan writes – unsparingly critical perhaps – of the American military machine of those years, that after the victory of WWII, they had forgotten how to lose. And in the forgetting of that important lesson, they assured for themselves, defeat in Vietnam – to say nothing of Korea. The fool says, “I don’t do defeat” or “I don’t do failure”. But it is that very attitude that assures and guarantees failure. True success is found in that person who budgets for, bargains for, allows for and plans and prepares for failure. It’s not the failure that matters – it’s how you recover from it. “I get knocked down – but I get up again…”

In the section on “antecedents to the man” Sheehan provides as good a description of the American South as ever you will read. And in that description, he is describing a lost Britain – or more honestly, a lost Ireland and Scotland. Those who Britain rejected, after the Clearances, in the eighteenth century, went to the southern part of what is now the United States. The weak died on the way, or soon after they got there. The strong remained – and they had a wild streak, the wildness of Britain before the Victorians tamed it. Reading works like J.D Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” and Hampton Sides’ “Blood and Thunder” (about the American west, but describing the life of Davy Crockett) one can see this wildness, this untamed violence, not far beneath the surface.

We read about John Vann’s sexual indiscretions and moral darkness (and the root causes of that in the behaviours of his mother) in respect of his relationship to his wife, his children and to marriage. He kept two mistresses and was a serial philanderer. Yet, he was considered moral by his superiors, and by their – and his – lights, he was a moral man. It is interesting to read about the complete separation of Vann’s moral probity (or at least, ostensible moral probity) in the professional, military, space, from the squalor and degradation of his private life. Looking after your troops properly, dealing honestly and truthfully with your superiors – yet failing to look after your own family and lying to your spouse. It is the nuance, the ambiguity, that i find so fascinating. Particularly in this age, when so often, our leading men and women need to be perfect and seen to be perfect. Nuance and ambiguity seem to be not allowed. This is a pity, for no-one is perfect. All have sinned and fall short of the high standards required of us by the great God in heaven – never mind the double standards imposed by the newspapers and social media.

A remarkable and worthwhile read, though I did skip quite a lot of detail – some of it was tedious, some of it was fascinating. From the Battle of Ap Bac in 1963, through to the catastrophe that was the Tet Offensive and onto the Nixon years, it’s fair to repeat what the blurb says – if you read one book about Vietnam, make it this one. You’ll learn much else besides – about America, France and Vietnam; about WWII and about Korea; about human frailty and sin, and the indomitability of the human spirit. I read these big improving tomes because they inspire and encourage me – and we finish with a tip from a character called Weyand, who was a patron of John Paul Vann. How does a person get on? “Move up, move out, to the cutting edge”.