Originally published by n.b. a web project of the New York Review of Books


An Empire Wilderness: Travels Into America's Future
by Robert Kaplan
0-679-45190-0   Random House

Review by Fred Murphy

In the course of the travels through western North America that Robert Kaplan recounts in An Empire Wilderness, a woman asks him what the topic of his book is going to be. “I told her it was about whether or not many Americans would still be moved in fifty years when they heard John Philip Sousa music on Inauguration Day." It is doubtful, of course, that many Americans are even now moved by (or can even identify) Sousa marches on those few occasions when they are still played. But that’s why an inquiry into the status and future of American patriotism in a rapidly globalizing world is well worth conducting. Having witnessed and reported the breakup of states and rapid rearrangement of national loyalties in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and west Africa, Kaplan turns out to be well suited for the job.

Visits by the author to the US Army War College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, frame the book. This erstwhile frontier post emerges as a sort of "last bastion" of blood-and-soil nationalism in the United States, a place where the top echelon of the American military keep alive the mythos of conquest and Manifest Destiny—even as they uneasily ponder their shifting role in a world that offers "the uninviting prospect of small, increasingly urban wars and rescue details that will have increasingly little meaning for the nation."

To assess where that nation is heading, Kaplan travels from St. Louis to Omaha and thence across the Rockies to Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland; from Los Angeles and Orange County, California, south to Tijuana; and from Mexico City north to Tucson, Phoenix, New Mexico, and the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. He finds the western half of the continent in the throes of "a vast transformation" spurred by global marketing and communications, Asian and Latino immigration, and socioeconomic polarization. Any sense of national community and patriotism is fast disappearing: as educated Americans become more tightly integrated into the "computer-driven, knowledge-based world economy," they are finding "more in common with (and, ultimately, more loyalty to) their highly educated friends and counterparts in Europe, Latin America, and Asia than they do with less educated fellow Americans a few miles away."

The latter find themselves on the wrong side of a widening gap in income, education, and prospects for advancement. The old mythos of America as "one nation...with liberty and justice for all" is becoming inoperative as the polity fragments into an archipelago of city-states made up of wealthy, mostly white (though increasingly Asian), suburban clusters serviced by a precariously employed underclass of Latino immigrants and African-Americans commuting from moribund central cities. The strong federal state that once actively "promoted the general welfare" now threatens to devolve into a distant imperial caretaker that will, at best, arbitrate conflicts over increasingly scarce natural resources (water, above all) and offer a modicum of military protection. Meanwhile, old-fashioned patriotism is waning, supplanted by vague attachments to local sports teams, or—a more encouraging prospect—by environmentalism.

Kaplan hopes that the transformation of the West will take place gradually and peacefully, but he notes that events like the Oklahoma City bombing and the Los Angeles riots are symptomatic of stresses that are building up. When an officer at Fort Leavenworth suggests ominously that "a time may come when the military will have to go domestic," Kaplan offers no rejoinder.

Fred Murphy is a writer living in New York City. He has studied and taught in the Committee on Historical Studies at the New School for Social Research.