The Circle Cannot Hold

by Robert D. Kaplan, as told to Chase Madar, July 29, 2009

Veteran foreign correspondent Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Balkan Ghosts, Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos, and most recently, Imperial Grunts. Here he reports from southwestern Iowa.

Lagos; San Salvador; Nagorno-Karabakh; Corning, Iowa: The circle cannot hold, and crisis looms ominously on the Iowan horizon. The words never seem truer than when I gaze out from the Hardee’s off Route 137, the bronze “Butter Cow and Calf” sculpture backlit with a sinister gleam beyond the exit ramp. All is definitely not well in this town – nor in this Hardee’s. The large shake I ordered is merely medium, the men’s room is closed for mopping, and the slack-jawed, acne-pocked teenagers who work here are showing each other the tattoos on their backsides. Though I am in the Midwest, these adolescents remind me strongly of the Azeri hoodlums who once tied me to a lamppost in Baku, laughed at my passport photo, and befouled my Samsonite. Can Iowa’s social fabric remain intact for long with such a “Hardee’s underclass”?

The signs of the impending social collapse don’t end there: a toddler stumbles and smears her apple pie all over the dust jacket of my bright yellow Thucydides for Dummies. Appeasement is surely what the elite liberal establishment of Des Moines would advise. In their rose-tinted Weltanschauung I should just cave to the aggressive toddler and go dine furtively at the Dairy Queen across the freeway for the rest of my life. Alas, before I can take my plastic tray and club the girl-terrorist and her family into submission, they have already pulled their minivan out of the parking lot.

Perrier-swilling elite intellectuals may not want to admit it, but air strikes against this interstate Hardee’s are the only remaining solution to the crisis looming ominously on the Iowan horizon.


The first response of visitors to the town of Indianola, Iowa, is invariably the same: the barns are pretty, but soon this society will be torn apart by the centrifugal forces of desertification, deadly superviruses, homegrown Iowan Islamofascism, berserk robot vacuum cleaners, and chronic gingivitis.

Exhibit A is the Sanchez family: last year it was just Mexican immigrant Jacinto Sanchez; now he has been joined in the town of Indianola by his wife Albelia and daughter Melanie.

In other words, the Sanchez population is tripling every year.

If this trend continues – and it shows no sign of abating – then by 2035, Indianola will have 2.3 trillion Sanchezes – a disaster of global proportions.

Imagine: entire forests felled to make maracas; killer superviruses breeding in the damp hollows of the festive, oversized sombreros; the world’s sugarcane supplies depleted to fill their piñatas with sweetmeats. It is an unpalatable truth that the coastal media elites of Dubuque may be unwilling to tell, caught up as they are in their dinner parties and seminars, blind to the politically incorrect reality looming darkly on the horizon.


Unlike liberal elite journalists, I admire our soldiers – and understand them. Osceola, Iowa, happens to be the home of the regional VA hospital, so I swing by to deliver an impromptu talk to a roomful of injured veterans fresh from Iraq.

“You grunts don’t mind dying in war ’cause you’re working class and already used to the unfairness of life. And unlike priggish elite intellectuals with their coffee mugs full of Perrier, you don’t care if you get a leg or two blown off now, do you?”

I give one Hispanic-looking young man an affectionate noogie on his knee-stump, and he swings his crutch at my head in a manly show of friendship. Spurred on, I regale the grunts with the story of my own triumph over adversity, from lowly foreign correspondent to a man who has not only briefed Bill Clinton and George W. Bush but also met with government officials to help “sell” the current Iraq war – one of the most vivid experiences their generation is privileged to have. The veterans groan with enthusiasm, and my new Hispanic friend, moved to shouting, accidentally kicks me rather hard in the groin with his prosthesis. At this point the day nurse tells me that Harry S. Truman is waiting outside the clinic right now. She suggests I go brief him, so I wave a hearty good-bye and crawl out the door.


But a thorough inspection of the parking lot shows that Harry S. Truman is in fact nowhere to be found. Not crouching behind the cobalt Ford Focus, not under the maroon Windstar – not even at the bottom of the dumpster beneath several leaking sacks of fetid Iowan garbage. In fact, Harry S. Truman is widely considered dead – but intellectual elites like the Perrier-swilling day nurse care little for the study of history. At least the young veterans inside haven’t sold out their country for a vague dreamworld of international “diplomacy." These young soldiers, unlike global cosmopolitan day nurses, know that patriotism means to belong to and to fight for one country, and one country alone: The United States of America. I wish more journalists understood this.

(Unless of course you volunteer in the Israeli Defense Forces as I once did, which for obvious reasons is totally different.)


Another sign of the coming collapse greets me on the sidewalk outside the Indianola Public Library. A middle-aged woman, name-tagged “Dot Bildhauer,” wears a “Presbyterian for Peace” T-shirt. Her husband, Terry, sports a baseball cap emblazoned with a “Pipefitters Local 237," which according to chatter from a confidential source is a jihadist sleeper cell. Mrs. Bildhauer smiles at me and hands me a popcorn ball and a flyer urging military withdrawal from Iraq. I bat her offering away with my war-torn Thucydides and scream into her hearing aide, “ELITE ESTABLISHMENT INTELLECTUALS LIKE YOU, DOT AND TERRY BILDHAUER, WITH YOUR PANGLOSSIAN ILLUSIONS OF PEACE AND NOTORIOUS JIHADIST SYMPATHIES, ARE SAPPING THE COLLECTIVE WILL TO SURVIVE, PLUNGING INDIANOLA AND INDEED ALL OF WARREN COUNTY, IOWA, FURTHER INTO DARKNESS AND ANARCHY.”

But they merely shrug and do the “cuckoo” thing with their fingers. As Thucydides said, the sage seems crazy to the peasant.


My last stop is a third-grade class at Greenwood, Iowa’s Rutherford B. Hayes Elementary School, where the teacher, a vital, silver-haired woman named Mrs. Lundquist, is reading aloud a story called “Jemima Puddle-Duck” by an up-and-coming writer named Beatrix Potter. The story turns out to be a lesson in the casual acquiescence to tyranny: the protagonist duck fails to launch a single air strike against the fox, nor does she take an AK-47 to any of the puppies who eat her eggs. (Mr. Potter is apparently just one more coastal liberal content to paddle in his Perrier pond, willfully out of touch with the way people – and ducks – really behave when the going gets tough.) Will Iowa’s students, indoctrinated with this kind of superannuated Woodstock pabulum, ever be able to fend off the egg-eating Islamist puppies looming ominously on the horizon?


The school yard outside offers a grisly tableau of the anarchy that will soon be loosed on southwestern Iowa – and the futility of idealistic efforts to prevent it. By the swing set a duo of bullies knock down a portly child, kicking his backpack and call him “Oinky.” Suddenly Mrs. Lundquist arrives and hauls off the two aggressors by their ears, scolding them into temporary submission.

It’s all well and good for human rights groups and Establishment intellectuals like Mrs. Lundquist to condemn the bullies’ bad behavior. But here on the hard, hopscotch-scarred asphalt of Rutherford B. Hayes Elementary School, one learns to be ruthlessly pragmatic. Clearly, the deep ancestral hatred of the two bullies will not be so easily quelled by threats of “detention.” Not even the threat of Mr. Lapka the guidance counselor can counter millennia of tribal animosity.

To teach the snuffling Oinky a hard lesson, I approach silently then stomp on his lunchbox until its surprisingly strong aluminum structure buckles and flattens – with only minimal damage to my right loafer. As the tot’s sobs crescendo I scamper away nimbly with the agility that has helped me survive in so many war zones. As Thucydides said – and there is still no better guide to the eternal violence of the Iowa school yard – “The vanquished can nip the ankles of the sage.”

Cold comfort as I watch the thick, Midwestern darkness gather and loom ominously on the uncannily horizontal Iowan horizon.

Robert D. Kaplan, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, is the class of 1960 distinguished visiting professor in national security at the United States Naval Academy. His next piece will examine how the State Department is soft-pedaling the strategic threat of Io, innermost Galilean moon of Jupiter.

Read more by Chase Madar