Before the First Shots are Fired

Retired US Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni has some sharp insights and powerful ideas to share in his new book, “Before the First Shots are Fired: How America Can Win or Lose off the Battlefield.” Listen this week as he previews some of the philosophies he shares in his fourth book.


Untitled Document

Transcription – Zinni
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Today we’re pleased add another installment in our occasional series on modern leaders. Today, our guest is retired U.S. Marine Corps. General Anthony Zinni, who joins us to discuss some of the ideas from his new book “Before the First Shots are Fired: How America Can Win Or Lose Off the Battlefield,” which comes out September 2, 2014.
General Zinni will be our guest at Colonial Williamsburg September 22, where he will speak at a special luncheon and sign copies of his book. Tickets are available by calling 855-296-6627 or by visiting General Zinni, thank you for being our guest today.
Anthony Zinni: Good to be with you.
Harmony: Well I was going to introduce your list of awards, rank, commendations, medals, and it’s long. We could be here all day talking about that, but what I want to hear from you is, how would you describe the arc of your career? How would you describe what your life’s work has been?
Zinni: Well, of course, in the beginning, 39 years in the Marine Corps. It all revolved around dealing with our nation’s threats. At the time when I first came on active duty, we were just entering the Vietnam War. So early in my career, that sort of dominated the way we did business.
Then through the ‘80s and ‘90s as we rebuilt the military coming out of Vietnam, I mean I think all of us that had served in Vietnam were really committed to the all-volunteer force in creating a new kind of military. We still faced the Soviet threat at the time. And then with the end of the Cold War, things kind of changed. I think since then we really haven’t really understood the kinds of threats that face us and the decisions to use the military has been very confusing, as we can see today.
So those were kind of the three major phases in what went through. I was fortunate enough to have wonderful mentors in the military and the great deal of fantastic experiences culminating with the command of the U.S. Central Command. Obviously, they have responsibility for U.S. military in the Middle East and that’s always been a hotbed and a place where many crises, take place so it really challenges you in terms of understanding cultures and making decisions.
Harmony: What prompted you to write a book that took on some of these issues that you address in “Before the First Shots are Fired?” You’re talking about coordinating our military response more seamlessly, more intelligently.
Zinni: Yes. Well, I originally didn’t start out to write this kind of book or particularly about this subject. I just felt the American people, their model for understanding for how we use our military was really based on the greatest generation, World War II, and that may have been an aberration in our history. And after that, the conflicts we found ourselves immersed in are very different. I saw primarily the differences were on the battlefield, and I wanted to write about how today’s battlefields are much different than they may have been during the time when conventional war: World War II, World War I, were prevalent.
But as I got into it I realized, you know, on the battlefield, really, the troops adapt at the smaller unit levels. The biggest problems with adjusting were not in terms of the military in terms of the small units and the way they operate on the battlefield. It really was in the political decision-making, the policy on use of military force and even the senior ranks of the military, hence the title, “Before the First Shots Are Fired: How America Can Win or Lose Off the Battlefield.”
Most of the decisions that set you up for success on the battlefield happen either before the first troops arrive on the battlefield, or on decisions that are made while they’re there, but are not battlefield decisions. They’re political, they’re leadership choices, they’re how you analyze and assess what you need to do, whether you have a sound strategy or not, how you use metrics to determine whether you’re winning or losing, even how you define winning and losing today.
So that, to me, was more important. So I kind of shifted from my original intention and started to look at these subjects. One moment really caught me. It’s when then Secretary of Defense Rumsfield, when asked if the Iraq War was getting to look a lot like Vietnam. He made a statement that, “No, this war is not like any wars before it and it’s not like any wars that will come after it.” And I thought, “That just doesn’t make sense to me. There are patterns. There are similarities. Maybe more than there are dissimilarities.”
So I wanted to look at, is there a framework you could use to look at all the military interventions, wars that we’ve conducted and sort of use that framework to go through and see how you can compare what we’ve done: what we’ve done well, what we’ve done not so well. And I did. And I really used a whole series of things starting with what causes us to use the military? What were the triggering events? How was the analysis done? How did our political leaders assess what was going on, what needed to be done? How did the president make the big decisions or the senior leaders? Was a strategy adopted? Was it sound or not sound? What was the narrative? How did they justify the war, explain it to the American people or other audiences? How did we choose our leadership on the battlefield, what we call the operational design? How we’re going to conduct operations, how we measure success and outcomes; what was the end result, and did the end result satisfy our sense of success in some ways? Or maybe it was temporary success and actually led to more conflict down the road.
So I use this sort of framework, and I looked at mainly wars that took place from World War II on, but I did go back in history to the Revolutionary War, to the Civil War, and you know, because there were great similarities. I mean in the Revolutionary War General Washington dealing with the Continental Congress, political decisions, choice of leadership that he didn’t necessarily have a decision on, trust in his ability to operate, how he had to adjust on the battlefield and his operational design, questions about the strategy. The American people obviously torn, you know, we had Tories and we had those who wanted independence, those that just wanted representation. And that wasn’t unusual. I mean that seemed to follow in a pattern for conflicts after that as well.
Harmony: So what are some of the major areas of change that you’re suggesting would improve our approach toward engaging in conflict?
Zinni: Well I think at the end of the book, I kind of put in what recommendations. I think there are several. One, the civilian leadership tends to have less and less experience in this. Now by “experience,” I don’t necessarily mean that somebody served in the military. I don’t believe that’s a qualification for President nor Secretary of Defense or whatever. I mean the understanding of the world, understanding what your objectives are when you use military force, understand that when you unleash military power what the consequences can be.
You know, we’ve had a tendency in the modern times to run against Washington. I mean, with the exception probably of George H.W. Bush, every President since Jimmy Carter came from outside of Washington, and we like the idea that you’re going to run against Washington. Well the problem with that is, they don’t understand Washington, they don’t understand the government, they don’t understand how it functions. And when they come in they’re playing catch-up or they’re learning on the job.
We can see that now. We can see that in the last several Presidencies, but maybe since 9/11 in two administrations very clearly. And so that’s part of the problem. People making decisions that when they go back if you read Secretary of Defense McNamara’s book and, you know, “Gee, we should have known, we didn’t know.” And for whatever reason you see people like Colin Powell and Caspar Weinberger writing after interventions, you know, “Well, these should be the rules that guide us on how we employ military force and when we should do it and under what circumstances.” So it’s this constant learning process.
The second part is, if you look at the military, we have a culture where we go back and examine what we’ve been through. You know, we study military history not just for the sake of history. We study what went on, what we should learn, you know, how we apply the principles of war, what if the outcomes could have been different or we could have done it differently. But there’s no political-level sort of training or education or reflection that leads our political leaders to that. So you have this disconnect.
You have a highly professionalized military leadership, for better or worse, and they aren’t perfect certainly, you have a system and a process that searches for lessons learned. It’s highly complex, highly technology-driven now, and at the top in what employs it and makes a decision is a very inexperienced, almost amateurish structure, political decision-making. Even the way we fund our forces, you know Congress funds it, but do they do it based on strategic necessity or is it done purely because of pork? And what, you know, what is produced in my own district?
Very few of our Congressional leaders, if any, and even our administrative leaders, really understand the world, really understand the military, how it should be constructed, what state of readiness it should be in, when to use it or not, how to mesh it in with the other elements of power, diplomacy, information, economics, etc. So, to me, this side of this needs attention or we’re going to continue to make the same mistakes. So that’s basically what I try to get out of this. You know, why aren’t we performing at that level?
And one of the things that bothers me is someone who’s seen war at every level, and I have a son in the Marine Corps too now who’s seen Iraq and Afghanistan a number of times. I see that our troops on the ground get it, but they’re not well served by this structure. The leadership above them at the highest military levels and at the political levels are not delivering what they need to succeed when they’re committed. And so that’s troubling. I mean, that’s where our fault and flaws lie.
Part of it, and most of it maybe, is systemic. Its part of the way our government evolved, the way the structure did, the way we do business. It’s not like an individual’s fault. We tend to blame our leadership, you know, we tend to blame a President or a Secretary of Defense and there is, you know, there is responsibility that goes with that, but I found more and more it’s just the system where everybody comes in that has no knowledge or understanding and then has to make these weighty decisions and decide on a course of action of some sort at the political level that will, as the title says, will determine success or failure.
Harmony: What is your hope for seeing some of these changes take place?
Zinni: Well unfortunately, my experience in looking at government is: the more bureaucratic it becomes, the more bloated it becomes, it becomes more difficult to change. It’s very hard to change. The last time we significantly changed our governmental structure to sort of adjust to the world as the way it is,is 1947: the 1947 National Security Act.
It was a remarkable time. The period between 1945, the end of World War II and say 1950, we had an unusual sort of alignment of the planets, if you will. We had President Truman, a Democrat in office, we had a Republican Congress, both the House and Senate, the leader of which was Congressman Vandenberg. You had George Marshall, probably the greatest strategist our country has ever produced who was apolitical, didn’t even vote. And we were able to work across the aisle, look at the world, understand a new threat was emerging from Soviet Union, Red China. The world had completely been reordered as a result of World War II.
The 1947 National Security Act did several things. It restructured our own government, created the National Security Council, formalized the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But at the same time, you know, we promoted the Marshall Plan. For first time in our history, the winners were going to pay reparations for a war. [It] was not well received by the American public, but because of Marshall’s stature and because the President explaining it to the people, it was accepted.
We rebuilt Europe and Japan. The constant warring and chronic problems and crises were done away with. We created democracies. We created the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, so there was a global funding source. The United Nations we joined, we created NATO, a military alliance. It was a remarkable period in our time, and basically a country that was fundamentally isolationist and accepted this. They hadn’t after World War I with President Wilson, and they did.
But if you think about it, something that old now, given the way the world is now in 2014, we should look at our government and say, “Is it time to restructure it? Do we have the right kind of structure for this kind of world?” The world has changed significantly several times over since 1950 and the late ‘40s. We haven’t made those adjustments. We certainly didn’t make it at the end of the Cold War. Normally after a significant war – two hot wars and a cold war in the last century – you know, Wilson tried to change things after World War I, saw a new world order, didn’t succeed. Truman did succeed and that held us in good stead and allowed us to win a war without going hot really.
At the end of the Cold War, we talked about new world order, a peace dividend, but it never materialized, because no one did anything about it. I would offer that the situation we have now in the Ukraine in a face-off against Russia and the fact that Putin was able to rise to power was a fact that we didn’t adjust to a new world and didn’t create a relationship with Russia and some of the other republics that was more positive, more cooperative.
We continue to have an adversarial relationship when maybe one was not necessary. I mean it takes two to tango, and obviously that should have worked on both sides, but I think we were negligent; took all the Warsaw Pact countries, dumped them into NATO. NATO had no mission anymore, you know, the Soviet Union had collapsed, but why were they there? What purpose did they serve? We never redefined it. It was an “in your face” to the Russians that pulled away all their former allies and bring it into the West and they weren’t sort of invited.
So, you know, I think this whole idea of how we look at the world has changed greatly and frankly we don’t get it. The President has decided to pivot to the Pacific. Well, Mr. President, how is that working for you now, where you’re immersed in the Middle East, you got problems on our southern border, you have problems in Eastern Europe and even in Africa with health issues and other things? We’re a globalized world right now. We’re not regionalized and sometimes you can’t pick and choose where you want to put your emphasis and we don’t have a strategy that is a global strategy that really gets that or understand it.
Harmony: You’ve given us so much to think about today. We’re proud to welcome you to our Board of Directors here at Colonial Williamsburg, and I think you have answered this question a little bit for us already, but I wonder if you’ll tell us something about what draws you to this institution, to Colonial Williamsburg, where our mission is “That the future may learn from the past?
Zinni: Well, several things. One, I’m the son of immigrants to this country. I’ve watched and grew up in a household where my mother and father greatly appreciated the opportunities that were here, benefited from them. I mean the son of immigrants to become a four-star general. You know, I don’t think there’s any place else in the world that could happen. They felt, they understand where they left and what they left with my grandparents when they came also and the opportunities here. So it was love of this country. I wanted to understand those opportunities so those opportunities were born here in Williamsburg. I mean, our country was created by men that lived very close by, the Jeffersons and the Madisons and the Washingtons.
So to me, this has always been a special place. My wife and I honeymooned here 48 years ago, it so added to that. I always took my children here. We retired and settled here, obviously, so Williamsburg has always held a close place in my house, in my heart, but it’s also what it represents. That’s mainly the idea. I believe strongly that if you don’t know history, as Santana said, you’re going to be doomed to repeat it, the worse parts of it. And history should tell us everything about who we are.
I’m dismayed in many respects, in that I see it’s been deemphasized in our schools, what I call citizenship, which is civics and American history. Not American history taught by dates and events, but by concepts. I mean, we are very unique in this world. We fortunately had a revolution that was led by men of significant stature and intellect that created a system – not perfect in the beginning, but designed to seek perfection. So we have over time.
If you don’t understand the Constitution, if you don’t understand our roots and what it meant and what these men were trying to say to us, then I don’t think you understand what it means to be an American. So all that, it was behind that. You know, to me anything you do to preserve this…it’s not just a historical site. It’s a historical concept; it’s an idea and again it’s the roots of everything we are. So to me it’s precious. It’s a national treasure that we have to preserve, and anything I can do to help do that and educate our youth particularly about what this all means is critically important to me.
Harmony: We’re honored to have you with us and it’s been our pleasure.
Zinni: It’s an honor to be here.
Harmony: It’s been a pleasure talking with you today. I hope our listeners will come out and have a listen to some of the thoughts you have to share with them September 22 at your book signing here at Colonial Williamsburg.
Zinni: Look forward to it. Thank you.
Harmony: Thank you so much.



  1. Perhaps the General should be our next President? He would get my vote!

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