General Anthony Zinni Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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So was Vietnam your first tour of duty, once you were in the Marines?
No, actually, I had joined the Marine Corps before Vietnam. And really, Vietnam started to heat up after I had gone off to officer training. While I was in officer training at Quantico, the Marines had landed in some force. There had only been advisors and some helicopter units in before, and all of a sudden there was a major war. Actually, the use of the Marines in the Dominican Republic had occurred, too, the same time. So, while we were all at training at Quantico, there were things happening around the world. We were getting excited about it.
As you went into the training, was there anything about it that surprised you?
No, I don't think, initially. The training was probably World War II vintage training -- very much oriented on the lessons learned out of the Second World War and Korea, very conventional. We were beginning to look at this new phenomenon of insurgency and guerrilla warfare. Of course, President Kennedy had, prior to that, put a lot of emphasis on preparing for that. So we were beginning, as a military, to research and develop the doctrine and the understanding of insurgency and guerrilla warfare, and counter-guerrilla warfare.
This period, we should remind our audience, was the height of the Cold War, where things were heating up and there was a real sense of the mission of the military in fighting the Cold War.
Yes, I think so. The realization may have hit that there's probably not going to be a war on the European continent. Although we need to be prepared, that preparedness probably prevents it. It was in neither side's interest to do it. So we fought on the margins, or on the edges, and maybe fought through surrogates. So places like Vietnam, Korea before that, people were talking about a Domino Theory, that if one fell, many would fall. But it seemed that the Cold War was reaching out to the edges. And that's where it would be fought, through this means of insurgency and counter-insurgency.
It was a place where American national interest would be tested. So what you were doing as a soldier really mattered.
We felt that way. We certainly accepted the idea. Obviously, we believed the Domino Theory, and we believed that we would be tested. Communism would test us in all strange parts of the world, and we had to stand up to it wherever we found it. And this would be the primary means of confronting it.
You gave two tours of duty, and you were wounded both times, I believe you said ...
Actually, I did two tours of duty, and the first time I was evacuated almost at the end of my tour from illness. I had malaria and hepatitis and mononucleosis. In the second tour, I was wounded.
In looking back now, many years later, what did that experience in Vietnam teach you as a soldier?
It taught me to question the training we received. I think we did not do a good job in trying to understand the nature of the conflict and translate that into preparing our people in training. It taught me a lot about the causes that we were fighting for or what we believe in, and the political objectives, understanding those and translating those into military objectives. It taught me a lot about making sure that the people are going to fight the war and understand why they're fighting it. I don't think we ever did that, or we ever understood it. And it taught me not to accept things on face value, and not to accept political objectives as a given, and to question those. I mean, especially if I ever achieved a position of senior leadership, to make sure I did right by my subordinates and I did right to question my superiors in what they committed us to, so I understood it clearly.
As a soldier, you experienced firsthand the extent to which the organization of the military was not delivering the resources at some levels to the soldiers who were trying to act and implement the mission. Tell us the story about what you discovered as a soldier about the boots that you were given under the new McNamara reorganization?
Well, of course, it was the era of the McNamara Pentagon, and the emphasis was on cost-effectiveness. And we found ourselves in a war and doing things on the cheap, in the interest of being more cost-effective. Our battle uniform, for example, was reduced to the cheapest, most common uniform we could get. All services had to be the same. We eliminated the fly fronts and the extra pockets. We didn't have buttons on the sleeves. They were cheaply made and didn't have the endurance, didn't wear well, buttons got caught up in the jungles. They did away with half-sized boots. The boots were very cheaply made and came apart very quickly. And it struck me, having seen the quality of the equipment we had before that, and then seeing us being reduced to this, especially in time of war; it was a real shock.
Now, toward the end of the war, we sort of adjusted. We had better equipment -- we had jungle boots and jungle fatigues and that sort of thing. But in the rush of the initial McNamara thrust, everything was in the interest of cost-effectiveness, as opposed to combat-effectiveness.
You're a 9-1/2 boot man and you had to live with a 10, and it really mattered.
It makes a difference. I mean, you're an infantryman. You live by your feet. And, obviously, to have cheap boots and not the right size ... The emphasis we put now -- my son is an infantry officer, and we put a lot of emphasis on quality boots and care for your feet. We understand what's important now, much more than we did then. Then, [it was] in the interest of cost-effectiveness.
One of the criticisms of the leadership on the political side in the Vietnam War is that constraints were placed on the military because of concern about the polls at home, about the danger of a possible nuclear war if there was escalation, and so on. You were saying that organizationally, for example, on the first point, [political concerns] affected the way that soldiers were rotated in Vietnam. And that, in turn, affected both the morale and the efficiency of the units. Tell us a little about it. It's a very interesting point.
We opted for a system whereby we had individual replacement, which meant that people came into the unit constantly as individuals, one at a time. So you had this constant flow of people out and people in. This worked against unit cohesiveness. It worked against the well-trained unit and one that had been together for a while.
As a contrast, the Australians, for example, prepared their units, trained them, sent them to Vietnam for a period of time, six months -- withdrew them, retrained them, sent them back, in rotated units. We were doing this on an individual basis. And it was very disruptive and dysfunctional in the end.
You've described the impact on you as a soldier, but how, overall, do you think, the Vietnam War affected the military? What lesson did it learn? And did it learn the right lessons?
I think it did. It learned several lessons. One, it learned that the American people have to be committed to the cause. The military can't find itself isolated from the American people and involved in a cause or a mission that the Americans have not accepted or understood. I think popular support was one lesson.
We learned that we have to prepare for the war in the right manner; that the military tasks have to be aligned with the political objectives. If they don't fit, the senior military leadership has an obligation to tell that clearly to the political leadership.
Our political leaders learned the limits of the use of force for a power like the United States. Strangely enough, a superpower does have significant limitations on where it can use force and how it can, especially a democracy.
I think we learned a lot on the ground. Operationally and tactically, we did some things that weren't very smart: pursuing body count as an end, and the way we went after that war, preparing the Vietnamese as a conventional force to fight an unconventional war. We tried to apply our technology to places where it didn't fit, didn't give us the advantage we wanted. So there are many lessons.
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