General Anthony Zinni Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Military's Role in a Changing World: Conversation with General Anthony C. Zinni, United States Marine Corps (ret.) and former Commander in Chief of the Central Command; 3/6/01, by Harry Kreisler.

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The Military Today

One of the doctrines that emerged years later, looking in hindsight at Vietnam, was the Weinberger doctrine, which, in essence, calls us to intervene in places where we have an exit strategy. Where we know what the mission is, and we have a plan for getting out, so we don't have this unending involvement and intervention. Any thoughts on the Weinberger doctrine?

I feel that [with] the Weinberger doctrine, if you follow it to its letter, you end up only being able to fight something like the Second World War, which may be an aberration. I mean: you were attacked, you had clearly defined interest and a demonized enemy, a complete moral certainty on what you were doing, fought it to unconditional surrender, mobilized the entire nation to do it. I think that's an aberration. When you try to write a criteria for commitment of U.S. military forces, you tend to write toward a World War II model.

Unfortunately, the world's not like that today. We find ourselves in places in the world where our interests require, maybe, limited application of force, involved in strange missions, missions difficult to define and state criteria and exit strategies. So it's much more difficult now. It's not that clear.

So we find political leaders who see that they need to become involved and to intervene, but don't know how to do it as cleanly as that doctrine would lead you to believe you can.

You're suggesting that it's harder in some ways for a young soldier today than it was for you as a young soldier back when you started. And we've touched on some of those issues already, that the mission isn't as clear. You speak of a lost sense of tradition, and so on. What other particular dilemmas arise for a young soldier?

When I was a young Marine, we had a clearly defined enemy. It was the Cold War. We knew who the enemy was. What we had to do was fairly clear. We were in an organization that still had the blush and bloom of the victory of the Second World War on it; although, it may have been twenty years removed. I think things were much simpler and clearer. Today, my son, who is a Second Lieutenant, finds a much different world. There is no clear threat out there. There are a whole series of new kinds of nontraditional threats, transnational threats, fuzzy missions that the military may be involved in, greater leadership challenges. The military is far more technologically advanced. Life in the military is far more complex and complicated for all sorts of reasons. And so the role of a leader now is much more difficult than it was when I was, say, a Second Lieutenant.

What would you tell a soldier or a potential soldier? What is the bare minimum that he or she has to have to do the job well?

I think several things. I think, one, that it's no longer sufficient just to be militarily proficient. You really need to understand dimensions beyond the military dimensions. You need to understand politics and economics. And you need to understand cultures. There aren't pure military operations anymore, as such. It's become very diluted. And you need to understand those other dimensions clearly.

The requirement on a leader is for a broader education and a broader understanding. The role of leadership, leading men and women toward the accomplishment of a mission, is much more complex. We have much more knowledgeable, brighter, young people who question more, are much more talented and skilled. But much more difficult to lead, because of their knowledge and understanding and questioning, which I think is a good thing. But it puts more pressure on a leader to be able to do that. And he has to master things that are probably two or three ranks above what I had to master at that particular time. So, in other words, a young Second Lieutenant now may be controlling the combat power or have the responsibilities of a Lieutenant Colonel in my time. So it's become much more complex and involved, and difficult.

In a minute we'll talk about these new transnational threats, which you, in the latter part of your career, have addressed in a very important way. But before we do that, every soldier, including you, has had to deal with the particular relationship of the military to U.S. society. Let's talk a little about that, because this has changed over time during your career. For example, one of the things that we hear again and again is the need for political will. In other words, that the political leadership has to be clear about what it wants to do. And often that's not the case.

Yes. I think it's important that the American society and the American military not get far apart. But a number of things have happened that could cause us to drift apart, and I think have caused us to drift apart somewhat. One is going to the all-volunteer force, [resulting in] very little frame of reference, few families like my family [where a member has] had the experience there. I think the all-volunteer force was the right move, but the danger in a professionalized military is it could become separate from society. I think the people have to understand their military and make a clear decision as to what they want it to be. We're involved in a lot of social change within the military, and social experimentation. It needs to be clear what this does to the military -- combat effectiveness, good order and discipline, how should we approach it, what do the people want, what limits on that need to be in place, if any.

Clearly, when the military's committed, the American people have to be behind it. There's a leadership responsibility that, frankly, has been lacking at times, to bring the American people into the mission -- to make it clear to them, to involve them, [like with] the FDR "fireside chats" -- to make sure they're on the same course as we're putting their military on. [Otherwise] we find ourselves in something like Somalia, where suddenly an event occurs that wakes up the American people to realize the military is doing something they didn't sign up for. And that becomes extremely dangerous.

Because of our importance and global reach, we feel and we conclude, even if it's just because of images on CNN, that we need to be involved in a particular place. But at the -- I'm reluctant to say this, but almost at the first sight of blood, we want to get out. This is a real dilemma, isn't it? That a kind of box score on the loss of life ultimately interferes with the completion of the mission.

It's the CNN effect that gets us in. And then, it's the first sight of blood that gets us out, before things turn around. I think there is a certain degree of casualty aversion with the American people. I do think they will accept the risk in the casualties if they understand the mission and if they determine the mission is worth the risk. Our political leaders need to make sure they understand that the American people are committed to it, understand the risk, understand the potential for casualties, and then sign up to it. If not, it's not worth the endeavor, unless a president really feels so strongly that despite popular opinion, this is something that is in the vital national interest for our country.

All of this came together in Somalia, where we intervened because of the pictures that we were seeing on CNN. And then stayed, and then got involved in an internal struggle, which was not made clear to the American people. Then, when there was the tragedy involving the loss of lives, we got out rather quickly. So it was an early playing out of all of these factors.

We can become victims of our own success. The first intervention into Somalia was for strictly limited humanitarian reasons. And that first part of Somalia, we did extremely well. We saved a lot of lives. We brought a degree of stability to Somalia. And then we became tempted to take the next step, to nation-build, and to reestablish the country as a viable nation state. That was a big bite to take on, and that one became more iffy, more difficult for us, something we don't do well traditionally and was going to cost us. There was risk involved, and I don't think our approaches were necessarily right. I think we made some of the same mistakes we did in Vietnam in not fully understanding the environment and what needed to be done in the scope of the mission that we were taking on.

Another factor in this very complicated relationship between military and society is the press today. With the new technologies, they're almost literally in the war room and on the battlefield. How does that affect a commander?

Well, several ways. First of all, the relationship of the press has changed. In the sort of "good old days" of the Second World War, we had the Ernie Pyles and the Bill Mauldins who did the cartoons. The press embraced the GI and gave a great accounting of his life and supported him, and made him a hero to the American people. We lost that in Vietnam, and I don't think either side is to blame. The nature of the war caused that to happen. There's greater transparency now. Obviously, technology allows the battlefield to be brought home into our living rooms immediately. Sometimes, the situation could be more clear in a living room than it is in a Pentagon headquarters, because of the layered way reporting comes in and the rapid, fast images that can be projected.

I always told my subordinate officers that the media is like the terrain and weather. It is a fact; it's nothing you can change. You have to learn to deal with it. And it isn't bad or good, it's just there. I don't think we should put limits on the press, unless it's for security reasons or for reasons of risk in the case of an operation. We value freedom of the press. It's something we are fighting for. It's part of the constitutional rights that we swear our allegiance to. We just have to accept it and learn to deal with it in a right way, and give and take. Lately, probably since the Gulf War, the relationship with the press has gotten better than it was, say, in Vietnam and post - Vietnam. But still a long way to go, and an important element for our leaders to come to grips with.

Have we done a better job in overcoming service rivalry as we prepare for the new world that we're encountering?

No. In one respect, service rivalry is good. It makes you better. Competition makes you better. Service rivalry leads to service pride, which is good for building morale and esprit. And there are elements which are fine. The Army - Navy game is great, and the sense of pride and tradition and everything else is healthy.

But there is an element of service rivalry that causes great problems. I think the 1947 National Security Act that set us up the way it did and built services the way it did may have worked fine for the Cold War. It doesn't work well now, where we need service cooperation, where we fight joint operations and need an integrated approach. The remnants of the Cold War structure work against that. The services spend more energy and time working against each other than learning how to work with each other. There's no joint constituency out there. There's no one that represents a joint world. We buy equipment in stovepipe fashion. We develop doctrine and tactics differently. We can't bring ourselves to come together on joint doctrine in the ways we should fight together. It makes it very difficult for those of us who were in the joint world and had to fight these forces to blend them together, when those who were providing us were resisting that cooperation.

So if you're in a situation related to dealing with someone like Saddam Hussein, you want to have your act together, and so that's something that has to be dealt with.

I will give you an example. Everybody brings, of course, tremendous fire power to a battlefield, and we need a joint doctrine for the application of fires and how we're going to blend this. We have four Air Forces -- the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine each have their own. And we have missile systems and everything else. Our services can't agree on a common doctrine. The commanders and chiefs out there are forced to develop their own procedures, because we can't get the services to work together and develop a single doctrine.

This applies to organization for joint forces and many other aspects that should be done before we go onto the battlefield. We shouldn't be forced to work these out by the people that have to employ them. But, again, the service rivalries make this much more difficult. The competition makes it much more difficult. The system makes it much more difficult.

What will be the key to overcoming that? A new generation of officers? A political discussion in the country at large? Or some untoward event that leads to a realization of what this problem is?

I think the system needs to be changed. Good people are trapped in a bad system. You know, we're all Americans. I don't think there's any service chief or members of service staff that doesn't want to get this done the right way and find the right way to integrate and cooperate. They're trapped in a system that leads them towards competition and distrust, and makes it difficult to gain the cooperation we need. So we need to change the system. We need to preserve the best of service rivalry and competition and not throw out that tradition. But we need to find a way in other areas, like the way we apply our equipment, the way we develop doctrine, the way we organize our forces for deployment around the world. We need to find new systems for deciding how those sorts of things are going to be done.

In your last speech you were suggesting that when the doctrine is closer to the command level, you get a more enriched view of how to respond to situations, as opposed to some of the theoretical thinking of what we can do in the world. Is that fair?

That's fair. I think anyone would tell you that the realities of the battlefield sometimes differ from the theory and the theory you're given. That's something I took away from Vietnam. A lot of the techniques or tactics I was taught did not apply. They were from another era or another environment, from a different kind of war, but they weren't translatable to the kind of war I was fighting. It's always important not to lose that common sense infusion of reality into what you're deciding.

Too often, we have people in isolation who develop theories for fighting that don't stand the test of reality on the battlefield. So that blend of realism and experience has to be taken into account with those who are developing the theory and the doctrine.

Next page: New Transnational Threats

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