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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Back to the Future

I hear you saying that the military component has to be part of a broader political, economic, and social strategy, whatever the problem is. And, very importantly, it has to have the support of the American people. Those seem to be crucial in this very sophisticated nuance thinking, which, in part, is one of the lessons of Vietnam.

We don't do two things very well. We don't integrate the military dimension with the political, the economic, and the other dimensions. We don't do a good job even within our government and inter-agency cooperation and integration of our effort. It's very stove-piped, very separated. The Department of Defense, the Department of State have a history of being at odds with each other and come down on different positions. We probably saw that in spades in the last administration. But also in many recent administrations, I don't only hold it there. We need greater inter-agency cooperation, greater direction, greater cooperation and interaction.

The second thing we've not done well, probably since the Second World War, is to bring the American people into the decision to use the military and to commit our government and our resources towards some end. Obviously, since the days of the "fireside chat," we tended to have presidents that did these things immediately. Even though the crises may have been looming and our interests were clear, we didn't take the time to educate the people and to condition them and to bring them along.

I mean, you can't rush off to Ohio State the night before the attack and suddenly try to convince the American people that this is the right thing to do and they should be behind it. Those things never work well. But that kind of education and involvement in the people in these decisions are key. Just like the involvement in the American people into what kind of military they want to have. I think the American people are confused. They're torn between trying to understand what we should look like socially and what limitations or restrictions we should or shouldn't have, what's right or wrong, what affects our ability to conduct our mission or not, how we should be used or not used. They hear this cacophony of sounds of all different approaches -- more involvement, less involvement, only to fight wars, more broadly applicable to other kinds of missions -- and they're confused. I think it's a leadership function to bring them in, to explain the options, and to help lead them toward the right kind of decision they, ultimately, through their political leaders, have to make.

If students watch this videotape or read it on the web, what lessons might they learn from this very interesting story about yourself that you've just told us? One is there is a lot of learning going on if you're going to be a soldier. What else?

I would say to them, this is their military. They need to understand it. They need to know it and understand what they want it to be and what it should be. They need to understand their world, and what our role is and what's in our best interest in this world, and how this military should be applied. As a soldier, I'm an instrument of the American people. And the instrument is expressed through the political decisions that are made. But, ultimately, it comes back to them.

For me, what I have felt in my career, which spans the pre-Vietnam era through now, is this sort of dislocation we've had -- the military and society -- that we hadn't had before. We can't let this exist. I fear we're even growing further apart. Many things like the all-volunteer force and many other things may have caused that. We need to bring the American people and their military closer together. They need to understand it and be involved in the decisions that affect it, be involved in the decisions that are made on its employment and uses. They need to embrace their soldiers and make sure that they feel like they're citizen soldiers and have the backing of the American people in whatever they do, and are protected by the American people. I would say that's the most burning thing I'd take away from the last forty years, is we oftentimes neglected that. I blame our political leaders. I blame the military leadership, too, in many ways. After Vietnam, we isolated ourselves in many respects. There was a deep resentment between society and the military and those who went off and did their duty and, maybe, weren't appreciated. Both sides had a lot wrong and a lot right to what they did. But that needs to be healed and we can't let that happen again. The American people have to be much more conscious of their military.

One final question. All professions confront the role that technology is going to play in their future. As somebody who had a calling as a warrior, and who comes from the older school as opposed to the new school, do you see technology as both an opportunity and something of a threat? Because ultimately, you could have war just fought by robots, and that may or may not be a good thing, if there are victims on one side or the other who are actually human.

I think technology has been a double-edged sword. There's been a problem with technology in that we expect too much out of it. We expect sanitized warfare, no casualties, very removed kind of engagement. We aren't even close to that yet. Technology has led us away from a warrior ethos. There still needs to be a warrior ethos. Maybe it's not the warrior ethos of medieval Europe, or even a warrior ethos of earlier in this century. But there still is a requirement for understanding the role of the warrior and there is an ethos that needs to be maintained.

Certainly, the other guy, the bad guy, that Mujahadeen who drove that boat into the USS Cole, had a warrior ethos, willing to sacrifice his own life, and probably battle-scarred from the Afghan War or whatever. That's the enemy. And you at least need to match that ethos. It isn't an asymmetrical advantage yet to just apply technology to that, if it ever will be. It may [someday] be, but we're far from that. There's still a need for development of this kind of military code.

We need to understand clearly that when you put a uniform on, you accept the risk that comes with it. Every time a ship sails out of Norfolk or San Diego, or a plane takes off from Pope Air Force Base or wherever, you immediately are going in harm's way. It's the nature of the business. Even in training. We've led American people to believe that this is a no-risk, high-tech force, and they're shocked and surprised when suddenly we suffer casualties -- training accidents, terrorist strikes. We immediately feel that someone in uniform did wrong. It would be akin to saying that there was a crime committed on the streets here; let's find the policeman that's at fault and hang him. That's a result of believing everything has a technological solution, and so if there's a casualty and we've taken risk, something was wrong with those who put us at risk. We haven't understood that that change hasn't occurred. We're not on a fully technological force that fights with robots and fights in the images we see out of Hollywood now in some sort of removed, detached console that pits inhuman things against each other.

General Zinni, thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today and giving us this fascinating tour of how the world is changing, the military is changing, and how you have changed.

Thank you very much.

Thank you. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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