For the better part of the last half century, the United States has been the World’s Police, claiming to defend ideologies, allies, and our national security through brute force. But is military action always the most appropriate response? Drawing on his vast experience, from combat in Vietnam to peacekeeping in Somalia, to war games in Washington, DC and negotiations with former rebels in the Philippines, retired four-star General Tony Zinni argues in Before the First Shots Are Fired that we have a lot of work to do to make the process of going to war—or not—more clear-eyed and ultimately successful. He examines the relationship between the executive and the military (including the difference between passive and engaged presidents); the failures of the Joint Chief of Staff; the challenges of working with the UN, coalition forces, and NATO; the difference between young, on the ground officers and less savvy senior leaders; the role of special forces and drone warfare; and the difficult choices that need to be made to create tomorrow’s military. Among his provocative points:
- Virtually every recent American military operation follows a disconnected series of actions that lead to outcomes we never foresaw or intended.
- We need to assign accountability for the political decisions that can make or break a mission.
- Words and ideas are as important to victory in today’s conflicts as bullets.
- The cyber “war” is ongoing. Either you must build better tech than the other guy, or you must steal it.
- Our foreign aid budget is pitiful, our State Department, USAID, and the other government agencies that we critically need to be on a par with our military are underfunded, undermanned, and poorly structured for their current objectives.
General Tony Zinni (retired) was commander-in-chief of CENTCOM and special envoy to the Middle East before retiring as a four-star general. He has appeared on The Daily Show and Meet the Press, among others. He is the author of The Battle for Peace and Leading the Charge. He lives in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Tony Koltz co-authored Colin Powell’s bestselling It Worked For Me; many Tom Clancy nonfiction bestsellers, including Every Man A Tiger, Shadow Warriors, and Battle Ready; General Tony Zinni’s memoirs; as well as The Battle for Peace. He lives in New York City.
Chapter One – How the Hell Did We Get Here?
Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone
who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he
will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once
the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of
unforesee-able and uncontrollable events.
– Sir Winston Churchill
Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties
accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless
one has experienced war.
– Carl von Clausewitz
Over the last five decades, I have personally taken part in commitments of our military to a variety of missions inside and outside our country, ranging from war to humanitarian assistance, and I’ve witnessed many more. I have followed these commitments from their initial spark or trigger, through the planning and execution, and to the final assessment after it was all over. I have seen these experiences from every possible perspective, from the battlefield to decision briefs inside the Oval Office. More than anything else, I’ve been impressed in each of these actions by the tremendous dedication, adaptability, and resourcefulness of our troops on the ground. They take the mission to heart and give their all to succeed. They have never let us down.
And yet, after our military actions have ended, I’ve too often been left with worrisome questions. Why do we now find ourselves fighting so many wars that end without a clear victory? In recent times the end state of American wars and military interventions hardly ever looks anything like their original goals. Too often there is a disconnect between decision and conclusion. I’m sure President Kennedy did not foresee the consequences when he decided to greatly increase the number of advisors into Vietnam in the early 1960s, nor did President Johnson when he began sending in US ground forces there, nor did President Bush when he ordered the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq. Time and again, I have come away from a military commitment with a nagging sense that our involvement started with a clean slate, as though earlier ones have been forgotten or ignored. We seem to start essentially from scratch each time we consider launching another military action. Didn’t we learn from the last one, or the one before that? Do wars and conflicts have to be like the film Groundhog Day, with each one doomed to repeat earlier mistakes?
And ultimately, how do we get into these conflicts in the first place?
The course and end state of every war may be unknowable in every detail, but the general process of military commitment follows a clearly repeating pattern, with similar stages. We can extract lessons from this pattern that will help us understand the actions we need to take, or to avoid, when the next foreign crisis appears.
Although we have been struggling for decades to define our role and purpose in an ever more confused and confusing world, one thing is certain. The world is much more interdependent and interlocked than it was when the Iron Curtain came crashing down. That means American interests and security, as well as the global leadership we have taken up and that the rest of the world expects of us, will continue to require our military to be involved in missions around the globe. Still, we have to be realistic. Our resources and abilities are limited; we can’t do it all. Carefully choosing our commitments and courses of involvement and clarifying our objectives at the outset are more crucial today than ever before.
Americans often imagine that when we’re hit with a troubling event that may require a military response, the president and his chief advisors make a quick but thorough study of the options; he forms a clear-eyed decision; the armed forces are launched; and the crisis is on the way to resolution. In reality, military responses normally take a twisted path, from the triggering event to conclusion to long-term impact. Virtually every recent American military operation follows a disconnected, sometimes convoluted, series of actions that lead to outcomes we never foresaw or intended.
“How the hell did we get here?” is the question we are left with when the smoke clears. And, inevitably, the answers we get from the men and women who lead us into these commitments are laced with excuses. “We can never know how things will turn out,” they tell us with a bewildered shrug. “It’s the nature of war to be unpredictable.” Or they say, “The burden of all our responsibilities and the crisis response timing made clear
planning and actions impossible.” Or, “Every war is different.”
These are copouts.
Vietnam—Not Our Father’s War
In August 1970 I went back to Vietnam for my second tour of duty there. American troops had been fully committed to the war since the 1965 decision by President Johnson to send ground forces to the conflict. The initial advise, support, and train phase of the war ended with that decision, and for the next five years America clearly owned the war. But five years of brutal fighting never produced the results the generals had predicted. With each incremental increase of troop strength that was requested, and then granted by the Johnson administration, the anticipated victory slipped further from our grasp. Richard Nixon in 1968 had campaigned on a promise to end the war. Now, with the Nixon administration fully in place, we were systematically withdrawing. How would this end? That was a question many of us who had fought in the Vietnam War were asking. We already knew the answer to the other basic questions about how and why we had gotten into it—a slowly escalating and winding path that spanned four presidential administrations since that of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s in the 1950s.
By 1970 I had been on active duty for five years. During those five years, the Vietnam War had become the most critical and consuming part of my life. During my previous tour in 1967, I was a young lieutenant serving as an infantry advisor to the battle-hardened Vietnamese Marines. The experience opened my eyes to perspectives available to few Americans. We wore their uniforms, spoke their language, ate their food, lived in their villages, fought in every part of their beautiful country—rugged highlands, steaming jungles, coastal plains, delta swamps—and encountered few other Americans. I lived through a different kind of war from the one experienced by US troops who saw Vietnam from inside our own units. I made a very different connection to the culture and the people. I began to see the war through their eyes.
For the people of Vietnam, the war would continue to be what it had always been—seemingly endless and pointless violence, springing out of the ambitions of colonial powers, oriental empires, and clashing ideologies. The nation had not known true peace since before the Japanese invasion (1940) during World War II. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, the French returned to reclaim their colonial possession. The Vietnamese resisted, and the French Indochina War followed. When that conflict ended in French defeat in 1954, the nation was divided into the Communist North and nominally democratic South. War broke out again, and the people were tossed back into the cauldron of violence. Generations had never experienced lasting peace; the people were exhausted.
In my months living and fighting with the Vietnamese Marines, I made dozens of close Vietnamese friends and got to know their society and culture from the inside. I felt for them. They deserved better than the seemingly never-ending bloodshed they were caught up in. I hoped the South would prevail and they would find that elusive lasting peace. But I left that tour unsure whether our approach to this war would get them there. I wanted to believe that their sacrifices, and ours, would bring the kind of victory we sought. But I questioned whether our chosen course would achieve it.
We got into the war to stop the communists from tumbling the “dominoes,” the small nations of Southeast Asia under threat of Red domination. We went at this mission with tremendous passion and commitment. We would bring peace, democracy, and freedom to these poor, beleaguered people. Eventually and unfortunately, we allowed ourselves to believe we would achieve these goals by battlefield attrition. We would shoot our way to victory. Sure, we mouthed the words of pacification and seeking to win hearts and minds. We even set up myriad organizations and programs to be measured from every which way to show we were winning this part of the fight. In reality, however, the priority for the United States was winning it all on the battlefield.
Our magnificent troops lived up to their end of the bargain. Despite the withering of support from the folks back home, our troops gave every last measure of effort. But the American victories on the battlefield clearly weren’t enough to win the war. We fought through the same hills, villages, and rice paddies over and over again.
My experiences on the ground in Vietnam taught me a lesson that has resonated ever more fully with time. The war we were fighting could only be won or lost in the hearts of the people of Vietnam. This wasn’t just a slogan; it was a reality. “We need something to die for,” an elderly woman in a rural rice paddy village told me back then. She understood firsthand the clear contest of wills that lay at the heart of the war. The enemy was directly focused on the prize, the people. You only had to read the words of Mao Tse-tung to understand this: “The richest source of power to wage war lies in the masses of the people. The guerrilla must move among the people as a fish swims in the sea.” He and Ho Chi Minh knew what the insurgents needed from the people—fear, apathy, or support. Any of these would do. To counter the insurgents, we needed people’s courage, commitment, and rejection of the enemy.