[This book review was published in the Spring 2016 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 110-117.]
Before the First Shots are Fired: How America Can Win or Lose Off the Battlefield
General Tony Zinni and Tony Koltz
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015
General Tony Zinni says Americans are unrealistic when a majority “favor a return to isolationism,” which he defines as wanting the United States “to disengage from the rest of the world’s messy problems.” Because the world is now “inextricably intertwined and interdependent… our well-being and security are directly or indirectly affected by the instability this fast-changing global environment generates.” The result is that “we cannot avoid a global commitment.”
If this were all he said, it would seem he is a thorough-going interventionist along the lines of so many who want Americans to step into every conflict, catastrophe, injustice or desperate situation. But he does say more, and it points toward far more caution and competence than has been shown thus far in America’s global involvements. His criticisms of the many inanities go so far that they bring him at least half way back (albeit only half way) toward those who simply say “stay out.”
The book’s title doesn’t very well describe the contents. Zinni’s critique runs the gamut of what should be done before, during and after situations arise, and is by no means limited to a discussion of preliminaries. It amounts to a critical overview of America’s involvements, military and otherwise.
Tony Koltz is a professional writer who has co-authored several major books and memoirs. What is most pertinent to the book, however, since it is really an expression of Zinni’s views, is the wealth of military and diplomatic experience Zinni brings to the table. Here are some highlights: He joined the United States Marine Corps in 1961 when he was 18, serving until his retirement in 2000. In Vietnam, his two tours as a young officer led to surgery to remove three bullets. We are told he earned a college degree in economics, but the personal details revealed in the book mainly deal with a variety of leadership positions in the military, such as commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), director of operations for “Operation Restore Hope” in Somalia, commander of the U.S. task force that provided cover for the eventual U.N. withdrawal from that country, deputy operations director “in the European Command” during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, deputy commander and chief of staff of the effort to protect the Kurds after their insurrection against Saddam Hussein that followed the Gulf War, and deputy commander of the Quantico Marine Corps base. This indefatigable man’s “retirement” in 2000 was followed by several diplomatic missions, which were preceded by a role in “high-level intelligence studies of Iraq’s WMD [weapons of mass destruction] potential.” His efforts as U.S. envoy “to the Middle East peace process working to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” came to naught, as the continuing conflict tells us. That same year (2001), Zinni took part in mediation between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement. This was followed two years later by mediation between the Philippine government and the Moro Island Liberation Front. His service in 2006 on the Commission on Smart Power is especially relevant to the wisdom he brings to this book. In the course of it all, he found time to write his best-selling The Battle for Peace.
Zinni’s conviction that extensive American involvement around the world is needed is apparent throughout the book. Favoring compassionate interventions, for example, he says “we went into Somalia for all the right reasons,” and regrets that the disaster there caused the Clinton administration to hold back from acting to prevent the genocide in Burundi and Rwanda. As to military action in conflicts, his main concern was not to oppose them as such (although we will see that his cautions have come close to that), but to make them more successful. This is illustrated when he says that “if we don’t want the military to continue to be left with the hard, essentially non-military work of nation-building, then we need to develop a serious interagency commitment to develop these capabilities.”
He takes a broad, and somewhat odd, view of “American interests.” Both the breadth and the oddity are revealed when he sees the “communist-inspired insurgencies” during the Cold War as having “threatened US interests in the third-world periphery.” This means that instead of considering Communist expansionism an overall threat that needed to be defeated for the benefit of the world at large, he interprets the problem as having been to protect U.S. interests, which he sees as pretty much ubiquitous. Not only is so expansive a view of American interests worth noting, it is also significant that such a view obscures the distinction between the conflicts during the Cold War and the many interventions since 1991 that have had nothing to do with stopping an expansionist totalitarianism (with the exception of the U.S. fight, so far limited, against radical Islamism). They are all confounded together into the same neoconservative and neoliberal cloth. This is a radical departure from the view that the titanic struggles against Nazism and then Communism were sui generis.
His expansiveness seems to miss the point of the Weinberger and Powell Doctrines, each of which was calculated to limit military interventions to extraordinary situations where there is a clear objective and “end game.” When Zinni says they “best apply to existential threats,” but “shine less light on murkier challenges,” he overrides the intention of the doctrines, which, if they meant anything at all, were intended to declare that “there should be no intervention if the criteria are not met.” In their place, Zinni proposes a set of criteria that center on the successful conduct of an operation rather than narrowly circumscribing the undertaking of one. Since he already starts with the premise that America has vital interests throughout the world, his list doesn’t mention the need for one, but rather ties the action to there being an “incident, threat, or crisis.” We know that wars often follow in the train of incidents, such as the firing on Fort Sumter, the sinking of the Maine, Pearl Harbor, the Gulf of Tonkin run-in, and 9/11, so it is natural to think in terms of them. This has always struck this reviewer as unfortunate, since the decision to go to war needs to be based not so much on a pretext as on a broader and mature judgment about the war’s necessity and efficacy. From what Zinni tells us about the many factors that need to be considered, it seems likely he would agree.
In fact, what is probably most important about Zinni’s book is the extent to which he qualifies his endorsement of global involvement. When he speaks of “the catastrophes well-meaning interventions can lead to,” he introduces an element of realism that deflates quite a lot of “American hegemony” optimism. He punctures common illusions when he observes that “we naively take a side thinking that a conflict is simply about freedom fighters versus an evil dictator,” when in fact the conflict may actually be a “civil war or tribal war.” Nor is it any small matter when he makes the suggestion – a truly far-reaching one – that “we review and question all of our accumulated commitments.”
Many of the qualifications Zinni voices appear in his discussion of specific interventions. He is strongly critical of much that the United States has done in them, such as when we writes about “the bumbling management of two wars and other twenty-first century crises.” That bumbling took the form of “political infighting, personal frictions, political generals who lost their warfighting ethos while serving in the capital, and greater anxiety over political blowback than battlefield success.” When he says “we throw money around and have little to show for it,” he points to a mountain of waste and profligacy that is the subject of many books. He says there are “too many dilettantes” when it comes to intervention. This shows up as a “lack of serious planning and strategic thinking at the senior levels of our government.” Here’s what he tells us about the interventions themselves:
Somalia: The United States started with a humanitarian mission to assure that food got to the population rather than to the warlords, but “we allowed ourselves to be drawn into a long-term nation-building mission” with “no exit strategy.”
Afghanistan: Zinni was among those who “stressed the importance of focusing on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.” He agreed with Vice President Joe Biden, “who favored greater focus on destroying terrorist groups and less on building societies.” Instead, a “nation-building commitment” was undertaken that led to “years of stagnation” that Zinni believes “should have been foreseen.” The war was entered into in reaction to 9/11 “without a fully articulated and workable strategy.” As it went along, it was conducted incompetently, marked by too little attention to Afghan politics and a constant change of course and of commanders.
Iraq: Much of what he says about Iraq has to do with what he considers the ill-advised decision to invade in the first place. The weapons of mass destruction weren’t there; a nuclear weapons program had been prevented by the UN inspections; there was no connection, as alleged, between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein; Iraq was already effectively contained; it was enough to go after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, leaving Iraq alone; and shattering Iraq meant that Iraq would no longer be viable as a balancing force vis a vis Iran. Zinni considered it a “disaster” to have expected a “cakewalk” that would be greeted by a joyous population, and thus to have invaded with far too few troops to handle the aftermath. And Zinni feels it was an “inept decision” for the Coalition Provisional Authority to have disbanded the Iraqi military and closed factories, producing mass unemployment.
Syria: Even though Zinni states as a fact that Assad used chemical weapons, he is highly skeptical about supporting Assad’s enemies, who amount to a “fractious, many-headed opposition.” He asks “whom would we be arming?” Once again disavowing any simple-minded “good guy/bad guy” perception, and thereby separating himself sharply from the Obama administration’s rationale for intervening, he speaks of “complex problems… that defy simple responses.” He says much the same about Libya, which has been in chaos since the West’s intervention.
The collapsed Soviet empire: Zinni’s restraint isn’t nearly so much in evidence when it comes to Russia. He speaks of “the brazen in-your-face challenges by Putin,” joining those who see Russia’s actions on its periphery as unjustified and dangerous expansions. Just the same, Zinni shies clear of unneeded confrontation, such as when he criticizes “the willy-nilly rush to sweep new members into the NATO alliance.” He sees the NATO expansion eastward as having been “in your face” to Russia (again using that expression, but this time with it running the other way), and asks whether a hostile relationship with Russia could not have been avoided. With regard to Ukraine, he says there is no use “posturing with the military when we know there is no military option” there. The bottom line is that Zinni’s seemingly confrontational attitude gives way to realism and prudence.
The book gives considerable attention to Zinni’s suggestions about what the United States needs to do, including what needs correcting.
He calls for organizational changes that will substitute a “systems approach” for the ad hoc, scatter-gun way things have been done. One of them is to create a professional civilian national security service, “just as we have a foreign service,” that would handle “training, development and career progression” within “the Pentagon, the NSC [National Security Council], and other security staffs.” Citing the need for “the soft components of smart power,” he wants much more funding for foreign aid, the State Department, USAID, and other non-military agencies “that are needed to resolve crises.” He would like to see international organizations such as the UN and NATO, and regional ones in Africa and the Middle East, reconstructed to promote “global partnering.” Military interventions for humanitarian purposes could be assigned to “a revitalized and reoriented NATO” – or, if it “fails to step up,” to a newly created organization that is “global in outlook.”
There are, of course, assorted other recommendation s. Redundant military bases, and “many plants [that] produce possibly unneeded ships, planes, vehicles, [and] weapons” need to give way to strategic planning that would replace pork-barrel politics. Along the same lines, he says that appointments to ambassadorships and other positions should be based on qualifications, not political donations.
As to America’s military, Zinni likes the “Total Force Concept” that doesn’t leave the National Guard and Reserve units on the sidelines during a conflict. A “prudent force” is needed for use against major enemies, and a “rapid crisis response force,” along with “high-tech intelligence gathering.” The employment of civilian contractors, he points out, has had serious problems, so he calls for “a robust government contracting agency.” It’s interesting that Zinni goes contrary to the spirit of our age, which is one of “mathematical, statistical metrics,” when he says that “far more subjective than objective” measures are needed when judging success in unconventional conflicts. The measures should be “tailored to the given culture.” If this were implemented, it would substitute judgment for hocus-pocus – and put a lot of Ph.Ds out of work.
We will conclude this review by discussing, as we do in most, a few points where we think the author’s judgment is doubtful.
Some involve naivete, surprising for a man of such experience. Zinni doesn’t seem to think very deeply about his idea that “today’s enemies fight to gain control of peoples’ hearts and minds; we must do the same.” Referring back to Vietnam, he says “the war could only be won or lost in the hearts of the people.” Why didn’t the Viet Cong’s assassination of thousands of village chiefs cause it to lose irremediably the “hearts” of the people, so that there would be no contest as to where the villagers’ attachments would lie? The answer is likely to be that they were terrorized, but can terror be overcome by piling up good deeds? In Afghanistan, where middle aged men commonly impose themselves sexually on young boys, do Americans “win their hearts” by looking the other way? It’s doubtful whether confronting their customs, so widely varied from Americans’ own, will gain their loyalty. If Zinni has given this full consideration, he would do well to explain how the dilemmas are to be faced. When he says that the United States needs to support “honest and capable leaders… that the people could believe in,” he runs afoul of the same cultural realities. He is appropriately skeptical of “nation building,” but warlords, tribalism and ethnic conflict often prevail in its absence.
Other dubious aspects relate to a lack of historical depth, resulting in much conventional thinking. To point this out is not so much a personal criticism as it is a recognition that one person can’t be all things. His thinking has to be mostly conventional, if only because he has had so little time for scholarly endeavor. In common with most everyone else, he repeats the myth about the U.S. “internment” of the Japanese-Americans in World War II. When discussing the strategy in Europe during that war, he cavalierly dismisses Churchill’s advocacy of an attack through the Balkans (beating the Red Army to central Europe) rather than at Normandy, and in doing so overlooks perhaps the most fateful strategic/political mistake of the war. With regard to China’s falling to Mao, he denigrates, as coming from “hawks,” the question of “who lost China?” He praises Truman’s decision to fight in Korea, completely missing how North Korea’s invasion was made possible, and indeed virtually invited, by the pre-invasion withdrawal of American forces at the same time the Soviet Union was arming North Korea to the teeth. All of these judgments, and many more, are commonplace among Zinni’s peers, as they are among the American public at large.
As a Marine Corps general, Zinni is the ideal person to have commented on Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ belief that the Marine Corps leadership directed itself to strategically irrelevant operations in Afghanistan’s Helmand province at the cost of Marine lives and catastrophic injuries. Here is what Gates writes in his memoirs: “There would be questions about why so many of the additional troops – Marines – were sent to Helmand province with its sparse population… The Marines were determined to keep operational control of their forces away from the senior U.S. commander in Kabul and in the hands of a Marine lieutenant general… The Marines performed with courage, brilliance and considerable success on the ground, but their higher leadership put their own parochial service concerns above the requirements of the overall Afghan mission… I should have seized control of the matter… It was my biggest mistake in overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” If Gates is correct about this, it points to a scandal that should be, but isn’t, well known to the American people. Zinni could shed some light.
Before the First Shots are Fired is highly recommended. We have concluded with some criticisms, as we often do, but readers of this review will recognize that the book on the whole reflects much experience and commonsense. General Zinni and his co-author are to be congratulated for this very readable book.
Dwight D. Murphey
1. It is worth delving further into the implications of Zinni’s comment, since they may otherwise be overlooked. There is a fashionable tendency to drop expansionist Communist ideology into a memory hole, thus forgetting the glue that held the worldwide Communist movement together. Two intellectual traditions feed into this. One is the “realist” school of foreign policy thinking, which looks to nation-states, not ideology. The other, of course, is the century-long influence of the Left in making the ideology seem either benign or inconsequential.
1. The Weinberger Doctrine was advanced by U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in 1984, stating the following criteria for U.S. military interventions: a vital national interest at stake; clear intention of winning; clearly defined objectives; continuous reassessment; support of public opinion; and intervening only as a last resort. The Powell Doctrine was set out by U.S. General Colin Powell in 1990: a vital national interest; clear, attainable objective; risks and costs frankly analyzed; use as a last resort; a plausible exit strategy; full consideration of consequences; public support; and broad international support.
3. This reviewer has been reading William Manchester’s biography of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, American Caesar, and the thought has come to mind that MacArthur’s strategy during the Pacific War in World War II of advancing up New Guinea and retaking the Philippines (as distinct from the naval and air assault across the mid-Pacific favored by Admiral King) was dictated by a commitment the United States made as far back as 1898-1901 when it conquered the Philippines. In the absence of a full and long-term effort to make the Philippines truly defensible, the island became a far-distant hostage to the Japanese, setting the stage for MacArthur’s moral compulsion to return, regardless of whether it was the best strategy. There is a lesson to be learned from this: today’s far-flung U.S. commitments serve as trip-wires to bring the United States into conflicts from which it might otherwise desist.
4. For many details of the waste and profligacy, see our reviews of Larry Diamond’s Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq (this journal, Summer 2007); Nir Rosen’s Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World (Spring issue, 2011); Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (Spring issue, 2013); and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan (Spring issue, 2013). All of these reviews may be accessed free of charge on www.dwightmurphhey-collectedwritings.info.
5. Each of the historical issues just mentioned is discussed at length in the articles and book reviews found on the website referred to in Endnote 4 here.
6. See our review of Gates’ Memoirs of a Secretary at War in our Fall 2014 issue. The review appears as Article 113 (i.e., A113) on the website just mentioned.
 It is worth delving further into the implications of Zinni’s comment, since they may otherwise be overlooked. There is a fashionable tendency to drop expansionist Communist ideology into a memory hole, thus forgetting the glue that held the worldwide Communist movement together. Two intellectual traditions feed into this. One is the “realist” school of foreign policy thinking, which looks to nation-states, not ideology. The other, of course, is the century-long influence of the Left in making the ideology seem either benign or inconsequential.
 The Weinberger Doctrine was advanced by U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in 1984, stating the following criteria for U.S. military interventions: a vital national interest at stake; clear intention of winning; clearly defined objectives; continuous reassessment; support of public opinion; and intervening only as a last resort. The Powell Doctrine was set out by U.S. General Colin Powell in 1990: a vital national interest; clear, attainable objective; risks and costs frankly analyzed; use as a last resort; a plausible exit strategy; full consideration of consequences; public support; and broad international support.
 This reviewer has been reading William Manchester’s biography of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, American Caesar, and the thought has come to mind that MacArthur’s strategy during the Pacific War in World War II of advancing up New Guinea and retaking the Philippines (as distinct from the naval and air assault across the mid-Pacific favored by Admiral King) was dictated by a commitment the United States made as far back as 1898-1901 when it conquered the Philippines. In the absence of a full and long-term effort to make the Philippines truly defensible, the islands became a far-distant hostage to the Japanese, setting the stage for MacArthur’s moral compulsion to return, regardless of whether it was the best strategy. There is a lesson to be learned from this: today’s far-flung U.S. commitments serve as trip-wires to bring the United States into conflicts from which it might otherwise desist.
 For many details of the waste and profligacy, see our reviews of Larry Diamond’s Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq (this journal, Summer 2007); Nir Rosen’s Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World (Spring issue, 2011); Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (Spring issue, 2013); and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan (Spring issue, 2013). All of these reviews may be accessed free of charge on www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info.
 Each of the historical issues just mentioned is discussed at length in the articles and book reviews found on the website referred to in Footnote 4 here.
 See our review of Gates’ Memoirs of a Secretary at War in our Fall 2014 issue. The review appears as Article 113 (i.e., A113) on the website just mentioned.