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The Good General

Battle Ready

by Tom Clancy, with General Tony Zinni (Ret.) and Tony Koltz
Putnam, 450 pp., $28.95

In the twentieth century war was pronounced, belatedly, to be too important to be left to the generals; in the twenty-first century peace, prosperity, and security have already turned out to be much too complex to be left to the politicians. In a dangerous, high-speed, information-logged, globalized world, disastrously divided between the prosperous and the impoverished, the old distinctions between war and peace, civil and military, national and international, private and public, have become increasingly blurred.

Nowhere is the blurring of civil and military responsibility more marked than in Central Command (CENTCOM), one of the four regional commands of the United States armed forces. CENTCOM is responsible for a combustible, and strategically vital part of the world—the Middle East, Southwest and Central Asia, and East Africa. The commander in chief (CINC) of CENTCOM has been much in the news in both Iraq wars, but many other sensitive issues, military, political, and humanitarian, also come under his authority. With US embassies weakened by budget cuts and the constraints of terrorism, the CINC of CENTCOM became, by the 1990s, the most powerful American abroad.

1.

Tom Clancy’s Battle Ready is the story of the most creative and original of these virtual proconsuls, General Anthony Zinni of the US Marines. His book is the result of an uncomfortable literary arrangement. Clancy, the author of thirteen enormously successful action novels, is here confronted with a real-life hero so interesting and so remarkable that his own connecting passages inevitably seem flat and two-dimensional. But since Zinni’s vivid, down-to-earth descriptions of his career form the greater part of the book, not too much is lost.

Tony Zinni, as he is invariably called, was born in 1943 to a second-generation immigrant Italian family in South Philadelphia. From the fifth grade on, he writes, the good sisters of his Catholic school instilled in him “self-discipline and a strong work ethic, mixed with a good dose of right and wrong.” As a child Zinni listened with fascination and envy to the tales of his relatives who had served in World War II (“the last Good War”) and the Korean War. He joined the Marines in 1961 at the age of eighteen, and the Marine Corps became his life, setting the standard by which he judged events and human behavior. It was a calling of which he was immensely proud. “I loved my Marines,” he writes. “They’re the greatest treasure America has.”

The history and tradition, the iron discipline, and the precise standards of the Marine Corps also found room for “mavericks and outside-the-box thinkers.” Unlike the other services, Marines were allowed to be outspoken and “let it all hang out,” a tradition that encouraged innovative thinking, a habit which Zinni later found to be far less appreciated in other official walks of life. Describing his attempt to avoid a posting as aide-de-camp, Zinni writes of musing during his interview with the general concerned that he always thought of an ADC “as a tall, bullet-headed, poster Marine. And here I was, a short, squat, Italian guy, rough around the edges….” The general insisted on having Zinni as his ADC anyway, and Zinni learned a great deal from the experience.

Zinni was an omnivorous reader with a passionate interest in all the diversity of the world. Of his mentor General Al Gray, who became commandant of the Marine Corps, he writes, “like all the best leaders, he’d read everything.” From the start Zinni showed a remarkable understanding and respect for the indigenous people of the countries where the Marines were operating. As a young officer in Vietnam, he admired the Vietnamese marines with whom he served, and whenever possible he liked to eat and talk with local civilians. Although he did not say so at the time, he was less enthusiastic about those who were running the war. He often wondered, he writes, “just what in hell our generals—my heroes who fought in World War Two—thought they were doing. Those of us who were platoon commanders and company commanders fought hard, but could never understand what war our most senior leaders thought we were fighting.” This experience certainly strengthened Zinni’s determination to speak out against mistaken policies in later years, when he himself was a senior officer. To his frustration, he was twice invalided out of front-line duty in Vietnam—with a life-threatening case of hepatitis and, later, with a very severe back wound from three AK47 rounds in a close engagement in the Que Son mountains. Zinni continued to direct his hard-pressed company until he lost consciousness.

While still recovering from his wounds, Zinni was posted to a logistics unit at Camp Foster on Okinawa. Okinawa seemed very far removed from the fighting front that Zinni longed to return to, but it turned out to be a combat zone of a different kind. Camp Foster was a microcosm of the troubles of the 1970s and the emerging legacy of the Vietnam War—drugs, interracial hostility, gangs, often violent incidents with the local inhabitants, and a general breakdown of discipline due in part to the lowering of standards caused by the draft. Robert McNamara’s Project 100,000 had also “dumped a hundred thousand young failures into the military in hopes this would lead to a better society.” Opposition to the war and feelings of intergenerational betrayal made things worse.

Zinni, appalled by problems that were new to him, took over the Headquarters and Service Company. In early 1971, a major race riot among the Marines overwhelmed the camp’s security and guard forces. Zinni rashly volunteered to build a unit that could handle such situations in the future. He created an elite multiracial guard force, set up courses in racial tolerance and understanding, organized group events to give his soldiers some sense of esprit de corps, and established friendlier personal relations with the Okinawans. He learned how to deal with apparently hopeless and violent confrontations by encouraging all sides to talk things out. After a while Camp Foster became a much quieter place.

Zinni’s eight months on Okinawa were the most difficult of his career, and also among the most instructive. He went on to more senior Marine postings, where he developed his own views on the best way to fight and, since the Marines welcomed innovation, had new opportunities to translate those views into training, organization, and sometimes into experiments on the battlefield as well. During the first Iraq war he was sent to Israel to check on the US Patriot anti-missile batteries that had been installed and to reassure the Israelis that the batteries would protect them.

At the end of that war the Kurds, like the Shiites in the south, responded to President George H.W. Bush’s astonishingly irresponsible call to rise up against Saddam Hussein, only to discover too late that their uprising would have no American support. An appalling humanitarian disaster ensued in the mountains along the Turkish border. Only the US military had the capacity to cope with such a catastrophe in such difficult terrain. Zinni had his first experience of critical humanitarian operations when he was running the Joint Operations Center across the border at the Incirlik air base in Turkey. As usual, with his practical approach and his willingness to listen, he learned a great deal, and was able to get aid distributed quickly and to avoid unnecessary and costly mistakes.

He also learned to understand and to work with civilian aid agencies and with international organizations like the UN and the UN refugee agency, the High Commissioner for Refugees. By listening to junior civil affairs officers, he began to understand the unusual tribal social structure that dominates Kurdish life. An understanding of this structure was essential to the effective distribution of aid. Médecins sans Frontières persuaded him that, splendid though the US Army’s state-of-the-art field hospitals were, it was essential to leave behind practical medical arrangements that could be sustained after the US forces left. The UN advised him to avoid, if possible, setting up refugee camps because they tended to perpetuate themselves, and to concentrate instead on creating conditions in which people could return to their homes. Zinni became fascinated with “Operations Other than War” and was determined that the Marines should be prepared for joint civilian-military operations in third-world countries.

In 1991 Zinni accepted a lower rank in order to become the director of operations of the First Marine Expeditionary Force in Operation Restore Hope in Somalia. He immersed himself in the nomadic clan culture of a country that was not, by any normal standards, a nation at all. He happily engaged in endless traditional palavers and meetings with the manic-depressive Mohammed Farah Aideed and other Somali leaders. He did his best to give practical effect to the adage of his remarkable civilian counterpart, Robert Oakley, that “when they’re talking, they’re not fighting.” Zinni, normally generous to a fault about those he worked with, was not impressed by his negative and uncooperative UN counterparts.

The US finally handed over the mission in Somalia to the UN in May 1993. In October of that year, US Central Command—three years before Zinni took over—concocted an ill-advised plan to capture colleagues of Aideed in the heart of Mogadishu. Two US Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and eighteen US Army Rangers were killed. This disaster caused a storm in Washington, and Zinni soon found himself on a plane back to Mogadishu with Robert Oakley, one of the very few people in Washington who understood Somalia. Their task was to launch a peace initiative and to secure the release of an American helicopter pilot. They succeeded in both tasks, but it was too late to save the international mission that had started as Operation Restore Hope.

Zinni was promoted to lieutenant general and given command of the 45,000 Marines of the First Marine Expeditionary Force. He remained convinced that peacekeeping and humanitarian operations—much despised by the champions of traditional “real soldiering”—would be an essential part of future Marine Corps missions. In March 1995, the UN operation and its supporting US components were finally to be extricated from Somalia. Zinni and his Marines were given this very tricky amphibious task, which was achieved without a single casualty. In August 1996 he became deputy commander of CENTCOM, and early the following year commander in chief. His appointment was opposed by the then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lt. Gen. John Shalikashvili, on the grounds that Zinni was far too outspoken and could not be controlled. Zinni sadly began to prepare for his retirement, but a few weeks later was stunned to be told that he was, after all, the Clinton administration’s choice for the job that would be the best possible finale to his military career.

2.

Zinni read intensively to prepare himself for this most diverse and volatile of commands. It was an unsettling time for US forces in the region. A suicide truck bomb had just hit Khobar Towers, a US Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing twenty Americans and wounding many more. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were making themselves known. While agreeing that mission security was always important, Zinni felt strongly that in a dangerous world, US forces would inevitably face risks. He was highly critical of Washington’s culture of blame, in which some American had to be at fault for every American death. According to that logic, it should be possible to make the US military presence in the world 100 percent safe; the best way of all to do this, as Zinni points out, would be to avoid putting armed forces in the field in the first place:

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