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.

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 …

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