Anthony Zinni
Anthony Zinni; drawing by David Levine

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. 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.


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:

…If one soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine is injured or lost to a terrorist activity, then we have to find somebody on our side to blame for it.

I can’t think of a more dys-functional way to run military operations.

Later on, when Washington was frantically searching for someone to blame for the suicide attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbor, Zinni volunteered to appear before Congress because, for sound logistical and strategic reasons, he had set up the US Navy refueling facility in Aden.

CENTCOM was a “bubbling pot of crises from one end to the other,” but owing to the policy of “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran, there had been a near-total focus on the Persian Gulf. Zinni, feeling that Africa in particular was not getting enough attention, divided his command into four sub-regions, each with its own strategy and program. Under the Clinton administration the regional CINCs, with their great military and logistical resources, were encouraged to shape their own regions of what Zinni calls the American “empire of influence” in ways that went well beyond their traditional military role. They even took on, with the full cooperation of US embassies in the region, tasks that a State Department whose funds had been cut back could no longer handle.

Zinni set out to fill the void that he found in diplomatic contacts by getting to know personally the leaders and other important figures of the countries of the region. He combined joint military exercises in different countries with all sorts of coincidental aid in training their troops, in education, or in constructing schools or clinics. He organized conferences on disaster assistance, environmental security, and human rights. By various forms of imaginative engagement, with the local US ambassador always involved, he began to build strong practical relationships with the various governments and their people, whether in Africa or Central Asia. These proved to be of great value in times of crisis, but in Washington his efforts to “lean forward into the world and do what we could to shape it” were not always viewed kindly by higher military authorities or by isolationists in Congress. These critics tended to reject requests for necessary resources or to devise, in Zinni’s words, “ill-thought-out sanctions or restrictions that were counterproductive and limited our ability to engage.” He was, no doubt, thinking in particular of the censorious US policy toward Pakistan before September 11 turned Pakistan into an essential ally. One of Zinni’s most useful personal relationships was with General Pervez Musharraf, then chief of staff of the Pakistan army.

The tumultuous year 1998 started with devastating floods in Kenya. In the face of Pentagon opposition to the use of CENTCOM forces, Zinni persisted in a rescue operation that “saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Kenyans and cost $800,000. Saving so many lives has rarely come so cheaply.” There was trouble with Pakistan, which was about to carry out its own nuclear test in response to India’s. Zinni tried, without success, to prevent the pointless and destructive war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. In August the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were simultaneously hit by truck bombs. Prior warnings by Zinni and the US ambassador to Kenya of the vulnerability of the Nairobi embassy had been ignored by the State Department. Zinni, though dubious about the available intelligence, was responsible for firing the Tomahawk cruise missiles that fell, in retaliation for the embassy strikes, on an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and on a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. He thought it was a long shot but still thinks it was worth trying.

On a visit to Washington in October 1998, Zinni made his first public reference to the Iraqi National Congress, and to its head, Ahmed Chalabi, who “had conned several senior people into believing that he could spark a guerrilla movement that would sweep Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athists from power—if only he had a lot of money and a little special operations and air support.” The US participation would have had to come from Zinni’s CENTCOM, which would also have had overall responsibility for the proposed coup. In previous testimony to Congress, Zinni had said that there was no chance that such an operation could succeed.1 In reply to a question at an October press conference he answered that the plan for intervention was a recipe for disaster. He referred to it as “the Bay of Goats” and, for good measure, called Chalabi’s exiles “Gucci Guerrillas.” These remarks infuriated the senators who supported Chalabi and alarmed Secretary of Defense William Cohen and Zinni’s other bosses in the Pentagon, who “chewed him out.” Cohen “told me to stick to military execution of policy and stay out of policy development.” His Senate critics could not get at Zinni, so they took it out on his political adviser, Larry Pope, whose nomination as ambassador to Kuwait they contrived to block. Zinni did not like the ways of Washington, a “vindictive town.”

Of his experience at CENTCOM Zinni writes, “We could make a difference if we were committed to stand up to our obligations, not only as the last remaining superpower, but also as the last beacon of hope for many people on this planet.” In the summer of 2000, he handed over CENTCOM to General Tommy Franks. With the advent of the Bush administration the powers of the regional commanders were greatly reduced, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, with his passion for centralized control, renamed the former regional CINCs “Combatant Commanders.”

In retirement Zinni, who refused to become what he called a “military Monday morning quarterback” on television shows, went on several peace missions for the Henri Dunant Centre in Geneva, Switzerland. In August 2001, he accepted an assignment as US special envoy in the Middle East with the task of working out ways to implement existing agreements between Israelis and Palestinians, such as the Mitchell and Tenet plans. As has been the case with many other good people who have tried to negotiate a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, there were times when the parties apparently came very close to agreement. Then some unforeseen action—in Zinni’s case the suicide bombing of a Passover celebration in a hotel and the Israeli reaction to it—made an agreement more elusive than ever.


Concerns that Zinni had voiced about the folly of the forthcoming Iraq war made him “persona non grata with the administration,” and he resigned his Middle East assignment in March 2003. Since he had studied Iraq closely as part of the region as a whole and had actually prepared a contingency plan for the occupation, Zinni’s views are persuasive. He believes that a basic fallacy of the administration’s Iraq policy was the conviction that containment and deterrence, especially after September 11, no longer worked. He points out that these strat-egies had worked for forty years in the cold war, and were still working to contain the declining dictatorship of Saddam Hussein with UN sanctions, “no fly” zones, air strikes, and the like. The second Iraq war occupies only a few paragraphs in Clancy’s book but Zinni’s verdict, as usual, is forthright:

In the lead-up to the Iraq war and its later conduct, I saw, at a minimum, true dereliction, negligence, and irresponsibility; at worst, lying, incompetence, and corruption. False rationales presented as a justification; a flawed strategy; lack of planning; the unnecessary alienation of our allies; the underestimation of the task; the unnecessary distraction from real threats; and the unbearable strain dumped on our overstretched military; all of these caused me to speak out…. I was called a traitor and a turncoat by Pentagon officials….2

In more recent statements Zinni has made further trenchant comments. As to the administration’s strategy,

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing about the benefits of this strategic move. [For example,] that the road to Jerusalem led through Baghdad, when just the opposite is true, the road to Baghdad led through Jerusalem. You solve the Middle East peace process, you’d be surprised what kinds of other things will work out.

About the administration’s style and the “Bring ’em on!” approach, he has commented: “…Don’t say it unless you’re going to do it. In this part of the world strength matters. And if you say you are going to go in and wipe them out, you better do it…. And we have got to stop the kind of bravado and talk that only leads us into trouble out there.”3 Zinni has also called for resignations or dismissals over the botched occupation:

I blame the civilian leadership in the Pentagon directly. Because if they were given the responsibility, and if this was their war, and by everything I understand, they promoted it and pushed it…even to the point of creating their own intelligence to match their needs, then they should bear the responsibility…. Certainly they ought to be gone and replaced.4

Zinni has said that in such situations it is a public duty to speak out, and that the idea that when the troops are in combat everyone has to shut up is outrageous. Reading these remarks, I recalled the sometimes vitriolic debates on the conduct of World War II that went on in the House of Commons throughout the war. At the time these debates were regarded as a remarkable, and very positive, example of the democracy we were fighting for.

From someone who has thought about, and learned so much from, every stage of an active forty-year military career, Zinni’s views on the future role of the armed forces are of particular interest. He feels that Desert Storm in 1991 was

the final salute of the Cold War military. It left the impression that the terrible mess that awaits us abroad can somehow be overcome by good, clean soldiering, just like in World War Two. In reality, the only reason Desert Storm worked was because we managed to go up against the only jerk on the planet who was stupid enough to challenge us to refight World War Two….

He deplores the professional belief that when a contemporary conflict ends

we can get back to “real soldiering.” …We ignore the real war-fighting requirements of today…. We want to find a real adversarial demon—a composite of Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini—so we can drive on to his capital city and crush him there. Unconditional surrender. Then we’ll put in place a Marshall Plan, embrace the long-suffering vanquished, and help them regain entry into the community of nations…. But it ain’t gonna happen.

Today we are stuck with the likes of a wiser Kim Jong Il and a still-elusive Osama bin Laden—just a couple of those charmers out there who will no longer take us on in a symmetric force match-up. And we’re going to be doing things like humanitarian operations, consequence management, peacekeeping and peace enforcement. Somewhere along the line, we’ll have to respond to some kind of environmental disaster. And somewhere else along the line we may get stuck with putting a US battalion in place on some demarcation line between two adversaries, embedded in a weird, screwed-up chain of command…. The truth is that military conflict has changed and we have been reluctant to recognize it…. Odd missions to defeat transnational threats or rebuild nations are the order of the day, but we haven’t as yet adapted.

With luck, we have not seen the last of General Zinni.


Rebuilding nations is also the subject of Simon Chesterman’s You, the People: The United Nations, Transitional Administration, and State-Building. Prospective readers should not be deterred by the somewhat ponderous subtitle. Chesterman, director of an international institute at New York University, has made an original study of how new institutions can be created in such war-damaged countries as Bosnia, Cambodia, and East Timor. In his book the weight of the subject and the depth of the research are supported by wit, candor, brevity, and analytical writing of a very high order. Although the occupation of Iraq is just one of many cases that Chesterman considers, his book provides, among other things, a guide to the problems of transitional occupation that is extraordinarily relevant to America’s current difficulties. Chesterman’s list of the common challenges of transitional administration—peace and security; the quasi-governmental role of the transitional authority; economic reconstruction; and an exit strategy—reads like a checklist of the difficulties now being experienced in Iraq. Stating a by now familiar truth that the US failed to grasp in time in Iraq, he writes, “Unless security is established on the ground, none of the political purposes of a transitional administration can be achieved.”

Chesterman’s opening paragraph summarizes the underlying theme of his book:

Is it possible to establish the conditions for legitimate and sustainable national governance through a period of benevolent foreign autocracy? This contradiction between ends and means has plagued recent efforts to govern post-conflict territories in the Balkans, East Timor, Afghanistan, and Iraq—just as it plagued the colonies and occupied territories that are their political forebears. Such state-building operations combine an unusual mix of idealism and realism: the idealist project that a people can be saved from themselves through education, economic incentives, and the space to develop mature political institutions; the realist basis for that project in what is ultimately military occupation.

After September 11, and al-Qaeda’s use of Afghanistan as a base, the world is far more conscious of the importance of strong state governments willing to oppose terrorist groups. “Nation-building,” despised and rejected by presidential candidate George W. Bush, has, as Zinni also points out, now become an important part of US policy, and not only in Iraq. Chesterman makes the same point Zinni has made in a different context, that in nation-building operations a balance must be struck between high international standards and standards that can be sustained on the ground. In listing various misapprehensions of occupying authorities, he mentions the common illusion that when state institutions collapse, politics cease to happen, whereas in fact—shades of Somalia—“the control of power becomes more important than ever.”

As to the process, “the transfer of power to a legitimate and sustainable local authority, typically mediated through an election, is the central purpose of any transitional administration.” There is a common belief that democracies do not fight one another. As the experience in Angola, the Balkans, and Cambodia, among other places, suggests, “first elections can, however, mark an extremely unstable period in the life of a country emerging from conflict—indeed, quantitative research has produced the embarrassing finding that autocracies in the process of democratization actually become more likely to go to war.”

Chesterman raises the basic question whether the UN and other international organizations, often lacking the means to establish security, should be undertaking this sort of function at all, and he considers the changing role of the UN and its relationship to the United States. “Where the United Nations cannot see transitional administrations as military occupation, the United States sometimes appears unable to see them as anything else.” For the UN, Chesterman writes, the use of force in peacekeeping operations—in the Congo in the 1960s, and in Somalia and Bosnia—“were traumatic experiences for the organization; the controversies to which they gave rise were surpassed only by two occasions on which force was not used at all, in Rwanda and Srebrenica.”

Chesterman covers, with an exemplary clarity and conciseness, a wealth of cases of transitional administration, starting with the League of Nations, which, apart from the mandates system, conducted five such operations, all in Europe, in such places as the Saar Basin, Danzig, and Upper Silesia. He goes on to consider the Allied occupation of Germany and the Marshall Plan, and the evolution by the United Nations of complex peacekeeping operations and various transitional administrations in thirteen countries on three continents. He examines different experiences with the use of force. Typical of his forthrightness is his account of how the UN mission in Cambodia (UNTAC), supposedly empowered to use “all available means of force,”

failed to resist harassment from Khmer Rouge elements. In May 1992, a confrontation took place between the Khmer Rouge and the Special Representative and Force Commander at a Khmer Rouge roadblock in north-west Cambodia. In what was seen as a humiliation for UNTAC, they were turned away at a bamboo pole across the road. Criticism for failing to challenge the Khmer Rouge did not only come from outside the mission. The Deputy Force Commander, French Brigadier-General Jean-Michel Loridon, was dismissed after advocating the use of force against the Khmer Rouge.

He has much to say about relief, reconstruction, and humanitarian assistance, and about both elections and strategies for leaving a country after a new government is established.

Chesterman’s final chapter, on the future of state-building, makes imaginative proposals for change and sums up the inconsistencies and lack of clarity of both governments and the United Nations in carrying out nation-building operations—or, as the UN prefers to call them, “peace-building” operations. Such activities have suddenly, by a single terrorist act, assumed a much higher place on the world’s agenda, but Chesterman documents the ephemeral nature of international interest in post-conflict operations. He cites as an example President Bush’s call, in the early stages of the overthrow of the Taliban, for a program in Afghanistan compar-able to the Marshall Plan, and of his commitment to rebuild the devastated country. Only twelve months later, the White House failed to include any money for Afghan reconstruction in the 2004 budget it sub-mitted to Congress. Such amnesia is by no means limited to the United States.

For all his skepticism, Chesterman is in no doubt that demands for some form of state-building will recur in the future. He alludes to the UN’s deplorable corporate habit of forgetting the lessons of previous operations and of starting new ones from scratch. A high secretariat official describes this tendency as an unwritten rule: “No wheel shall go un-reinvented.” Senior UN officials, Chesterman writes, now acknowledge that “Kosovo got the operation that should have been planned for Bosnia four years earlier, and East Timor got that which should have been sent to Kosovo.” If those concerned will read his book—and for a book of this kind it is extraordin-arily readable—perhaps those les-sons may no longer be lost for future operations.

In their different ways both these books use past history and experience to suggest a road to the future. They remind us also that criticism and analytical thinking, new ideas, and well-informed dissent are the lifeblood of a free country and, for that matter, of any international community worth the name.

This Issue

September 23, 2004