For Gen. Anthony Zinni, one of the country’s most respected military thinkers, Iraq and Afghanistan are already yesterday’s wars. Confident that the Taliban will be at the conference table by the end of the year, he is thinking about how the United States should be preparing for its next conflict.
Zinni, former commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, chose the unlikely setting of the annual international-affairs symposium at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, to air some startling thoughts on how America should fight future wars.
According to Zinni, in future wars there may not be any victory as we understand it—no “mission accomplished” moment.
He hinted that there had already been backroom talks between the U.S. and the Taliban—“like Kissinger’s with the North Vietnamese”—and predicted that these would lead to formal negotiations by the end of the year. So, he told an audience of several hundred students, academic staff, and visiting military officials, now is the time for the U.S. to consider what it expects from its military in the future.
The United States must be prepared to fight both a conventional war and “that other thing,” he said. And how to define “that other thing” will occupy us for the next ten years. His own definition is a nation that needs stabilization and reconstruction because the social institutions can’t cope.
“But our military is not designed to handle this,” Zinni said. He has counted 54 tasks the U.S. Army is performing in Iraq that can not be defined as “military,” including running swimming pools.
“When we touch something, we own it,” Zinni said, taking Colin Powell’s quote, ‘When we break something, we own it,’ one step further. “And when we own it, we can’t help rebuilding it in our own image. That’s the American way. But we’re not good at it and we can’t afford it.”
Zinni has made a list of what Americans expect of war. Victory, obviously, but it might be hard in future wars against “that other thing” to define victory or recognize it. There may not be any victory as we understand it—no “mission accomplished” moment, and none of that good feeling that winning the Second World War brought. We won’t even be able to claim victory when the troops come home, because “we don’t come home anymore,” Zinni said. “Sixty years after the Second World War, there are still American troops in Germany, South Korea. Sixty years from now, will we still have troops in Iraq and Afghanistan?”
Col. Gian P. Gentile, a professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who recently commanded an armored-reconnaissance squadron in Baghdad and played an active role in the shaping of U.S. strategic policy in Iraq, was also present at the symposium and largely agreed with Zinni’s analysis. He said that there were artillery units in Iraq that had lost their skills because they never fight artillery battles. “They do other things.”
But Gentile wants the United States to continue organizing for conventional war rather than, say, training two-thirds of the troops for counterinsurgency and one third for traditional combat roles. “A conventional fighting force that can learn and adapt very quickly is the best way of coping with all contingencies.”
Zinni concluded the debate with a joke. At least I hope it was. He described a meeting that NATO had held with the Red Army to give it advice on running its military in a democracy. A Dutch general got up and said, “The first thing you need to do is unionize your army.” Zinni said, “We had to shoot him to get the conference back on track.”
Phillip Knightley is a British journalist and author best known for "The First Casualty," a history of war correspondents and propaganda.