What Happens Before the First Shots Are Fired?

by General Tony Zinni

Throughout our history we have committed our military to action hundreds of times. The reasons have been many and varied. After each of these commitments our military dutifully examines all our past interventions and wars attempting to glean lessons learned and codify the doctrine and tactics necessary to prepare and prevail in the next similar conflict.

But what about our political leadership and structure? They play, arguably, the most significant role in determining whether we win or lose. Those who sit in the Oval Office, lead our government’s departments and agencies, sit in Congress, and advise our executive and legislative branches of government come and go in a handful of years. They rarely enter their positions with any real experience in military matters or in national security issues; yet, they will make the critical decisions and set the strategy and policy that our troops must operate within.

There is no real accountability at the political level since those who serve at that level tend to come and go at short time bursts and are appointed mostly on political considerations rather than on the basis of experience and knowledge. The impact of their contributions to a deployment of our military is far greater than most people realize. We can predetermine success or failure before our troops arrive at the scene of the crime and before the first shots are fired. There is no way in our system of government to capture lessons learned or to install a corporate memory so that we don’t repeat past political level mistakes and learn from past actions.

Political leaders bristle at comparisons with past decisions to use our military as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously did when reporters dared to draw comparisons with the Iraq intervention and Vietnam. Those like Rumsfeld who claim that no war is like the last one or the next one are wrong. There can, and should, be comparisons just as the battlefield part can be studied within a framework of military principles so can the political part. All uses of the military, from humanitarian missions to all out war, have a framework or pattern that allows us to break down the process and examine and compare elements of that process.

It begins with the triggering events that get us into the intervention. These can be varied, ranging from a direct attack on us to manufactured reasons. The next part is the analysis, intelligence, and advice that go into shaping the decision. How all this input is done and presented has varied greatly over our history. Then the decision is made. The most important task a president and Congress can make. How is the done? What influences it most? There is more to it than just the product of the analysis. If a logical process were followed, the next step would be to craft a strategy. History tells us we have been brilliant at this at times, such as in World War II, and we have totally skipped developing a strategy, as in Iraq. This leads our military to become directionless and invites the dreaded “mission creep”.

The President and our leaders have to then sell the decision to the American people, our allies, and the international community. The political opposition and the bad guys get to do the same, so the Battle of the Narrative follows. We must be right in our cause and have an interest at stake. That must be clearly and constantly articulated to maintain support in a democracy.

In place must be a military structure to handle the mission. In today’s world this is expensive and fraught with risks in the tradeoffs that must be made. If the process of deciding what we needed in our arsenal were only based on careful analysis of threats and future strategic demands, it would be tough enough. As Eisenhower warned, however, the Military-Industrial (he originally included Congressional) Complex is loaded with political influence vice being a pure strategy based process.

The way we will conduct operations and the leadership chosen to lead the effort is next. We can see from the Afghanistan experience the negative effects of constantly changing the operational design and leadership on the battlefield. Who will be the generals and admirals that lead us to victory? Also, how will we measure our progress and determine victory? The metrics used are no longer as simple as numbers of enemy forces defeated or terrain seized as in the past. More subjective measures such as winning hearts and minds seem to now be more important. Finally, how does it end? Wars and intervention tend not to have clean, decisive ends. They can seemingly end, but actually set the stage for greater conflict.

Before the First Shots Are Fired is a book intended to look at these issues and make recommendations as to how we can fix a dysfunctional political process that overlays our commitment of the military. In a democracy it is critically important to maintain civilian control of the military and to ensure decisions to use our military our made with the consent of the people through their elected representatives. We must keep this principle viable and provide for an effective means to implement it. We can ill afford to have a political and military set of processes that are out of sync.


GENERAL TONY ZINNI (RET.) was commander-in-chief of CENTCOM and special envoy to the Middle East before retiring as a four-star general. He has appeared on The Daily Show and Meet the Press, among others. He is the author of The Battle for Peace and Leading the Charge. He lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. His latest book is Before the First Shots Are Fired.

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Posted in Contemporary History, Military History

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