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An Outspoken Retired General Critiques Iraq War Planning.

Joseph C. Goulden is a freelance writer who is authoring a book on Cold War intelligence.


By Tom Clancy with retired Gen. Tony Zinni and Tony Koltz

Putnam, $28.95, 464 pages

Given that this book is a blistering indictment of how our military leadership planned the Iraq war, let us commence by establishing an important credential held by retired Marine Corps Gen. Tony Zinni. It was earned during a firefight in Vietnam when three AK-47 slugs sliced through his flak jacket.

As another officer helped remove the jacket, "a bloody piece of flesh fell out." A medic told him, "Your back is a mess. I can see your spine." Days of agonizing recovery followed, during which he drifted close to death. But despite what a doctor called "a pretty big crater" in his back he survived to march his way up the ranks of the Marine Corps, holding high command and training posts.

He achieved four-star rank and served as commander in chief of Central Command, directing strikes in the early 1990s against Iraq and al Qaeda.

A man with Zinni's background must be taken seriously, and thus this book is perhaps the most alarming critique of the U.S. military I've read in years. As will be stated below, I have some reservations about the book, but the fault is not that of Zinni.

Battle Ready is actually a misleading title, for as Zinni argues, our military was in no "ready" condition for the current war. Further, he is no rear-view-mirror critic, because he warned in Senate testimony in February 2003 that, although the military might win the ground war, it was ill-prepared for what would follow.

He writes, "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; and the unbearable strain dumped on our overstretched military ..."

Zinni repeated these criticisms in a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy a few weeks later and drew much media attention. "As a result, I was called a traitor and a turncoat by Pentagon officials," he says. But as today's headlines tell us, he was pretty much on target.

What concerns Gen. Zinni is the seeming inability of the military hierarchy to learn any lessons. In essence, the brass insists on fighting World War II all over again. He writes, "Under the services' conventional doctrines, 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. Unconditional surrender. Then we'll put into place a Marshall Plan, embrace the long-suffering vanquished, and help them regain entry into the community of nations. Everybody wants to do that. But it ain't gonna happen."

The relatively easy victory of Desert Storm, the first Iraq war, lulled the military into a false sense of omnipotence. He writes, "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 II ... In the top-level war colleges, we still fight this kind of adversary, so we can always win. I rebelled at this notion, thinking there would be nobody out there so stupid to fight us this way. But then along came Saddam Hussein, and 'good soldiering' was vindicated once again."

Zinni is angry at generals who value "careerism" over candor, who are afraid to challenge civilian leaders when they are wrong. One exception was Gen. Tommy Franks, the Army chief of staff, who told Congress during the run-up to the war that 300,000 troops would be needed to pacify Iraq. "Everybody in the military knew he was right," Zinni maintains. "But the party line down from the Pentagon decreed that the number was half that, and he was pilloried."

Zinni continues, "Incidents like that are not lost on our subordinates. Many are disgusted and disillusioned, and leave the service of their country. Others learn that following the party line is the course to high rank." He makes no apology--none is needed--for being "outspoken." He writes, "Too many of our senior commanders have become 'Stepford Generals and Stepford Admirals.' They fail in their obligation to speak the truth. And when they do, they're vilified. "

But just who comprises this "Stepford brass"? For whatever reason, Zinni chooses not to name names, which I think is a mistake. Indictments are made all the more credible when accompanied by a bill of particulars, and such is missing from Battle Ready. One suspects this omission might be the choice of Tom Clancy, who has benefited from his close military ties for years.

Zinni argues that the military needs commanders who are willing "to throw their stars on the table"--i.e., resign--when they feel that damning judgments must be challenged. The book would be stronger if he put names on the men he considers to be the offenders.

After retiring with 30 years of service, Zinni became a diplomatic trouble-shooter at hot spots including, among others, Indonesia, Pakistan, Somalia, the Middle East, and the Philippines. Much of this work was done on an unpaid, untitled basis for the State Department, and he foresees many future such roles for the military in the changed international climate.

Although he identifies himself as a "soldier/diplomat" because of his post-military work, Zinni does not hesitate to slice, with a very sharp tongue, what he considers to be nitwit ideas. Consider his dismissal of Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress (now fingered as the source of some of the bum intelligence used by the Bush administration before the war). Zinni writes, "Chalabi had conned several important senior people [in Congress and elsewhere] 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. I thought this idea was totally mad ..."

At a press conference, he said that a plan to put Chalabi's guerrillas into Iraq would turn into a "Bay of Goats." He added further deliberate insult by calling the exiles "Gucci Guerrillas." (Sen. John McCain and other Chalabi supporters wreaked revenge by denying an ambassadorship to one of his diplomatic aides.)

Now for the downside. Despite the importance of Zinni's message, Battle Ready--the third in the "Commanders" series by Clancy--is a disappointing, muddled mishmash, and I confess to having had a good deal of trouble maintaining an interest in it, much less in following its skitterish form.

The fault is not that of Zinni. Sadly, Clancy's literary factory shows signs of sinking into rust-belt oblivion insofar as nonfiction is concerned (I praised his last two novels in these pages). The book is awkwardly told in alternating voices, that of Zinni and that of "Tom Clancy"--and for that read a ghostwriter named Tony Koltz, whose name appears on the title page and nowhere else.

If Clancy must farm out the scut work of actually writing, he should have the wit to hire a ghostwriter with a better sense of how to organize a book. Heroes such as Zinni (to say nothing of readers) deserve better. Read Battle Ready, by all means, but have a good supply of patience on hand when you do.

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Author:Goulden, Joseph C.
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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