July 25th, 2014


Sometimes things are worse than you imagined ...

I was somewhat surprised to have won this from the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program … as I've kvetched about in here repeatedly, I seem to get picked for business books when I request them, and it's interesting to get something of a different genre. Since the month this was offered, I didn't request any business books, it showed up … but I'm a bit unsure of how to define its specific genre. General Tony Zinni's (with Tony Koltz) Before the First Shots Are Fired: How America Can Win Or Lose Off The Battlefield is a bit of a memoir, a bit of a military history book, and a bit of a political broadside. Frankly, it reminds me quite a bit of another LTER book I reviewed some time back, Kip Hawley's Permanent Emergency, a look at the TSA that gave serious “behind the scenes” access to the reader.

Zinni's Before the First Shots are Fired is, at base, the author's stance on what went wrong in various military situations, and what he believes could be done about it. A product of the Viet Nam war (he joined the Marines after graduating from college in 1965), he was a participant in numerous military and quasi-military events over the next several decades. The book starts out with a look at historical data … and it's amazing to think that in 1939 the total U.S. Military was 334,473 individuals (smaller than Romania's!) spread between the Army, Navy, and Marines (there were over 12 million by the end of WWII just six years later). Prior to WWII, we were generally not in a position to get in too much trouble (wars with Spain's colonies aside), but once the page turned from the end of that war and into the Cold War, we were all over the planet, and involved in everybody's business.
{The Cold War} left us with military commitments that our forefathers could never have imagined possible. We fought limited wars, counterinsurgencies, and “police actions” in Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere. We supported armed struggles resisting communist takeover from Central America to Europe to Afghanistan to Southeast Asia. Clandestine operations helped overthrow communist or left-leaning governments in Iran and Central America.
Unfortunately, these dirty little limited wars and military interventions turned out to be hard to manage. Our model was the “Good War” and we expected these new wars to play out according to that unambiguous model. They did not. They were messy, hard to define, and harder to sell, requiring tactics that in some cases seemed less than honorable – and not really true to American values. We supported dictators; we toppled governments; and we used clandestine methods to protect our interests and achieve our ends.
One fascinating thing he notes is that every President had a military “doctrine”that was more-or-less formalized and served to guide military planning. What is somewhat creepy is that these, to a certain extent, never go away, so the strategic thrust of one administration is only modified by the next's (or subsequent), but never fully replaced.

Of course, as one would expect from a book by a General, much of this is pretty solidly from that side of the table, and the stories he tells of the civilian side are pretty horrifying. Every administration is different, naturally enough, and some came in with “the best minds” on hand to run things, but others were fraught with cronyism and worse (such as the Obama team assigning jobs more on the basis of campaign fundraising than any expertise, or even familiarity, with doled out cabinet or diplomatic assignments). There is always some cross-intent conflict between the sides, but it's amazing how bad this sort of thing can get when the politicians are trying to play politics with soldiers … especially when the foreign excuse is largely a ploy for domestic results. I was, honestly, surprised with the rancor he reserved for G.W. Bush's administration … as it appears that the key players in that (he particularly has a thing for Rumsfeld) pretty much didn't care what the military thought, and they were going to run things their way.

Zinni “lifts the curtain” on numerous conflicts and takes a look at the elements that were driving them, internationally, politically, and militarily. If you're a fan of military histories, these will be particularly of interest. However, the most fascinating thing here is how he frames “how we got here” … from a fairly isolationist, largely rural, nation protected by oceans on either flank, to “the world's policeman”, being pulled into nearly every conflict wherever on the globe it happens. He notes that the original form of the “Military-Industrial Complex” (a famous phrase from Eisenhower's “farewell address”) was the “military-industrial-congressional complex”, implicating Congress in a cycle that started with FDR's taking Depression-idled factories and turning them into the forges of “the arsenal of democracy” … which soon enough turned into local “pork” that was unlikely to be ever taken off the books by Representatives looking at re-election every 2 years.

While he doesn't necessarily propose a solution for wresting control of foreign policy from the “military-industrial-congressional complex”, while protecting it as much as possible from the craven politicization of it by the executive branch, he does discuss what he sees as positive programs, and what he sees as being deeply negative.

Before the First Shots are Fired should be appealing to fans of military history, political intrigue, world history, and associated fields. While not being an auto-biography per se, it also traces out an arc of a rather fascinating military career. Unlike many of the LTER selections, this one is actually early, and the book won't be appearing until September, but you can pre-order it from the on-line big boys, currently at about a 25% discount. While I think this book could have been a stronger statement (Zinni obviously has tried to avoid “nailing his thesis to the doors” here), it's a fascinating look at a lot of the “sausage making” that goes on behind the gorier headlines, and I would certainly recommend it to anybody with interests in these areas.

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