Category Archives: Interviews

Dobbs v. The Ocean

By Claude Berube

The Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization at first glance may not appear to have any relevance to the sea; however, it is indicative of how even domestic issues may have an impact on maritime operations. The ruling reinforces the reality that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can use the high seas to conduct activity or bring attention to their cause. For example, one physician has proposed “a floating abortion clinic in the Gulf of Mexico as a way to maintain access for people in southern states where abortion bans have been enacted.” It is not clear at this point what kind of ship would be used, but the concept is not a new one.

Women on Waves is proof of this concept. Founded by Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, Women on Waves used ships to provide abortions off the coasts of countries which had restrictive laws. Some of the operations included Ireland (2001) using the Dutch fishing vessel Aurora; Poland (2004) on the Langenort; Portugal on the Borndiep which also saw a response by the Portuguese Navy; and Spain (2008) on a sailboat as well as a later Trojan Horse operation in Smir, Morocco (2012), and Mexico in 2017.

On January 29, 2010, this author had the opportunity to interview Dr. Gomperts regarding Women on Waves for a set of profiles about how NGOs use the maritime environment. The following is a transcript of that interview that reveals some important points about changes in technology and the visual impact of maritime operations. Although conducted over ten years ago, the interview is relevant now more than ever. When applied to a post-Dobbs world, the following interview positions Women on Waves as a case study for how abortion services might be operationalized in maritime environments.

Claude Berube: When did you first think about using ships?

Rebecca Gomperts: I first thought of using the sea to provide services when I was a physician on a Greenpeace ship. 

CB: What was the advantage of providing services on the sea rather than going to the border of a country to provide those services?

RG: Because it’s the Dutch law that applies in international waters, you can help women legally and safely. 

CB: Was it also cheaper to do it, logistics-wise, to provide the ship rather than another country?

RG: Women do that all the time. Women travel. That’s why it’s one of the main social injustices because women who do not have the money cannot travel to other countries. The ship is a visual; it makes the problem visual. Women travelling to other countries, it’s often under the radar, they do it secretly, they suffer tremendously but it’s not public. With the ship we are making the problem that exists visible. 

CB: Have you found that the countries visited, do they prevent you from going into the harbor or do they prevent women coming out to you?

RG: We have done four campaigns with the ships so far. It was only Portugal that sent warships to prevent our ship from entering. That was the only time a government tried to stop the ship from coming in.

CB: How did that happen? Did they contact you on bridge to bridge?

RG: The Minister of Defence contacted the captain of the ship through a fax. They said Women on Waves was a threat to national security and health and they were preventing the ship from entering national waters. We filed a court case against the Portuguese government because they did this and we won this through the European Court for Human Rights. 

CB: How did you decide to use the types of ships you used for your campaigns? Is your decision on what types of ships centered around the A-Portable [an 8×20 foot container that serves as a mobile clinic aboard the ship] or are there other things in the decision-making process?

RG: We used the Mobile Treatment Room three times and the ships had to be proper to carry that – it’s basically a container and so the ships had to be outfitted for the Mobile Treatment Room. That was the size of the ship that was determined by the Mobile Treatment Room; however there have been a lot of developments recently especially concerning medical abortions – abortion with pills – it has been proven very safe to take outside the surgical theater. The last campaign we did which was in Spain we actually had a yacht and we worked with the local organization because the miscarriage happens back on shore so follow-up care was provided by us. So we used a yacht without the mobile treatment room. For us, that is a much better solution.

CB: Is that because it’s cheaper?

RG:  It’s much easier for us because you don’t need big harbors so you’re more flexible.

CB: You lease the boats on a short-term basis?

RG: Yes.

CB: How did you identify the crew? Were they volunteers? Were they paid?  Did you have to vet them for qualifications for seamanship, for example?

RG: It depended what ship we used. Two times we had a ship registered under the Dutch shipping certificate and all the crew had to have their certificates in order. Most of the crew volunteered. Some were reimbursed. The captain was reimbursed. They had to do extra training sometimes to update their certifications. On the other side, the yacht for example, there were just two crew and they had sailing experience – they had been sailing for thirty years. But that’s different than having a ship under a Dutch shipping inspection.

CB: Did you decide to use the Dutch flag because of the flexibility that offered? 

RG: I’m Dutch so we knew the situation here. I think there might have been other countries where we could have registered the ship but it was much more complicated.  

CB: When you’re ready to go into a country’s waters do you know ahead of time what you will do in the case of their navy or coast guard approaching you?

RG: It was a European ship so we have European protection, but we have lawyers always that work very closely with us but we never expected to have what happened in Portugal. That’s why we have a group of lawyers standing by in case of such a situation.

CB: You’ve done four voyages in the past ten years; do you have any plans for the future?

RG: Yes. It’s a complicated thing to prepare. We only go to countries where we are invited by local women’s organizations and it’s like a year-long preparation with mobilizing on the ground because they’re the ones who know we’re there to support them in the legalization of abortion in their country. 

CB: So your organization is more grassroots and you will wait to be invited.

RG: Sometimes we will meet to decide when the ship will come. 

CB: What have you found to be the greatest logistical challenges to these voyages – that might be fuel, or food or water?

RG: Portugal was the most difficult but they can’t do that anymore because they lost the court case. The government fell and abortion was legalized. It was also the most effective campaign. 

CB: Why was it the most effective, because it was the response of the Portuguese government that generated the most interest?

RG: Of course, that is absolutely the case. It was worldwide front page news. It was widely discussed in the European Parliament and basically it was considered a big scandal. 

CB: You saw a lot of political changes immediately?

RG: Yes. It was one of the main issues in the campaign. So it brought a lot of interest especially because of the Minister of Defence. 

CB: If the Portuguese government and the Minister of Defence had not done that, do you think it would have been as successful? 

RG: No. But we were there to help women and a lot of women in distress who were calling.

What did that interview and subsequent research suggest? First, NGOs evolve based on changing technology. While Women on Waves originally used a larger vessel to transport the mobile clinic, abortion pills later allowed them to use sailing vessels which could enter more ports as well as smaller ones, therefore reaching a larger target audience. In 2015, the organization started using drones to deliver abortion pills in Poland and the following year in Ireland.

Second, the use of yachts instead of the larger vessels meant that the NGO did not require licensed ship captains and had more flexibility as well as reduced costs to the maritime operation. Third, and perhaps most important, was the term Dr. Gomperts used: “the ship is the visual.” This characterization is similar to how other NGOs use ships to garner media attention to their cause in a way that is not conveyed via a land-based operation. While the post-Dobbs concept of using vessels to provide abortion services in the Gulf of Mexico is still early in how it will be applied, the case of Women on Waves may be one way of understanding how it might occur and evolve.

Area of operation for a proposed abortion-providing vessel. (Credit: Google Earth)

Finally, there is the perennial challenge of logistics. Assuming the organization does not use a sufficiently-sized sailing vessel, fuel consumption for a ship like an offshore supply vessel on which the organization could mount an A-portable would be problematic. Where, for example, would it refuel in the Gulf of Mexico? Assuming abortion services would be intended for states that would likely have more restrictive environments, the Gulf of Mexico – Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida – might find ways to impede a vessel from entering or exiting a port.  The distance from the Texas-Mexico border to the west coast of Florida is approximately 850 nautical miles (nm). This suggests the vessel would require support from nearby countries like Mexico, Cuba, Belize, or Cuba depending on the fuel consumption and range of the vessel.

While the latter two would encounter various restrictions, Mexico legalized abortion in 2021, but Mexican states can provide their own levels of legislation. The Mexican state of Tamaulipas is the most geographically proximate state to American Gulf states but abortion there is illegal with exception for rape, maternal life, health, and/or if abortion were accidental. The Mexican state of Yucatan is approximately 450nm from the coast of Florida. Abortion is also illegal there with exceptions for rape, maternal life, fetal defects, economic factors, or if abortion were accidental.

As Dr. Gomperts said, the ship is the visual. Now, over a decade later, her words in a post-Dobbs world carry a different weight, one that Women on Waves has known for some time. The question now is how that visual might take shape and play out when the arena is Dobbs v. the ocean.

Claude Berube, PhD has taught at the US Naval Academy since 2005 and worked on Capitol Hill for two Senators and a House member. He is a Commander in the US Navy Reserve. He was the co-editor of Maritime Private Security: Market Responses to Piracy, Terrorism and Waterborne Security Risks in the 21st Century (Routledge, 2012). His next novel, The Philippine Pact, will be released in early 2023. The views expressed are his own and not of any organization with which he is affiliated.

Featured image: A Women on Waves ship near Morocco (Credit: Paul Schemm). 

General Anthony Zinni (ret.) On Missed Opportunities, Integrated Deterrence, and Ill-Advised Red Lines

By Mie Augier and Major Sean F. X. Barrett

This is Part IV of our conversation series with General Anthony Zinni, USMC (ret.) on leadership, strategy, learning, and the art and science of warfighting. Part I can be found here, Part II here, and Part III here. In this iteration, we focus on how the decline in strategic thinking following the end of the Cold War, which we discussed in Part I, helped lead to the situation in Ukraine, how to construct credible red lines, and what integrated deterrence may mean.

You talked about how winning the Cold War led to a decline in strategic thinking, poorly defined aspirations for a “new world order,” and how expanding NATO was not necessarily going to be a positive development or without challenges in the long term. This seems particularly important for understanding how we got to where we are now in Ukraine.

Zinni: Yes, originally when the Wall came down, and in the immediate aftermath, there was talk about redefining NATO’s role. The first question was, “Do we need NATO, or should we disband it now?” The answer was we should rethink NATO. We actually thought of not only expanding NATO, but also perhaps even bringing Russia into NATO and redefining NATO’s role in some way, as maybe more of a global defense organization. That kind of died. We made all sorts of gestures to Russia, not only in terms of a military-to-military connection, but Secretary of State Baker also started this “modified Marshall Plan” for the former Soviet Union republics and Russia. We emptied war stocks out of Germany and other places, things like hospital equipment and medicines, as a gesture of goodwill. We ran Operation PROVIDE HOPE and brought these things to the orphanages. We ran it out of EUCOM and sent supplies to places that needed it.

Secretary Baker had Ambassador Armitage go to Japan and other places to talk about helping Russia, helping the eastern European countries, helping them meet international auditing standards, and working with them to get a convertible currency. He was going back and forth, and I was the military coordinator for him. I was impressed with Russia, all these young people who came in at the top to the cabinet positions, and I watched them just get so discouraged as we were doing this because underneath it all was still the old bureaucratic communist mentality, and that was hard to change. People with that old thinking were stifling the reform efforts, but early on, people were cheering democracy and had high spirits. Then, people became disillusioned with Yeltsin, and the oligarchs saw this guy, Putin. They figured they could control him and put him in as a figurehead. Putin, however, took them out and put in his own guys, and that takes us to where we are today.

I look at this and see mistakes that were made on both sides. I go back to President Bush 41. He and Gorbachev both said there would be this “new world order” and a “peace dividend.” Since the Cold War had ended, military spending would go elsewhere. I’m in Germany at this time watching this, and there’s a euphoria, but there are also things that are starting to come apart, like the Balkan states. In a different part of the world, Saddam was starting to give us problems in the Middle East.

I was thinking about what Kissinger wrote about reordering, and this was another major reordering, but if you are not orchestrating the reordering or trying to influence it, it is going to reorder itself in a nasty way. At the end of World War I, we didn’t do it. At the end of World War II, we did a great job. But then, after the Cold War, despite the words, it never really happened. Bush was challenged on this. Reporters asked Bush, “Where is the strategy?” However, he dismissed it as a “vision thing.” Even Obama said he didn’t need any Kennans and dismissed strategy in a sense. Well, if you are not strategic, you are transactional. If you don’t have a plan or a long-term vision, you just hop from one crisis to another, and things tend to orchestrate themselves in nasty ways.

We are perhaps paying the price for that decline in thinking now.

Zinni: A couple of observations about Ukraine. One thing that has really shocked me is how incompetent the Russian military is, virtually across the board. At the strategic level, they greatly misjudged the Ukrainians and their own ability to defeat them rapidly. From a military perspective, they moved on seven axes when they could not support them. Logistically, they got spread too thinly, they didn’t move enough logistics forward, they reached culminating points, they overran their lines of communications, and their rear area security was bad. They never put their combined arms together in any real way. The quality of their soldiers, especially the conscripts, is horrible. The morale is bad, and their command and control is unbelievably bad. Supposedly, this is the modernized Russian Army.

When I was in Europe, the SACEUR, General Galvin, wanted us to connect with the former Warsaw Pact and Russian militaries, but in particular the Russian military, to reassure them. We had an agreement to connect and run these series of conferences. I used to go to Moscow, and we’d meet with their senior leadership. They even gave me a Russian aide, and they were very open about the problems they had in the Russian military. I couldn’t believe how bad a shape it was in. There were serious problems about hazing in the barracks, no real NCO corps, morale was low, troops were stranded and couldn’t get home, a lot of revolt among their junior officers, senior officers had real problems with alcoholism, and so on. They shared these things with us and even allowed their dissidents to talk with us, and they were vocal and defiant toward their senior leaders.

I heard that they had rehabilitated and modernized their military since those times, but here we are, hearing more than 100,000 conventional forces have been committed to Ukraine, and God, it is horrible. I told someone the other day, I’d love to have a Marine Expeditionary Force and fight these guys. We would go through them like a knife in melting butter!

In watching this, I have been trying to think about where the Russian generals’ heads might be at. First of all, they are demonstrating a lot of incompetence at the senior leadership ranks. Secondly, they have been thrown into this mess, and they have to see that this is taking a heavy toll on their forces. They have had trouble with encryption and even with basic communication. These are like 1950s-level problems that they have. It’s amazing.

I just wonder how long Putin can last. I don’t know how effective the punishment of the oligarchs will be. I don’t know his handle on power, but if he gets desperate, what does he do?

I’m trying to figure Putin’s calculation. Maybe he thought NATO was no longer effective and that after Afghanistan, the current administration was too weak, or at least not willing to take him on in any serious way. I think he thought NATO solidarity wasn’t there and that he had the Germans over a barrel, literally. After Afghanistan, we were weak, and he probably thought this was going to be an easy grab. But how does he get out of it now? Everybody is talking about trying to find an offramp. I don’t see how. It’s not going to be easy. How does this end? NATO’s solidarity seems stronger than it has been in decades. Putin has created something that didn’t exist before. He has actually strengthened NATO.

Concerning what the situation is teaching us, particularly about integrated deterrence, Congressman Mike Gallagher recently noted (for example, here and here) that as a concept, integrated deterrence failed, and we should probably study and learn from that. Congresswoman Elaine Luria has also been critical of the concept. It reminded us of your approach in some parts of your “Combat Concepts” lecture, trying to figure out how to make sense of nice words.

Zinni: Well, the only thing I know is, whatever it is, it failed. From a Combatant Commander’s perspective, you have war plans, but the way the war plans are constructed, it is, “Okay, bad stuff is happening, let’s go to the plan, start flowing the TPFDD [Time Phased Force Deployment Data], let’s get into the action.” However, war plans are never going to go down the way they are planned.

There is always going to be a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning will entail tensions mounting. Warnings start coming, and we are going to make deterrent moves or containment moves. In the Pacific, you are probably going to hear the Japanese, the South Koreans, and our allies out there scream, “Hey, help us out here, these guys are getting ready to do something bad.” You are going to see the need to establish freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. We are going to start putting forces forward. Look at what we did in Poland and in the Baltic states. We started moving forces forward, NATO forces, as an attempt to deter. Reinforcing Japan is the first thing that is going to happen in the Pacific. You may be required to support the defense of Taiwan, including actually putting troops on the island to help defend it. In the stages leading up to this, 7th Fleet could rush to the South China Sea. If the balloon goes up and we start to get into a fight, I, as a Combatant Commander, have to start with all this stuff that was originally done to deter and contain. Integrated deterrence is supposed to be all these moves you take that make the other guy unwilling to take you on.

But then you go back to your plan, and let’s say you buy Commandant Berger’s strategy of putting guys on islands with anti-ship missiles. That’s overcome by events. You already have a MEF in Korea, another MEF in Taiwan or someplace, and the whole idea of a plan working out sequentially in the way you planned is only to get the basics down, of what you would employ, how you would employ it, the allocation of forces, and the sequencing. But you know darn well decisions are going to be made early on that will lead to that work being overcome by events.

Then, you have the middle, and you must fight from these positions that aren’t part of the nice, logical build-up you had in your war plan. There is no logically flowing reception, staging, onward movement, and integration as you get inside the opponents’ area of influence. By definition, you are already there because you have 26,000 troops in Korea, and you have 56,000 in Japan. No one’s going to be worried in the beginning about what you can put on small islands in the Philippines and elsewhere—you are already in his grill, so you have to go from there. The middle is the fight.

The third thing is the end state. Nobody goes home anymore. We are still in Germany, we are still in Japan, we are still in South Korea, and we are still in NATO. We know there will be an alliance, and we are going to support it. I might be stuck with what you lay down if I’m a Combatant Commander. How do we arrange that? What are we doing to support that?

So, back to integrated deterrence. I think it was supposed to mean we would make moves in a combined joint way that would put the potential adversary off balance, and put them in a position where they would either be unable to react or would find themselves in a position where they were trumped in their ability to do something. Now, the problem they ran into in Ukraine is the self-imposed limit that nothing would happen outside of NATO’s borders. You can make all the moves you want back here, but Putin is no fool. He said if NATO attacks him, he will attack NATO, and he started to make noises about nukes and tactical nukes. “Integrated deterrence” had a line, and we couldn’t cross it. And by not crossing it, we couldn’t change his mind and actually deter. Integrated deterrence is only good if the other guy thinks it is a deterrent. If the other guy doesn’t see it as deterrence and understands its limitations, then you have got a problem.

Now, in the case of China, you can make a case that we are already there. They want us to be out of the East and South China Seas, to possess Taiwan, and probably as an adjunct, have us out of South Korea, too. The deterrence here might be stronger if you immediately reinforce those positions, which are in his grill. Make the taking of Taiwan very difficult because you are there. We weren’t there in the Ukraine. The U.S. Navy will not sail into the Black Sea now. We are not making any moves that could be perceived as provocative or threatening, so we have limited ourselves. President Biden has made all these declarations about what we won’t do, which defines the parameters for Putin. He didn’t leave anything ambiguous. He didn’t say, “Nothing is off the table.” He told everyone what was off the table. So, Putin understood the space he had to operate in.

The term is still a little fuzzy and based on some assumptions. Some may say it seems to mean mostly integration, and less deterrence.

Zinni: I am assuming that integration means either integrating elements of power, or we are integrating our military forces in some way, or both. But go to the word “deterrence.” That is the key word. A strategy can only be effective if the other guy is deterred by it. You can’t have a deterrence strategy if he doesn’t see it as a deterrent. It hasn’t happened with Putin—he wasn’t deterred in any way. He knew economic sanctions would be put on him, and he probably reasoned that NATO would not try to start any direct military confrontation. He could always throw out the nukes, tactical or otherwise, as his form of deterrence. Think about the reverse: his deterrence has worked to a certain degree and certainly in a military context. By threatening tactical nukes or other weapons of mass destruction, he has basically deterred NATO.

Maybe it is overcompensation for when President Biden was in the Obama administration. They drew red lines then, and now they are telling us that they are specifically not going to draw any red lines. Instead of leaving some ambiguity in the middle that could possibly lead to more deterrence, we are now spelling out exactly what we are or are not going to do.

Zinni: Here’s the trouble with red lines. First of all, when you establish a red line, you turn the initiative over to the other guy. In other words, if he finds it advantageous to start something, he will cross the red line, so you don’t have control over the initiative. That’s what happened in the Obama administration. At the most inopportune time, they challenged him, knowing, or assuming, that he wouldn’t do anything. And red lines also mean that if you say, “Okay, you crossed the red line, I’m going to punish you,” but the adversary is not deterred by the punishment, that is not very useful either. I had this discussion with Gen Mattis. I said, “Whoever prepared that strike on the airfield must have been Mother Teresa or something, since you didn’t do anything really damaging.” There were some potholes in the concrete that the pothole crew was able to fix the next day.

I go back to the Clinton administration, when we were told that if Saddam crossed our red lines—there were two: take a shot at our airplanes or start interfering with the inspectors—we are going to hit you. President Clinton gave us the freedom to pick the targets, and we picked the entire air defense system. The UN went crazy, but we used the justification of the UN Resolution, which was vague on all this stuff, so we sort of expanded its authorization. But it shocked the hell out of Saddam when some guy with a little anti-aircraft gun took a couple of shots and we took out their defense headquarters in Baghdad. You don’t get motivated when that happens.

The second part of the red line is that the punishment for crossing it has to hurt or reduce capability in some way. We knew that Saddam would test us on these red lines and mess with the inspectors, so we designed plans to systematically take down their air defense system.

When we struck in DESERT FOX, it paralyzed them. My fear was the government was going to collapse. They were so shaken. They were so paralyzed they couldn’t even come up on the net and say hostile things to the United States. And, of course, our inspectors were back in the next day.

I’ve been doing some thinking about no-fly zones. I did a few TV appearances on it, too. I did it because I wanted to help people understand that you don’t just snap your fingers, and then you have a no-fly zone. You need to understand what is involved in doing it: what the cost is, what it entails to put together, what the risks are, and how complex the rules of engagement can be. If the Russians put an anti-air system in a built-up area with a lot of civilians around, what are you supposed to do if it shoots at you? What are you going to do if a plane comes in from Russia, takes a shot, and goes back into their airspace? What will you do if you see their airplanes bombing the heck out of civilians, and you have a plane up that can take it out? Is that pilot just going to watch it, be witness to it? That is a tough scenario. Then the question becomes, what else can fly? Can the Ukrainian Air Force fly? There are lots of these difficult questions. No one answers them. They just say, “Oh, let’s put in a no-fly zone.” And then I keep reminding people the no-fly zone in Iraq lasted over 12 years.

Red lines, however, are not like no-fly zones. People have to understand what no-fly zones are. With a no-fly zone, you must have bases to operate out of. You must have some legitimate authority to do it. Is it going to be NATO, is it going to be the UN, is it going to be something you can hang your hat on? Where are the bases, and who is going to give them to you? Is anyone else going to operate with us? Then, you have to realize that, in Ukraine, you have an area the size of Texas, and you have to keep that air space sanitized. The number of combat air patrols you need to do that, the radar systems, the refuelers, the base operations you need . . . you are going to constantly patrol because the Russians can see when you are in and out, and they will test you, they will come in when you are out and try things. So, the rules of engagement are going to be very complex in what you do. How long can you keep that up? You also need search and rescue. What happens if a plane has a mechanical failure or gets shot down? You have to go in and get the pilots. You have to answer all these questions. And pilots will tell you that it is crappy duty. Pilots lose proficiency by just going up and patrolling and coming back. They don’t go through all the wickets they need to stay current, so you must rotate units regularly. All these people screaming for no-fly zones don’t understand how this works.

It’s similar with humanitarian corridors. You can’t have a humanitarian corridor unless you are sure that both sides fully agree and there will be no violation. If you are going to secure the corridors, who is going to run it? Is it the United Nations? Are you going to have peacekeepers or observers in there? Hardly anyone thinks this through. This is the “inch deep” crowd that comes up with these ideas. They are around the Beltway and have no idea what is involved.

General Anthony Zinni served 39 years as a U.S. Marine and retired as CommanderinChief, U.S. Central Command, a position he held from August 1997 to September 2000. After retiring, General Zinni served as U.S. special envoy to Israel and the Palestinian Authority (2001-2003) and U.S. special envoy to Qatar (2017-2019). General Zinni has held numerous academic positions, including the Stanley Chair in Ethics at the Virginia Military Institute, the Nimitz Chair at the University of California, Berkeley, the Hofheimer Chair at the Joint Forces Staff College, the Sanford Distinguished Lecturer in Residence at Duke University, and the Harriman Professorship of Government at the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary. General Zinni is the author of several books, including Before the First Shots Are Fired, Leading the Charge, The Battle for Peace, and Battle Ready. He has also had a distinguished business career, serving as Chairman of the Board at BAE Systems Inc., a member of the board and later executive vice president at DynCorp International, and President of International Operations for M.I.C. Industries, Inc.

Dr. Mie Augier is Professor in the Department of Defense Management, and Defense Analysis Department, at NPS. She is a founding member of the Naval Warfare Studies Institute and is interested in strategy, organizations, leadership, innovation, and how to educate strategic thinkers and learning leaders.

Major Sean F. X. Barrett, PhD is a Marine intelligence officer currently serving as the Executive Officer for 1st Radio Battalion.

Featured Image: CAMP FUJI, Japan (June 13, 2022) – U.S. Marines with 3d Battalion, 2d Marines, prepare to begin Exercise Shinka 22.1 at the Combined Arms Training Center (CATC), Camp Fuji, Japan, June 13, 2022. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Michael Taggart)

Dying to Learn: Michael Hunzeker on Wartime Learning and Force Development

By Dmitry Filipoff

As Michael Hunzeker aptly points out in his new book, “War is a classroom, but not all armies are ready to learn. In Dying to Learn: Wartime Lessons from the Western Front, Hunzeker investigates the wartime adaptation and force development of the armies of WWI. As armed forces entered great power conflict, their doctrine, tactics, and learning mechanisms were put to the ultimate test in a furious race to see who could first master new ways of war.

In this discussion, Hunzeker outlines how these armies improved their wartime learning, why the process was so challenging and bloody, and what the consequences are for militaries who don’t invest enough thought into how they will learn in war.

You structured your analysis with an assessment, command, and training framework. This was complemented by learning phases focused on exploration, selection, and action. You applied this framework to several militaries on the western front of WWI with respect to how they evolved their warfighting doctrines and force development functions. How would you describe the structure of your analysis and why did you decide on this structure?

I should start out by warning that I adopt an unapologetically social scientific approach to how I look at wartime learning. Some readers prefer historical narratives (heck, I’m one of them), yet I think it is an important distinction to make at the outset, in part so that potential readers know what they are getting themselves into. I want to be clear that I was deliberate about avoiding a more traditional, linear, storytelling approach.

The fact is that I did not think the world needed another history book that described the evolution of combat tactics on the Western Front. That task has already been more than capably handled by generations of superb scholarship by historians like Brian Bond, Timothy Lupfer, Bruce Gudmundsson, Paddy Griffith, Aimeé Fox, Jonathan Boff, Gary Sheffield, MA Ramsay, Williamson Murray, Michel Goya, and many others. I also had a different goal. I wanted to use a combination of theory and structured comparison so that I could get at the question of causation.

Historians have already shown us how British, French, and German tactics evolved over the course of the First World War, and that all three armies were engaged in an epic race to see who could master this new form of warfare first. But I wanted to know why it was that the German Army seemed to have learned faster than the others—and why it nevertheless still lost the war. As both a political scientist and a combat veteran of the Iraq war, I thought a rigorously tested answer to these questions might be useful for today’s military planners as they think about the learning challenge on tomorrow’s battlefields.

At the same time, I’ll be the first to admit that social science writing is a lot less “fun” to read than history writing. Reviewing existing work on wartime learning, adaptation, and innovation; theorizing about the generic learning process that all organizations must go through; generating a novel explanation to predict why some armies are better at learning than others—one that we can apply to more than just the First World War—and then systematically testing it against evidence drawn from the existing historiography is, well, abstract and dry. Red Storm Rising my book is not! At the same time, I feel like the rigor is worth the tradeoff. I provide readers with a transparent, detailed, and systematic analysis of both my theoretical predictions, and the evidence I draw from the historical record. As a result, I think I put them in the best position possible to judge my explanation for themselves. I’m also confident this approach is the best way to convince readers to take seriously the parallels between today and the period leading up to the First World War; and what the First World War can teach us about wartime learning in an all-out, no holds bar, great power conflict of the sort many of us worry is looming.  

Many of the critical takeaways focused on how to best apply centralization, decentralization, and independence to core force development functions. Why were these traits so critical and what combinations proved most effective? 

I’m glad you raise this point about the tradeoff between centralization and decentralization, because it is an important theme in the book. When reviewing explanations for organizational change early on in my research, I started to notice a disconnect between the way academic scholars and military practitioners talk about centralization and decentralization.

Practitioners in general—and American military officers in particular—seemed to instinctively treat decentralization as a good thing, especially when trying to foster change. The intuitive logic seemed to be that decentralization allows for independence, initiative, and debate. In contrast, the academics who studied military change tended to think about centralization and decentralization in terms of tradeoffs. In other words, scholars like Harvey Sapolsky and James Q. Wilson theorized that although decentralization supports autonomy, freedom, and creative problem solving, it also complicates implementation by empowering subordinates to resist changes with which they did not agree. Centralization, on the other hand, allows for faster implementation at broader scale and/or directional shifts, but it also stifles discussion, debate, and dissent, which is essential for generating new ideas and testing proposed changes to make sure they will actually work.

At the same time, academics also tended to take a rather simplistic—if not dim—view of military organizations. By this I mean a lot of existing research either automatically assumed that all military organizations were conservative, tradition bound, and backward looking; or placed the entire organization into a single, crude categorical box by treating a given military as either entirely centralized or entirely decentralized.

My theory of wartime learning tries to synthesize these views. I think scholars are right to point out that decentralization and centralization are neither purely ‘good’ nor entirely ‘bad.’ Instead, it is more useful to think of each approach as helpful when handling some types of tasks, but problematic when dealing with others. I also think practitioners are right to point out that modern militaries are diverse, complex organizations. Some resist change, while others embrace it. Moreover, because all militaries must juggle multiple competing tasks, including warfighting, logistics, training, maintenance, and intelligence, they have the ability to centralize control over how they perform some of these tasks at the same time they decentralize control over other ones.

As a result, my explanation for ideal wartime learning—which I refer to as Assessment, Command, and Training (ACT) theory—predicts that militaries that delegate moderate amounts of authority over command and control on the battlefield; maintain tight centralized control over training; and that possess a unit of rigorously trained analysts with access to the highest levels of command, but empowered to do independent analysis (i.e. take unfavorable positions); will learn faster than militaries that organize these tasks in any other way. I think my case study chapters on the evolution of the British, French, and German armies on the Western Front bear this prediction out. But of course, I try to present my evidence in the most transparent and systematic way possible so that readers can decide for themselves.

How well did pre-war doctrines and force development functions fare in the early years of the conflict? Why did some elements continue to persist despite the heavy losses?

It is important to distinguish between the war’s first few months, when maneuver was still possible on the Western Front, and later on when the front bogged down into a stalemate. As for that first period, the appalling casualties made clear that neither side went into the war with a doctrine that adequately prepared them for a full scale, great power clash with existential stakes. We of course have the benefit of a century of hindsight, but it is now rather obvious that no army was really ready for the ‘storm of steel’ that modern weapons created when employed at scale. No army spent enough time working on artillery-infantry coordination, or put enough effort into developing defensive tactics, or acquired enough heavy artillery. Some of this neglect was due to overarching political constraints (e.g. the British Army had to juggle multiple competing missions, including far-flung imperial policing) and strategic concepts (e.g. German and French war plans emphasized speed). Some of it was because hundreds of thousands of green troops were racing into action for the first time and ignored (or forgot) their training in the process. For example, infantry units on both sides tended to go into the assault without waiting for artillery support.

That said, it is important to remember that despite these many failings, it is not that the British, French, and German armies were unusually ignorant, lazy, or lackadaisical when it came to thinking about the future of warfare prior to 1914. Nor were they blissfully unaware of the technological innovations that were transforming the battlefield. The officer corps in all three armies recognized that firepower was changing the battlefield. They paid attention and tried to learn from the Second Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War. Officers in all three armies fiercely debated the best way to evolve in response. Some of the tactics and concepts tested (and sometimes even adopted) in the pre-war period even bore a striking resemblance to the tactics and concepts employed at the war’s end.

So the losses suffered early in the war were not the result of a lack of effort. Rather, both sides got the future ‘wrong’ to some degree. This point serves as an important reminder for us as we think about tomorrow’s wars. We can (and should) try as hard as we can to ensure our fighting forces go to war with the best doctrine, training, and associated equipment possible. Nevertheless, it is more likely than not that we will also get it wrong to some degree. And the distance between the doctrine our fighting forces have and the doctrine they will need will be measured in lives.

Which brings us to the point in the conflict when maneuver gave way to stalemate. All too often we think of 1915 and 1916 as the epitome of insanity, with generals on both sides callously wasting millions of lives as they hit repeat on the same bad ideas over and over again. But this standard narrative is misleading. Gary Sheffield is right when he points out that once deadlock set in, the two sides “did not simply gape at the trenches with incomprehension.” Instead, both sides almost immediately started to search for a solution. That solution was not immediately forthcoming—and took millions of lives to uncover—in part because of the intractable nature of the underlying problem (too many men in too small a space with too many bullets and not enough trucks and radios); and in part because the defenses evolved alongside the offensive concepts designed to penetrate them. Moreover, the fact is that no army gave enough thought to doctrinal learning before the war. It started out as a largely ad hoc process on both sides of the trench line, but the army that was first to develop a better way of learning was also the first to arrive at the right solution.

And that’s the entire point of my book: to argue that because we could very easily find ourselves in a situation similar to the ones our predecessors witnessed on the Western Front (as in our existing doctrines and concepts are inadequate in the face of the wartime challenge we actually face) it would be useful to have spent enough time thinking about how we are going to learn, and learn faster than the other side.

Combat training reform is a major emphasis of the analysis. How did combat training have to be organized to most effectively transmit lessons learned and new doctrines at scale? What combat training structures performed suboptimally and what were the consequences for tactics and operations at the front?

My theory predicts that the more a military centralizes control over training (which I define in terms of oversight, enforcement, and geography) the faster and more effective it will be at transmitting new practices across the relevant parts of the organization. In essence, centralization allows for consistency while also helping the organization overcome various forms of resistance and foot dragging by instructors and commanders who might disagree with a given new method or tactic (and in a large organization, someone always disagrees with change). In contrast, decentralized training—which can involve letting multiple schools or centers teach the same thing; or pushing responsibility for initial training onto frontline operational units—increases the odds that new ideas will be poorly taught (sort of how making a photocopy of a photocopy yields a hard-to-read document) or that instructors might choose to continue teaching old methods. In fact, at least theoretically speaking, my theory suggests it would be ideal to train the entire organization at one time and in one place! Since this approach is obviously impossible for a range of practical reasons, I simply predict that consolidating training sites and creating dedicated training commands is better than trying to perform training all over the place and/or delegating the task to operational units.

I find strong support for this prediction when I look at the relationship between learning and training in the British, French, and German armies. The German Army centralized training to a greater degree than its opponents before the war (although even the Germans delegated more authority over training than is the case in the U.S. military today). The German Army also sought to centralize its training programs even further as the war went on, which helped it disseminate its new assault, artillery coordination, and defensive concepts faster than was the case in the British and French armies. The British Army, which had a strong tradition of letting units handle their own training as a result of its longstanding colonial mission, did not fully centralize control over training until the middle of 1918. Meanwhile, the French Army never really made the transition, particularly among its infantry units. As a result, both organizations struggled with uniform implementation of new tactical concepts to a greater degree than was the case in the German Army.

Throughout the book, certain commanders-in-chief took a greater interest in these force development functions than others. Certain unit-level leaders were critical for frontline experimentation and capturing lessons learned in writing, which was sometimes read and disseminated by the highest levels of leadership. How would you describe the relationship between structure and individual leadership for the effectiveness of learning and adapting to warfighting?

I prioritize structure in Dying to Learn. Not because I think leaders are irrelevant or unimportant! Instead, I decided to focus on structure’s role, because I think it is a useful and important way to balance against our instinctive desire to always explain change in terms of individual leadership. The fact is that explanations that focus on individual leaders run into all sorts of problems. First, modern military organizations are massive and complex. No single leader can influence—let alone control—all of the various tasks that go into the wartime learning process. Second, in many cases, organizational learning transcends any single leader’s tenure. For example, although Eric Ludendorff often gets credit as the mastermind behind so-called storm troop tactics, the fact is that much of the important conceptual work behind this approach was accomplished under his oft-maligned predecessor, Erich von Falkenhayn. (And it is not like Falkenhayn was out on the battlefield personally directing the early experiments with storm troop units). Third, leaders are random. In other words, despite our best efforts, neither historians nor social scientists have a convincing, systematic way to explain why some leaders advocate for the “right” kinds of changes (e.g. Falkenhayn); while others resist change (e.g. Haig); while others advocate for the “wrong” kinds of change (e.g. Nivelle). Yet we know that some organizations seem to be systematically better at learning than others. Which means that an important part of the explanation has to lay somewhere other than on a given leader’s individual shoulders.

At the same time, I’m not trying to take leaders out of the story. Individual decisions mattered. Ludendorff clearly did not come up with storm troop tactics. Yet without his support the German Army would not have adopted them wholesale. Haig’s resistance to change made it harder for lower-level experiments within the British Army to gain wider traction earlier on in the conflict. My goal is to simply offer us a better and more systematic way of thinking about the relationship between leaders and structure when it comes to learning, and to pay a bit more attention to the variable that is harder to observe.

A recurring theme was that many of the highest-level commands were mostly overtaken by the demands of day-to-day operations to the detriment of analyzing doctrine and frontline lessons. Some critical force development functions floundered due to lack of high-level interest and access. How can warfighting organizations manage this challenge?

I’m glad you noticed this theme. In doing the research for Dying to Learn, it quickly became apparent that no one had a deliberate plan or mechanism for learning and adapting once the fighting started. Although I have no proof one way or another (likely because they did not think about it!), my guess is that all three armies took learning for granted and assumed that frontline units and high commands alike would instinctively adjust to wartime realities. This assumption seems rather akin to the wishful thinking that sometimes infects military planning. I worry we may not be in a much better position today.

We can and should invest in thinking about what the next war will look like, and in developing the sorts of concepts and weapons we will need to prevail in it. But we also need to invest time and energy into thinking about how we plan to learn under fire once the fighting starts and (in all likelihood) proves some of our assumptions, plans, doctrines, and capabilities wrong.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that our learning process was not particularly agile in Iraq or Afghanistan. As one veteran aptly put it: our system for lessons learned should really be called a system for lessons collected and disseminated. And let’s be honest, many of the mechanisms essential to rapid and effective learning that I highlight in Dying to Learn are neither sexy nor glamorous. Today’s officers are not exactly clamoring to be assigned to training commands or doctrine writing staffs. Analytic career pathways are often a dead end. But if my research is on to anything, it suggests that these are precisely the sorts of personnel and capabilities we could wind up needing the most.

Michael A. Hunzeker (@MichaelHunzeker) is an associate professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, where he is also associate director of the Center for Security Policy Studies. He served in the Marine Corps from 2000 to 2006.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at

Featured Image: British Vickers machine gun crew near Ovillers during the Battle of the Somme, July 1916. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

General Anthony Zinni (ret.) on Staying Honest with the Troops and Translating Experience

By Mie Augier and Major Sean F. X. Barrett

This is the third part of our conversation series with General Anthony Zinni, USMC (ret.) on leadership, strategy, learning, and the art and science of warfighting. Read Part One here and Part Two here

During an earlier conversation, one thing we touched upon was how to develop people who ask the right questions and do not fall victim to biases and simply project what they want to believe. Even if we managed to do so, what obstacles might we confront when trying to implement and apply concepts, doctrine, ideas, and strategy?

Zinni: The system rewards certain things that may not be the things that are going to contribute to successful operational results. There is a natural friction between the service chiefs and the combatant commanders. Many of the service chiefs still think they take their forces to war, but it doesn’t happen anymore. You can offer a lot of great ideas. You can write doctrine about the best ways to employ forces, but you need to present these concepts to the combatant commanders who are going to fight them. It does me no good to have four service chiefs tell me what their doctrine is if those doctrines don’t mesh.

This built-in friction tells you we’ve got a screwed up system. If you started from scratch and said, “Okay, I want to build a military,” you would not come up with the structure we have now, which is sort of self-defeating. Ever since the creation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1947, look at how they have failed the president. Developing extraordinary conceptual ways of doing things and developing advanced theory is not enough. If you don’t have the organization, strategy, structure, processes, capabilities, and systems to apply them in effective ways—more effectively than the guys you are going to fight—then it is pointless. It’s just an academic drill.

What is your sense of the obstacles we were unable to overcome in Afghanistan?

Zinni: It’s interesting. There were four Presidents, 14 Secretaries of Defense, 10 CENTCOM commanders, and 18 U.S. commanders in Afghanistan. When you look at this mess, we have gone to “war by temps” as I call it. In World War II, if you were in command, you stayed there. When units went out, they stayed out. But in Vietnam, we went to individual replacement, which was a disaster. You had no unit cohesion. So, we went to unit rotation, and then we made the decision that the unit should only be out there six months. Then, you look at senior leadership above the units, and they rotate unbelievably fast. When I went out to Afghanistan to do an assessment in the tenth year of the war, I really wanted to see what problems this caused, and it was unbelievable. Everybody that comes in has a different approach, and it was driving everybody crazy, especially those that had been out there for multiple tours. When they’d go back out, it was like a different war: different objectives, different operational designs, different everything. I really think this way of doing business is part of the problem. The Taliban didn’t go home. They were there the whole time, and they learned, like the bad guys in Vietnam. We, however, think these are all interchangeable parts, so we don’t build any corporate memory.

I also didn’t think the foundation we were building was as strong as we either thought it was or portrayed it to be. I’m a big believer that when you get into nation building, or counterinsurgency (COIN), or anything like that, the measure of success must be viable institutions. If I look around and see a corrupt government, an incompetent military, economic systems going nowhere, and some sort of corrupting institution—like the drug trade in Afghanistan—that is stronger than your institutions, and tribal structures and other institutions are stronger than national ones, you are not going to succeed. If institutions aren’t there, or you aren’t building them successfully and honestly assessing them, you can be deceived by the house you’re building.

The other thing is if the enemy has a sanctuary and you don’t do anything about it, then he can rearm, refit, reconstitute, and re-recruit. I saw that in North Vietnam, and we never really did anything major—an occasional bombing, but it wasn’t serious. Then, Pakistan became the sanctuary. It was obvious those borders were completely porous. Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Taliban set up on the other side of the border in Pakistan and were basically free to operate.

What do you see as the strategic mistakes or pitfalls? You point to the lack of leadership and continuity as one.

Zinni: You can never recover from the lack of any strategy. When the Rumsfeld DoD came in, before 9/11, they had a mission to transform the U.S. military to rely heavily on technology and less on manpower. Of course, they wanted to prove this by doing Iraq and Afghanistan with few troops. They discarded the war plan that called for 380,000 troops in Iraq and went with 130,000. They paid a big price for that. We never sealed the border, never controlled the population—all the things we had in the war plan that we knew we would run into.

In Afghanistan, they supported the Northern Alliance, which they thought was really cool. And the CIA guys rode on horseback with the Northern Alliance, and they were going to get AQ. That was the mission. We only sent in a Marine Expeditionary Unit and a couple of other forces, but when AQ got trapped in Tora Bora, they bought their way out. They bought off the Northern Alliance, and they beat feet into Pakistan. So, now our troops are in Afghanistan, AQ is in Pakistan, and you have no strategy beyond going in to get AQ and doing it the wrong way. And then, we stayed. There was no deliberate decision to rebuild Afghanistan. We just did what we’ve always done—mission creep—and we rolled into nation building without knowing what we were doing.

We had no strategy and never bothered developing one, but COIN and nation building became the strategy sort of by default. No administration—not the Bush administration, not the Obama administration—ever bought into it. No one ever looked at what it would cost, how doable it was, and what it would involve. We sort of rolled into something that no one ever made the deliberate decision to do. I also realized this turnover of units and commanders caused constant confusion and a lack of consistency and that nobody had a good picture of what the heck was going on. The CIA’s picture was way different than the military’s, and I don’t know what was driving these differences.

You talk about institutions. The power of institutions is such that they don’t change quickly, and you can’t build them overnight.

Zinni: You have two problems. One is you’re countering other institutions, and the institutions they had—tribalism, conservative interpretation of religion—were countering what we were trying to do. We never coopted them and never understood how to deal with them to diminish their power compared to the institutions we needed to build. It was a house with no foundation.

The second thing is we built a myth. We convinced a bunch of young girls and men that this was going to be something, that we were building a different kind of Afghanistan. It was never there. It was a myth, and they bought into it. And you saw things like “girls are going to school” and “guys are opening businesses” and “look, there’s hairdressers,” and we allowed ourselves—and them, which is the real tragedy—to be deceived by this façade. There was nothing behind it.

The other key question is whether the bulk of the population is willing to die for whatever you are selling them. This is a lesson I learned in a small hut in a village in Vietnam. The wife of the village chief with whom I was living said, “What is it that you want me and my son to die for?” If you can’t answer that question and you are giving the Kiwanis Club pitch to a woman who has seen 30 years of war, you have a problem.

Suppose there’s a guy in a village who joins the Afghan Army. Well, his cousin is a Talib, and in their traditional way, he might fight that cousin today, but he might cut a deal with him tomorrow. We’re the outsider. We come in with this sort of hubris that makes us think they’re embracing us to the point they’re totally rejecting their brothers and sisters who they’re fighting. Well, their tradition is to go tribe-to-tribe and cut deals. This is what the Taliban did and what we saw in the total collapse and surrender of the Afghan military and government. The tribes have always cut deals and shifted sides based on the conditions. To a tribe out in the middle of some valley, if you’re saying they’re supposed to die fighting the Taliban, they may ask, “Why? I can cut a deal with that Taliban chief, and he won’t bother me.”

Marine Gen Anthony Zinni, right, then-Commander-in-Chief, Central Command, testifies on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, March 3, 1998, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on military strategy and operational requirements. (Tyler Mallory/AP)

We see what we want to believe sometimes.

Zinni: That is true. We’re all guilty of that sometimes. I used to tell my lieutenants back when I was a company commander, “Keep me honest because I’m going to be the one who sees the good stuff, and you have to be the guys to tell me what I don’t see.” Everybody wants to be the one who gives the boss good news, and you must build this trust so your subordinates can tell you, “Boss, let me tell you how it really is.” It’s hard to take sometimes because you get so invested.

Another big danger I found is that you fall in love with your plan. You thought about it, you developed it, and you know you’re a genius and don’t want to accept that something is flawed. Unless you’ve built some sort of internal red teaming into your command system and fostered an environment in which people are willing to come to you and tell you that, you’re going to get into trouble.

Is this part of our tendency to avoid mistakes and failures and our inability or unwillingness to learn from them?

Zinni: There are a couple of problems. As I mentioned, one is our political system and the lack of corporate memory at the top, where you hope strategy would begin. Instead, you have this constant turnover, and we don’t do a good job of passing anything forward, especially if parties change. There isn’t much of a foundation anymore. There used to be. During the Cold War, strategies of containment and deterrence were consistent from administration to administration. Today, we are dealing with the byproducts of “war by temps.” There isn’t an ability to learn from your mistakes because you are changing out the people that made them, and you are bringing people in that are going to make them all over again.

The other thing, and I was guilty of it as a young officer, too, is young people join the military for an adventure. The idea that they are going off to war is exciting. I saw this when I retired. When the workup to Iraq and Afghanistan was taking place, I was asked to speak to some units, but they didn’t want to hear what I had to say. Most of the officers there were like, “He’s an old guy, kind of a naysayer. This is war. You have to be patriotic. This is our first time in.” Then, after they got their fingers burned, they came back and saw things a little differently.

One thing with me and my generation, we were all fired up for Vietnam, even going back for multiple tours. It took until after the dust settled, when we were maybe senior majors and lieutenant colonels, that we were able to see things we couldn’t see in the heat of being young company grade officers, when we were out there making our bones. I think that contributes to it, too.

One thing about managing the enthusiasm of senior officers and commanders is how do you balance maintaining good troop morale and people thinking they are doing good work with some serious criticism and internal reflection concerning things that really need to be changed?

Zinni: I think the first thing is to be honest with the troops because they aren’t fools. They are fighting the war, they see it, they know what’s happening. You have the generals that come out with this cheerleader approach and don’t seem to be in touch with reality—the reality those troops are experiencing on the ground. It seems to me you need someone in those positions that listens to what the troops are saying, what they are experiencing, and you are making sure it’s grounded in truth, not misperceptions. And after acknowledging it, you try to fix the problems they see.

The higher up you go, the less in touch with reality they can be. The real key to being a successful senior commander is to get down to those lower levels as much as you can. Get the feedback and acknowledge what they are seeing—that you know what is actually going on. And where there are issues, correct it. You are trying to get that view from the front lines that you need. You have to work hard to get it because there are so many things that get in the way. There are so many people around you and below you that try and screen you from all of that. You must be careful with that. It’s like you need to have intelligence on yourself and on your organization. If you just take what’s coming up the chain of command, you may not get the right picture, so you have to find a way to see and feel everything below that.

Gen Gray, yourself, and others have this sense of humility or humbleness. This seems to be a rare quality or attitude, but if you don’t have it, it seems more difficult to listen and learn.

Zinni: Right, humility is important, but for those lacking it, I don’t think it necessarily always comes from arrogance, although it can come across that way. I think it sometimes comes from insecurity, and that can come across as a lack of humility. I have seen senior officers who are around junior enlisted, and they are at a loss for words. They just don’t know how to connect or take it beyond the first words. Sometimes, to try and not look embarrassed about being unable to communicate effectively, they kind of take an air that looks like a lack of humility. This isn’t to say there aren’t people who are not humble, but I do see a lot of senior officers who are very insecure when they find themselves in that environment. They don’t know how to relate, and they didn’t try to learn how to connect.

How do we address the zero-defect culture and make-no-mistakes kind of attitude? When something goes wrong, commanders oftentimes tighten the screws, which dampens initiative. How do we address that?

Zinni: That’s hard to do because senior officers get scared and overreact. The knee-jerk reaction is over control. It is related to what I was studying in my dissertation—the commanders in World War II. Every one of them had something occur in their careers that today would have ended their careers. Nimitz ran a ship aground as a young officer. MacArthur was warned after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor to be prepared. Vinegar Joe Stillwell was always in trouble.

With Nimitz, his attitude was, this is all new to us—carrier operations, amphibious operations, and the like. We all have flaws. If a mistake is made honestly, and we can learn from it, I am not moving him. And he didn’t. They were after him to fire Spruance and a number of other senior officers, and he wouldn’t do it. He hung in there with them. And that doesn’t seem to happen today. I don’t know where that came in. When I was a second lieutenant and I checked into 6th Marines and got to my first battalion, the sergeant major told me a good Marine is going to have two or three non-judicial punishments. He isn’t a Marine if he didn’t have that. Today, if you have two or three minor offenses, they put you up for a discharge.

When I was the commanding officer of 9th Marines, my predecessor had made all the battalion commanders stand tall in front of him and explain every time a Marine did something minor, like having a little too much to drink out on the town. And then, when new Marines came in, my predecessor addressed them in the base theater and got in their face and said, “You better not do this, you better not do that.” I couldn’t believe this. My approach was, “Welcome to Okinawa. Let me tell you about all the things you can do here. Take care of each other. Use the buddy system. We want this to be positive.” I wanted a more positive environment. It was also the relationships out in town, like with the Japanese police force and the bar owners’ association. Every week, my battalion commanders and I went out to five bars. And besides wanting to know what’s going on with the Marines and being out with them, I wanted to know all the bar owners. I said, “Look, I’m asking you for a favor: if a Marine is getting too loud or it looks like they had too much to drink, just give our courtesy patrol staff a call. They will come out and bring him back.” I wanted to build relationships, and they loved it. It was all about getting everybody involved together and thinking about how to manage things constructively.

Coming out of Vietnam, junior officers were fed up, and this spawned very enthusiastic, even heated, after-hours study group discussions that drove change, notably amongst the maneuverists. What parallels can we draw to that competitive mindset as we regroup from Iraq and Afghanistan and prepare for the next fight? How can we provide the mechanisms to facilitate similar groups today? How can we foster that same type of mindset?

Zinni: I think if you had those experiences as a junior officer, it’s kind of seared into your soul. You have to be a little careful though because some lessons didn’t necessarily translate to the highest level or to the potential “big one” against the Soviets. Translating a lot from Vietnam was difficult, but it did give us a lot of insight into how we needed to repair our military from a training, education, manning, structure, and standards perspective. I think it gave us a much better perspective than the generals in Iraq and Afghanistan who experienced combat for the first time at the colonel and above level. They didn’t have the sense of what it was like as a lieutenant and a captain out there on the ground. I saw that in Afghanistan and Iraq when I did assessments out there. I could relate very easily to those sergeants and captains I was out there with, more so than I could with the generals who didn’t have that kind of gut experience and didn’t understand how some of the decisions they were making or not making were impacting things down there at that level. That becomes hard because it’s not the fault of the generals who weren’t involved in combat until they were at that senior level, but I do think something is missing when you don’t have that perspective.

One thing I saw coming out of Vietnam that didn’t work well was that many colonels and maybe even general officers continued to fight like they did in Vietnam as captains. They still thought they were fighting in some jungle with air superiority. You’d watch a battalion commander get in a helicopter, go over his unit, try to direct them, and you tried to tell him that his helicopter would be toast if he did that in this environment. It wasn’t that way in Vietnam. It made sense back then, so they had bad habits they couldn’t transition out of.

There are certain things you can take out of past experiences—many of them very personal, very visceral—but there are many things you must be careful with translating into a different environment.

General Anthony Zinni served 39 years as a U.S. Marine and retired as CommanderinChief, U.S. Central Command, a position he held from August 1997 to September 2000. After retiring, General Zinni served as U.S. special envoy to Israel and the Palestinian Authority (2001-2003) and U.S. special envoy to Qatar (2017-2019). General Zinni has held numerous academic positions, including the Stanley Chair in Ethics at the Virginia Military Institute, the Nimitz Chair at the University of California, Berkeley, the Hofheimer Chair at the Joint Forces Staff College, the Sanford Distinguished Lecturer in Residence at Duke University, and the Harriman Professorship of Government at the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary. General Zinni is the author of several books, including Before the First Shots Are Fired, Leading the Charge, The Battle for Peace, and Battle Ready. He has also had a distinguished business career, serving as Chairman of the Board at BAE Systems Inc., a member of the board and later executive vice president at DynCorp International, and President of International Operations for M.I.C. Industries, Inc.

Dr. Mie Augier is Professor in the Department of Defense Management, and Defense Analysis Department, at NPS. She is a founding member of the Naval Warfare Studies Institute and is interested in strategy, organizations, leadership, innovation, and how to educate strategic thinkers and learning leaders.

Major Sean F. X. Barrett, PhD is a Marine intelligence officer currently serving as the Operations Officer for 1st Radio Battalion.

Featured Image: KIN BLUE, OKINAWA (Feb. 9, 2020) – Marines with Charlie Company, Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion 5th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, and Japanese Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade service members communicate during a simulated bilateral small-boat raid on Kin Blue, Okinawa, Japan, Feb. 9, 2020. (Official Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Audrey M. C. Rampton)