A Military for the 21st Century: Lessons from the Recent Past

By Zinni, Anthony C. | Strategic Forum, July 2001 | Go to article overview

A Military for the 21st Century: Lessons from the Recent Past


Zinni, Anthony C., Strategic Forum


Key Points

The post-Cold War world environment has complicated rather than simplified the missions, strategy, and organization of the Armed Forces. Rapid downsizing after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Allied victory in the Persian Gulf War left a military lacking strategic direction, a thoughtful force structure, and a logical threat upon which to base future force structure.

This environment will not permit the luxury of a strategic pause. Allowing the new world order to arrange itself could present the Nation with an unforeseen threat that it cannot handle. To prevent such an eventuality, the military must address several challenges: the number of nontraditional threats, financing a military capable of meeting all the potential challenges it may face, the need to reform itself to handle rapid developments in technology, and interagency reform in coordination with military reform so that the full weight of national power can be brought to bear against adversaries.

A deliberate process of military transformation must account for the need for public support, which is essential for such a process to succeed. Transformation would encompass several areas: developing a realistic strategic direction; reviewing personnel recruitment and retention; understanding the implications of joint and combined warfare for organization, structure, core competencies, and operational concepts; revamping national security advisory and decisionmaking processes; and assessing the effects of technological and social changes on the military.

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The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, more than any other event, marked the collapse of the Soviet Union. I remember crossing through a vacant Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin. No one on either side knew quite what we could or could not do, since it all happened so fast. The confusion and stark contrast between East and West Berlin made it hard to believe that we had once feared this collapsed Warsaw Pact or seen it as a serious global competitor. The West always contended that communism was a fundamentally flawed system that would eventually fail. Despite that belief, we were caught by surprise by the sudden and total end of the Soviet empire and the system that governed half the world. At the time, our President proudly drew what appeared to be the logical conclusion from these events: that there was to be a new world order. Others talked of reaping a peace dividend, since defense spending surely could be reduced.

Our Nation made a half-hearted attempt to reprise the Marshall Plan by trying to help the former Soviet Union, as it was then known, through the looming political and economic crisis that it faced. The effort was called Operation Provide Hope. It was conceived by the Secretary of State to encourage international contribution of resources and advisors to help the former Soviet Union enter the world of democracy and free market economy. Also established was a military-to-military program designed to build relations with the Russian military and help it through the transition. Those of us involved were disappointed as interest in these efforts by nations, including our own, seemed to fizzle. The lessons of two world wars seemed forgotten as our attention turned inward to domestic concerns and as the world breathed a collective sigh of relief after a half-century under the threat of global destruction. Provide Hope seemed to be an uneasy recognition that the world just might not reorder itself in positive ways.

Cold War Finale

As if to punctuate the end of this historic era and mark the last days of the most powerful forces ever fielded, we were given one final chance to demonstrate the might of our Cold War-era military machine against the forces of Saddam Hussein. The superiority of our technology, soldier skills, and military leadership completely dominated the Soviet surrogate force fielded by the Iraqis. …

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