Leader of U.S. Troops in Mideast: An Unconventional Operator
By Bradley Graham
So he wrote his own rules. His "Twenty Lessons" became a reference for the kinds of nontraditional peace operations that have occupied U.S. forces increasingly since the Cold War's end. Among Zinni's pointers: "coordinate everything with everybody," and "don't make enemies [but] if you do, don't treat them gently."
Now, as the four-star commander responsible for U.S. forces in the Middle East, Zinni again is having to make up some rules as he goes along. He must keep 36,000 troops primed to strike Iraq, while taking pains to avoid offending Arab leaders sensitive to the expanded U.S. troop presence.
Although he missed some of the larger U.S. military operations since his days in Vietnam -- the 1991 Persian Gulf War, for instance, and U.S. interventions in Panama, Haiti and Bosnia -- Zinni has showed a blend of political savvy and military toughness through a series of nontraditional missions in the 1990s that, associates say, should serve him well during the prolonged confrontation with Iraq.
"He's very widely known in the Marine Corps as probably being the most operationally competent general officer that we have, meaning that he has done a little bit of everything, from war-fighting to humanitarian operations to peacekeeping to peace enforcement," said Lt. Gen. James Jones, the senior military assistant to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.
Part warrior, part diplomat and part intellectual, Zinni has lectured widely on the importance of understanding the larger political and cultural contexts in which U.S. military power may be exercised. Colleagues say he feels equally at home in a classroom or in the field.
"Tony is happiest, honest to God, right where he is now or in a classroom teaching lieutenants and captains," said Gen. Charles Krulak, the Marine Corps commandant.
At the same time, Zinni reportedly has a strong aversion to desk jobs in or near Washington. The last time he held one, he was Krulak's deputy supervising the Combat Development Command at Quantico, Va., in the early 1990s. Zinni would never answer electronic e-mail messages from his boss, Krulak recalled.
"I'd send these messages to Tony, and nothing ever came back," the commandant said. Eventually, Krulak visited Zinni's office and realized the problem when he saw his deputy's desk.
"I mean, the dust on that computer was about an inch thick on those keys," Krulak said. "That wasn't him. He did his work face to face."
Zinni had never intended to make a career of the Marines when he started studying economics at Villanova University, which was within commuting distance of his home in the industrial town of Conshohocken, Pa., northwest of Philadelphia. He was the youngest child of Italian immigrants and the only sibling to pursue a college education.
An encounter with Marine recruiters while he was registering for classes led Zinni to enroll in summer Marine training. After graduating from Villanova in 1965, he entered the Marines as a second lieutenant. He joined out of a sense of duty, he has said, having grown up hearing of a grandfather who served in the Italian army and a father who fought in World War II in the U.S. Army.
"He thought it would fulfill an obligation, but didn't think he would be in the service long-term," said Irene Burgo, a writer for Villanova's alumni magazine, who spoke to Zinni in October, the last time he has agreed to sit for an interview about his life.
Two years after his enlistment, Zinni was in Vietnam as an adviser to Vietnamese Marines, living with them and studying Vietnamese. The cultural immersion taught him something about military operations in foreign countries.
"We learned the hard way the importance of appreciating the culture" and of "having a deeper understanding of the nature of the conflict," he told the Villanovan, a student newspaper, last autumn. "We didn't understand the nature of the war -- it was a fight for freedom."
By the time Zinni returned for a second tour, in 1970, the conflict had widened and U.S. military casualties were rising. Later that year, he caught a bullet in the side and sat out the rest of the war in Okinawa.
Zinni, 54, belongs to a generation of military leaders who have come of age rethinking when and how to use American force. He emerged from Vietnam disillusioned with the set-piece tactics that left a larger U.S. force mired against a tenacious guerrilla army.
"I think that's probably where a lot of us formed our affinity for things like maneuver warfare and unconventional warfare, and we learned a lot of lessons that we took with us," Jones said.
By the 1980s, Zinni had gained notice as a fast-rising officer with an outspoken willingness to question conventional doctrine, urging more agile use of battlefield forces and more flexible approaches to terrorism and other unconventional threats.
Three years ago in Somalia, he became the first U.S. commander to experiment in the field with such less-than-lethal weapons as sticky foam and beanbag guns, designed to halt threatening crowds without killing civilians.
With the 1990s came a series of command assignments for Zinni that drew him into some of the U.S. military's most trying post-Cold War relief operations -- in northern Iraq helping the Kurds after the Gulf War, in the former Soviet Union aiding earthquake victims and in Somalia holding hostile militia leaders in check to ensure the delivery of international assistance. The experiences reinforced for Zinni another lesson from his Vietnam years: that military operations can hinge on an understanding of cultural contexts and the building of political ties.
"He understood the importance of working with people," said retired U.S. ambassador Robert Oakley, who worked with Zinni in Somalia. "He knew when to use force and when to exercise restraint."
To get to know the personalities and cultures of the Middle East after he took charge of U.S. Central Command last autumn, Zinni began tutoring himself in Arabic, reading dozens of books and traveling widely for several months meeting with Arab leaders.
"His attitude is, you try to make diplomacy work, but when it comes time for action, you're as swift and violent as you can be," said retired Col. Fred Peck, who was with Zinni in Somalia.
Staff writer Barton Gellman contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company