As the United States confronts the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), many Americans are asking why we should enter this war and what our strategy is. So far President Obama has indicated that he means to destroy ISIS by following the model used in Yemen and Somalia, that is, a combination of American air power and local allies on the ground with technical support from American Special Forces. At the same time, the president made a “no American boots” pledge that seems to be all-encompassing, including even Special Forces spotters to assist air strikes. But is this truly a strategy to destroy ISIS or just a statement of where the president intends to begin a process that will take years to complete? Fortunately, in their magnificently straightforward and nonpartisan book, Before the First Shots Are Fired, General Anthony Zinni and Tony Koltz have written a primer about how Americans should think about war and strategy in our post-Cold War age. The story is told using Zinni’s voice and personal insights.

Based on decades of experience, Zinni explains how American thinking about war off the battlefield determines who wins and who loses. He succinctly argues that both President Bush’s and President Obama’s strategies and directions “have been vague and inconsistent.” Somehow, the United States has drifted into a reliance on military power to confront international challenges without giving its military clear goals and a sense of national purpose, while leaving major questions about our engagements unanswered.  For example, why did we go into Afghanistan and Iraq? Zinni asks whether the job was to destroy al-Qa‘ida or to rebuild nations.

Sept. 30, 2014: Gen. Anthony Zinni discusses his book, Before the First Shots Are Fired, at The Middle East Institute. More information and podcast from this event available here.

General Zinni, who joined the U.S. Marines in 1961 when he was 18 and retired with four stars in 2000, proves again that he is one of America’s most experienced and cogent strategic thinkers. His book is written in a clear style that is accessible to anyone wishing to understand how the United States plans its wars, what it does wrong, and what it needs to do to make things right. The book is most powerful when Zinni gives real-life examples that he personally witnessed from Vietnam to the time he was the Commander in Chief of CENTCOM responsible for military operations in the Middle East before his retirement in 2000.

By January 2002, al-Qa‘ida and its sympathizers were convinced that the United States had all but destroyed Osama bin Laden’s organization in its rapid response to the 9/11 attacks. In Afghanistan the Taliban and its Arab allies were slaughtered in overwhelming American air attacks, and America’s Afghan allies helped to finish the rout. By al-Qa‘ida’s own reckoning, America and its allies had killed or captured almost 80 percent of its organization and the rest were cast to the winds in flight.

Responding to that view at that time, an al-Qa‘ida thought leader with the pseudonym Abu Ubayd al-Qurashi wrote an article in Arabic with the curious title “Fourth Generation Warfare,” which some, he explained, also refer to as asymmetric warfare. This rational approach, argued al-Qurashi, was invented by American theorists and gave al-Qa‘ida the conceptual tools to defeat the United States as it had been defeated in Vietnam and other wars. Theoretically, by influencing  “public opinion and beyond them the ruling elite” modern jihadis would overcome the tremendous disparity between the raw power of the United States and their own weakness by forcing the superpower to fight wars without fronts or borders against bands of religious extremists rather than modern states. The subtext to this account of the power of stateless asymmetric warfare was that Americans have given up the art of strategy and rely instead on vastly superior military technology. In other words, al-Qa‘ida can win because the Americans have forgotten about strategy. Al-Qurashi’s desperate argument was not true, but like all good lies it had a portion of truth in it.

Without reference to al-Qa‘ida but referring to Fourth Generation Warfare, Zinni notes that the battlefield his son faces is very different from the battlefield that his father faced. Zinni notes, “There is an American style of war. We are the best in the world at fighting our kind of wars; and when we fight wars our way (for example, the First Gulf War), we win.” However, few wars today are fought on the traditional battlefield, and Zinni asserts that we have difficulty adapting but adapt we must. From his vast experience of war and his study of war, the author is convincing when he observes that the ability to adapt in battle is the most important factor, and that whoever adapts first wins most of the time. To adapt, however, requires “knowing yourself, knowing your adversary and the environment extremely well.” Failing to secure this knowledge before going to war inevitably leads a nation to long drifting military engagements without the ability to define victory, let alone achieve it.

It is not surprising, but is shocking nevertheless, when the former commander of CENTCOM reveals the U.S. government’s extensive formal analysis in 2003 of what Iraq after an American invasion would look like and what would be required due to Iraq’s violent fractures along ethnic and sectarian lines. He explains how the then Secretary of Defense considered these plans outdated and ignored them. The result, which Americans witnessed with a growing sense of outrage, was the transformation of the invasion of Iraq to remove a tyrant with weapons of mass destruction to a pyrrhic victory with mounting costs and casualties but no WMDs. Sadly, it was not that the system had not analyzed the enemy and the environment, but that it chose to ignore that analysis in favor of a grand illusion of a democratic outcome among a population that had not been allowed to develop even one democratic institution.

But this is not a book about Iraq or Afghanistan or even al-Qa‘ida. It is a magnificent account of how America has planned for war in recent decades. Nothing escapes its critical eye, not the countless and useless metrics of victory, not the war games fixed for a benign outcome, not the well-intentioned but failed counterinsurgency doctrine, not the presidents who wanted to engage in wars of choice and those who would retreat from wars of necessity. This is a tale told from the inside by a patriot who wants to set things right, a general officer who has fully digested Clausewitz’s insight that everything “in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” Anthony Zinni reveals the simple solutions to our mistakes in foreign policy and planning for war, but achieving these solutions is very difficult indeed. Every American who cares about war and peace should read this great book – and then read it again as we have a national discussion about what to do about ISIS and why.