Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, then-commander of U.S. Central Command and head of Afghan troops in Afghanistan, speaks to reporters at the former Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul on July 25, 2021. Now retired, McKenzie published his memoir, “The Melting Point: High Command and War in the 21st Century.”

Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, then-commander of U.S. Central Command and head of Afghan troops in Afghanistan, speaks to reporters at the former Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul on July 25, 2021. Now retired, McKenzie published his memoir, “The Melting Point: High Command and War in the 21st Century.” (J.P. Lawrence/Stars and Stripes)

TAMPA (Tribune News Service) — After 42 years in the Marine Corps, Frank McKenzie retired in 2022 as a four-star general and commander of U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, where he oversaw the country’s military withdrawal from the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

He stayed retired for a couple of months. Now he’s executive director of two organizations at the University of South Florida, the Global and National Security Institute and the Florida Center for Cyber Security.

And he is a newly minted author. His memoir, “The Melting Point: High Command and War in the 21st Century,” was published by the Naval Institute Press. It’s a richly detailed, highly readable, no-punches-pulled account of his three years as combatant commander at Centcom, which is the nerve center for U.S. military operations in the Middle East.

He focuses the book on two points: the importance of civilian control of the military and the unique role of a combatant commander.

McKenzie, 66, talked to the Tampa Bay Times at his office at USF about the book, his military career, his opinion about the withdrawal from Afghanistan, his reasons for settling in Tampa and more.

Trim and gregarious, he wears a sport coat and medium-length, sandy hair instead of a uniform and Marine haircut. He chats enthusiastically about his favorite restaurants; when he gets a phone call, the ring tone is Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve had a long and varied career. Why write a book, and why focus on your years at Centcom?

I enjoy writing. Writing is easy for me, so there’s no effort involved for me to write a book. The decision was based on the fact that in my three years at CentCom I saw a lot of things. I wanted to write from the perspective of a combatant commander at a critical time and place, not as an observer but as a participant.

A combatant commander is unique in that you get to give advice and you get to execute policy. A lot of people give advice and a lot of people execute policy, but only combatant commanders do both. There are only 11 in the whole military, seven geographical, four functional.

I had a long career, but those were three interesting years, of broader interest than just me. Consequential things happened while I was in command there. And of course it also was cathartic for me to write about it.

You begin “The Melting Point” with a quote from historian Barbara Tuchman’s acclaimed book “The Guns of August” that uses that term to describe “the temperament of the individual commander.” What does the term mean to you?

What it means in this book is that the personality of the commander is where orders and policy get executed on the ground. The transmutation point. That’s the melting point for me. It’s where things get under enormous pressure, get very heated, and that’s where the commander lives.

It is a challenging job. The Marine Copy doesn’t produce introspective senior leaders. If you’re studying your life, you’re probably not doing something you should be doing. But there is time to learn, and you do. One of the key ways an officer educates himself or herself is by studying history. There are very few new things; everything has happened before.

One of the most interesting things in the book is your descriptions of strategy, not only military strategy but the strategy involved in dealing with people, especially those on your own side, up to and including those in the Oval Office. Can you talk about that?

The Department of Defense is the largest bureaucracy in the world, so you’ve got to understand how to maneuver, how to set your goals, execute your goals. That’s an art, it’s not a science, and it’s a learned skill — nobody is born with that skill. I certainly wasn’t.

My job is to provide options to a decision-maker. The civilian is the decision-maker, and that’s how it should be. You want to make sure that you can talk about those options in such a way that decision-makers are informed but not confused, so you spend a lot of time thinking about how you arrange your facts.

Why is civilian control of the military so important to you?

It’s important to the country. We have constitutionally arrived at civilians as the people who are in charge. The oath I’ve taken 10 times, with each of my promotions, is to the Constitution, not a person. The Constitution provides that duly appointed civilian authorities make the decisions. We never want to be in a situation where the military would challenge that. It’s bad for the country. Countries have done that and they’ve not ended well.

As former Centcom commander, you give the reader a detailed history of Iran’s role in the region, stretching back centuries and pivotal today. Is the current war between Israel and Hamas another extension of the wars that Iran has had its tentacles in over the years?

It’s part of it, but the Iran problem is larger than that. Iran has three priorities: Protect the regime, destroy Israel, get the United States out of the region. The primary goal is the most important to them. They will go to great lengths to protect the regime.

Of course they’re delighted with what Hamas is doing because it damages Israel, but they have chosen not to become engaged. I keep waiting for that shoe to drop. It’s not going to drop. Why not?

Their first objective: once you understand that, you understand what Iran will and won’t do. They won’t take on Israel unless they see a way to certain victory for them. There’s no way to that (in this situation).

The book also offers an in-depth, first-hand account of our withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of war, including your own perspective on the accomplishments and regrets of that process. What do you hope readers take away from that?

What happened in Afghanistan was 20 years in the making. At the end, the men and women who were there were men and women doing the right thing for the country. We should honor their sacrifice. Whatever we think about whether we should get out or shouldn’t get out, we shouldn’t blame those who were on the ground actually doing the work.

The withdrawal remains controversial, and we have heard, and are likely to hear more, about who is to blame for errors made: former President Donald Trump or President Joe Biden. From your very close perspective, what’s the answer to that?

We left Afghanistan because two presidents as unalike as any two presidents in our history shared a goal of leaving Afghanistan regardless of the consequences. In every other area of their administrations there was no policy continuity, except in this one area where there was profound policy continuity. That’s the proximate reason. There are other reasons, but in the end there was policy continuity across those two administrations.

Did you disagree with that approach?

I would have stayed in Afghanistan with a smaller footprint. I think leaving was a mistake and we’re yet to bear the full burden of that, but it’s coming. It’s coming.

There will be attacks inside the U.S. I’ve said so in public testimony. The risk of that is greater than it would have been otherwise. ISIS-K carried out a very successful attack in Russia a couple of months ago. They will come after us as well. We have a very limited ability to see and know what’s going on in Afghanistan and an even more limited ability to strike them if we needed to. If we had kept a small force, we’d be able to sense what’s going on, to act there instead of here. It’s always better to do it away from your homeland.

What have you been doing since you retired from the Marine Corps?

I’m now at USF, a great institution. I stood up a new think tank, the Global and National Security Institute. We’re just at our two year mark, but we operate in the policy-technology boundary to provide actual useful, actionable information to policy makers at all levels.

The second thing I do is I’m the executive director of the Florida Center for Cyber Security. It was an existing organization. It was actually stood up by the Legislature in 2014. It’s designed to position Florida as a leading edge destination for cyber security across the region and the state, to improve our cyber security posture. We do policy alternatives, outreach, education, training.

What is most different about the new job?

I don’t work at night. They don’t bother me on the weekends much.

Why did you and your wife decide to make your home in Tampa?

We actually made the decision before I knew about this job. For us it’s a triangle: Tampa, Birmingham, Alabama, where I’m from, and Charleston, South Carolina, where Marilyn and I had our first home after we were married.

I’ve lived in Tampa three times since 2010. I just really like the city. It’s very diverse, it has great people, it’s a great foodie city, just a lot of things to commend it. It’s Old Florida a little bit, I think. It’s the same reason I stayed in the Marine Corps for 40 years: It’s the people. I just like them.

What’s the most important work you’re doing right now?

We just held a conference on hunger as a weapon. I saw it as a Centcom commander, around the world, so I’m interested in it. I want to find a larger space for what we do. We’re not always talking about the Russians and their nuclear weapons. Eventually something disastrous is going to happen here and we’ll take cyber security seriously.

We don’t now?

No, we don’t.

©2024 Tampa Bay Times.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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