The Melting Point

High Command and War in the 21st Century

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As the Commander of U.S. Central Command, General Frank McKenzie oversaw some of the most important — and controversial operations in modern U.S. military history. He had direct operational responsibility for the strikes on Qassem Soleimani and two successive leaders of ISIS, the many months of deterrence operations against Iran and its proxies, and the methodical drawdown in Iraq. He directed the noncombatant evacuation operation in Afghanistan, and our final withdrawal from that tortured country.  
The Melting Point has three themes. The first one is the importance of the primacy of civilian control of the military. It has become a widely perceived truth that this control has been eroded over the past few years. General McKenzie doesn’t believe that to be the case, and he speaks with some authority on the matter arguing that the civ-mil relationship isn’t perfect or frictionless, but it doesn’t have to be, and probably shouldn’t be. It is, however, more durable than many believe, and is supported and embraced by the military to a degree that some critics do not choose to recognize. 
The second theme is the uniqueness of being a combatant commander. Combatant commanders participate in the development of policy, although as junior partners.  They are also responsible for the execution of policy once civilian leaders have formulated their decision, a unique position, and very different than the role of a service chief, or even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. None of these officers are in the chain of command, and they have no ultimate, mortal responsibility or authority for execution. Only the combatant commander stands astride the boundary of decision-making and execution. 
Finally, the third theme that McKenzie argues is that leaders matter, and the decisions they make have a profound effect on what happens on the battlefield. McKenzie provides an honest assessment of his time in command—describing decisions that were sound, as well as some outcomes he wishes were different. He offers a vivid portrait of leadership in action in one of the most volatile regions of the world. 

About the Author

Editorial Reviews

"If we didn’t have a leatherneck warrior-scholar like Frank McKenzie, we would have to invent one. Through the lens of his last twenty years of military service Frank brings us to a realization of the complexities of a senior officer’s life. From the sausage-making of defense policy to the gut-wrenching decisions that affect young service members’ lives, General McKenzie bares it all. Unsparing in his observations, even when it affects himself negatively, he makes clear to us the understanding that life as a combatant commander is one of constant second guessing, no spare time, and a constant lack of perfect knowledge. He lived with terrorism and terrorists and was the decision maker for the notable elimination of several of the most bloody minded of these miscreants. General McKenzie makes it clear that, notwithstanding the improvements in intelligence and communication, a commander needs today what military leaders have always relied upon—experience, trust in subordinates, and a gut instinct. Thank God General McKenzie was there for us at a most perilous time for this nation and followed his gut."—Ambassador Richard Armitage, former Deputy Secretary of State and Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs
"General Frank McKenzie led U.S. Central Command during one of the most critical, volatile times in recent military history. The Melting Point tells the extraordinary story of his tenure in an utterly compelling, even gripping way. This book’s candor and sophistication brings the reader into the room as difficult, dangerous, and consequential decisions are made. McKenzie’s insights and lessons form a master class in leadership, military and otherwise. This is an important, wonderfully written account by a key actor in recent global history."—Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer, Center for a New American Security
"The Melting Point is neither the first nor the last memoir about the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is one of the most candid and insightful accounts from a seasoned U.S. military commander. This is a must-read book for anyone who wants to ensure we learn the hard lessons of this chapter in our history."—Michele Flournoy, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy
"General Frank McKenzie is one of the most thoughtful, competent, and experienced leaders of his generation. In The Melting Point, he shares insightful and invaluable lessons about the Central Command Region and command at the strategic level. He writes with candor, clarity, and informed analysis. A must-read for senior military leaders, those interested in the region, and anyone seeking insight into national security decision making."—Gen. Joseph Dunford, USMC (Ret.) former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Commandant of the Marine Corps, and Commander in Afghanistan
"General McKenzie’s The Melting Point is a riveting and clear-eyed account of U.S. military engagement in the Middle East and Afghanistan between 2019 and 2022.  It is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the dynamics of the Middle East, the contest between the U.S. and Iran; the U.S. and ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban; and the general calculations of U.S. power.  Gen. McKenzie’s book follows in the tradition of other military leaders who have shared their experiences, a tradition that stretches all the way back to Roman times.   It is a tribute to the values of an open society, and a tribute to General McKenzie, who is a strong believer in civilian control of the military, that a top general shares his experience not only with civilian leaders, but with the general public that is the ultimate authority in a democratic society." —Dr. Paul Salem, President and CEO, Middle East Institute
"General Frank McKenzie USMC is the embodiment of the meritocracy that is the U.S. Armed Forces, an institution like no other in the United States. Over four decades General McKenzie commanded at every level and served in ever more demanding staff assignments as well—in peacetime and in combat. Through his many years of service, he achieved the leadership, thinking, staff and decision-making skills that are common in our military men and women, and an understanding that war is indeed a political act and one that should be used in most instances as a last resort. He also came to understand, as all senior officers eventually come to understand, that what drives decisions on one side of the Potomac River is oftentimes vastly different than what takes place on the northern side of that river. The filters used to view issues are not even understood by most in the military. There are endless lessons to be gleaned from this superb work, and it is well worth the read and study by policy makers on both sides of the river."—Gen. John Kelly, USMC (Ret.), former Commander U.S. Southern Command, Secretary of Homeland Security, and Chief of Staff to the President
"A superb, exceedingly forthright, and very compelling reflection by an exceptional military leader who strived to accomplish tough missions in hard places against determined enemies – as wavering support in Washington repeatedly undermined the effort on the ground.  A must-read for political and military leaders – and a very instructive chronicle for all Americans as we assess our important role in the world."—Gen. David Petraeus, USA (Ret.), former Commander of the Surge in Iraq, US Central Command, and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan, former Director of the CIA, co-author of Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine    
"The Melting Point is the spiritual successor to Into the Storm and Battle Ready for how it places the reader into the mind of a senior military leader and offers greater understanding of the role of the military and what it can do. It is a welcome contribution of supreme relevance and will be of use to policymakers, military leaders, and historians... a deeply relevant and important book in understanding contemporary national security policy and US relations with the nations that fall under CENTCOM’s remit."—The Cipher Brief
"A fascinating read. Both on Middle East politics and one heck of a daring assassination. Very gripping!"—Elizabeth Vargas, News Nation
"The Melting Point offers a gripping and insightful exploration into the intricate dynamics of global military strategy and leadership. As a former commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen McKenzie brings a wealth of experience and a keen analytical eye to the complex interplay of political, military, and cultural forces shaping modern conflicts. The Melting Point is a valuable resource for military professionals and civilian readers interested in global security issues. One of the key strengths of the book is Gen McKenzie’s ability to present complex military concepts in a practical and accessible manner. His clear and engaging writing style, coupled with real-life examples, not only adds authenticity and depth to his arguments but also underscores the book’s real-world relevance. This makes the book a valuable resource for both experts and general readers seeking a deeper understanding of contemporary military strategy and leadership. McKenzie’s insights into leadership are also very compelling. The Melting Point is not only a significant contribution to military studies but also a book that has the potential to broaden readers’ perspectives on global security challenges—a worthwhile read for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of these challenges’ multifaceted nature."—National Security Institute
"In his book, recently retired General Kenneth F. McKenzie gives us a unique glimpse into a world of history, strategy, and national decision-making from the singular perspective of a combatant commander. There are many useful insights on history, strategy, leadership, military culture, and even introspection to take from The Melting Point."—The National Interest
"It's a richly detailed, highly readable, no-punches-pulled account of his three years as combatant commander at CENTCOM..."—Colette Bancroft, Book Review Editor, Tampa Times

More Info

Interview with Michael Smerconish on his POTUS program and Book Club, June 5, 2024. Interview starts at 2:04.


Excerpt in The National Interest, June 2, 2024


By Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr.


Excerpt in The Atlantic, May 24, 2024


Inside the decision to assassinate Iran’s ruthless general

By Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr.


Op-Ed in The New York Times, February 14, 2024


By Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr.


Op-Ed in The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2024


The Iranians are rational. They can be deterred if the U.S. has the will to use force when necessary

By Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr.