Editor's note: Chris Taylor is the CEO of Mission Essential Personnel and provides pro bono training and exercise support to the MARO Project. Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni is the former commander of U.S. Central Command and the chairman of BAE Systems, Inc.
(CNN) -- In the past 75 years, the world has been witness to genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, Srebrenica, Darfur and the Holocaust.
In a few weeks, the next mass atrocity could happen in East Africa.
As retired Adm. Dennis Blair, former U.S. director of National Intelligence, testified in 2010: "A number of countries in Africa and Asia are at significant risk for a new outbreak of mass killing. Among these countries, a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in southern Sudan."
In one week, the mostly Christian people of South Sudan will cast a historic vote to secede or not from the Muslim North. While the United States rightly pursues diplomatic solutions to what most believe will be a vote to secede, prudence demands military preparations for violence -- to include mass killings that could be carried out simultaneously by varied groups.
Should South Sudan vote to secede, North-on-South violence is probable. A secession vote could also create a scramble for power and retribution by marginalized tribes in the South, while posturing by outside provocateurs and regional states could also lead to unintended violence.
Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army could exploit violence in Sudan to cover its own killing of civilians, as could al-Shabaab in Somalia. All could result in mass killings, and all could require military responses.
But so could a withdrawal from Iraq, unrest in Central Asia, or cartel violence in Mexico -- and the United States is unprepared to respond to genocide or mass atrocities in any of these cases. Failing to respond to barbaric events of human slaughter is more than just a matter of political will or legal authority -- it is a result of the manifest lack of critical thinking about how military forces could respond when prevention fails.
The Obama administration has said many of the right things. The 2010 National Security Strategy proclaims the United States will "in certain instances ... use military means to prevent and respond to genocide and mass atrocities." The Pentagon's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review says the military will "prepare to defeat adversaries and succeed in a wide range of contingencies," to include "preventing human suffering due to mass atrocities." Even so, the United States has done little in the way of concrete planning should mass violence against civilians break out.
A concept and doctrine for response is long overdue. Genocide and mass atrocities present military planners with a unique set of challenges that have not been adequately addressed.
This gap leaves a critical void of information for geographic combatant commanders if they must deliver credible military options to the secretary of defense and the president.
Fortunately, the Mass Atrocity Response Operations Project addresses these challenges directly. Founded by Harvard professor Sarah Sewall, the MARO Project provides operational concepts and a planning framework for military response to mass violence against civilians.
The MARO Project joined with the U.S. Army's Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute to develop the operational concepts and planning tools, detailed in the MARO Handbook, that are required to create a wider range of response options.
President Dwight Eisenhower famously said: "The plan is useless; it's the planning that's important." The MARO planning framework forces planners, commanders and policymakers to consider the distinct operational and moral challenges they will encounter in the face of mass killing of civilians, and fleshes out the unique nuances specific to MARO.
It's not "us against them." In MARO, victims, perpetrators, interveners, and others (bystanders, other agencies, political missions, and NGOs) are the key figures. Making MARO significantly more complex is that other actors can become victims, perpetrators, or interveners; and victims can become perpetrators, and interveners can become victims.
It is essential to understand the critical impact these intertwining relationships can have on the scope and speed of violence or planning and carrying out an intervention. Genocide and mass atrocities can escalate quickly (Srebrenica) and in large numbers (Rwanda) or they can be slow and periodically flare (Darfur). In many cases, perpetrators have sped up their killing knowing they've been discovered and will be stopped.
Designed to be an ecumenical platform for adoption and adaptation by other militaries and international organizations such as the United Nations, NATO, and the European and African Unions, the MARO planning framework offers greater cooperation and a common operational picture when planning and responding.
Perhaps most important, by providing more clarity as to the complexity of responding militarily to mass killing of civilians, MARO may drive policymakers to pay more attention to the value of prevention efforts and provide them with the proper resources.
The MARO Project isn't just academic. It provides practical tools that governments have been unable to generate, but that are necessary to plan for real-world challenges like Sudan, and it also offers a more permanent framework for future government planning to halt mass atrocities.
Genocides don't follow bureaucratic policy timelines, they prey on them. The MARO framework provides clarity, increases the number of credible options, naturally attracts coalition partners, reduces decision times, and can deter perpetrators, ultimately saving lives.
MARO must become enshrined in military doctrine to be successful. Until that time, geographic combatant commanders should adopt the MARO planning framework, and they can do so without policies or directives. By leading the adoption process, they make it easier and more acceptable for international organizations and militaries to follow their lead.
We applaud the U.S. government for taking seriously the U.S. role in preventing and responding to genocide and mass atrocities. Prevention should always be the primary goal, but because it sometimes fails, we implore geographic combatant commanders to lead the way by adopting MARO now so that "never again" might become a reality.
The opinions in this commentary are solely those of the authors.