Beware the lure of Sanitized Warfare

WASHINGTON, Jun 26, 2000 -- (Reuters) Dying in a combat zone is the big risk that all professional soldiers expect to take, and today's consuming desire to avoid or eradicate it will not serve the United States in the long run.

This was the core parting shot to Pentagon brass from former NATO supreme commander General Wesley Clark, who retired from the U.S. Army last Friday in a full-dress military ceremony at Fort Meyer, Washington.

As an uncomfortable message from an independent-minded officer some peers regard as a loose cannon, it was veiled, though only loosely, in code.

"What better to fight for than what you believe in and value?" Clark said. "If there's nothing worth fighting and maybe dying for, then maybe there's nothing worth living for."

The musings of most retired generals do not attract attention for long. But as the commander, who led NATO into its first war, Clark's forthcoming memoirs of the Kosovo campaign can expect close study. He has not disclosed when they may be published, but the thrust of his thinking is coming clear.

Last year after 78 days of air raids, often from altitudes set by the concern to avoid casualties at all costs, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic folded his hand, pulled out his forces, and handed over control of Kosovo to NATO.

He had either taken enough of the strategic bombing that obliterated Serbia's refineries and bridges, and put out the lights in Belgrade, or he had become convinced that NATO had steeled itself to go all the way and launch a land invasion.

Maybe it was a little of both, but only Milosevic knows for sure, and he is not saying.


The Yugoslav leader holds the answer to a key question.

If he succumbed - without a single NATO boot on the ground - to an irresistible onslaught of precision-guided munitions fired from near invulnerable aircraft, then the war marked a breakthrough to a new military era and will powerfully shape tomorrow's forces and defense budgets.

Not a single NATO soldier or pilot was lost in combat.

But if he reckoned that Clark, like any Caesar before him, was preparing to march NATO legions into his country, he may have concluded that to resist and inflict casualties - as the Serb army surely could have done - would result inevitably in the punitive occupation of all Serbia and his certain removal.

In this case, it was not the high-tech silver bullet that made Milosevic bow to international demands but well-justified fear of a much more traditional threat, not to expendable Kosovo but to his own regime.

There are no NATO boots in Belgrade today and Milosevic remains in power, with a land army largely intact and under his control, able to threaten Kosovo or internal opponents and perhaps encouraged by a belief that the 19 NATO allies are unlikely ever to summon up renewed consensus for renewed war.

This outcome was dictated by NATO's clearly limited goals for a conflict it insisted was never a war against Serbia. If the goal had been a change of power in Belgrade, then the mission obviously failed.

Clark seems in no doubt that the credible threat of ground assault was key in Milosevic's calculations.

Task Force Hawk, a formidable U.S. Army Apache assault helicopter and tactical missile force, was deployed to Albania only at his stubborn insistence with the White House and against the advice of Pentagon superiors.

It was never used. But on Friday, the general said merely deploying Hawk had made "a decisive strategic contribution".

He also stressed that in addition to doubling, tripling the number of aircraft for Operation Allied Force, "we worked our way towards the ground invasion, to ensure this wouldn't be another Vietnam".

Clark was determined that if armies were to clash on the ground, there would be no long quagmire: the alliance would use its overwhelming superiority to ensure that much at least, although it could never guarantee a casualty-free victory.

This latter fact underlay indecisiveness Clark feels he encountered at the Pentagon as he tried to ramp up the war.

What the allies faced in the Kosovo campaign was "not shown in the manuals on the Revolution in Military Affairs", he said in his retirement speech. And it did not fit easily with Pentagon doctrine for dealing with two major theatre wars.

It was about humanitarian values, not oil or global strategy, and in Clark's view there will be similar challenges in the future requiring a bolder approach that breaches current dogma.

Without expanding, he called in his speech for new structures and "a new mentality" to deal with these challenges, urging Army leadership to "give us a mission and send us in".

The general, indelibly marked by his combat experience in Vietnam, where he was wounded, apparently riled superiors with his personal conviction that only the readiness to fight and win a full-scale war would deter Milosevic.

His minimum normal stay as NATO Supreme Commander Europe was clipped by a couple of months in what some insiders said was an obvious mark of official displeasure.

But as his final Army biography acknowledged, 22 allied nations bestowed military honors on Clark, bestowing their own medals in a quiet, unilateral but clear way of applauding his commitment to the core principles of the 50-year-old alliance.

Original article