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Why Wesley Clark Got the Ax at NATO

Edward N. Luttwak is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington

Defeated generals are sent home in disgrace, but it is most unusual to dismiss victorious ones. Whatever the future may hold for Kosovo--and it looks rather grim at present--there is no doubt that NATO’s war against Serbia ended in victory. Nor is it in doubt that its military commander, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, was very much the victorious general of that war.

So why was Clark fired? The official answer is that he wasn’t fired at all, but merely asked to accommodate his successor at NATO, Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, by stepping aside a bit early. That is all very plausible except that any four-star general can be parked in a special assignment while awaiting a new command. Because Ralston is especially well-liked, nobody would have objected to the exception.

So why was Clark fired? There were the usual tactical disagreements inevitable in any war, as well as a typical clash of perspectives between the commander in charge of a regional war who wanted all possible forces and the Pentagon chiefs who must also worry about all the other potential wars around the globe. That is all very normal and has happened many times before.

A Bigger Issue

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Yet the implication that Clark was fired because of normal disagreements between the center and the periphery, between the Pentagon and a regional commander, is utterly misleading. Something much bigger was at work: Clark was caught in the middle of an extremely muddled and controverted transition between two forms of warfare.

One is very familiar, because the entire structure of the U.S. armed forces is built on it: classic war, fought by Army infantry, Marines storming ashore, armored forces, artillery, attack helicopters, fighter-bombers that dive low to attack the enemy, as well as strike aircraft and bombers that operate more safely with stand-off weapons, and the entire panoply of naval forces of course. That is what the U.S. Defense budget purchases--both equipment that may last 30 years and the training and operating “readiness” that must be bought afresh every day, like cut flowers.

To fight classic war, both equipment and readiness are certainly needed, but so is a willingness to accept casualties. Without that, the Pentagon with its 13 Army and Marine divisions resembles a man with 13 luxurious cars and one gallon of gasoline. Blood has become the limiting factor on the conduct of war, not arms or ammunition.

Recent evidence not only from Somalia, which we evacuated after 20 servicemen were killed, but also from the 1991 Gulf War (when a full-scale U.S. Marine amphibious landing was canceled at the last minute because of a few sea mines), suggests that the United States does not differ from Russia or indeed any other advanced society with 2.2 children per family or less. When the entire emotional capital of families is invested in one or two children instead of the four or five or six of World War I and World War II families, there are no expendable children whose death in combat is ultimately acceptable. Once willing to accept hundreds of casualties per day as the normal cost of warfare, today’s United States will accept very few, if any at all.

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It is not just draft-dodging, weak-willed presidents who refuse to tolerate the casualties of a deliberately started war, but the entire political elite and society as a whole, including the military, much as they might deny it. To be sure, the high priests of the military will carefully explain that they only refuse to accept casualties in “operations other than war"--OOTW--as in insignificant, not-worth-dying-for Somalia, for example. The implication, of course, is that there is a magical condition called “war” in which important interests are at stake, for which all necessary casualties will be accepted.

Yet, when the Kosovo war unexpectedly turned into NATO’s fight for survival as a functioning military organization and key U.S. strategic asset and when the prolongation of the fighting caused by ultra-cautious tactics dangerously eroded U.S. relations with Russia and China, the U.S. Army still refused to risk a few symbolic Apaches; the U.S. Marines still refused to fly their Harriers as low as they were designed to fly; the U.S. Air Force still made no use of the A-10’s powerful antitank gun, and all fighter-bombers involved only attacked targets when it could be done in almost perfect safety. And of course, the European allies of the United States were even more cautious, so that it was safer to fly a NATO aircraft over Serbia than to be a passenger on some Third World airlines.

In other words, the entire “national interests” argument is a mere rationalization: The Pentagon obdurately insisted that Kosovo remain a not-worth-dying-for OOTW just like Somalia, even when it became very clear that important U.S. interests were endangered by the way the war was fought.

The truth is that when countries are still willing to fight and accept casualties, they will do so with slight provocation; when they no longer tolerate combat and its casualties, they invent clever new reasons for avoiding them in virtually any circumstances except immediate self-defense. Thus any war that the U.S. is likely to fight--unless Mexico attacks across the Rio Grande--will be classified as an OOTW not worth dying for, raising the huge question of what use it is to keep the present array of forces replete with ground units, attack helicopters and fighter bombers that are not usable in combat without some risk of casualties. (Peacekeeping forces designed as such would be much cheaper.)

A Modern Alternative

Historically, when nations lost the capacity to fight and die, they hired mercenaries. But modern technology offers the alternative of the new kind of war now seen in action against Serbia: post-heroic war, fought without casualties by remote bombardment alone, with cruise missiles and with aircraft operating from very safe altitudes. To protect their traditional array of forces, the Pentagon staffs, like the military bureaucracies of other NATO countries, must pretend that they are all still usable in war, that the infantry, armor and the rest are ready for combat.

Clark, of course, knew better. He himself prepared for a much longer air campaign than many others expected by ordering minimum-risk air operations. Nevertheless, the pressures of the war forced Clark to call the Pentagon’s bluff, in the case of Apaches, publicly exposing the gap between pretended “combat readiness” and the refusal to accept its real-life risks. He could hardly be forgiven for that.


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