Chains of Command

Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Future of Combat

by Wesley K. Clark
Public Affairs, 479 pp., $30.00


When the general who fought the Kosovo war is fired six weeks after winning it, it’s a safe bet to assume that the Pentagon and the American military establishment never wanted to fight it in the first place. The end came for Wesley Clark when he was having dinner with the Lithuanian president in Vilnius, on a victory lap tour of European capitals in late July 1999. General Hugh Shelton, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs, reached Clark on his cell phone and told him that William S. Cohen, secretary of defense, had decided to replace him with Joe Ralston, a top Air Force general on Shelton’s staff. Clark writes that he “stood there, stunned…. I returned to the restaurant for dessert with President Adamkus. I had my game face on, but it was a dark moment.”

Clark’s book tells the story of a commander who won a war in the field and lost it in Washington. It is a brutally explicit account, by a bitterly disappointed man who strives to maintain a judicious tone, of how a central constitutional requirement of the American political system—civilian control of the military—acts to frustrate a commander in the field. As Clark says, he was “at the waist of the hour-glass.” Above him, everything was political; below, everything military. To hear him tell it, below was never a problem. Above was unmanageable. Officials at the Pentagon thought he wanted too much—too many helicopters, planes, and missiles—and the more he asked for, the more the Pentagon, especially Defense Secretary William Cohen, who was never keen on “Madeleine Albright’s war” in the first place, came to feel that their uppity field commander had to go.

Looking back, Clark should have seen it coming. In late April 1999, after he told the press that his air campaign might be not doing anything much to stop the flow of Serb troop reinforcements into Kosovo, and The New York Times reported, “NATO Chief Admits Bombs Fail to Stem Serb Operations,” Clark received an irate phone call from Hugh Shelton:

The Secretary of Defense asked me to give you some verbatim guidance, so here it is: “Get your f——g face off the TV. No more briefings, period. That’s it.”

This certainly helps to explain another puzzle: why Clark did not appear in public to brief the press from around April 27 until victory on June 12. The attempt to keep Clark muzzled began even earlier. At the Washington NATO summit, on April 23, William Cohen and Sandy Berger, the national security adviser, tried to prevent Clark from briefing the assembled NATO leaders. When Clark forced his way in, using pressure from NATO Secretary General Javier Solana to get him there, he was kept away from President Clinton, and he was firmly told by Cohen that his briefings should take the option of using ground forces off the table: “Nothing about ground forces,” Cohen said. “We have to make this air campaign work, or we’ll both be…

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