Waging Modern War

A Veritable Brag Fest
New books dissected over email.
July 17 2001 11:32 AM

Waging Modern War

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Dear Debra,

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One anecdote in this overlong book sums up its tone and content. New to the Balkan crisis, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark telephones Joe Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and describes the call this way: "'Sir, I'm sorry to wake you. What's up?' I almost always called him 'Sir.' He was a year senior by date of rank to four stars, a year older, and was above me in the U.S. chain of command." Waging Modern War must have more Sirs in it than any book since Boswell's Life of Johnson--and there's a reason for that.

It's dressed up as the autobiography of a war hero. It has:

  • about 50 pages on Clark's childhood in Chicago and Arkansas, his education at West Point and Oxford (as a Rhodes scholar), his Vietnam experience (a Purple Heart for his wounds leading a jungle platoon), and his rise through the army ranks;
  • 100 pages on his learning the ropes of the Balkan conflict in Bosnia;
  • 250 pages on the Kosovo campaign of 1999, which Clark led militarily, in his role as Supreme Allied Commander--Europe (SACEUR), and in which his plans to escalate the war through personnel-killing Apache helicopters and 200,000 American ground troops were (thank God) consistently rebuffed by Washington;
  • and then 50 more pages of would-be Clausewitzian theorizing on the new realities of "modern war"--by which term Clark means war waged in a time of remote-control weaponry and round-the-clock cable news.

But at the book's core is an agenda of score-settling and ass-covering--and there's plenty of both to do. I don't really see the difference between "modern war," as Clark describes it, and a cynical kind of media savvy. ("For large democracies, the home front is the critical theater of war, and words and images are the key weapons.") Like his fellow airwave-hog Richard Holbrooke, the State Department's special negotiator in the run-up to the Kosovo bombing, Clark sought to wage the war by chatting up Tom Brokaw and Christiane Amanpour. He made end-runs around the U.S. Army chain of command and leaked information to other branches of government (State, in particular) and other governments (Britain's, in particular). This won Clark a reputation for flexibility with Holbrooke and Albright and the esteem of both NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana and British Prime Minister Tony Blair--so much esteem, in the latter case, that Clark was recently knighted.

But at the same time, his methods led him into a propagandistic press strategy that was transparent to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to the war. And they hurt him in U.S. military circles, where he was considered a showboating egotist and a devious political operator. Defense Secretary William Cohen told Clark, through Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hugh Shelton, "Get your fucking face off the TV." Shelton didn't trust him. Nor did Gen. Eric Shinseki, subsequently Army chief. And once the Kosovo operation was finished, Cohen--with no objection from President Clinton--ended Clark's tour of duty early. In essence, sacked him. Last month, the European edition of the U.S. military magazine Stars and Stripes carried an article asking how Clark came to receive a Kosovo Campaign Medal since you had to have either 30 consecutive or 60 nonconsecutive days in the Balkans to get one--and Clark had spent the war at NATO headquarters in Belgium. The implication was that he'd connived for it. And you'll notice the coolness with which this book has been received in top U.S. military circles.

Clark is trying to re-spin his own role at almost every turn in the crisis. "State and Pentagon battled out the issues," he writes. "I was occasionally asked my opinion, but this was a Washington fight. I kept my head down." And later: "Holbrooke didn't call routinely, and I always listened to what he said. But of course, I didn't take orders from him." Clark's Army colleagues will howl at such sentences.

What a brag fest this memoir is. One of the things Clark harps on--and he's a hectoring, preachy, anecdote-averse writer--is the importance of personality in war. He thinks his is just terrific, and on the off-chance that we don't, he's assiduously catalogued every compliment he's ever received from anyone: "One soldier sent a nice letter saying I was like Clint Eastwood." ... "A few weeks later, General Shalikashvili told me, 'Wes, you are the most well-known general in Europe.' " ... "I looked over to the British representative, Pauline Neville-Jones, for support. She had won high honors at Oxford as an undergraduate, and I felt she might be sympathetic to my approach." Oh--and pretty much everyone calls him "Sir."

Waging Modern War, in fact, frequently reminds me of Jeffrey Frank's hilarious recent novel, The Columnist, in which a Washington climber tries to take credit for pretty much every social advance of the last half-century. There's a stunning passage in which Clark describes a 1983 meeting with Colin Powell, in which the two of them were drafting a transition memo to the new Army chief of staff:

Emboldened, I suggested a line of argument: "Isn't the most important thing never to commit U.S. troops again unless we're going in to win? No more gradualism and holding back like in Vietnam, but go in with overwhelming force?" Again, Powell agreed, and we put it in the introduction.

In other words, Clark is claiming to be the real inventor of the Powell doctrine.

As you may perhaps glean, I was not (to put it mildly) a big fan of the Kosovo operation in the first place, and I think Clark was one of its least honorable and most self-serving participants. I'd be curious to know whether you think his record of the conflict is straight or slanted.

Best,
Chris

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