Waging Modern War

Clark: Not a War Criminal
New books dissected over email.
July 20 2001 1:52 PM

Waging Modern War

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Chris, Debra:

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Look, I haven't even read this book, nor do I intend to. But I welcome Debra's call for a dissent since it strikes me that there are some oversimplifications in your rush to judgment that Wes Clark is a bad human being, this is a bad book, and everything he ever did is evil. I have no problem with your objections to his personal qualities, which I'm sure are based on a close reading, but the collateral attacks on the Kosovo campaign have about as much accuracy as the bomb that hit the Chinese embassy.

What was so "shameful" about putting a stop to a brutal campaign of murder, rape, and depopulation? Is there any serious foreign policy thinker who would argue that the European situation was better in March 1999, when the bloodletting started, than it was in June, when Allied Force had achieved its goals and Milosevic capitulated?

No war is perfect, or even close to it. They're all horrible. They all kill civilians. But let's not let outside factors obscure the main point: In the spring of 1999, thousands of helpless Kosovars were being hunted down by Serb soldiers. Those they didn't mass-execute (all the males they could find, including old men and children) flooded neighboring countries, with the result that by the end of the spring there were over half a million refugees in Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, and Bosnia--not exactly the most stable places to begin with. The U.N. estimated that somewhere between 1.2 and 1.5 million Kosovars were forced from their homes--almost the entire population of the province. About 400 villages were burned. What were we supposed to do, play badminton?

And I'd like to add specific counterarguments, mainly to Chris. Who exactly were we "losing" the war to in the late spring? Was Serbia on the verge of defeating NATO? If so, Clark must be a genius to have won. But of course, we never were going to lose. And it's inaccurate to call Thaci's ragtag UCK forces "ground troops," or to suggest a vast U.S. government conspiracy to use them as such, simply because someone hugged someone after the conflict. There was so much sound and fury over ground troops, then and now, that it's worth pointing out some crucial facts. First, it's unfair to suggest that American domestic opposition to ground troops was unimportant--it was not, though it would not have blocked the eventual use of troops if they were needed. Second, no one ever bothers to remember that the use of ground troops would have enraged our Russian "allies," who were barely restraining their irritation as it was, but still played a crucial symbolic role in the campaign. Finally, and most convincingly, ground troops were simply not necessary. For all the caterwauling (largely from Clinton-haters), the fact remains that the aerial campaign accomplished everything it set out to do, and without a single American combat casualty. I'm sorry if that offends great leaders like Trent Lott, who opposed this humanitarian intervention while it was expedient, but of course would have squealed like a stuck pig if Clinton had failed to act.

Kosovo is still a basket case, and will be for some time. But it's a basket case where people are generally not allowed to roam the countryside killing and raping each other, and where the skies are no longer orange from burning rooftops. That is an improvement.

It's terrible and wrong that civilians and journalists and Chinese embassy workers were killed in the course of this conflict. But Wes Clark is not a war criminal--Slobodan Milosevic is. And the reason he now sits in a jail cell in The Hague is that the world community indicted him in May 1999 for committing countless atrocities that receive no mention in your heated correspondence.  Without him, Serbia has a good chance to rejoin that community and deserves all of our help.

I didn't mean to write such a long e-mail, but Kosovo was important, then and now, and we have to get the record right.

Best,
Ted

This week, Slate's Book Clubbers examine Waging Modern War, Gen. Wesley Clark's treatise on the future of combat. Click here for an explanation of our format and here to buy the book.

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