bosnia report
New Series No: 27-28 January - May 2002
Wrong wars
by Martin Woollacott

Waging Modern War, General Wesley K. Clark, 486pp, Public Affairs Ltd, £19.99

Unfinest Hour, Brendan Simms,462pp, Allen Lane, £18.99

The War in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, eds Branka Magaš and Ivo ðanic, 387pp, Frank Cass, £45hb/£19.50pb

Nobody starts a war, Clausewitz wrote, ‘or, rather, no one in his senses ought to do so, without being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.’ It is a principle that has often been violated. Never more so than in the conflicts of the last years of the 20th century - and, it seems possible, in the first serious conflict of the 21st. Whether Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein truly had clear objectives may be doubted. Equally, we may now be overestimating Osama bin Laden's capacities by inflating him into a sort of Napoleon of terrorism. But it is clear that the response to such challenges has not exhibited the clarity of aim and means that Clausewitz recommends. Muddle and hesitation, misguided compromise with the perpetrators of atrocities and the initiators of wars, seesaws of public opinion, and dissent among allies have marked the diplomatic and military efforts of Western nations in a critical decade.

It can be argued that those who win wars do so because they have a better understanding of both the past and the future than their opponents. To draw out the threads that connect the struggles of recent years is thus not only interesting, but may be vital. General Wesley Clark tries in his book to draw the right lessons from the years of western engagement in the Balkans and in particular from his time as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, which was dominated by the campaign to force Miloševic out of Kosovo. It is an account not uncoloured by resentment. Shortly after NATO's victory in Kosovo, General Clark was in effect sacked. He had given his American superiors in Washington the wrong war at the wrong time. Yet this personal disappointment also illustrates, as Clark sees it, one of the most important lessons to be learned from Kosovo. It is one, he has said, as applicable to Afghanistan and the campaign against terrorism as it was in the Balkans.

That lesson is the power of denial. The American armed forces were supposed to be ready to fight two wars, one in Korea and one in the Gulf, if necessary simultaneously. Their leaders were peculiarly uninterested in other conflicts, to the point of denying that they existed. Even their commitment to the Gulf and Korea was not entirely straightforward, since the two-war standard was adopted in part as a way of extracting maximum resources from the government. But the problem went deeper. As it recovered after 1975, the army had organized itself in such a way as to minimize the possibility that it could be used in anything except the kind of total, all-stops-out war that it believed it had been prevented from waging in Vietnam. The war against Iraq fitted this template to some extent. But nothing else did.

Modern conflict was happening in places that the US army did not want to know about and in ways that it did not care to understand. The institutional obstinacy of the armed forces was reinforced by the huge sensitivity of politicians to the possibility of casualties. On the eve of the 50th-anniversary summit of NATO, at a time when it was clear that air power alone would not be enough to get Milosevic out of Kosovo, the Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, warned Clark: ‘Nothing about ground troops. We have to make this air campaign work, or we'll both be writing our resumés.’ That is why he found himself faced with a defence establishment in Washington ready, as he puts it, to withhold ‘forces for two hypothetical wars while losing an actual war in Europe’.

To Europeans, the man who has the job that Eisenhower first held is an enormously important officer, surely almost equal with the brass in  Washington. But to that brass, as Clark makesunhappily clear, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe is just a regional commander, and not the most important one at that. As he tried to respond to European needs and to Milosevic's challenge to NATO, Clark was often bypassed, ignored, or even abused by his superior officers.

What he was doing, meanwhile, was waging war as he believes it now has to be waged. Such wars are based on alliances or coalitions that must be delicately maintained. They are waged with precision weapons that raise the expectation of ‘surgical’ strikes but which are not sufficiently precise to avoid substantial collateral damage to both people and things. They are waged, more than most past wars, for psychological advantage as well as for physical objectives. And they are subject to unremitting attention from the media, intensifying the public expectation that the military campaign will bring swift results without serious casualties among the forces employed or among civilians in the area of operations.

Jack Straw's recent complaints about the ‘24-hour media machine’ are no doubt justified, but Clark's account shows that governments and even some general staffs often came up with exactly the same contradictory and naive demands as did the newspapers and TV programmes. They may well be doing so now, as Clark has speculated, over Afghanistan, with the politicians demanding of the military why they are so ineffective and the military responding that they have been given tasks to which they are not suited and for which they are not properly equipped. What he calls ‘the dichotomy between political aims and military means’ is especially evident today.

American hesitancy over Kosovo, combined with European wavering, could have lost us the war there. British resolve was one reason why this did not happen. But earlier on, Britain had had an even greater influence on Balkan policy, and one for the worse. Brendan Simms probes this grave British failure, at once moral, military, and political, in his sharply condemnatory Unfinest Hour. Sadly it is all justified. As Yugoslavia disintegrated, the British government, heavily influenced by the Foreign Office under Douglas Hurd, decided that Bosnia was not rescuable and that Serbia would emerge as the winner. Useless to try to prevent such an outcome, thought these ‘conservative pessimists’, as Simms calls them. Lifting the arms embargo that put Bosnia-Herzegovina at such a disadvantage would only prolong the suffering. But troops could be sent to oversee the delivery of humanitarian aid.

As Adrian Hastings says in a contribution to The War in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the British had found a ‘secret weapon’ in the ‘combination of insistence on the arms embargo with a military presence to protect humanitarian aid’. It was a combination that froze Western policy in the worst possible posture. The British military, meanwhile, brought to Bosnia attitudes conditioned by their experiences during decolonization and in Northern Ireland. The tendency, in spite of much honourable work by our soldiers, was to see only quarrelsome natives, between whom there was little to choose. General Michael Rose was the epitome of this approach. General Rupert Smith, who followed Rose as Sarajevo commander, courageously departed from it, although without encouragement or understanding in Whitehall.

Simms quotes Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the distinguished Polish politician who reported on human rights for the UN in the Balkans, as saying: ‘Every time there was a likelihood of effective action’ to deter the Serbs, ‘a particular Western statesman intervened to prevent it.’ That statesman was Douglas Hurd, a civilized and decent man who was nevertheless profoundly wrong about former Yugoslavia. The war that Hurd and the British Conservative government thought was going on was not the one that was actually under way. The real war was, first of all, an inter-state war, not the civil war to which the British so often referred. Perhaps the British knew that, but preferred not to admit it. What they genuinely did not grasp was that the real war was also one that the Serbs were losing, not winning, almost from the day they started it. The great virtue of The War in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina is how completely it clarifies these two issues.

Most Serbs, whether in Serbia proper or in Bosnia or Croatia, did not want to fight for Greater Serbia. The Serbs had deep problems of motivation and manpower from the beginning. Some of them had imagined they would take Sarajevo and the lion's share of Bosnia in a week or so, but soon found themselves over-extended and vulnerable, and faced by Bosnian forces that could offer a strong defence and, later, a strong offence as well.

Three things gave Serbia the edge, for a while. First, they had more heavy weapons. Second, Western policy helped them enormously, buttressing their territorial holdings and helping them politically by going down the partitionist path. Third, and most important, they had Franjo Tudjman, whose belief in an eventual partition of Bosnia between Serbia and Croatia led him to hold back Croatian forces at critical moments in the conflict. Croatia's sins of omission were as important as Serbia's sins of commission in determining the fate of Bosnia. The combined combat power of the Croatian and Bosnian armed forces was from the start almost sufficient to roll back the Serbs, perhaps all the way to the Sava. When that combat power was eventually unlocked, the Serbs scrambled for peace. But they still got their chunk of Bosnia, because of another Croatian staying of the hand and because the outside powers still saw the solution as partition, if of a softer variety. The damage done to all the peoples of former Yugoslavia, with the partial exception of the Slovenes and the Macedonians, was horrendous.

Both Clark and one of the contributors to The War in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina quote the same passage of Clausewitz, which points so clearly toward the need to understand the nature of the conflicts into which peoples and nations are thrust. Misunderstand the conflict, and you will either fight the wrong war, fight when you should not fight at all, or fail to fight when that is the only right course. The Balkan wars exhibit all three possibilities, and the conflict that began on September 11 carries the same potential for error, with the rider that the stakes today are even higher.


This review article appeared in The Guardian (London), 3 November 2001


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