In the annals of American politics Winning Modern Wars is an unusual book. Written–by Clark himself–between April and September of this year, it proceeds from an analysis of the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq to a comprehensive critique of Bush’s war on terror and on his national security policy generally. Possibly some other modern presidential candidate wrote a book such as this just before entering the race, but offhand I can’t think of one. Most of Clark’s views about the general direction of US foreign policy will sound familiar, for most are shared by the other major Democratic contenders. However, this book is nothing like the goo usually served up in campaign literature, for he is also a very good writer: logical, lucid and concise. Moreover, he has much of interest to say about military operations and the relationship–or lack of it–between specific campaigns and the overall US security strategy. He is well qualified for the task.
Many Army officers believe that the only job worth having, in peacetime as in war, is commanding troops, and that those who spend a substantial part of their career doing anything else can’t be real men or good officers. Clark has commanded troops. From 1969 to 1970 he served as a company commander in Vietnam, where he won a Silver Star for gallantry after being wounded in a skirmish. Later he commanded a tank battalion, an armored brigade and the First Cavalry Division. He also ran the National Training Center preparing troops for the Gulf War. Still, Clark has had problems with such officers. He is too much the intellectual for them, and at every turn in his career he took the opportunities offered to widen his horizons. He ended up with an inconvenient independence of mind.
Born in Chicago but raised in Arkansas by his mother and stepfather, a retired banker, Clark went through the public school system not far from Clinton’s birthplace in Hope. Offered scholarships to a number of prestigious colleges, he chose West Point–apparently because of a swim coach and mentor who had served in World War II. In 1966 he graduated first in his class and went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. After his tour in Vietnam, he returned to West Point to teach economics and political philosophy. Later he studied at the Army Command and General Staff College–and again graduated first in his class. Chosen in 1975 to be a White House Fellow, he worked for a year in the Office of Management and Budget, learning the ways of Washington. His subsequent assignments took him to Germany and then to NATO headquarters in Brussels. Along the way he held several staff jobs analyzing military performance in past conflicts. In one of them he helped draft the Army’s account of its actions in the Gulf War. In 1994 Clark became director for strategic plans and policy on the Joint Staff in Washington and spent much of his time in shuttle diplomacy in the Balkans and acting as senior military negotiator at the Bosnia peace talks in Dayton the next year. He ended his career as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, having led NATO through its first war to the successful occupation of Kosovo. His determination to win that war and to stop Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of the province made him enemies in the Pentagon. The Joint Chiefs did not consider the war a priority, and they resisted his urgent requests to make preparations for a ground attack to back up the bombing campaign. Clark was forced to retire three months early. His first book, Waging Modern War, is a memoir of the period and a revealing look at NATO and Pentagon politics.
Structurally, Winning Modern Wars parallels Clark’s trajectory from being a retired four-star general and CNN’s senior military analyst for the invasion this past spring to a Democratic contender for the presidency this fall. Yet there is method in his manner of proceeding from the specific to the general and from a stellar operation to its context and consequences.