A Soldier’s Story

A Soldier’s Story

In the annals of American politics Winning Modern Wars is an unusual book.


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.

Clark begins with a detailed critique of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” the campaign to take Baghdad. His account of the invasion is marvelously lucid, and the book is well worth reading just for that. For example, he explains why the Iraqi command made a critical error when, in a classical military move, it ordered the Republican Guard divisions deployed around Baghdad to head south and face the American attack. But he has an argument, and it is this: The invasion had been meticulously planned over the course of fourteen months, yet for a variety of reasons (some logistical, some diplomatic, some still obscure) the buildup in Kuwait was far from complete on March 20, when the troops were ordered into Iraq. American and British commanders moved in with only three division-size forces and two separate brigades. Later two more US Army brigades were committed to the fight, but the other units slated to join them did not deploy until afterward. Thus the brilliantly successful campaign to oust the Baathist regime was waged by an extremely small force. In Clark’s view the victory demonstrated the effectiveness of the military transformation since the end of the cold war: that is, the integration of the services and the development of information technology and precision weapons. He believes the transformation permitted the United States to defeat Saddam’s divisions more quickly and with far fewer American or Iraqi civilian casualties than would have been the case had George Bush Sr. decided to move on Baghdad in 1991.

On the other hand, the victory did not, he contends, vindicate Rumsfeld’s view that the future of warfare lies entirely with small, agile ground forces and high-tech weaponry. To the contrary, he writes, the lessons taken from this campaign will be conservative. Yes, the forces assembled proved sufficient to defeat the badly equipped and badly led Iraqi divisions. But, as the unexpected resistance from Iraqi irregular forces showed, combat is one of the most unpredictable of human activities, and because lives are at stake, the whole idea of military planning is effectiveness, not efficiency. By skimping on forces the American command took unnecessary risks in battle–and it was unable to cope with the chaos that immediately followed the collapse of the Baathist regime.

Clark goes on to provide some answers to what has become a major question in recent months: Why was the planning for the post-Saddam period in Iraq so inadequate? In the first place, he points, as some journalists have, to the bureaucratic struggles within the Administration and to the rosy scenarios that went unchallenged among the top Pentagon civilians who eventually took charge of the enterprise. But he also points to more profound tendencies within the US government and Washington as a whole. The Army, he writes, has long resisted investing or engaging in peace operations, even though every recent conflict, from Panama to Kosovo, has required such operations to attain the desired objectives. One reason for this failure, he suggests, is that the Army’s mandate and historic task has been to fight high-intensity wars. Another is that the military-industrial complex makes its money off high-tech weaponry and not off such things as language training or the development of skills to deal with policing and legal systems. Furthermore, the Republican-controlled Congresses of the 1990s could be counted upon to vote against anything that smacked of “nation-building.” In the mid-1990s the Clinton Administration tried to create an interagency capability for dealing with failed states, such as Haiti and Somalia, but the effort never got very far, and the Bush Administration brushed it aside. Thus before the invasion there was no structure or organization within the US government with the expertise to plan for the future of Iraq–much less one with the resources to implement such a plan. Then, too, Clark writes, by going to war without international support and by refusing to cede any power over the political process afterward, Bush forfeited the help he might have received from other governments and from international organizations that had expertise and resources to contribute. The Army and the Iraqi people are now paying the price for these failures.

“All else being equal,” Clark writes in conclusion, “the region and the Iraqi people were all better off with Saddam gone.” But of course all else is not equal.

In the next section Clark takes on Bush’s conduct of what he calls “the real war” on terror. The Administration, he acknowledges, has had considerable success in eliminating Al Qaeda’s commanders, disrupting its networks and going after its financing. On the other hand, it has made some serious mistakes, and its approach has been too narrow to constitute an effective counterterrorism strategy. In Afghanistan, he writes, the Administration adopted much the same approach as it did in Iraq, and with comparable results. Its campaign to take Kabul and oust the Taliban was brilliantly conceived and executed, but the aim should have been not just to unseat the regime but to deliver a crippling blow to Al Qaeda, and the opportunity was missed. At the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001 and in Operation Anaconda the next spring, US forces and their Afghan allies failed to fix and destroy the massed Al Qaeda and Taliban forces. In the wake of the initial conflict, the United States simply did not have enough troops on the ground, and the Afghan tribes allowed Osama bin Laden and his allies to slip away. The Administration then failed to commit the resources necessary to stabilize the country and refused to permit its NATO allies to help out, except in Kabul. As a result, Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants were able to use the territory on either side of the Pakistani border to hide, to recruit and to mount a guerrilla war. The Administration was, of course, disinclined toward nation-building, but beyond that its focus even then was on Iraq, on an agenda much older than 9/11, and on a war that would “enlarge the problem [of terrorism] rather than to focus on its essence.”

In Clark’s view, another of the Administration’s mistakes in “the real war” was to rely on a “floating coalition” of the willing rather than to go to the UN and to NATO to develop multilateral approaches. With a “floating coalition” the US government has had to wrestle with a hundred bilateral relationships, and as difficult as this is at the top, it is even more difficult at the bottom, where most of the work gets done, because even in Europe countries have very disparate antiterrorism laws. Yet another mistake the Administration has made, as he sees it, is to focus on terrorists and their financing rather than look to the roots of recruitment in repressive policies, lack of development and the spread of fundamentalist madrassas in countries like Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia–all American allies. Further, he writes, the Administration has not gone about curbing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction effectively: It has not increased funding for securing the “loose nukes” in Russia, and until just recently it had done nothing about North Korea. In addition, Clark complains that homeland security has not been well managed: The Ashcroft approach has raised critical questions about civil liberties, and the Office of Homeland Security has failed to address key issues. At the very least, he says, the Administration should by now have come up with an agreed list of the facilities in the public and private sectors that require protection and an agreement on what the standards of protection should be. Iraq, in his view, has distracted the Administration’s attention from all these things–and must for some time to come. In his opinion, a withdrawal that leaves Iraq in chaos, allows the return of the Baathist regime or permits the emergence of a radical Islamist state would do great damage to American security. He believes the United States should help the Iraqis form a representative government with political and economic freedoms–though how Washington is going to do this, he does not explain.

In his final chapter, Clark attacks the Administration’s conception of American power and substitutes his own. Last April, he tells us, there was talk in Washington of Iraq as the first stepping stone to a new American empire. As the US armed forces marched on Baghdad, the perception was that the US military had achieved such a degree of superiority over all its rivals that Bush might fulfill his vision of liberating Iraq and transforming the whole of the Middle East under a Pax Americana. But the truth was that the US Army, the only force available, was not suited to this quasi-imperial vision: It was built for warfighting; it lacked staying power abroad and it lacked nation-building skills. Further, the American public had little taste for empire, and the international community had turned against the war. As it is, Clark writes, the Army has become dangerously overstretched, and US foreign policy dangerously dependent upon it. Clark sees the aggressive unilateralism of the Bush Administration as having roots that go back to the reaction to the cultural revolutions of the 1960s

and to the withdrawal from Vietnam and the other foreign policy reverses of the 1970s. After 9/11 Bush tapped into this frustration, reinforced, as it was, with real fear and determination.

Perhaps this should not have surprised us. “Transforming frustration at home into action abroad has emerged as a pattern in democracies under stress,” Clark observes. “It…happened in ancient Rome, in the Netherlands and in Britain. And like most distractions, it provided false reassurance and was followed by damaging consequences.” In Clark’s view, American power resides to a large degree in the “virtual empire” the United States constructed after World War II: that is, among other things, its network of economic and security arrangements, the leverage it had in international institutions and treaty regimes, plus the shared values and reservoir of trust, or “soft power,” that permitted past Presidents to lead by persuasion. Clark’s forceful book warns that the Bush Administration is undermining this virtual empire and at the same time imperiling the “hard power” Bush counts upon, the power of America’s economy and armed forces.

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