In mid-June of 1999 NATO’s first military campaign ended in victory over Yugoslavia. It may have been the first war in history in which the winning side suffered no combat casualties. America’s coercive diplomacy had worked. Yet for Wesley Clark, the US Army general who led the NATO forces in the fight, “it didn’t feel like a victory.” Most other NATO leaders felt “simply relieved” the whole affair was over.
A few weeks later, Clark was rewarded by being summarily relieved of his command, notified via phone call by Hugh Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Within an hour he received another long-distance call from a reporter in Washington who had been tipped off. It may just be a rumor, Clark said, hoping to find a graceful way out. He immediately called Shelton back, suggesting that premature publicity would be humiliating to him personally. “All you have to do is correct the leak and say it’s just rumor,” Clark pleaded. That was impossible, Shelton said. The Pentagon had already notified Congress about his replacement. Clark then phoned Defense Secretary William Cohen, who was traveling in Japan. When Cohen finally accepted the call, he was brief: The decision had been made and “you should know it’s been cleared by the White House.”
This dramatic passage helps explain why Clark wrote this book. Waging Modern War is dressed up as an analysis of the changing nature of contemporary conflict; the struggles over Bosnia and Kosovo are indeed presented here as a string of high-powered conferences, press briefings and frantic phone exchanges. But they provide the background for Clark’s other war–against his own superiors in the Pentagon–and the infighting in Washington’s bureaucratic jungle makes for more fascinating reading.
The villains in this rather bitter tale are Cohen, Shelton, Army Chief Dennis Reimer and other mostly unnamed Pentagon officials who restricted “my interactions within the broader U.S. government,” as well as the media and Congress. The Joint Chiefs prevented him from achieving a clear military victory–by resisting “their obligation to win” and failing to “support” him. Shelton is portrayed as a detached and vague executive without “Washington experience” or understanding of how NATO works; Reimer is depicted as a Machiavellian figure plotting in the shadows to undermine the man whom he once considered a potential Army chief of staff.
In short, Clark insinuates that he was set up, just as a friendly Congressman had warned him. His requests were ignored. He was muzzled. At one point Cohen ordered him “to get his f—- face off the TV.” His 800-plus aircraft using the latest weaponry seemed unable to inflict significant damage on Slobodan Milosevic’s military and police forces. But how could they do it when each target had to be approved by the White House? Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine Clark’s frustrations. But the way he relates them seems designed to seduce the reader into believing that if only he had been allowed to execute his strategy–for example, to deploy Apache helicopters–the course of the war would have been different.