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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NATO Passes the Buck




A couple of days ago, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon made a confession about NATO's futile air war against President Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian regime: "I think right now it is difficult to say that we have prevented one act of brutality in Kosovo." But it's not the professional soldiers' fault, of course. "In the Pentagon, in this building, we were not surprised by what Milosevic has done," he said.


Passing the buck is an old Pentagon game, and already anonymous senior officers are leaking their excuses to friendly media sources. We warned the politicians, whimper the generals, but they wouldn't listen.


"We said from the outset that we couldn't prevent atrocities and crimes against humanity [in Kosovo] with just an air campaign," a senior Pentagonofficer told The New York Times last week. "But knowing that we had to keep an a lliance of 19 nations together, we knew that if we asked for ground troops we would be asking the impossible."


Or as the doctor put it: I knew the patient's leg had to be amputated, but he was afraid of the pain, so I gave him an aspirin instead. I had to. If I had insisted on an operation, he might have got another doctor. He'll die, of course.


At issue is the necessary relationship between military professionals and their political masters in democratic countries. Careerism and moral cowardice led NATO's senior soldiers to betray their professionalism. They can leak their justifications to the press as much as they like, but this is a buck that cannot be passed.


The military, in Western countries in particular, puts great emphasis on the idea that officership is a profession, not just a trade. Like other professions f doctors, lawyers, accountants f soldiers have a privileged and exclusive relationship with their client (the state), to whom they offer professional advice. And if the client does not accept that advice in circumstances where the results will be catastrophic, the professional withdraws from the relationship. He resigns.


Now put yourself in the position of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff f or their British, French, Canadian or German equivalents, for they all learn the same things at Staff College. They all know that an air campaign without even the threat of ground troops to follow is unlikely to make Milosevic end ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, but simply give him cover for an intensified attack on its Albanian majority. So what do they do?


They do not state their professional objections to a campaign that will not work and will cause great misery (though, to be fair, they may not have foreseen the full scale of the horror). They do not, as true professionals should, offer their resignations if their political masters insist on this lunatic plan. In other words, they do not jeopardize their rather pleasant jobs and their very comfortable pensions.


Sorry, I'm wrong there. They cannot jeopardize their pensions no matter what they do: Military pensions become bulletproof long before you are promoted to the rank of general. The only thing the generals could lose if they behaved as professionals is the last 12 or 18 months of their active careers fof being saluted, being called "Sir," and being driven around in black limos.


I have not worn a uniform for 20 years and the highest rank I ever achieved was naval lieutenant, but I, like dozens of other analysts and journalists, knew that this couldn't be done by air power alone. If we all knew that ground troops were indispensable, how come the generals didn't know?


They did know. They just chose not to make a fuss about it. In the words of a former military intelligence officer: "They allowed themselves to be swayed by political contingencies into fighting half a war."


No more of that old-fashioned nonsense about the generals offering dispassionate, professional military advice while the politicians make the political calculations. The military did the politicians' job for them, all the way down to producing preposterously high estimates of 200,000 ground troops to take Kosovo, in order to reinforce the politicians' argument that sending in ground forces was unthinkable.


So now it has all gone wrong. (All of it: They didn't even consult the long-range weather forecast when setting the date for starting the bombing and have been surprised to find 80 percent of Yugoslavia and Kosovo covered by low cloud for the past two weeks.) Tens of thousands of Kosovars are probably dead, and close to a million are now refugees deprived of their homes, their land and their identity documents. In the spring of 1999, there is a part of Europe that is indistinguishable from Europe in the spring of 1945.


Now that it has all gone wrong, naturally, the Pentagon is telling us that they knew it would all along. If only those ignorant politicians had listened. But what the politicians never heard were the three little words that would have retrieved the generals' professional honor and perhaps averted the tragedy. The words are: "I resign, sir."


Enough. It's all just so much blood under the bridge now. Where do we go from here?


Into the long haul: Several months while NATO moves the entire Kosovo population into camps and while a ground force to take their homeland back is being built up in Macedonia. Several months of air attacks on Yugoslavia, growing strain among NATO allies and between them and Russia and, of course, intermittent "peace" offers from Milosevic intended to split the alliance.


It is going to be a long haul. And when NATO has accumulated the 50,000 to 75,000 troops in Macedonia that are needed for a counteroffensive, there may well be an ending as bloody as these past two weeks have been.


Except that next time, a much higher proportion of the dead will wear uniforms.


Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist and historian. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.