Leading a coalition in war is a notoriously difficult enterprise. As Winston Churchill wrote in The Hinge of Fate, “In war, it is not always possible to have everything go as one likes. In working with allies, it sometimes happens that they develop opinions of their own.” Napoleon Bonaparte expressed a preference for fighting alone against a coalition. “The allies we gain by victory will turn against us upon the bare whisper of our defeat.”

Waging Modern War, by retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark, is a fascinating account of coalition warfare: NATO’s 1999 war against Yugoslavia in Kosovo. In this, NATO’s first war, Clark ostensibly controlled vast assets. In reality, so many conflicting forces—political, diplomatic, military, and legal—compromised his command that it’s remarkable NATO was able to achieve anything resembling victory. This effort was against a militarily weak foe, leading one observer to question whether NATO would be able to maintain solidarity and combat effectiveness against a more equal opponent.

Clark, who was commander both of NATO and of U.S. forces in Europe, faced unprecedented problems executing this war. The first and most important was that the members of NATO were unable to agree on the goals of the war, the strategy, and the extent of force that could be brought to bear against Slobodan Milosevic. NATO civilian leaders entered into the war expecting that it would end quickly—that Milosevic would be cowed by a few days of air strikes.

Second, the civilian leaders undercut the coercive potential of the military campaign by declaring at the outset how limited it would be. For instance, President Bill Clinton announced that NATO would not use ground forces, and NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana stated that the air campaign would last only “days, not months.”

Third, the influence of lawyers on the conduct of the war in Kosovo was unprecedented. Not only did Clark have to contend with the sort of civilian interference in military operations that characterized the Vietnam War, he and his subordinates had to have every target vetted by the lawyers. In this war, lawyers became de facto tactical commanders.

Finally, Clark had to deal with an administration that, for whatever reason, did not fully trust him and a military establishment that did not support him—indeed, arguably did what it could to undercut him. Clark was never invited to a strategy discussion with either the secretary of defense or the president. So bad was the relationship between Clark and his Washington counterparts that Defense Secretary William Cohen and Joint Chiefs Chairman Hugh Shelton conspired to keep Clark away from the NATO summit meeting in Washing during the war. He attended anyway, but was ostracized by the president, Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Cohen and Shelton. As he approached their receiving line at a reception, several glanced at him. “‘Stay away’ was the clear message from the body language,” he writes. “It was jarring.”

But there was more humiliation to come. After having presided over a victory of sorts in Kosovo, Clark was unceremoniously ousted from his command in order to make way for Air Force General Joseph Ralston.

Waging Modern War also reveals that, despite claims to the contrary, the Vietnam War continued to shape the way policy makers, both civilian and military, thought about foreign affairs during the 1990s.

The begin with, President Clinton was not interested in foreign affairs, preferring to focus on domestic politics. Unfortunately for Clinton and his legacy, events in the international arena did not cooperate. Almost from the start, Clinton found he could run but couldn’t hide from events overseas. This forced him to focus on that part of his job in which he had the least interest and the least competence.

Clinton’s foreign policy team was not the strongest in the history of the Republic—some have described it as the Carter administration’s third string. Most of the civilian policy makers in the Clinton administration had cut their teeth in the anti-war movement of the 1960s. Yet over time, many became advocates of military intervention and the use of force to prevent human rights abuses.

For obvious reasons, the officer corps did not trust the Clinton foreign policy team. Even those too young to remember Vietnam thought that these “hawkish” civilians who were so eager to involve them in conflicts abroad would abandon the military if the going got tough, leaving the soldiers to twist slowly in the wind.


There was also a cultural aspect to this distrust. The officer corps as a whole tended to oppose the sort of “constabulary” operations that became so prevalent during the Clinton administration. The military in general and the Army in particular became casualty-averse during the 1990s, not wanting to lose soldiers in operations that they did not believe were in our vital national interest. As a result, the Army often dragged its feet in these kinds of operations. This foot dragging comes through loud and clear in Waging Modern War.

Indeed, all the contradictions of post-Cold War foreign and defense policy—pro-intervention activists among the civilians; reluctance on the part of the military, with the exception of the Air Force, which would be the featured actor in this operation—emerged during the war in Kosovo. On the one hand, the civilians wanted war on the cheap. Many civilians, both American and European, were reluctant to even call it a war. On the other hand, the military was heavily influenced by the argument made by H.R. McMaster in the remarkable book on the origins of the Vietnam War, Dereliction of Duty. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, McMaster writes, acquiesced in the irresponsible decisions of the Johnson administration that led ultimately to defeat in Vietnam. As a result, the military was as culpable as Robert McNamara’s “Whiz Kids” in supporting a limited intervention in Vietnam that was bound to fail. Trying not to repeat the mistake, the military dragged its feet in Kosovo and elsewhere, which made it impossible for the administration to follow a strategy based on the correct lessons of Vietnam, had it been so inclined. 

As a result, the war in Kosovo was waged as if Vietnam had never taken place. Serbia could have been brought to its knees had the West been willing to employ decisive force at the outset. This lesson of Vietnam was driven home nearly two decades ago by the foremost American expert on Vietnamese communism. Douglas Pike, whose books Viet Kong and PAVN: People’s Army of Vietnam are classics. In a paper delivered in 1983 at a Wilson Center symposium on Vietnam, Pike wrote that “the initial reaction of Hanoi’s leaders to the strategic bombings and air strikes that began in February 1965—documented later by defectors and other witnesses—was enormous dismay and apprehension. They feared the North was to be visited by intolerable destruction which it simply could not endure.”

Based on interviews and intensive archival research, Pike concluded that “…while conditions had changed vastly in seven years, the dismaying conclusions to suggest from the 1972 Christmas bombing was that had this kind of air assault been launched in February of 1965, the Vietnam War as we know it might have been over within a matter of months, even weeks.”

Clark himself refused to make the unambiguous choice for decisive force. He did not even raise objections to the European preference for cruise missile “drive-by shootings.” In his view, if NATO countries “wanted to fire a few cruise missiles to make a political statement, did I have the right to say they couldn’t?”

It is troubling to realize that a NATO approach almost failed against a fifth-rate military power. Clark makes it clear that the plan was just about to unravel when, for reasons that remain unclear, Milosevic threw in the towel.

We can only hope that the current administration has learned from the mistakes of its predecessor. So far in its war against the terrorists who executed the September 11 attack on the United States, the Bush administration, unlike the Clinton administration in Kosovo, has refused to take any capability off the table. That is a good sign. But other signs do not bode well for long-term American success. According to news reports, U.S. forces had an opportunity to kill Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, but military lawyers questioned the legality of the strike. He has since disappeared from sight.