Besting The Brightest

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September 2001

Besting The Brightest

Generals fear a modern military because politicians might actually use it

By Nicholas Thompson

War in a Time of Peace

By David Halberstam

Click on the title to buy the book
When Saddam Hussein blasted into Kuwait in August 1990, the Pentagon's top brass showed little enthusiasm for a bombing campaign. Airpower alone had never won a war and, besides, planes supported ground troops. It had always worked that way before.

An obscure Air Force strategist, Colonel John Warden, had another plan. Modern states depend on electrical power, communication, and transportation, he argued. Blow up the centralized facilities and you can paralyze the enemy without really risking your own men or slaughtering civilians. We could send in our new stealth fighters undetected by Iraqi radar, fire off guided cruise missiles, and blast out the infrastructure.

The Air Force high command resisted Warden. The generals didn't trust new stealth fighters, and they wanted to attack the Iraqi army in the field. At one briefing, Warden's superior, three-star general Charles Horner, literally turned his back on Warden when the colonel spoke; angrily contradicted every point; and then, after the meeting, pointed at Warden's staff and asked them, one by one, to leave Warden and join him. A humiliated Warden lost his staff, but he ultimately succeeded.

According to David Halberstam's new book, War in a Time of Peace, Warden won over Norman Schwarzkopf, and then persuaded Defense Secretary Dick Cheney by explaining that: "during World War II, an average B-17 bomb during a bombing run missed its target by some 2,300 feet. Therefore, if you wanted a 90 percent probability of having hit a particular target, you had to drop some 9,000 bombs. That required a bombing run of 1,000 bombers and placed 10,000 men at risk. By contrast, with the new weaponry, one plane flown by one man with one bomb could have the same probability."

With Cheney's backing, Warden designed the air campaign. Airpower decimated Iraq with minimal casualties on our side, in large part due to the stealth fighters, and set the stage for the Army to come in and sweep up. American F-111s, for example, destroyed tanks almost at will in the desert night with their laser-guided bombs and thermal guidance systems. After the war, an Iraqi tank commander told the Americans that, during the war with Iran, Iraqis had used tanks for night shelter. Against the Americans, they had been terrified to get in them. Even given the effectiveness of the ground campaign, Halberstam considers the air assault the backbreaker. "If one of the newsmagazines had wanted to run on its cover the photograph of the man who had played the most critical role in achieving victory, it might well have chosen Warden."

A decade later, Cheney is running our government and our bombs are several times more powerful and accurate. Even better, in another decade or so, instead of 10,000 pilots strafing Germany, or even one pilot putting his life at risk over Iraq or Kosovo, we could have one unmanned plane, flown by a guy sitting at a computer in Aberdeen, Maryland, firing precision-guided missiles with even greater accuracy. We've used unmanned reconnaissance planes with increasing frequency since the Vietnam War, and we've even drawn up plans for a generation of tiny planes, the size of laptop computers, able to zip around urban battlefields and signal back what's around the next corner. But we've never before had the power to send out armed unmanned planes, or UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles). But soon we will. Boeing has produced the first few for testing, and there may well be many more to come.

If stealth fighters and smart munitions transformed war in 1990, UCAVs could do the same in another decade. Because an unmanned plane can be designed without having to take into account pilots' needs---cockpit, parachute, visual displays---the aircraft would be superbly stealthy, extremely fuel-efficient, and able to loiter in the sky for hours on end while the guy in Aberdeen pushed buttons. They also could swoop in over war zones contaminated after nuclear, biological, or chemical attacks, and would be relatively affordable to build and use. Most current fighters wear out or break while used on training runs, which represent 95 percent of their time in the air. According to a report issued in April by the Secretary of Defense, "only our imagination will limit the potential of UAVs in the 21st century." That's the theory, anyway, if the technology works.

The Making Of A Quagmire

These unmanned planes represent a substantial part of the "Revolution in Military Affairs" which George W. Bush and Cheney seemed so gung-ho about during the campaign. We were going to "skip a generation" in weapons systems and revitalize our armed services. Futurists like Pentagon-guru Andrew Marshall stood at Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's arm, carting satchels full of plans for war with unmanned planes, satellites armed with lasers, and complete electronic communication between the services---the kind of stuff that politicians love because it allows for war without body bags, or what Halberstam calls "manna."

Six months into his term, though, Bush froze. The president and Rumsfeld have retreated to rethink their planned Quadrennial Defense Review, the armed forces' road map due this fall. The administration seems to have scaled back and delayed its plans for high-tech revolution, including massive investment in unmanned planes. If the current trend holds, Bush may well just dump the Pentagon's massive and bloated $330 billion budget into salaries and the systems we use today. The legacy of Charles Horner will defeat the legacy of John Warden.

Part of the problem was that Bush drained the piggy bank with his tax cut. In addition, members of Congress seem able to defend every current military line item, no matter how old and irrelevant to fighting future wars, and by so doing, they starve new initiatives. Some of the resistance also comes from military men fearful that new technologies will up-end their careers. Unmanned planes may prove devastatingly effective, but fighter pilots are the military's biggest alpha males.

But probably the biggest obstacle to the hoped-for revolution is the increasing divergence between political leaders and the military about the proper use of military force. Military leaders understand that the technology we choose to fight wars helps to choose the wars we fight. Cutting-edge weapons such as unmanned bombers could allow us to fight a war without casualties. The Devil's bargain is that they could allow us to fight a war without causalities. And, if we can do that, we can fight short little wars everywhere: the generals' greatest fear.

Good Night Saigon

The origins of this conflict between the politicians who choose our wars and the generals who have to fight them is the principal subject of War in a Time of Peace. Promoted as a "younger sibling" to Halberstam's brilliant The Best and the Brightest about the Americans who shaped the Vietnam War, War in a Time of Peace tells the story of military policy during the Clinton years.

The younger sibling is similar in size, scope, and style, but vastly different in tone. The Best and the Brightest was Halberstam's angry tour de force and his new book has little of the same passion and intensity. But that's appropriate. Vietnam consumed our national psyche and deserved The Best and the Brightest. Nobody burned flags over our Balkans policies, no matter how muddled they became. Such crises don't deserve polemics; they deserve detailed and thorough looks that help us understand where the wires crossed.

But if this sequel lacks a clear and chilling focus, it certainly makes up for it in relevance. To Halberstam, differing memories of Vietnam opened the chasm between the military and civilians that plagued Clinton and which the Bush administration has recently collided with. The brass remembered being left to retreat in failure as the real war-makers went off to think-tanks. The suits trembled at the thought of public vilification for doing the wrong thing, or for not doing the right thing. Subsequently, to paraphrase a line cited by Halberstam: The politicians wanted a small Army that we could use everywhere; the generals wanted a big Army that we would never use.

War in a Time of Peace is organized much like The Best and The Brightest, with personality profiles interspersed throughout as the author bounces between the developing scene in the Balkans and the political and military situations at home. Halberstam moves, for example, from profiling Clinton's first national security adviser, Tony Lake, to giving a brutal account of the shelling of Srebrenica to describing Newt Gingrich's influence on conservatism in the mid-'90s. This keeps the narrative interesting, and everything Halberstam covers is germane to the story, even when his analyses of well-known characters seem familiar---Richard Holbrooke is arrogant but very good; Bill Clinton can feel your pain.

The story begins with the first Bush administration's deliberations over Yugoslavia. Bush's administration had talent and, Halberstam notes, was comprised of men "anxious to deal with foreign policy rather than domestic issues because that was where the action was and the fate of the world might be decided." But nobody knew what to do as the Balkan crisis unfolded. Christians were killing Muslims in Europe and our allies were scrambling around in confusion. Even the elder George Bush, a man fascinated and experienced with foreign policy, was flummoxed for a long time trying to figure out the score, "asking again and again which side was which, who were the Bosnians, who were the Bosnian Serbs, who were the Bosnian Muslims, who were the Kosovars, and who were the Croats and the Slovenians."

Meanwhile, the generals were beginning to radiate their first signs of wariness. As Halberstam writes, men who had fought in Vietnam like Colin Powell, then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had a visceral sense that the instant communications of CNN and other outlets had "transformed a military equation into a more political one in which a more critical factor would be our innate national impatience that might, eventually, undercut the military." They feared that we'd go in, soldiers would die, CNN would broadcast, and the politicians would withdraw the troops and make the military look like losers. Those reservations helped keep the Bush administration out, despite mounting evidence of horrendous massacres on all sides, especially of Bosnian Muslims. As Secretary of State James Baker famously said in June 1991, "We don't have a dog in that fight."

Clinton came into office less interested in foreign policy than his predecessor, and his initial troubles with the military---his draft record, the early gays-in-the-military spat, even Clinton's inability to salute crisply---paralyzed his authority. Because he couldn't cross the generals early on, Clinton clung to Bush's policy of inaction despite campaign promises to the contrary.

Soon, though, more stories of Serb atrocities started to roll in. Americans learned of concentration camps and mass graves. The bloodletting continued, the human- rights community's criticism of his administration mounted, and Clinton started to squirm. At the same time, warlords had ravaged Somalia and CNN was broadcasting back images of children dying on the streets. Colin Powell, still chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the most respected and experienced member of the Clinton foreign policy team, had good political instincts and knew that the president had to act in some way to counter the pressures. Dreading the thought that Clinton would order a Balkan intervention, Powell found an outlet. "[He] did not want to send troops to Somalia, but he wanted even less to send them to Bosnia."

It was a disastrous miscalculation. The botched Somalia mission ended in victory for a vicious warlord, and TV images of dead Army Rangers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu spoiled whatever appetite Americans had for humanitarian military intervention, and with it much of the will Clinton had to cross the generals and intervene anywhere else.

A year later, we stood by as Hutus took their machetes to the Tutsi in Rwanda, perhaps the clearest genocide in world history. The disconnect between the military and the politicians had in no small part created a bad policy in Somalia to compensate for our bad policy in the Balkans, only to crossbreed these into a horrendous policy in Rwanda.

Black Lamb, Grey Falcon

Even as Halberstam takes us through America's African debacles, he stays focused on the Balkans and the constant tugs on Clinton. Eventually, in the summer of 1995, after brutal Serb massacres in Srebrenica, Clinton, could stand no more. Along with NATO, he finally unleashed bombs on the Serbs. He succeeded swiftly. It only took one Tomahawk missile to destroy commander Ratko Mladic's communications center and according to Halberstam, to crack Milosevic's nerve. "So much of Milosevic's game had been premised on bluster ... That weapon had not only produced a lethal effect on the ground but a devastating psychological effect as well."

At the same time, the military resisted and then tried to undermine our policy---in the opposite way that overzealous military men like General MacArthur had undermined civilian authority in the past. Admiral Leighton (Snuffy) Smith, the commander of the air attack, refused to resume bombing after a brief pause following the hit on the communications center. Clinton seethed, privately calling Smith insubordinate, and eventually forcing the admiral to resume action. The bombing, plus a ground offensive by Croat and Bosnian Muslim troops coordinated by the United States, drove Milosevic to the negotiating table, where the parties hammered out the Dayton peace settlement which ended the war.

But that didn't end the tensions among ethnic groups in Bosnia, or between the White House and the brass. Even after the fighting stopped, Admiral Smith found ways to undermine civilian decisions. For example he unapologetically allowed convicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic, ostensibly hunted by America, to slip through four checkpoints in Bosnia under the admiral's command.

Balkan Ghosts

The book climaxes with war in Kosovo during the spring of 1999. In particular, Halberstam focuses on the conflict between General Wes Clark, the Army four-star serving as commander-in-chief of the NATO troops, and his fellow generals. Although arrogant and stubborn, Clark was the one general, according to Halberstam, eager to fully use our weaponry, and the only one comfortable with politicians, a major flaw in the eyes of his peers.

Once at war, Clark wanted to strike forcefully and quickly, and he wanted to maintain the threat of using ground troops on Milosevic. But Clinton pulled that option off the table early, and Clark's vision for war got tangled between the reluctant generals at home and the difficulty of commanding a U.N. force.

Still, U.S. warfare broke technological ground. B-2s took off from their base in Missouri, evaded Serb radar, and blasted their targets with powerful bombs guided by Global Positioning Satellite systems. Yet the generals were digging in their heels. As part of the struggle, Clark requested a fleet of the Army's super-fast and powerful Apache helicopters to help take out targets and to protect the Kosovars fleeing the Serb onslaught. But the Pentagon thought Clark planned to use them as a sprat to catch a mackerel; next, he would demand ground troops and broaden the war. So the top brass at home resisted.

Eventually, Hugh Shelton, head of the Joint Chiefs, found a compromise: send the Apaches to Albania but don't use them until everyone agrees on their need. But then the Apaches just didn't come. According to Halberstam: "The Army slow-walked the Apaches through the pipeline. Its every move seemed greased with molasses. Clearly someone at the top had sent out a signal that there was no rush." Nobody chose a base for the Apaches right off the bat, and then they picked one that had to be entirely rebuilt with rockfill. The war ended before the Apaches entered combat.

In spite of U.S. bumbling, Milosevic eventually knuckled under. He clearly was overmatched; his former Russian friends knew that their economic lifeline would be cut if they came to his defense; and pressure had been mounting, particularly from the British, to send in ground troops. Clark's reward for winning? The Joint Chiefs of Staff summarily got rid of him, without telling the president until it was a fait accompli.

The Powers That Be

George W. Bush should read Halberstam's book, paying careful attention to the sections on how modern technology fueled our nearly bloodless (at least to us) victories in Iraq and Kosovo. Now is the time for the new president to prepare for the next war---probably a small war, heavily dependent on technologies that are still in development. Technology doesn't solve everything, and the past is littered with high-tech lemons. Indeed some UCAVs, in that next war may well blow up a school because the guy in Aberdeen's keyboard got stuck. But human error, pilots blowing up schools because they just have too much adrenaline flowing through them, may well be more dangerous. And reliance on outdated technology can be even worse.

Bush should also take a lesson from the end of Clinton's term: The politicians may have screwed the military in Vietnam, but the tables were turned in Yugoslavia. The conventional wisdom holds that politicians shouldn't tell generals how to fight wars. But Clinton, who famously never served, had a better grasp of what the new air-war technologies could do than the generals or the so-called military experts who droned on every night during the Kosovo campaign that wars couldn't be won without ground troops---which is precisely what Clinton did.

The generals will resist any change pushed by Bush. Large organizations never respond quickly, and men in war will rarely willingly replace the tools they've learned to depend on. It took the Air Force 25 years to adopt cruise missiles, now a huge part of our arsenal, and the brass fought back every step of the way. Former CIA Director James Woolsey says: "Go back in military history. There were probably infantry men in prehistoric times grumpy at cavalry."

But soon the men shaped by Vietnam will retire, and a newer generation, which grew up with precision-guided missiles, will run the show. Bush and Cheney should be designing the military for them, even if the newer generation finds it less fun to dogfight with Iraqi fighter pilots than to sit in Aberdeen and bomb power stations with UCAVs.

Nicholas Thompson is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly.

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