Interview with Gen. Wesley Clark, former Supreme Alllied Commander, NATO
Four-star general Wesley K. Clark (ret.) is a former Supreme Allied Commander Europe. In that position, he led NATO forces during Operation Allied Force, the successful mission to save over 1 million Albanians from ethnic cleansing in the Kosovo War. His 38-year military career began during the Vietnam War, in which he was wounded while commanding an infantry company. He is the author of Waging Modern War, Bosnia, Kosovo and the Future of Warfare and was a Democratic presidential candidate in 2004.
He is the host of the Edge of War series on Military Channel, and recently NBC announced that he will be co-host of a new reality game show, Stars Earn Stripes.
Jay Wertz: We’ve seen the total war concepts of World War II and the limited conflicts of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In terms of politics and strategy, the Korean War would seem be in a class by itself. How do you see it categorized in the history of warfare?
Gen. Wesley K. Clark: I think it’s one of those—depending on how one asks the question, what perspective one uses—it can be used from the United States point of view as the first major limited war. The United States limited our objective, we limited the means, we did not use nuclear weapons, we did not attempt to reconquer and retain control of the entire Korean peninsula. It set a pattern during the Cold War that we would defend the perimeter of freedom but we wouldn’t by force advance it.
From the other side however, it is—depending on the continued unfolding of the classified records of China and Russia—it appears that it was motivated by Kim Il-sung and Russia acquiesced as a way of drawing off American attention from Europe. And then China went along with it as a way of requiring Russia to give to China greater industrial and weapons production capacities.
JW: NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) has been a standard of peacekeeping and limited war missions for some six decades. Yet it is made up of a diverse group of nations. What similarities or differences standout between NATO and World War II’s “Big Three” and their other Allies?
Gen. Clark: NATO was put together essentially to deter war and to wage it only as a last resort. But the “Big Three” allies of World War II came together during conflict. They didn’t have the luxury of focusing on deterrence. They had to focus on winning and that meant deploying troops, navies, air armadas and actually engaging in a fight.
So NATO took the lessons of that World War II experience and built them into the most effective alliance that human history has ever known, really, which is underwritten by NATO’s charter. In NATO’s charter there’s something called Article Five in which one nation—each nation—pledges to go to war if any one of the nations is attacked. It’s the strongest possible guarantee that one nation could give another and it’s what’s held NATO together.
JW: In your book, Waging Modern War, Bosnia, Kosovo and the Future of Warfare, you cite many historical references to explain the evolution to modern war. How did your knowledge of historic armies and campaigns help you in your commands?
Gen. Clark: I had done a lot of reading from the time I was a young person, through my time a senior officer, to try to understand how to tie together the political objectives of a campaign with military strategy and with the military tactics. And so going back to that learning helped me to formulate the methodology for winning in Operation Allied Force (the 1999 NATO airstrikes to end Serbian violence and oppression against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo Province, Yugoslavia—Ed).
JW: Do you think compellence is viable in conflicts in which extremism is a fundamental part of the aggression?
Gen. Clark: Every conflict and every set of circumstances is different and so while you could categorize something as compellence you may not be able to fully evaluate its effectiveness unless you apply it in particular circumstances.
If you were, for example, to ask about compellence in the case of Iran, which is where one could begin to think about applying such a doctrine, we haven’t actually begun the bombing campaign that would attempt to compel. We believe the Iranian leadership is rational, calculating, and so the idea that they would be extremists … they may be extremists by their rhetoric, but by their actions they’ve been very calculating and rational. So it might be possible that compellence could work. On the other hand, it might not work.
JW: To what degree can a comprehensive knowledge of history aid top military leaders now and in the future who must deal with many political constraints on their decisions?
Gen. Clark: Well, I think that a broad education is actually essential for top military leaders, including knowledge of history, knowledge of science, knowledge of politics. For example, if you just look at what happened in Iraq. We were unable to make the case with Secretary (Donald) Rumsfeld in 2003, 2004, 2005, that we needed adequate resources on the ground to actually cope with the emerging insurgency. And that we needed adequate resources in the training process to build the kind of relationship in the Arab world that we set out to build in Vietnam, with language schools and training teams and other things. It took a long time. The stronger the education, the higher the educational level, the greater the preparation the top military leaders bring, the more likely they are to prevail in addressing the military requirements in solving the problems that the political level gives them.
JW: Will traditional military education still be relevant as warfare advances further into a computer-controlled environment?
Gen. Clark: Of course it will be relevant because ultimately warfare can take many, many forms. The military professional has to understand all of the forms of warfare, from hand-to-hand combat and a bayonet assault, up to the most sophisticated cyber attacks. He then has to be able to relate his political objectives given to him by civilian authority to appropriate military strategy and the most appropriate tactics. And he has to be able to understand the consequences of the tactics and the strategies and the political objectives of his adversary. All of that comes from professional military education. It can’t be developed de novo at the time of the incident. You have to have an enormous background to draw on, to be able to take the fragmentary information that’s available at the time and synthesize it and use it to develop the right strategies and practices to win.