Commentary Magazine

Lessons of Kosovo

A decade after the disappearance of the USSR, we seem to be inching toward a debate over the fundamental tenets of U.S. defense policy. Inside and outside the Pentagon, questions have been raised as to whether the American military possesses the capacity to fight and win on the battlefields of the future. These questions about means hinge on still other questions about ends: where, when, and why should the United States become engaged in military action around the world?

Although the discussion is broad-ranging, a not insignificant corner of it is taken up with the lessons that are supposedly to be learned from a particular military experience. Only two years ago, the U.S. fought, and won, a major war in the Balkans. To some participants in today’s debate, the fact that Yugoslavia is now a democracy, while its former president, Slobodan Milosevic, is facing trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity, is the direct result of that American action. More, the American victory in Yugoslavia is seen as vindicating the very idea of a new kind of war, “humanitarian” war, in which the U.S. selflessly intervenes to save lives without regard to its national interests narrowly conceived. And this model is urged upon us as a template for the future.

But the story of the Balkan campaign is not so simple. To other observers, including a number of those who took part in the American effort, it ended far more ambiguously than its proponents care to remember, and its aftermath was far from certain or predictable. Not only that, but our conduct of the war disclosed deep-seated problems within America’s political and military leadership that cast a cold light on the prospects of success in further such efforts.

Especially useful among a recent spate of documents, monographs, and memoirs is Waging Modern War, the newly published memoirs of General Wesley Clark,1 who served as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during the conflict in Yugoslavia, only to be summarily relieved of his command soon after winning. In what follows I shall be relying heavily on Clark’s reconstruction of events, as well as on another recent book, Winning Ugly,2 an analytical history of the war by two researchers at the Brookings Institution, Ivo Daaldar and Michael O’Hanlon.



In the middle of March 1999, Madeleine K. Albright, the American Secretary of State, entered into last-ditch talks with representatives of Slobodan Milosevic in the French village of Rambouillet. At issue was Serbia’s increasingly bloody conflict with the ethnic Albanian inhabitants of its province of Kosovo, who—against the backdrop of nearly a decade of intermittent carnage in the Balkans for which Milosevic was largely responsible—were demanding autonomy. When the talks deadlocked, Albright presented the Serbian president with an ultimatum: allow NATO forces into Kosovo and all of Serbia or suffer the consequences. Milosevic demurred, and six days later, on March 24, NATO let loose a fusillade of missiles and bombs against targets across Yugoslavia in what was christened Operation Allied Force.

The military purpose of this initial salvo was straightforward, and identical to what the U.S. had sought to accomplish eight years earlier in the opening phase of Operation Desert Storm against Iraq: namely, knocking out enemy air defenses in order to gain untrammeled mastery of the skies. In the Serbian case, this involved attacking some 90 targets, a large fraction of them radar stations, that comprised Milosevic’s integrated air-defense network. Unlike in Iraq, however, where the air campaign enjoyed considerable success, here, despite directing some 160 cruise missiles and 350 aircraft at the 90 targets, NATO encountered extraordinary difficulties.

Evidently having studied Desert Storm, the Serbs had happened upon a simple expedient for keeping their air-defense web intact: they did not switch it on, thus rendering it invisible to the radar-seeking missiles in NATO’s arsenal. Throughout the remainder of the war, the Serbian network remained partially operable and a menace to low-flying NATO aircraft, with consequences that were to reverberate in the fighting to come.

As for the political objectives of the initial NATO assault, these were no less straightforward but even more problematic. The primary point was to “send a message” that NATO was serious. Such a message, it was widely believed within the Clinton administration, would induce Milosevic to reverse course and sign the paper that had been put before him at Rambouillet. Already in 1995, after all, he had backed down following a series of limited air strikes in Bosnia, and he had retreated once again under a threat of bombardment the previous October. A U.S. intelligence report concluding that “Milosevic is susceptible to outside pressure” had further buttressed the conviction that a modest show of force would induce the Serbian leader to fold his cards. “I don’t see this as a long-term operation,” Madeleine Albright declared before television cameras on the opening night of the war. “I think that this is something . . . achievable within a relatively short period of time.”

But Milosevic did not fold. Instead, he chose to exploit the opening of hostilities to accomplish a fundamental strategic objective of his own. Some 40,000 Serbian troops and irregulars were quickly moved into Kosovo, where they began to wage an all-out campaign against the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)—and, in a massive ethnic-cleansing sweep, to drive out the ethnic Albanian population. Instead of what the Clinton administration imagined—a surgical operation followed by resumed talks—Washington was suddenly engaged in a real war with real victims. Eleven days into the conflict that she had not seen “as a long-term operation,” Madeleine Albright was on television once again, explaining that “we never expected this to be over quickly.”

In the military realm, having adopted what Daaldar and O’Hanlon derisively call a “bomb and pray” strategy, the U.S. and its European allies found themselves lacking the power needed to bring home a quick victory. The U.S. had entered the war with merely a fifth of the aircraft it would normally deploy in a major regional conflict, a smaller number even than had been positioned in the region six months earlier. A single aircraft carrier, the Enterprise, had been in the Mediterranean up until March 15 but had then been sent to the Persian Gulf, and no other carrier was within striking distance of Yugoslavia until April 5.

Beyond the shortage of aircraft was a shortage of targets to hit within Yugoslavia. Apart from the 90 or so that had been “serviced” without full success in the opening assault, the NATO alliance lacked a clear set of follow-on sites to destroy. Drawing up a new list turned out to be neither a smooth nor a quick process.



Then came a blunder—though a wholly understandable one—on Milosevic’s part. On the first night of the war, President Clinton had addressed the nation from the Oval Office and declared: “I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war.” The lesson Milosevic apparently drew from this—that he could get away with depopulating the province—turned a potential victory for him into almost certain defeat. For it was the sight of nearly a million wretched refugees fleeing their homes, and news reports (which turned out to be erroneous) that perhaps 100,000 ethnic Albanians had been murdered, that finally galvanized Western public opinion and succeeded as nothing else had done in cementing an alliance that might otherwise have splintered or been satisfied by dropping a few bombs and going home.

What followed was, unexpectedly, heightened NATO resolve and a new phase of the war. The NATO force began to be steadily ramped up in size, and its attacks assumed a growing intensity. Even so, however, the effort remained plagued by inconsistency and drift.

Two separate theaters were engaged, of which the first was Serbia proper. There, NATO initiated a campaign of strategic bombing. If the alliance opened the war with only 350 aircraft in hand, over the next weeks this number steadily increased until, by June, there were more than 1,000 in the air, including not only twelve B-52 and five B-l bombers from bases in England but also six stealthy B-2’s that traveled to and from their targets on non-stop flights from Missouri.

Initially, emphasis was placed on strictly military targets: Serbian force concentrations, installations, weapons and fuel depots, staging areas, and the like. But given the diminutive size of the Serbian military, and Serbia’s still partially effective defenses, these possibilities were rapidly exhausted. Ensuing attacks were therefore aimed at civilian structures with potential military purposes, like radio and television transmitters. By April and through May, with Milosevic showing no evidence of yielding, NATO began hitting key bridges, telephone exchanges, various kinds of industrial facilities (including both fertilizer and cigarette factories), and buildings directly connected to the Serbian leader (like his personal residence and a discotheque belonging to one of his cronies). By June, with aircraft now flying missions at a pace of approximately 600 to 700 per day, or more than ten times the opening rate, NATO was dropping advanced munitions made of carbon-graphite filaments designed to short-circuit electricity plants. The population of Belgrade was plunged into darkness and deprived of running water.

In Kosovo itself, a very different kind of war was being fought. On the ground, small units of Serbian fighters, backed by tanks, artillery, helicopters, and fixed-wing aircraft, were carrying out their forced expulsions. With airpower alone, NATO would have lacked the tools to counter these depredations adequately under any circumstances. But the difficulties of a tactical air war were made all the greater by the requirement NATO imposed on its pilots to stay at or above 15,000 feet, above the clouds and out of the reach of Serbian anti-aircraft fire. NATO pilots were thus unable to destroy the bulk of Serbian armor in Kosovo, and most of what they did destroy, postwar Pentagon assessments have revealed, was rapidly replaced.

True, NATO possessed more suitable instruments than jet aircraft for dealing with Serbian ground forces; but these it chose not to employ. As we have seen, the introduction of ground troops had been ruled out from the start by Bill Clinton, and even planning for a ground war—which itself might have had an intimidating effect on Milosevic—was discouraged if not outright disallowed on the pretext that it could be interpreted as a lack of faith in the ultimate success of the bombing campaign. As for other effective measures short of an invasion, a fleet of Apache helicopters was requested by General Clark on the second day of the war and finally dispatched with great fanfare to the war zone and readied for action. But Clark never managed to obtain a green light to send these lethal instruments into the fray.

Despite these various limitations on the NATO mode of war-fighting, the combined weight of the alliance’s attacks, and the growing intimations that Clinton might change his mind about introducing ground forces, evidently did have an effect at long last. On June 9, Milosevic suddenly capitulated. Analysts have since debated exactly what prompted him to give up when he did: had he managed (with help from Moscow) to obtain a better deal in Kosovo than was available at the onset of hostilities, or did he fear further devastating losses to come? But whatever made him ask for terms so abruptly, a far more important issue is that he managed to hold out for so long, to finish as much of his ethnic cleansing as he did, and to emerge with so many of his ground forces unscathed.



That a tiny, impoverished country with a population of 10 million and a per-capita annual income of approximately $1,800 should have succeeded in carrying on for almost three months against a coalition of nineteen countries, including most of the world’s richest nations and the world’s only superpower, certainly testifies to the Serbian military’s ability to endure punishment. But it testifies still more to shortcomings in the U.S. and NATO ability to administer such punishment. These shortcomings fall under a number of different headings, and responsibility for them can be placed at a number of different doors.

There was, to begin with, the tendency toward political micro-management of combat operations. This is a Vietnam-era transgression that resurfaced with a vengeance in Operation Allied Force. A case in point was the extraordinarily cumbersome process for deciding upon military targets. Before any choices could be made, recounts Wesley Clark,

we would need a complete analysis of each individual target—location, military impact, possible personnel casualties, possible collateral damages, risks if the weapon missed the target, and so forth. This analysis then had to be repeated for different types of weapons, in search of the specific type of weapon and warhead size that would destroy the target and have the least adverse impact elsewhere. And this had to be done to my satisfaction, then sent to Washington, where it underwent additional levels of legal and military review and finally ended up on President Clinton’s desk for his approval.

This time-consuming procedure was needed just for gaining clearance from the “U.S. channel.” But all nineteen members of the NATO alliance had their own channels—each with its own defense planners and its own set of lawyers to check for compliance with the laws of war—that had to approve every target as well, generating perpetual controversy, the ever-present danger of leaks, and serious friction within the alliance.3

To be sure, political supervision of targeting is a highly defensible practice. The procedures put in place over the last years have undoubtedly made for a more calibrated brand of warfare than the indiscriminate carpet bombing of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. They are also a natural response to technological progress: the stunning accuracy of munitions has been matched by a no less stunning growth in the speed and volume of communications. But the extent of supervision, with the President and a team of attorneys signing off, for instance, on the destruction of bridges and buildings at individual Belgrade addresses, poses a clear danger to military efficiency, and hence to the rapid consummation of hostilities. It is Clark’s firm conviction that a less “humane” form of warfare would have had the more humane effect of bringing those hostilities to a swifter end.

Micromanagement is closely connected to two other cardinal sins of the Vietnam war that likewise resurfaced in the Kosovo campaign: the use of power not to coerce one’s adversary but to send “signals,” and the incremental intensification of military force. It is ironic but true that the decision-makers in the Clinton administration, many of whom, like the President himself, were veterans of the anti-Vietnam-war protest movement, now repeated in Yugoslavia the mistakes made by those whom they once so unforgivingly denounced. The puny initial assault, the inadequate assembly of forces in the region, the noisy ruling-out of a ground invasion, the blind optimism that a settlement would quickly be reached, all combined to send a very different “message” to Milosevic from the one that was intended, facilitating his sweep into Kosovo and virtually dictating an incremental ratchering-up of the fighting.

The Serbian leader bears the moral responsibility for the crimes he committed in Kosovo. But by setting in motion a war without contemplating the likely consequences for the very people on whose behalf we were ostensibly fighting, Clinton, Albright, and others in the administration share a residual quotient of the blame. In this respect they were indeed fortunate that Milosevic, rather than being the genocidal tyrant they represented him to be, was only a garden-variety thug. Had he been in the league of a Hitler or a Stalin, as they preposterously claimed, the hundreds of thousands of Kosovars whose dispossession we helped make possible—and then prolonged—would have been left not only homeless but dead, and we would have had much to answer for.



It is easy to grasp why the Clintonites, with their deep-rooted unease about the exercise of American power, should have pulled the levers of war with uncertain hands. More difficult to comprehend is the behavior exhibited by the U.S. military itself. About this, the memoir by Wesley Clark is particularly illuminating. The ranking U.S. (and NATO) officer running the war, Clark arrived there after a lifetime spent shuttling through a long series of high-level postings that gave him broad exposure to the U.S. military in all of its workings. The picture that emerges from his book is thus of special value, even bearing in mind the resentments he must harbor over his dismissal and replacement.

That picture is of a defense establishment seriously if not terminally averse to casualties. This of course is hardly news: the same phenomenon was on display to some degree in previous conflicts and deployments, including the Persian Gulf war, Somalia in 1992, and Haiti in 1993. But in Operation Allied Force it assumed dramatic proportions. The decision to keep NATO’s jets flying at 15,000 feet, putting the safety of pilots above all other considerations, is one case in point. The saga of the Apache helicopter is another.

Against Iraq, the Apache, a heavily armored and highly maneuverable attack platform, had been used to exceptional effect, destroying approximately 500 Iraqi vehicles as American forces moved in to liberate Kuwait. The helicopters themselves had been developed and procured at enormous cost—some $9 billion—and the kind of mission they were to be called upon to perform in Kosovo was, according to Clark, the very one “we’d been training them for for years.” Yet the fiercest opposition to moving them to the theater, and then to deploying them in combat, came not from the White House but from Clark’s higher-ups within the Pentagon itself.

In Clark’s telling, when the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, and the service chiefs assembled for a crucial meeting on whether to make use of the helicopters, they were presented with an Army briefing paper that dwelled heavily on the risks. It listed, “in a column that went for two or three pages, all the weapons that were capable of perforating the skin of an Apache.” Comments Clark: “This wasn’t risk . . . this was just another way of saying, ‘Don’t do the mission.’ ” In the end, the Apaches were deployed but never permitted to fire a shot; in addition to being a major political embarrassment, this proved enormously expensive as well, consuming almost a quarter of total U.S. outlays for the war.

But aversion to casualties was only the outward sign of a deeper problem. As Clark shows, the military’s decision-makers were bent against participation in the Kosovo war from the very start, and once it was under way they offered resistance both to its continuation and especially to its intensification, slowing the flow of forces and raising one objection after another to methods of increasing pressure on Milosevic. At one point, the Army Chief of Staff explained to President Clinton that (in Clark’s scornful paraphrase) “he didn’t feel that it would be possible for the Army to deal with the rugged terrain of northeast Albania.”

Clark does not have a theory to explain the derelictions he encountered higher up in the chain of command, but he does mention an assortment of complementary factors. In the first instance, Kosovo posed what he describes as “significant policy and doctrinal problems” for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. To put it simply, they saw a commitment of forces to the Balkans as a violation of the National Military Strategy, the guiding document that spells out the major contingencies that U.S. forces are trained and equipped to handle. These happen to be in northeast Asia (Korea) and the Middle East (primarily Iraq and Iran), two strategically situated regions where significant American interests are at stake and the U.S. might find itself facing powerful enemy forces. Tiny Kosovo and slightly larger Serbia were simply not visible on the Chiefs’ map, and, in Clark’s exasperated words, Operation Allied Forces “wasn’t the war they wanted to fight.”

This fixed attitude explains why, even after hostilities had erupted, the Pentagon was still asking Clark to return aircraft that had been “pulled” from patrol operations in northern Iraq. Comments Clark: “they didn’t understand that this was a war, that NATO’s future was at stake, and that these assets were absolutely vital to escalating the pressure against Belgrade.”

Not only was American intervention in Kosovo not perceived to be of strategic importance but, in the Chiefs’ view, it threatened the material “longer-term health” of the services. Actually having to expend resources on combat disrupted ongoing programs of “modernization.” What is more, by the inverted bureaucratic accounting protocols of the Pentagon, real live war-fighting, by “consuming ‘ready’ units,” threatened to reduce preparedness.

Beneath such service-oriented deformations one finds yet another set of distortions. The post-Vietnam volunteer army, writes Clark, had been consciously designed so that “no serious military operation could be contemplated without calling up Reserves and National Guard forces, thus forcing the political leaders to secure public approval before committing troops to an operation.” This provides a serious check on mere foreign-policy adventurism—but also on the successful prosecution of more considered campaigns. Unless the U.S. (or one of its allies) has been directly challenged, Clark writes, operations that entail the possibility of American deaths “might not be sustainable.”

And so the circle closes. Ordered to fight a war in Yugoslavia, the military hit upon the only strategy that would obviate this constraint: it chose not to “put boots on the ground,” thereby avoiding casualties and making the war as safe as possible. In this, it was successful beyond all hope; not a single American serviceman died in direct combat, an unprecedented historical feat of which Clark is understandably proud. But, keeping in mind how near a thing it was, he also notes that this cannot continue: it is time for the military to “put the legacy of Vietnam and even Somalia behind us. It will be necessary to take risks in war.”



As an account of why the Pentagon was so risk-averse in Kosovo, Clark’s is persuasive enough. But he overlooks certain dimensions of the problem he points to and may not give sufficient weight to others.

Almost in passing and without a hint of irony, Clark praises the all-volunteer military for managing to attract and retain soldiers by becoming “a far more caring institution,” one skilled at providing “stable jobs and family benefits.” But it is precisely in the interstices between an army that perceives itself as a formidable fighting force and one striving to become a “caring institution” that one source of combat reticence resides. Our “kinder, gentler military,” to borrow the title of Stephanie Gutmann’s important book, places its heaviest emphasis these days on sensitivity to the trinity of gender, race, and career, not on the inculcation of martial spirit.

As for the legacy of Vietnam, Clark focuses almost exclusively on the organizational reforms undertaken in the wake of the U.S. defeat there, but says very little about the personal attitudes of his colleagues in the military high command, almost all of whom had painful firsthand experience of that conflict. Pentagon officials frequently explain their hesitations about embarking upon military action by pointing to the American public, a public allegedly unwilling to follow through when the going gets tough. But recent opinion surveys conducted by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies show that senior military officers are consistently more casualty-averse than the public at large. From this one might plausibly infer that concern over public support is something of an alibi.

However much today’s senior military officers may proclaim that the so-called Vietnam syndrome is behind them, plainly it is not. And one can see why. A generation of military leaders who saw their comrades cut down in Vietnam for naught, and were themselves treated as pariahs by a highly vocal segment of the American elite, are less than eager to oversee replays of that tribulation. To add insult to injury, our “humanitarian” intervention in Kosovo is being held up by yesterday’s civilian doves as a new and morally superior kind of war.

But this is counterfeit on several counts. For one thing, the Clinton administration went to war in Yugoslavia for reasons far less lofty than its rhetoric would indicate. Having publicly threatened Milosevic with force at Rambouillet, as it had recklessly done on a host of previous occasions, it now found its credibility at stake in ways that could no longer be evaded. For another, if Kosovo truly was a humanitarian war, why did we embrace a strategy that, in Henry Kissinger’s words, “vindicate[d] its moral convictions only from altitudes above 15,000 feet” while the Kosovars, the beneficiaries of our ethical largesse, were left to fend for themselves helpless on the ground? And finally, if Milosevic really was an “Adolf Hitler, Jr.”—in the phrase of one Clinton official—why did we permit the war to end not with unconditional surrender but with his regime and the bulk of his military forces intact?

The world’s first humanitarian war, rather than being something new under the sun, was in reality something very old: a war into which a great power slid inadvertently, almost against its will. In this light, to refer to it as a morally superior form of warfare is implicitly to deprecate the sacrifices made by American soldiers in every conflagration of the 20th century, all of which had a far clearer and more compelling humanitarian rationale and were grounded in a larger strategy that was itself laden with moral purpose.

Which is hardly to say that the Pentagon’s aversion to casualties is not a serious problem; indeed, if zero casualties really does become “the standard by which other operations are measured,” as Wesley Clark suggests it might, then we will be paralyzed on the international stage, renowned for nothing so much as our willingness to kill but not to die and an inviting target for any hostile country that can find a way to draw the blood of our soldiers.

Nor is this to suggest that we should not use force abroad except in dire circumstances (though that, too, is a lesson some have drawn from Kosovo). What it does suggest is the need for a clarity about both ends and means that is very far from being gleaned from our experience in Yugoslavia. In the larger debate over defense preparedness, nothing could be less helpful than misrepresentations of that experience.



1 Public Affairs, 479 pp., $30.00.

2 Brookings, 343 pp., $26.95.

3 The elaborate procedures and multiple layers of checking did not suffice to prevent the most notorious and politically consequential error of the air campaign: the mistaken targeting and subsequent bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade.


About the Author

Gabriel Schoenfeld is senior editor of COMMENTARY.

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