Paul Wilson, in his review of Madeleine Albright’s Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937–1948 [NYR, June 7], sensibly puts quotation marks around the word “success” in referring to the seventy-eight-day NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999, hailed at the time by John Keegan as “proof positive that wars can be won by airpower alone.” As Wilson correctly observes, the war “transformed liberal attitudes to military intervention,” its legacy celebrated in subsequent campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and, perhaps in the near future, Syria and Iran.
The war was indeed a triumph for air power, though not quite in the way Keegan and others understand. The eleven-week bombing offensive against Serbian military and civilian targets ended when Slobodan Milošević agreed to evacuate Kosovo, and it was therefore a simple matter for air power partisans to claim victory—a clear case of post hoc, propter hoc. In the view of many on the ground, however, the Serbs yielded for political, not military reasons. In the words of Lieutenant General Michael Jackson, commander of the British contingent advancing into Kosovo, it was the Russian government’s abandonment of its ally Milošević that had “the greatest significance in ending the war.” Indeed, Milošević accepted the allied terms immediately the Kremlin had spoken.
General Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, nevertheless quickly announced that the happy result had been achieved by Nato bombs and missiles, overwhelmingly targeted against the Serb military, destroying “around 120 tanks…about 220 armored personnel carriers,” and “up to 450 artillery and mortar pieces.”
Subsequent investigation on the ground by a munitions effectiveness assessment team dispatched from NATO concluded that Serb losses had been perhaps a tenth of those claimed. Nato commander General Wesley Clark was reportedly outraged at this report, and sent the team back to Kosovo for further research. Once again, the team found no evidence that the air strikes had in any way discommoded the Serb occupation military. Ultimately, a US Air Force general, John Chorley, obligingly produced a report, without conducting further research in the field, with numbers—ninety-three tanks, 153 armored personnel carriers—that were close enough to the initial claims to be acceptable and have so been recorded as the final tally.
NATO staff was in no doubt as to what had happened. US Army Colonel Douglas MacGregor, who was director of joint operations at Nato military headquarters throughout the war, recently confirmed to me in an e-mail: “Pressure to fabricate came from the top…the [Air Force] senior leadership was determined that whatever the truth, the campaign had to confirm the efficacy of air power and its dominance.” MacGregor, now retired, recalls senior British and German officers on the Nato staff joined him in protesting to Clark over the adulteration of the figures, to no avail.
The story would deserve no more than a footnote if the political effects of the instant falsification of history had not had such far-reaching effects. Air power had been failing to live up to its advocates’ promises since at least World War II, with Vietnam being a signal case in point. The Kosovo campaign’s apparent confirmation that bombs and missiles could achieve a victory at no cost in friendly casualties, and in a good cause too, undoubtedly prepared the political landscape for the automated drone warfare so eagerly embraced by our current leadership. A wider awareness that the official history of that campaign is a fabrication might help people to understand why current remote-control air campaigns in Waziristan, Yemen, Somalia, and beyond yield such disappointing results.
ANDREW COCKBURN is the co-producer of the feature documentary on the financial catastrophe American Casino He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press, now also available in Kindle edition. Cockburn’s The Duel: the Strangest Story of the Afghan War is available in Kindle format. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org