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Originally Published June, 1999
Anyone seeking to understand the bloody fiasco of the Serbian war need hardly look further than the person of the beribboned Supreme Allied Commander, General Wesley K. Clark. Politicians and journalists are generally according him a respectful hearing as he discourses on the “schedule” for the destruction of Serbia, tellingly embracing phrases favored by military bureaucrats such as “systematic” and “methodical”.
The reaction from former army subordinates is very different. “The poster child for everything that is wrong with the GO (general officer) corps,” exclaims one colonel, who has had occasion to observe Clark in action, citing, among other examples, his command of the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood from 1992 to 1994.
While Clark’s official Pentagon biography proclaims his triumph in “transitioning the Division into a rapidly deployable force” this officer describes the “1st Horse Division” as “easily the worst division I have ever seen in 25 years of doing this stuff.”
Such strong reactions are common. A major in the 3rd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado when Clark was in command there in the early 1980s described him as a man who “regards each and every one of his subordinates as a potential threat to his career”.
While he regards his junior officers with watchful suspicion, he customarily accords the lower ranks little more than arrogant contempt. A veteran of Clark’s tenure at Fort Hood recalls the general’s “massive tantrum because the privates and sergeants and wives in the crowded (canteen) checkout lines didn’t jump out of the way fast enough to let him through”.
Clark’s demeanor to those above is, of course, very different, a mode of behavior that has earned him rich dividends over the years. Thus, early in 1994, he was a candidate for promotion from two to three star general. Only one hurdle remained – a war game exercise known as the Battle Command Training Program in which Clark would have to maneuver his division against an opposing force. The commander of the opposing force, or “OPFOR” was known for the military skill with which he routinely demolished opponents.
But Clark’s patrons on high were determined that no such humiliation should be visited on their favorite. Prior to the exercise therefore, strict orders came down that the battle should go Clark’s way. Accordingly, the OPFOR was reduced in strength by half, thus enabling Clark, despite deploying tactics of signal ineptitude, to triumph. His third star came down a few weeks later.
Battle exercises and war games are of course meant to test the fighting skills of commanders and troops. The army’s most important venue for such training is the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, where Clark commanded from October 1989 to October 1991 and where his men derisively nicknamed him “Section Leader Six” for his obsessive micro-management.
At the NTC, army units face a resident OPFOR that has, through constant battle practice coupled with innovative tactics and close knowledge of the terrain, become adept at routing the visiting “Blue Force” opponents. For Clark, this naturally posed a problem. Not only were his men using unconventional tactics, they were also humiliating Blue Force generals who might nurture resentment against the NTC commander and thus discommode his career at some future date. To the disgust of the junior OPFOR officers Clark therefore frequently fought to lose, sending his men on suicidal attacks in order that the Blue Forces should go home happy and owing debts of gratitude to their obliging foe.
All observers agree that Clark has always displayed an obsessive concern with the perquisites and appurtenances of rank. Ever since he acceded to the Nato command post, the entourage with which he travels has accordingly grown to gargantuan proportions to the point where even civilians are beginning to comment. A Senate aide recalls his appearances to testify, prior to which aides scurry about the room adjusting lights, polishing his chair, testing the microphone etc prior to the precisely timed and choreographed moment when the Supreme Allied Commander Europe makes his entrance.
“We are state of the art pomposity and arrogance up here,” remarks the aide. “So when a witness displays those traits so egregiously that even the senators notice, you know we’re in trouble.” His NATO subordinates call him, not with affection, “the Supreme Being”.
“Clark is smart,” concludes one who has monitored his career. “But his whole life has been spent manipulating appearances (e.g. the doctored OPFOR exercise) in the interests of his career. Now he is faced with a reality he can’t control.” This observer concludes that, confronted with the wily Slobodan and other unavoidable variables of war, Clark will soon come unglued. “Watch the carpets at NATO HQ for teeth marks.” CP