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interview with general howell estes
As the director for operations (J-3) with the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1994 th rough 1996, General Howell Estes oversaw U.S. military operations during the American build-up and intervention in Bosnia. A 1965 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, he began his career as an F-4 fighter pilot in Vietnam, where he flew 169 combat missions.  During the Gulf War, he served as deputy chief of staff fo r operations, Strategic Air Command. Before retirement in late 1998, General Est

Not long after Beirut, about a year after that, there is this press conference, the Secretary of Defense [Caspar Weinberger] comes forward. He's being staffed by Colin Powell, a Vietnam veteran, and others around him, younger people, and there seems to be, all of a sudden, the arrival of these holy commandments. Tell me about that.

howell estesWell, again, remember the experiences we've gone through now. ... You go from Korea to Vietnam, you look at Desert I, and all of a sudden you start seeing a theme of things that says, one, we're diluting the way we use the military, because we're trying to achieve political aims with the military and not using them as an all-out force to fight the nation's wars. We're committing them in places maybe we shouldn't commit them. And secondly, we're not giving the military the authority to do what we asked them to do. ... We're trying to do escalation control at the political level, but what that amounts to, in the execution, is that the military's not effective.

And I think there was some realization of this when Caspar Weinberger ... came up with this litany of things about when you commit military force and when you don't. And as a young officer, I can remember when that came out, in a number of different ways, and I literally carried a copy of that for ten years with me, in my briefcase, because I thought it was so important, and it had such a dramatic effect on me, when I read it, to think, 'Holy mackerel, it's really as simple as this. ... You don't commit militaries unless there's a vital interest to the nation at risk. You don't commit militaries unless you are going to commit a decisive force. You give them clear objectives, you have a defined exit strategy, so you know what gets you in and what gets you out. And you let the military do what they're designed to do. ' ...

When General Powell is first asked to look at this Bosnia problem, what does he tell the President?

... I wasn't there, but in very general terms ... the idea was that if we were going to put a force into Bosnia, it was going to have to be a substantial, decisive force. We're talking about hundreds and thousands of troops to accomplish the task that was set for us there. And I think when the numbers of forces were reviewed, there was this feeling that, that is a huge force that has to go in there, and, number two, if they go, they're going to be a lot of casualties. This doesn't play well in America. So we've got to find some other solution to this problem.

We've got enough examples in history to tell us that ultimately it's not going to come out very well, in the overall, to commit a military in little, limited ways and hope to achieve some political objective. And you recall what happened, we ended up saying there needed to be some kind of a peace agreement, and then we would put forces in, on the ground, as a part of a United Nations charter, part of a larger force, under the guise of a peace treaty to separate the forces, rather than going in to fight a battle, which would have taken substantially more forces. Now, we still ended up putting 50,000+ ... U.S. forces into Bosnia, as a part of this peacekeeping operation. ...

From the Dick Holbrooke perspective, the State Department, the diplomats looking at this problem, urging the President to do something about Bosnia, there seemed to be some other motivations that were driving them. I mean, in the sense they were looking at this, perhaps, a little bit differently.

I think what's happened is there are different people that view what the U.S. military ought to be used for and ought not to be, and I've given you one side. I think Dick Holbrooke would give you another side. Dick would say that, "Good Lord, wake up, this is the reason we have a military, this is the kind of thing we need to be doing with our military." Bosnia is a good example. ... There was a very strong feeling the military ought to get involved in a lot of things that we in the military said, "No way. This is not what you have a military for. We're not trained to do it, and it will absolutely start us down on the path to fail in Bosnia."

But there is a civilian component that needs to do the nation building. And what the military needs to do is go in and set the conditions in which the nation building teams can come in and carry out their operations, whether it's elections, or whatever it happens to be, starting up the economy and getting things going again ... .

But what happened was, in Bosnia, the military went in and set the conditions and did its best to stay out of things it was not trained to do--and I'll come back to this issue in just a minute--but, the civilian apparatus never geared up. And so what happened, over time, was that ... these tasks that the nation building, the civilian side of the apparatus was supposed to do, those things kept being pushed over to the military. ...

As a military guy, I would say that if we're going to do these kinds of things in the future, and this is the decision of this country, to involve the military in situations like a Bosnia, that we've got to get serious about it. We've got to understand that the military, there are certain limitations on what it can do, and we let them go set the conditions in which we can them bring in civil agencies that have been organized and brought together to carry out the rest of what needs to be done, so that these things have a more positive outcome. ...

Now, there can be some younger officers that have a very different view of this. They may say, that's why this guy Estes retired, he's part of the old camp, he doesn't realize that the world's changed, and we've got to get ready to do this kind of thing. And I argue, keep your eye on the ball, be careful, because if you build a military that goes off and does things like the Bosnias of the world, like the Haitis of the world, we will be so engaged in so many of those things, we will be spread so thin and so engaged around the world that if something comes along and threatens our vital interest, we won't be ready for it. ...

Let's look at how it was done in Bosnia ... [Dick Holbrooke] gets to Dayton ... there is a huge debate over what ... the military is going to do. What's the role of the military in this whole new mission? ...

There's no question, [that there was pressure on the military to do more] because you looked at the scope of what needed to go on. It wasn't just going in to separate the forces, it was all the other things that needed to happen after that to ensure a lasting peace. ... And so the lists were there of all the things that needed to be done, andthe idea of some was, 'the military can do much of this, let's give it to them to do. ' And the military's view was, 'this is not what the nation's military is for, we're not trained to do this, you need to get the people who are supposed to do this to do it.'

And the frustration was, as I described earlier, that trying to gear up the civilian apparatus to go in to do the nation building was a very difficult and frustrating process for the government and, ultimately, because it involved many nations, was not going as smoothly, and as a result these tasks are flowing over to the military... .

Admiral Leighton "Snuffy" Smith's at one end of that pressure [for the military to do more].

... I think Snuffy had some very strong views on what could be done, could not be done. He was ultimately the commander responsible. ... Most of us really get this sense, when you're ultimately put in a command position ... you have this instinct inside, it's built into you as a leader, don't commit your people to something that they're not prepared for. I don't care if you're a soldier, sailor, airman or marine, that's instinctive to a leader. ...

Let me ask you about a particular incident Snuffy Smith told us about. The President came to Bosnia, visited, and there was a lot of pressure, at that time, for the forces ... to guard mass gravesites. This was an example of this growing pressure, here, to do more. And they're at a big meeting, and the issue comes up. The President raises the issue, and says, "A lot of people want us to do these mass gravesites. " He turns to Admiral Smith and says, "Tell them, Admiral, what do you think about that? And Admiral Smith says, "I'll do whatever you want, but I'm telling you, we've got to have the forces to do it, and it's going to take a lot more." And the President says, "OK." As the President's leaving, later, he comes over to Admiral Smith and goes up and shakes his hand and says, "Admiral, I'm sorry to put you on the spot like that, in front of all those people, but you said just the right thing. Thank you very much, it was just the perfect answer."

Well, guarding mass gravesites. ... That's not a military task. That's a police force task. And ultimately, and because of the environment, it would take military forces to do it. And so it's going to take a substantial amount of military to do it, in order to do it right. ... If you're going to commit military forces to it, you're going to ensure the protection of the people you commit. You're going to make sure you put them in there under conditions in which they can succeed, not fail, which means you've got to put a lot of force in there. ... And that's what you saw Snuffy doing, was saying, "It's going to take a lot of military forces to do this right. I'm not going to willy-nilly commit them to this and put American lives at risk for nothing." ...

There are grumblings, in early '96--the military's not doing enough, it's not getting the job done, because we have to build this nation and we know the civilian's side not working and the military ought to do more of this stuff. What are you hearing, at that time, about the Commander, Admiral Snuffy Smith?

... I think that there was a general feeling, for all the reasons I've described, that it wasn't just Snuffy, and I would not put this exclusively on his back, in any way, shape or form. There was a general feeling of the leadership of the military that you don't commit military forces that don't live up to the creed that Weinberger came up with. ... Don't put the blame on Snuffy. There were a lot of us that felt that way. ... I say "the general feeling," because of those of us who were in leadership positions in the U.S. military, because of the experiences we'd gone through, instinctively we could see ourselves getting into another quagmire. Every day we committed to do something else that the military wasn't supposed to do, in terms of being trained to do, we were going further down that road, which was going to end up in a negative situation for the U.S. military. And that was the concern we all had. ...

Eventually pressure builds ... and things do start getting done. It may be a piece of symbolism but I'm curious--the day that your friend Wes Clark ... becomes Supreme Allied Commander, happens to be the same day they start picking up war criminals. What's going on?

I think, over a period of time, the U.S. military is a little more comfortable with what it's doing in Bosnia -- still not well-trained to do it, but still says, "We've got the lay of the land, we've been here awhile, we understand a little bit more about what's taking place here, and I just think that there's a feeling that if we don't go after some of these war criminals, that the thing's going to keep going south."... And slowly but surely, with each one of these tasks being added, we're getting deeper and deeper into a situation where the military is bound to be unsuccessful, and this eventually is going to lead to a failure in the area. ...

We talk about a changing world. We didn't change the apparatus we've used to deal with these crises that we get involved in; we should have changed that as well. We're relying on the same old thing we always did, ... that same old thing being the military. So, if we're going to change the way in which we're going to operate in the world in the post-cold war, then we have to gear up a different apparatus to deal with this issue. The military has a part to play; so does the civilian agencies have a part to play. And unless we get in unity and bring these two together, and approach these crises in that way, we'll continue to put the military in to set the conditions and ship these additional tasks at them, which they'll continue to resist, and ultimately enough pressure will build that they'll start doing them, and they won't do them very well, then things will start not going well for us. ...

Unless we change the nature of our military--we make the decision as a nation that that's what we're going to do--then I'm going to stick by the creed that Weinberger came up with, because I know it is successful. I know it lines up with what the U.S. military was crafted to do for this nation. And so I think it's real important that we don't let some loose successes guide us in a direction that says we ought to be doing more in this direction, not less ... .

I think there is a realization that the way in which we are using the U.S. military today, regardless of how well-intentioned the purposes are, is, in fact, wearing the U.S. military down, and that if we face a crisis of the proportion that would cause us to fight our nation's wars, in the classic sense, we are going to find a not very effective military. And what will happen is, is we'll go through that cycle, we'll go through another conflict, we won't do well, and we'll say, "My gosh, we've lost our way again, we need to go back and reconstruct." ...

We've got enough examples in history to tell us that if we do anything different we may have a few successes, but ultimately it's not going to come out very well, in the overall, to commit a military in little, limited ways and hope to achieve some political objective. ... We have too many cases where we've not been successful: Somalia, Bosnia, to some extent, you can say has not been totally successful, Haiti's not been totally successful. What is it we're trying to do here? What is the follow-up piece? How do these nations come out of this better after we leave than before we came in? Sure, the fighting has stopped, but all we've done is suppress the tension, and it's going to pop back up again. These things are going to keep repeating themselves.

So, building the new apparatus to deal with these new situations that the United States faces, as the world's only superpower, in which we feel a moral obligation to be involved, takes a different sort of a response from the United States, other than, "let's use the U.S. military."

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