war in europe

general charles krulak

how it was fought
ethnic cleansing
for moral values?

photo of general charles krulak
Until June 30, 1999, Gen. Krulak was the Commandant of the US Marine Corps and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
You were on Capitol Hill, talking about Kosovo . . .

. . . We'd gone through the build-up, and they were literally talking about an air campaign. We'd go up on the Hill, discussing multiple things. John Warner, the chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, introduces the air war, and basically says, "What do you think about it? How's it going to go?" Then he asks the first question to the Air Force chief of staff, who talked about the integrated air defenses. He talked about the weather, and the difficult terrain, and basically said that if you think this is going to be easy, think again. Planes will be shot down, and there will be casualties, and we just need to think that through.

The chairman asked the chief of naval operations the same question, and got, almost verbatim, the same answer. At that point, the chairman caught my eye. . . . He understood that it won't be just the Navy flying those airplanes, but that it's also going to be the Marine Corps, so he asked me the question. At that point, my frustration level was already fairly high. . . . I articulated, basically, the same things about the mission itself, the terrain, the weather, and all those things. I basically said what the other two gentlemen said. But then, I said, "You're asking the wrong questions. The questions we should be discussing are not tactical questions, which is what you're asking. You're asking tactical questions, when we ought to be up at the strategic level, because we haven't committed yet. Let's get to the strategic level."

From my standpoint, the strategic level was, what do we want as the end state? What do we want to accomplish as a nation, and as NATO, in whatever action we're going to take? What are the measures of effectiveness to tell us whether we're achieving the end state that we want, and if we're moving down the road towards it? He broke in, and said that these are all good questions, and that he'd asked the specifics in a group meeting tomorrow. . . . I wonder, "What group's that going to be?" I don't know whether the questions were ever asked. Obviously, if they were, the answers didn't do us much good. The reality is that I don't think we ever got to where we should have been in the debate on national interest and the strategy. It's not what do we want Kosovo to look like, or Yugoslavia to look like. It's what do we want the Balkans to look like five or ten years from now, because any action you took in Kosovo will have an impact on the Balkans.

But it was clear that the goal was to get Milosevic to stop doing these bad things in Kosovo.

That might have been the short-term goal. But in doing so, you have to take into account other countries--one of them, obviously, was Russia. How do you execute that short-term goal without damaging a relationship that, five or ten years from now, will become very important? As it turned out, by starting the bombing while you had a representative from Russia flying to the United States, we basically stuffed a finger in their eye. Those types of things need to be clearly thought out.

So is that your frustration? There are answers--but who's asking the questions?

You've got to have your cards held close to your chest if you're dealing with somebody trying to beat you . . . I'm not saying that he should have committed ground troops.  I'm just saying that he shouldn't have mentioned anything about it. I was frustrated then, not now. Many of us who sat at that table had served in Vietnam, and we understood what it meant to have the support of your government and of the American people. None of the service chiefs on the day in question felt that the American people really understood what this was all about, and none felt that the American people had decided that this is in our national interest. The concern was, that as we moved into Kosovo and this undertaking, we were doing so once again without any debate taking place, and without any sense from the mothers and fathers of America that they were willing to send their sons and daughters into harm's way over this issue.

You must have run those frustrations up the chain of command?

Yes. It was not just Chuck Krulak running them up, I can tell you that. The service chiefs, vice chairmen and chairmen had the same frustrations. To be very honest, I think Secretary Cohen had the same feelings. Obviously those feelings did not cause any change in what eventually took place.

We were slipping down the road here that the people hadn't . . .

In my opinion, we were slipping down a road that we had neither prepared the people for, nor allowed this wonderful body called the Congress of the United States to adequately debate. . . .

The day that we start striking, the commander in chief tells the public that this is what we're doing, and why we need to do it. He also says, "Don't worry. We're not going to put ground troops into this conflict." Did you know he was going to say that?

All the service chiefs knew that he was going to say something about the ground troops. Part of his sensing--and he's a very smart man--was that he had not, nor had the Congress, nor had the services, built any kind of constituency within the American people to cause mothers and fathers to say yes, send my son or daughter into Kosovo. Many of them didn't even know where Kosovo was, much less what this was all about. I think that was probably one of the reasons why he said no to ground troops. That's probably one of the reasons why the service chiefs were very reluctant to say send in the ground troops, although there was probably very few of us who believed that air alone was going to accomplish the mission.

Do you think it was a good idea to say publicly "No ground troops?"


Tell me about that.

As a war fighter, I would never take anything off the table. You've got to have your cards held close to your chest if you're dealing with somebody who's trying to beat you, particularly somebody who's taken an asymmetric tack. It would have been better not to mention withholding anything, because then you're showing your cards. From a war-fighting standpoint, you don't want to do that. Now, understand that I'm not saying that he should have committed ground troops. I'm just saying that he shouldn't have mentioned anything about it. I can understand also why he did, though. We all felt concerned that the groundwork had not been laid.

Was that a price he had to pay to get the support of the Pentagon? The Pentagon was up testifying even weeks before to the Senate about this, following in your footsteps, saying, "Don't worry, this isn't a ground troop kind of thing."

The president doesn't march to the Pentagon's drum. A lot of people seem to think that. But only when it makes political sense do we always come together. We give him the best advice, and sometimes he takes it, and sometimes he doesn't. He knew our concerns. . . about what we were doing, and so he probably made an educated guess and took that course. I don't think that any of the service chiefs were saying therefore, take it off the table.

Once the air war started, we ran out of targets very quickly. Did you wonder what was going on?

It showed a real disconnect within the intelligence community and the operators. You sit there as a member of the joint chiefs, believing that you certainly have target sets for more than two or three days. The fact that we ran out of targets so quickly would somewhat indicate to you that, in fact, they were thinking of a short campaign.

First, it looks like we're right, that this is thought to be a very short campaign and, two, why the hell don't we have any more targets? What has broken down that would make it so we have no more targets? The reality is, and Wes will tell you, that we didn't run out of targets. We had things that we could hit and we ended up hitting. They were more far more tactical in nature than what you and I would call operational strategic.

In the first couple of weeks, we had a Stealth go down. All of a sudden you turn on the TV and you've got three POWs. What does that tell you?

That this guy is certainly lasting longer than the initial thought. It told me nothing, because I expected that this thing was not going to be a short one, and that he was going to do things. The three people were captured due to an error on their part. They took the wrong turn. You can't point to that as proof that we're going to hell in a handbasket. Three people got captured. That's just confusion in the fog of war.

But it does have an effect on the American public to see beat-up POWs?

Absolutely. It raised the issue of, what are we doing here? Did we vote for this? Did we have a say in this? It caused a re-focus on some of the issues that I spoke about earlier--the national interest.

How did you first hear about the request to deploy Apaches, and what was your response?

I was briefed . . . on something called Task Force Hawk--the movement of Apaches and some multiple launch rocket systems into a position where they could operate at the tactical level. I was asked if I'd heard anything about this in the tank--that this was insanity. . . . I said I'd probably hear something about in the tank that afternoon. Sure enough, in the tank that day, the task force issue would involve a certain number of Apache helicopters and supporting arms and ground forces, to be employed at the tactical level, to destroy tanks and troops in the open--artillery, or what have you.

What was the temperature in the tank in the discussions?

I don't think anyone concurred with the deployment of Apaches, as it was laid out. One of the big problems was that there very little was provided in the way of a concept. . . . I just could not imagine what benefit would come from introducing something that flies as low and as slow as a helicopter does into an environment where you had an asymmetric enemy who had not expended his IADSs. There were thousands upon thousands of shoulder-launched weapons that were unaccounted for. I thought it would be unbelievably dangerous, and that the benefit would be minimal. I do know that majority of the service chiefs felt the same way.

Is it a question of judgment?

Not judgment. The question was, what is the concept? What is the cost benefit? What are we trying to get at with this? If your intelligence is clear enough to say that we know there are tanks located at this coordinate, why would we fly low-level Apaches in to get it, when you had fixed wings looking for targets? Why would you do that? And the answer was never one that satisfied me, and I don't think it satisfied any of the service chiefs or the secretary of defense.

Is there another message that's being sent by the deployment of the Apaches?

In some ways, it was a good message--trying to say that we can get you more than one way--it's not just going to be high-level. Taking the war fighters' perspective--and you've got to give Wes his due--he realized that he had someone playing within his decision loop, and I think he was trying to get back on the offensive, get back within Milosevic's decision loop. As a commander, I might have done the same thing. I'm not so sure that I would have used the Apache as a method. . . . He saw a problem, and he came up with a solution to that problem. It was an asymmetric solution to an asymmetric enemy. But if you stand back, which I think every once in a while you need to do, the cost benefit of that would have been a disaster for us. . . .

This was a serious proposition. He makes the argument that this is exactly what the Apaches are for--deep attack.

No, I disagree. The deep attack doctrine for the Apache helicopter is not to plink tanks, and that's what we were talking about. There were no formations of tanks, or artillery, or troops in the open. If you look at the doctrine for deep attack and the utilization of the Apache, it is to go after large formations or large concentrations of the enemy. If we had large concentrations of that enemy--and Lord knows we wish we'd had them-- we would have hammered them with our fixed wing. Look at the difference in Desert Storm, where you had destroyed the integrated air defenses, and you had large targets. There, the doctrine around using the Apache makes sense.

But we had to plink tanks because we said we were going to stop the ethnic cleansing.

The point is not whether you had to plink tanks. Milosevic dictated that it was going to be tanks that are plinked, and not massive formations, by the way he deployed his forces and how he fought. We knew we were going to plink tanks. The question was,were we going to plink them with fixed wing, or with something that would put more people at risk--which would be a helicopter flying low and slow against, at minimum, shoulder-launched air defense weapons?

Not too long ago, General Clark said that the idea for the Apaches came from Washington.

He never said it to me. . . . If there was a plan or an original thought coming out of Washington to use the Apaches, at no time did Chuck Krulak ever know that. I would venture to say, that if you talk to my fellow service chiefs, they would say the same thing.

This obviously brings us to the whole question of the tactical-strategic discussions. Clark's basic line of reasoning is, I've got to do something. The politicians are all over me, and I've got to do something about these awful images of ethnic cleansing. He's got an air commander who's quite concerned about the way they're going about this. You folks are back in Washington. You're in the tank. This is an issue that you're talking about, so take me into the tank. Give me some sense of what it is like in "the tank."

. . . The tank is nothing more than a conference room that has one large table in it, and all sit around that table. When the tank meets, certain people always try to be there--the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the chief of staff of the Army, the Air Force, the chief of naval operations, and the commandant. So there are six people there that are supposed to be there at all times. Normally, there's others . . . from the intelligence, and so forth. Those individuals basically build the scenario of the things that you're going to talk about. . . . The secretary of defense often attends. It is a fairly collegial group, normally, but it can get, at times, a bit testy. It will get testy when something comes in that does not make sense, or that goes against the better judgment of the chairman of any of the services, at which time, your comments are made known. As a service chief, you always try to ensure that the chairman knows your individual view. He's very good about that . . . His role is to provide the best advice he can to the National Command Authority. He doesn't necessarily have to take my specific opinion in there, but if he's trying to do the best job, he needs to do that, and so that's what happens in this tank.

Bring me to the discussion about strategic or tactical.

Well, again, let's go back to the very beginning--the very issue of what is the strategic objectives, and here are we going--were issues that all of the service chiefs had concerns about. We then got to the tactical versus the strategic level in the prosecution of the conflict itself. You had to ask yourself, if we were to bring this to resolution, where is the center of gravity of Milosevic? Where is the center of gravity of this enemy that we were fighting? Was that center of gravity necessarily found in tanks or artillery pieces at the front, or was the center of gravity also found in the infrastructure--the information systems capability? Was it Milosevic's lines of communication and those things? Basically, we said, "Look, it's not working." I think that Wes was also torn. "We're not getting the effects we want plinking tanks, and in all probability, you'll have to go downtown," and that's the kind of discussion that went on.

Did that happen pretty early on? Is there any memorable meeting that took place?

There was frustration in the tank, and also in Europe, having to get permission to hit certain targets. You could see that frustration in the video teleconferences that we had with Wes and his people. . . . The chairman would write down what target set they want to hit, and then he'd have to get that cleared. There was almost a sense of, we don't want to go back to the mistake of Vietnam, which was having to get individual targets cleared by a government, whether it was the United States government, or France, or whatever. . . . We want to somehow make it so we can prosecute this conflict in a manner that will bring as quick a resolution as we can get.

There was even a debate about whether or not to take . . . most of the aircraft off, and put it into tactical on Kosovo, flying a lot over Kosovo. There was a disagreement about that.

It was an issue of where the center of gravity was. I just never felt that the center of gravity was the forces on the ground. I thought it was a combination--you had to put a combination of pressure on this individual, and as it turned out, it was a combination of pressures that eventually caused him to come to the table.

It strikes me as unusual to drop graphite bombs on the electric grid. You want to turn out the lights, but you don't really turn out the lights--you drop these graphite bombs. Tell me about that.

Well, it does turn out the lights. It just doesn't destroy the grid.

You turn the lights out for a period of time. The American people should be happy about this, not sad. Eventually, we, our NATO allies, and a lot of other people are going to be helping to rebuild that which we destroyed. It's smart to turn the lights out without destroying the totality of the power grid. You can continue to black it out for as long as you want. The question is, do you want to totally destroy the power grid of a nation? And the answer was obviously no.

But you also want to put enough pressure on. You don't want to risk your pilots to turn out lights for 24 hours.

We turned them off for longer than 24 hours. You had to look at the danger to the pilots, and what are we going to get out of this in the war effort--is it going to be of value from a cost-benefit standpoint? And the answer was yes. Again, we knew that sooner or later, that which we destroyed would have to be rebuilt.

. . . What was General Clark bringing to you, regarding intensity of the campaign and a need to escalate to really . . .?

His articulation to us was the requirement for more aircraft, and a greater ability to execute targets in a more rapid fashion. He was concerned about keeping them under the gun 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was a logical communication that everything that he could possibly get at, every single target that he could get, and two, that he would get approval for, were somewhat more dangerous from the standpoint of collateral damage--he would get a quicker response to those. . . .

Actually, ground planning starts a lot sooner than people realized. At the time at the NATO summit at the end of April, General Clark gets approval to actually dust off some ground troops plan. How much of that is transparent to you, and what do you know about it?

Any warrior that isn't continually planning for any eventuality isn't really doing his job. If people are shocked that there were other plans on the shelf . . . they're really missing the boat. Sure, there's planning going on. The question is, do those plans become operation orders? I would hope that somebody was doing some planning. The issue is whether the plan ever comes forward as, "Here's the order that we would like to see executed."

So he comes to visit you on May 19. He brings in something, a plan, or whatever you call it. Tell me about that.

There was a very generic plan. It was a series of options. In the planning process, you dust off a plan from the shelf, and you bring it forward into the current situation's environment. At the basic level, you had mission, enemy terrain, troops available, and time available. . . . You put those all together, and try to fit that plan into what you could execute. That's what he did. He said, "Here are some options for you service chiefs. This is the cost in people, and equipment," and things like that. It was not a single plan that he wanted to be developed into an order. It was a series of options that he was trying to get a read on.

And what did he get?

The best way to put that would be that we need to do some more planning, a little more detail, put a little more meat to the bone--a little bit more about how are we going to do this logistically. Again, there's the idea of, what is the end state, how far do you want to take this, where will it go? All the whats, wheres or the what-ifs. That's what most good CINCs want. That's a good evaluation of the plans he brought forward--some guidance to home in on particular areas. . . .

You were going to put some thoughts on paper at that period of time of making decisions, personal decisions. Why?

Since the beginning, I wanted to lay out some coherent thoughts on my views of the strategic level, and how that had to be the first call, and what might happen if we did not follow that. We were now almost two months into this. None of the issues that I had raised had really been debated. We had not taken the steps to alert the American people as to what we were doing, and why we were doing it. The pictures on CNN will only last so long. As long as the American people don't have their sons or daughters committed, you are OK, but we are now dusting off plans. What I was trying to do was to say, "Let's go back to the beginning, to the same concerns that all the service chiefs and the secretary of defense had. Let's review them." The best way I could do that, in my own mind, was to write them out for myself, and then to hand them to my fellow chiefs and to the chairman, and ask them to pass it to the secretary of defense.

That paper basically walked through what you and I have been discussing to include the issue of an asymmetric enemy, and to include the history of those people who had attempted once before to go into the Balkans and impress their will on the ground. The Germans did it, and they found it very easy to get in, but had a tough time getting out.

To this day, I do not think the American people fully understand the national interests that are involved in Kosovo. I am not at all sanguine that they would be prepared to see a large number of their sons and daughters die in Kosovo. I may be wrong. The issue is whether they ever had the opportunity to understand what this is about, other than the tragedy of ethnic cleansing, the tragedy of the refugees, and this individual who was evil. But in the context of what we are in the world, and how we are viewed . . . how do you best achieve the near-term end of any ethnic cleansing--getting rid of this evil man--and, at the same time, not damage the infrastructure of central Europe? What about the relationships among nations--a relationship with Russia, a relationship with China--that would end up being far more important to the country in the twenty-first century? I didn't think we thought that through. . . . I was concerned that we may, in fact, end up putting boots on the ground. If that were the case ... is it not worth some time to lay out why we are doing what we are doing, and not just use pictures of refugees, and not just talk about Hitler lookalikes? We needed to consider the gut issue of national interest--who we are as a nation, and what we want to be in the twenty-first century.

But it had been pretty effective to paint Milosevic as the . . . ?

It has been effective throughout modern warfare to use the images-- starvation in Somalia, refugees in Kosovo. The images are very powerful. They cause action at a speed and at a pace that perhaps, in this new world environment, we are not able to respond to, and we find ourselves making decisions based upon visions and pictures, versus a national interest.

On June 3 you had a meeting at the White House, where they reported initially that there were going to be some decisions. There's a lot of pressure on the president to come to some terms as to whether we were going to make the ground commitment.

Yes. I heard all of the rumors and innuendoes. The meeting was not intended to come to any decision about ground forces. The meeting was intended to bring the commander in chief up to speed on where the conflict was at that time. It consisted of a brief by Secretary of Defense Cohen, and by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. . . . The issue of the ground forces was not raised by anyone in terms of a decision, or a major plan, or anything like that. It was in broad generalities, about what might happen. But even at that stage, the plan was nowhere near formulated, that you would go in to the president of the United States and expect a decision from him. . . .

Some people thought that the meeting was for the commander in chief to bring you folks along on the idea of the ground commitment.

Believe me, we didn't go in looking for, or believing, that ground troops was going to be an issue. The president of the United States, during his discussions, did not introduce ground troops as a subject for debate. This meeting was not what it was painted to be. There was no intent to go in there and say, "OK, here's the ground plan." . . .

Help me understand this about Wes Clark. He's got the background of Vietnam. At the same time, he has got to listen to the politics. How tuned-in is he to the harmonics of Washington, and what's happening?

Wes Clark is a brilliant man, with good political sense. Like any commander, he became focused on that which he needed to execute, and that was to conduct a combat operation, a combat campaign. As a result, the ability to understand the Washington harmonics took a back seat to trying to accomplish his mission. His mission was absolutely made hundreds of times more difficult by the context in which he had to operate, and that was the context of NATO, where his decisions as a commander in chief of that fight could be questioned, countermanded, and argued down to him, and, far more importantly, back to the president of the United States. So he found himself in the situation that commanders should not be put in. I think he'd gotten tired. I had gotten tired. Fatigue is a very dangerous thing when you are in combat. As he got tired, he probably got frustrated, and he probably became more demanding. That's not a negative, that's just the facts of life. That's going to happen, and that's part of the fog of war. It was exacerbated because he went from being a war fighter back and forth to being this diplomat. He was trying to wear those two hats, and as a result, I think that impacted a lot on some of the things that he may have been criticized for.

I just spoke with General Short about the central dynamics, that we're the big dog in the fight. Wes Clark and others argue that we did as best we could, given the context of 19-nation coalition warfare. . . . We have maximum leverage to decide how the war is prosecuted if we want to exert it. Was Wes Clark exerting maximum leverage, asking for maximum leverage from his political masters in Washington or was . . .?

It's easy for General Short to make those kinds of comments that we're the big dog in a fight. I just go back to, what do you want NATO to look like in ten years? Do you want them to have in their memory bank the fact that, when we went to war for the first time as NATO, one guy dictated the fight, one guy carried the stick, and one guy was the big dog? It might work this time. It might have been great for Kosovo. But NATO has a long memory. If you start swinging your weight in a little conflict called Kosovo--the first time NATO ever got involved in anything like this, and all of a sudden you've got the big dog telling everybody else what to do--you may have won the battle, but let me tell you, you would have lost the war in the long run. With all due respect, he needs to rethink the strategic implications of acting like the bully on the block when you have a coalition.

Was the decision to escalate limited warfare politically determined?

That is absolutely not necessarily the fault of the CINC. The fault lies in the overall strategy that said we are going to get there to begin with. You go back to the Powell Doctrine. If all of the steps have been taken and you get there, then you are the big dog, and you hammer them. None of that took place. Also, the coalition that Powell and President Bush formed for the Gulf war was not the same kind of coalition that was formed for Kosovo. The American people and Congress did not totally understand the strategic aims and goals. If you went to the 19 countries, there would be varying degrees of what was and what was not the national interest of that country, what was and what was not the goal, and amount of force to use. So, you need to be careful about swaggering in to a conflict that has 19 people involved. That has far more strategic implications for NATO--not now, forget about now--but ten years from now.

Something has got to come out of this conflict. One of the things that has to come out of it in this particular region is, how does NATO fight and when? How and when do they fight when the enemy is this asymmetric, and how and when do they fight with an enemy that is agile?

Is this over? Did we win?

Do you think it's over? Do you really think it's over, or do you think that our people on the ground put into effect a peacekeeping apparatus that is holding age-old ethnic cultural religion hatreds in check? Do you think that, if we left tomorrow, it's all OK? If you do, then I've got some land in Florida for you.

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