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an interview with Admiral Leighton W. Snuffy Smith, Jr. (Ret)
Smith flew over 280 missions in Vietnam during his three tours as a Navy pilot.  Later promoted to Admiral and assigned to NATO southern command, Smith served as commander of the military forces charged with implementing the Dayton peace agreement in Bosnia.

[How did your military career begin?]

admiral smith... I went to the University of Alabama for one year, after I graduated from high school, and I had not a clue what I wanted to do, or what I wanted to be. I did know what I did not want to do, and I did not want to be a farmer. I had spent four years on a farm as a youngster, and I didn't want to do that. ... I went [to the U.S. Naval Academy] in the summer of 1958.

So you get to the academy, you have Navy family, that's what you wanted. So your academic career blossomed from there?

[laughs] I wouldn't say that. ... And, quite frankly, I think at that point, I almost gave up on myself. I just didn't think that I belonged there. My high school principal said that I was probably the only senior that ever talked his way through high school. And so I was wondering how I was going to survive in this academic environment. ... I came very close to not making it.

Why didn't you flunk out? What happened?

... The commandant and midshipman [at the Academy] called me into his office one day. And I walked in, and I shall never, ever forget that session. I walked into this office, and here sat this gentleman behind a desk. It was about an acre big. There was an American flag over one shoulder, the midshipman flag over the other shoulder. ... And he looked at me and he said, "Midshipman Smith, what is your problem?" And the standard answer at the Naval Academy, when you didn't know the answer, was, "I'll find out, sir." And I started to say that. And he said, "No, no. What is the problem? Are the midshipmen of the upper-class giving you a hard time? Are the instructors not giving you the amount of time you need? What is causing you to be unsat in three subjects, and having a D in the other two?" ...

Military officers are not trained to be politicians. We don't eat like them, sleep like them, drink like them, talk like them, think like them. And that's neither good nor bad, it's just a fact of life. And, quite frankly, Peter, at that point, I realized that it wasn't anybody else's fault. I mean, yeah, I was getting a hard time. Who wasn't? All my classmates were. And I realized it was me. And I figured if I really wanted to do anything with my life, that he was giving me a chance. ... So I went and saw every one of my instructors. I talked to my classmates. I said, "I need help. I don't want to go home." And they all turned to and they helped me. The most important lesson I learned about that was in leadership. Here was a man, a captain, a war hero, a commandant and midshipman, had enormous responsibilities; but he went way, way down to one of the plebes at the Naval Academy who was having trouble. He brought him up, and he said, "I'm going to give you a second chance." And he did. And I worked real hard. And I made it.

He saw the options before you pretty clearly.

Yeah, the option was going to what I called sixty pigs. ... We raised pigs, and we had about sixty of them. And every time I thought of quitting or failing, I thought about what I had to go back to. I said, "I don't want to go back to those pigs." ...

You made it through the Academy, got your commission, chose aviation; tell me a little about what it is to a young man that age to realize that he has the stuff to fly?

a young adm smithI'm not sure that any of us realize that we had the stuff to fly. It probably just never occurred to us that we didn't, you know? We were invincible. Most twenty-one, twenty-two year olds are pretty invincible, and think they're indestructible. To be perfectly honest with you, I went aviation because I just about died of seasickness on a destroyer in the North Atlantic during my youngster cruise. And I thought, "God, if I'm going to die, I don't want it to take two weeks; I want it to be in a hurry." So I decided aviation. ...

I went into jets because it just kind of seemed like the right thing to do. Got through them when I got my wings, in January of 1964. ... I ended up in [Glengo,] Georgia, seven of us ended up there. Flew FJ-4 Furies for a year; and from that, then went to A-4 Skyhawks, which is what I ended up flying for the first part of my career. ...


You were a young officer. Where were you stationed when you were told that you were being posted to Vietnam?

My first squadron was VA-81, the Sunliners. And I joined them in '65. We deployed in August. And we were in the Mediterranean. Of course, Vietnam was bubbling. And, obviously, we had people over there flying combat missions. ... In my case, I think four or five of us were taken out of VA-81 at the end of that Mediterranean cruise in 1965. ... I think we deployed sometime in the late fall, to Vietnam, in '66. ...

[What was your first mission?]

... My first time out I shot a bull-pup missile. A bull-pup is a guided missile. The worst part about it is you got to stay with it. In other words, you shoot the missile, and then you guide it ... with this switch. ... If you hit left, you got ... [the] missile to go full left; if you hit right, it goes full right. So you had to work it all the way down. ... The target at this particular point was a small bridge. And when I say small, I do mean small, very small. My flight leader was a gentleman by the name of Jim Krauss, a lieutenant commander. ... And I rolled in behind Jim Krauss, and I was a little too close to him. And when he fired his bull-pup missile, of course this thing is a rocket. And it just [sound of explosion], like that. And the next thing I know, I'm engulfed in this cloud of smoke, and I thought, "Oh, I'm dead," you know? And I about ripped the wings off the airplane. And I told Jim, I said, "I didn't get mine off." And he said, "Well, let's go back and do it again." Well, rule number one is, you never go back for a second time around. And I thought, "This doesn't sound like what they told me, but okay, fine." So we roll around and, damn, I hit the target. And I was surprised. It really surprised me. ...

... At that level, young lieutenant flying, ... did you have to have a sense of the larger purpose? What America is doing here? Are we winning this war? ... Did you ... and your colleagues ever have to think about that on that level?

Not really. We kind of thought that our mission was moralistically right. We'd all been trained to do what we were told to do. And in those days, we didn't do a lot of questioning like that. It was pretty much, if you agreed with the policy, that was fine, you just went and did your job; if you didn't agree with the policy, it was just fine and you went and did your job. ... The thing I guess, Peter, that I admire the most about that generation, if you will, is that even if we didn't agree with the policy, we did what we were told to do. And in some cases, at great personal danger. And there were some people, I know they must not have agreed with it. But it was not something we sat around ... [and] discussed at great length. ...

When you'd come back from those missions--you mentioned earlier the importance, the absolute necessity of--in your view, anyway--of just being truthful--in that context. Vietnam was not universally remembered as an experience in which the truth was always well served. ...

Yeah. ... We would go into the intelligence center to debrief our mission. And I recall going in one time, and my target was a bridge. There were thousands of bridges over there. And, you know, the young man was debriefing me, and he said, "What was the result of your bombs?" I said, "I missed." And he said, "Well, I can't put that down." And I said, "What do you mean you can't put it down?" He said, "I'm not allowed to put down that you missed the target. I've got to say you cratered the approaches to the bridge." I said, "I didn't crater the approaches, I put the damn bombs in the water. I didn't do any damage at all. Now you put that down." He said, "I can't." I said, "Well, don't put my name on it. I'm not going to give you a debrief if that's the way it is." And I walked out. ...

Why was it so important to you? Why did you say no?

I don't know. I just didn't. I hadn't hit the bridge. I was angry, because it just seemed like there were a lot of things in those days that were not exactly truthful. As an example, I can remember Secretary McNamara saying, "There's not a shortage of weapons." And I got loaded up with 2.75 inch rockets to go shoot another bridge one day; and I said, "This is really dumb."

Why is that dumb? What's the meaning of the 2.75?

Well, 2.75 inch rocket means that's how big it is: 2.75 inch. ... If you're going to go after a bridge, even if it's a footbridge, you know, you take bombs. ... You sure don't go after a bridge with 2.75 inch rockets.

And I said, "Why in the world are you assigning me this target with this weapons load?" They said, "That's all we got." And I said, "Well, why don't you give me another target?" He said, "Go out to the bridge. That bridge is on the target list. This is your weapons load. You go hit that. Maybe you'll hit a cable or something and the bridge will fall down." I said, "Hell, there aren't cables in the bridge, it's a footbridge." Well, I went and shot the rockets at the bridge.

So, what from the beginning is, on its face, a relatively futile undertaking? Well, it was that day. ...


...Having to go out after that bridge with a 2.75 rocket instead of a five hundred pound bomb ... what [lesson] did you take from that?

It takes a long time to realize that you have learned something. ... It was years later before I realized that what I learned in Vietnam was that ... if you and a politician are bantering back and forth about the use of military, military officers are not trained to be politicians. We don't eat like them, sleep like them, drink like them, talk like them, think like them. And that's neither good nor bad, it's just a fact of life. Likewise, most--unfortunately, these days--most of our political leadership have very little experience in the military. And they had not been trained. They don't eat, sleep, talk, drink, think like a military guy. And I tell young officers in presentations that I give today, and while I was on active duty, and that is: If you are in a position to talk to the political bodies that guide you, and give you your missions; if you are not honest with them, and tell them precisely what you think, no matter what the personal consequences, you deserve whatever the hell you get. And you ought not be in command. I sure learned that. ...


Let's talk about a very particular bridge in Vietnam, Thanh Hoa, which proved resistant for a pretty long time. Tell me about that bridge.

It's a mythical thing. It's a big bridge. It was built by the guy--I'm told--that built the Eiffel Tower. It withstood hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of tons of bombs dropped on it. Why? I do not know. But it became a sort of a symbol of resistance. ... There was a legend going around that ... if we actually broke the Thanh Hoa Bridge, that the earth would open up and fall apart, because this was the latch that held it together. ... One of the ends of the bridges had been knocked down, and it was literally settled out; but the bridge was still up. I mean, you take a picture of it, and there's a bridge there; and the intell guys said, "They're still using the bridge." So we continued to try and knock it down.

thanh hoa bridge (after hit)... I was asked to lead a strike in there. This was in '72. And I was carrying ... Fat Albert [bombs]. They were the big two thousand pound [bombs]. Pretty impressive weapon. ... And so there's a little bit of planning associated with dropping one of these things, because you want to make sure that you set it precisely, and where are you going to get the biggest area of contrast so you hit what you want to hit. ... I led a mission on the 4th. It was unsuccessful. ... So I was re-assigned the target on the 6th of October. ... I said [to my wing man], "Okay, we're going to take these two walleyes in. And you just get up there and tie it on my wing. ... Here are our two aim points. ... I'm going to call up 'Lock up, 3-2-1 drop.'" And so we did that on the 6th of October with the squadron skipper, Don Sumner, ... and he and Jim Brewster were carrying a couple of two thousand pound bombs, each. And the plan was that we would have all of these weapons hit simultaneously. As it turned out they did; and the bridge was, in fact, broken in half in the water. ...

So you knew at the very least you'd never have to leave on another mission to take out the Thanh Hoa Bridge?

Well, that's what I thought. Then I got assigned to Thanh Hoa Bridge about three days later, because it happened to show up on the target list. ... I see this thing back; and I went down to the Intelligence Center, I said, "What in the living hell are you guys doing? I mean, how many airplanes do you want to lose? This thing is in the water. Look at this picture. Read my lips: We don't want to go back." And they said, "Well, that's because it's on the target list; and they may be trying to build it back. I said, "Come on, you know, they're going to take years to build this thing back." Well, it disappeared. They took it off the target list....


By your third tour [in Vietnam] ... you had to have some sense by that third cycle through there, that in the outside world--back home, particularly--there was great division over the war. How did that affect you?

Hard. I guess it was hardest not on those of us that were actually engaged in it, because we kind of knew what we were doing, and we had some sort of a personal motivation. I found it to be hardest on the families, on my wife. You know, she had to face up to the realities of the fact that I was in a dangerous business, that people had been killed. I volunteered for the third trip over. She asked me, "Why would you do that?" And I said, "Because I got a lot of friends in Hanoi, and I don't think it's right for me to not do that, if I think that's the thing to do." I mean, I wasn't any great moralistic individual. I'm not a superhuman guy. I was like a lot of other people, who felt in the end, really, that that was probably the thing that kept us going the most, is that we had friends that were in prisoner of war camps. Had been there for years and years and years. And we simply cannot let that just disappear. ...

Our leaders in our country gave us a mission. Told us what we want to do. I didn't particularly like getting shot at over there. I didn't think there was anything over there in the third time around. I sure as hell didn't think it was anything we were going to win. What I was looking for, was to somehow or another figure out a way to get those guys out of there and bring them home. ...

The last day of the war I think was the 27th of January. I was on the catapult ... and I heard a mayday call. And anytime you heard a mayday call, that became your first priority. And I was the first guy blasted off the front of the boat, ... [and] I went straight down to just south of the DMZ. And an F-4 pilot ... had been shot down on a mission over there. And I pulled in, and checked in with the local forward air controller. ... I said, "I'm by myself, but I've got a wingman coming, and let me know what I can do." And he said, "Well, let me roll in and mark the position of the pilot." ... And he transmitted ... "Be careful, they're shooting Strellis," which was a shoulder-fired missile. He said, "They've been shooting Strellis out of there." This guy said, "Okay." And he rolled in, and, bam, they got him. ... So now we got four guys on the ground. ... I knew where he was. I could see him from the ground. And I said, "Look, we got all these guys overhead, get some cover somewhere and we'll get you out of there." He said, "No, they're coming after me. I'm going to throw my gun down. I'm going to surrender." He was not recovered. ...

There was nothing I could do. Nothing anybody could do. So there were four guys, and the war was over the next morning at seven o'clock or eight o'clock, or whatever time it was. It was a pitiful, pitiful thing. And you just think the waste, the absolute waste. I mean, you go downtown to the Wall, the number of people on that list. You know, we thought we were doing the right thing, because that's what we had been trained to do. We believed in our political leadership. We believed in the people that were telling us. In retrospect, it was not the right thing at the right time. ... It was just done wrong.


... The seventies come, and into the 1980s. There was, what I guess you could call, sort of an identity crisis within the military. There had been this--as it was famously called--the first American military defeat. There was always the debate about, "Well, we weren't beaten on the battlefield; we were beaten at home, and in the halls of Congress, and in the streets, and in the college campuses," and so on. But the fact is, it seemed and felt like a defeat.

It was, to us.

Tell me what it was like, what the feeling was to be a military man, still young, still with a career in the military ahead of you, in that period, [immediately] post-Vietnam, late '70s, going into the '80s.

I pretty much made a decision that I was going to remain in the military, in the Navy. ... And I must admit to you, that I went through a period of time when I really had serious doubts. A skipper of a former squadron I was in, I mean, he was really a wonderful, wonderful leader. ... I called him up. His name was Duff Arnold. And I said ... , "Admiral, ... I'm really discouraged. I mean, here I am at Nav-Pro, Dallas. I'm flying these test ops. I'm working seven days a week. This thing's going on in Vietnam. The country just says, 'To hell with the military.' There's no sense of appreciation of what's going on. I guess I just need to talk to somebody because I'm discouraged."

And he said, "Leighton, you know, it's been that way before." He said, "It's cycles. After World War II, after Korea, we're going through the same situation during Vietnam. There are periods of time when the U.S. and the military sort of part ways. And there's a sense of a lack of appreciation." He said, "It'll pass. And if that's the only thing that's driving you out, don't let that be the one thing." He said, "Just understand that it's cyclic. It'll pass." ...

[Do you regret the decision to stay in the military?]

Not at all. ...


... Coming out of this post-Vietnam period, the '70s, the 1980s, Jimmy Carter, hostages in Iran; you could argue that there was a [low point] for the American military in that period. And then came Ronald Reagan. Did Reagan mean a rebirth? A new vigor for the military?

What I took away from President Ronald Reagan, was to feel good about America. I mean, we have been America bashing for years. And we had made some pretty stupid mistakes. ... But that may have been the corner, the transition period, where we had been beating ourselves up about the head and shoulders. And we had done all these things wrong; and then we had this hostage situation [in Iran] that didn't turn out very pretty ... and we were down on ourselves. And President Reagan came in, and he said, "You know, there's a lot of goodness about this country. We ought to take the goodness and we ought to capitalize on that, and take it farther, and build on the momentum of the good stuff about the country. Feel good about yourself." And I think that translated, not only to the military, but to a lot of the rest of the Americans as well.

And, of course, the fact that he put some money where his mouth was, in terms of military readiness; he believed in a strong military. He believed that there was a threat out there. He believed that we had been basically taken down to parade rest, if you will, in terms of our capabilities, our readiness, our posture, whatever you want to call it. And he began pumping money back into the military, at a fairly substantial rate. And programs began to materialize. ...


It was rather a dramatic turn from the hollow force of the decade earlier. And you had that period, as you say, of the build-up. And history provided the stage for an exhibition of this very phenomenon. The Gulf War was, for the military, truly a triumph, wasn't it?

Yeah, it really was. First of all, we didn't have a very smart enemy. ... Not too many adversaries are going to give us six months to build up to five hundred thousand people. But once the decision was made to go forward... [Colin Powell's] overwhelming force philosophy ... in that particular situation, was, I think, the right thing to do. ... As you look at the potential force that Saddam Hussein could have put against us, and the method of his warfare, it could have gotten pretty damn nasty over there. And so when you're going to commit forces, and your objective is to eject him from a particular piece of territory, Kuwait, you can't go about this in a namby-pamby fashion. I mean, you just can't put the minimum force required and say, "Okay, guys, let's go."

I use the term, "Military men are obligated to plan for the worst and pray for the best." In many cases, the political leadership plans for the best and prays they're right. And if they're wrong, the military guys are the ones taking the shots. Now that's not an indictment against the political system. What it is, is an indication that sometimes they don't think beyond step one or two. Obviously, we were right in this, we didn't need all those forces, but who's to say we wouldn't have, if he had been a wiser adversary? You never really know, do you?


When you commanded our forces, NATO forces, in Bosnia, you had to apply at least one lesson that was learned a continent away, in Mogadishu, in Somalia. What happened in Somalia?

They had a mission change. They went in ... to provide aid to the Somalians, help them through this famine-stricken period; try to keep the warring factions from beating up on each other, and provide a secure environment so the humanitarian agencies could provide what they do. And that's a very, very important mission. Suddenly, that mission changed to, "Get Aidid." He became the focal point. ... That was a complete change in mission. ...

What was your response to that ... at the time? ... You must have thought, "What is going on here?"

Well, I think in Somalia itself, first of all, it appeared to be about the right thing to do. There was this tremendous problem with respect to individual human suffering. [We were trying to] go in, provide an environment in which humanitarian agencies can come in and provide the relief to those people who were suffering. That's not a bad mission.

The question you've got to ask yourself when you get involved in one of those is, "For how long?" I mean, and in Somalia, you're going to be there a long time if you're expecting it to get self-sufficient, 'cause they won't be. ...

But we tend to, I think, react to emotion. And that's not altogether bad. With the explosion of information, the availability of information, when you're feeding the dying into your living room and your dining room every single day, eventually it becomes an issue that you almost feel morally required to respond to. ...

I was the Navy's operations deputy, when Somalia went down. And, you know, the military advice at that time was, "If this is what you want us to do, this is how we need to go about doing it." ...

As a man who has had young men and women in uniform face missions of life or death at his command, what ran through your mind when you saw those pictures of the boys being dragged, the bodies being dragged through the streets?

I can't describe it to you. I mean, it was just revolting. ... I was so angry when I saw that picture on television. And I guess my first thought was, "What in God's name does that boy's parents think? What must go through their mind?" And it was just anger. Why can't we go do something? You know, your immediate reaction is, "Man, let's go take that place apart." But who? Who do you take apart? ... But it was an operation that just went crazy wrong, and it just got as bad as it could get. ...


But within a year ... you found yourself in the new command position based in Naples ... What did you think when you looked out on the horizon and saw Bosnia there?

It's the biggest damn mess in the world. Absolutely, completely unworkable. You had two political organizations--the United Nations and NATO--and they wouldn't talk to each other. ... I was completely dismayed at the fact that [when] we attack[ed] the leadership in Bosnia, the military guys in Bosnia, there was no effort to get the United Nations and NATO to agree. It was, "Smith, go over there and make damn sure these guys call you in to bomb this when this happens." And it was an impossible situation. ...

And aside from the command and control issues, such as that, and the politics of the two in some ways competing international organizations; there were the complications of Bosnia themselves.

Yeah. ... They have been on adversarial terms for generations. That does not mean that they've been killing each other. It is also true that there were a great number of intermarriages amongst the religious and ethnic groups. But there was an uneasy peace there. And all of a sudden, it just exploded. And now you're trying to sort out claims of territory, because that's where my ancestor lived seven hundred years ago. ... It's a terribly terrible complex issue. ...

[In 1994], you take over [the US forces in Bosnia.] A couple of events changed things dramatically. One was, I guess it was August of 1995. The shelling in Sarajevo. The shelling of the marketplace. Where were you? What was the effect of that? And how did you respond?

I think we kind of need to walk back a bit and move into this. ... NATO ... had a policy that if the Serbs did not heed the warning of weapons outside the twenty kilometer exclusion zone, or if they attack safe areas, they should be attacked. ... Very, very infrequently--despite, quite frankly, some urging on my part--very infrequently were we called upon to apply air power to the situation. And when we were, it was the classic pin-prick strike. I didn't agree with it. I felt we should have used more force earlier in the game. But I also recognize that I was dealing with, again, military professionals who were operating under completely different political frame of reference than I was operating under. And so I was trying to push them down a road that they were politically incapable of taking. ...

And what really brought it to a head, in my estimation, was, first of all, in May, when we bombed because the Serbs had gone into the weapons collection areas and they had stolen five or six weapons, and they took them out; and Rupert Smith said, "If you do not put those back in by eight o'clock in the morning, you will be struck from the air by NATO," period. I mean, it wasn't a threat. He just said, "You will be struck from the air by NATO." Now, that wasn't by accident. Rupert and I had talked. He asked me, he said, "Will you support me in this?" I said, "Rupert, don't make a threat you're not willing to carry out." ... And he said, "Believe me, Admiral, we will." ...

And then the real catalyst was in July, when Srebrenica fell, when the Serbs overran Srebrenica ... and later, slaughtered upwards of six or seven thousand Muslim men. That was just a horrible, horrible thing. The international community, I think, at that point, realized that there was only one way that the Serbs were going to be forced to quit. And that was an element of power that had not been introduced before. ... And the decision was taken, at that point, that we were going to designate Sarajevo as a safe area. "And if you attack, or if you threaten to attack Sarajevo, then you will be bombed much greater than you have ever contemplated before."


... [So] the Serb forces were on notice that Sarajevo's off limits.


Then came ... August 28, the shelling [of the marketplace in Sarajevo.] ... How did you hear about the shelling?

I was watching on CNN. ... I saw ... this horrendous scene of people lying about, blood--you know, it was a replay of the marketplace bombing of February of '94. And, I mean, I didn't even hesitate ... I immediately called down to Sarajevo, and talked to [one of General Rupert Smith's] ... military assistants. He told me that General Smith was en route back to the headquarters as quickly as he could get there, because we had this obvious problem. I said, "When he arrives, tell him that my message is clear: If this was a Serb weapon, then NATO is prepared to commence the bombing operations immediately." ...

Mike Ryan and his group ... had very early in the summer, or late in the spring, developed a target list. ... He had selected an array of targets. They included communications, command control, weapons handling facilities, ammo storage bunkers, that sort of things. ... I agree[d] to [the list], and then I presented it to General Janvier. And I said, "If the Serbs violate this mandate, or this ultimatum, these are the targets that we will strike. Or this is the list from which we will choose targets from."...

So, we have the August 28th Serb shelling, we have this system in place, that's the trigger. We commence bombing. What was the objective, short-term?

Well, the objective, number one, was to make sure that Mladic understood we were quite serious about attacking safe areas; two, was to get him to clean out the twenty kilometer exclusion zone. Get those weapons out of there. We knew that they were in there. Just get them out, no exceptions. Pull back, get his forces; and essentially understand that the international community basically had it up to here with the Serb military. And safe areas were safe areas, and we were going to take very serious action if he continued to attack.

... When you all commenced on the 29th, 30th, the middle of that night, how long was the target list? ... Describe it to me, in terms of how long it would take to exhaust that.

... When Mike Ryan and I first talked about this, he said, "You know, we could knock this out in about four or five days, if the weather cooperates." Well, as you might expect, it didn't cooperate; some of the targets did not get hit the first time. ... The bombing stretched out, quite frankly, longer than I thought it would. ...


[On Sept. 1, 1995, NATO suspended its airstrikes to allow for negotiations with the Bosnian Serbs regarding the removal of heavy weapons from the area surrounding Sarajevo. Though these talks soon proved fruitless, controversy erupted amongst the allies and commanders over the wisdom of resuming strikes. Bombing resumed four days later.]

That halt period. ... There was a lot of hammering on you, and others, to get the bombing going again, and get it going now.

Oh, yeah.

Who'd that come from?

You name it. I mean, everybody that didn't have the authority to make it happen. ...

Holbrooke says he was pounding on the White House over that Labor Day weekend ... to exert some direction on you all to resume this bombing. ... Did the White House direct you all to resume the bombing?

No. I never talked to anybody from the White House. The only person that I ever talked to in that crowd of people was Dick Holbrooke; and at one or two points, I talked to Wes Clark. And at no point did I ever take orders from him. I had to make it very clear to them--and, again, I mean, I didn't do this on my own; I had very clear instructions from my boss. "This is a NATO operation. I take my orders from George Joulwan. If you want me to do something, you go through the proper channels. But I cannot, will not, should not, I simply won't take orders from you, individually. You want to talk to me, you know how to do that."

And was your boss talking to the White House?

Yeah, I'm certain he was talking to somebody over there. ... And my guess is, that George was talking to Holbrooke, but I don't know that. ...

... At one point, it was made clear to [Holbrooke] that we may be running out of viable targets. Dick Holbrooke doesn't believe that's true, he believes that that was a lie. Beyond that, he says that Warren Christopher told him that he believed that that was a lie ... .What do you say to that?

Well, they're sorely misinformed, both Holbrooke and Warren Christopher. ...When we began running out of targets, I went to my boss and I requested that he begin exploring the possibility of releasing [more targets] to me, and I was told, you're not going to get them, don't ask. He knew that I was running out of targets; he knew what the target list was; he was kept fully informed. Dick Holbrooke could have asked him. The fact is, we were quite honest about the fact that we were running out of targets. ...

But, what does it say to you ... that they would just guess that their military guys are lying to them about something like, can you bomb?

First of all, I find it hard to believe that Warren Christopher and Dick Holbrooke would, just out-and-out, think we were lying. Why in the world would we lie? What possible motive would we have, to be lying about anything like that? ... If we can't say precisely what we think to the political people that give us the orders, and say, "Look, this is not a good idea," if we can't tell them what it's going to cost in terms of commitment and time, commitment and resources, lives; if we can't be honest with the politicians and have them accept it as a professional military judgment, we are in a sorry state of affairs.

You've seen that circumstance before, where generals felt timid about being completely straightforward with their political leaders.

The military got bashed, big-time, in Vietnam for not being honest with the politicians. And I just simply cannot believe that either the media or the politicians would not want the military to be totally honest with them. We may not be right. I'm not always right. But, by God, as far as I can determine, I'm honest about it. ...


Speaking of Holbrooke, do you recollect when and where, and what the circumstance was, when you first laid eyes on him?

I remember exactly. I guess he had come out of his ambassadorship in Germany, and he was going to make a trip over to Bosnia. ... And I remember talking to [General Chuck Boyd], and I said, "You know, why don't this guy come down here and get briefed in on Bosnia. There's probably nobody in this universe that knows more than our staff knows about Bosnia. And he's getting ready to go over there and wade right in the middle of it. It seems to me he might want to come here." ... Eventually, we got a call that said that he was coming to town. ... We got all the briefings ready, and met in my office, and we were treated to a couple of hours of Dick Holbrooke on Dick Holbrooke.

... On what? What subject?

Well, he started out with Vietnam, and how long he had been there, and what a wonderful job he'd done there. And, you know, we marched through his career. I kind of got the idea that he had come to transmit, not to receive. ... When he left, most of us that were sitting around there kind of scratched our head and said, "I wonder why he came here?" ...

... Did he convey to you, did you take from that presentation, a sense that he had Vietnam experience in the way that you did?

I think my interpretation of this was that he's trying to make sure that there's a connection here. That he's been down this road. That he understands the military. You know, "I'm not just this run of the mill politician. I understand the military. I've been there. I went down that road."

Did he convince you of that?

Not particularly, no. ...


... Going into Dayton and that process, from which came a peace accord and brought a cease-fire to Bosnia, one of the matters that had to be decided was exactly how was this NATO force going to be used post-peace agreement. ... Were you brought into that discussion?

Not directly, no. The discussions that I had would have been with George Joulwan, who was the Supreme Allied Commander, but I was never brought into any discussions with respect to Dayton. ... Now, I do know that George Joulwan was in contact with the people in Dayton and, in fact, he went to Dayton ... .

... Wouldn't the commanding officer on the ground, whose job it's going to be to make these varied decisions, ... wouldn't you have to have some voice in the process?

George Joulwan was the Commander of the European forces and of NATO forces, so it's reasonable to assume that he would see himself as the proper representative to go over and determine what the forces should do in Bosnia. I must tell you that I would ... have liked to have been brought into these discussions and negotiations. ... It would have been nice, I think, if I were king for a day, or if I were in Dayton, I would want the guy that's going to go in there to say, I want to look him in the eye and say, "Hey, this is what we were talking about doing. Does this make sense to you? Do you have a problem with this?" But that didn't happen. As it turned out, it wasn't a limiting factor.


Well, quite frankly, the military annex in Dayton came out pretty clean. ... It was fairly clearly written. And one of the things that we had tried to do, as we went through this process, and this was back several years before I ever got involved with it: get the military mission as clear as you can. Colin Powell and others before him have said, give me clear statement, give me a clear mission, it's got to be unambiguous. What you need to understand is, when you've got 54,000 soldiers from 34 to 35 different nations involved, you've got to make it as plain as possible. ...


You have, as you put it, a "clean military mission," which ... in fact, you all went in and accomplished. But then, there were these other tasks that were asked subsequently by Holbrooke ... and others, such as chasing down war criminals. And ... Holbrooke would suggest ... that that was also part of the mission, that where the military wasn't obligated to do these things, the military did ... have the authority ... to go do these things, that you all just refused. How do you understand what is the mission versus what is "extra-mission"?

... The annex was quite clear, the rules of engagement were quite clear. I did not have the authority to arrest anyone. I had the authority to detain. ... If we came across these in the routine course of carrying out our responsibilities, we ... were obligated to detain indicted war criminals and turn them over to the tribunal. And that's precisely the orders that we were operating under.

So, when Richard Holbrooke comes up to you with a copy of the Washington Post and there's a story ... about Karadzic going through four checkpoints, ... just basically cruising the countryside, waving hello to your folks as he goes by, completely unhindered. And he comes to you and ... says, "What about this, Admiral Smith?" What do you say?

First of all, I would tell him, like I did a lot of the other politicians, Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers. ... There were a lot of very good media, in Sarajevo and throughout Bosnia, ... but the individual that wrote that article knows, as well as I do, that Karadzic did not go through four check points. He was told that by one of Karadzic's people. ... We didn't have checkpoints on that road. If you think, for one second, that Karadzic, in a train of limousines--I mean, he drove Mercedes, and he had cars with him--if you think, for one second, he would get through an American roadblock, I mean, you've got to be smoking the drapes. This would not have happened. ...

[Holbrooke] says that because you all refused to take on what you would likely characterize as a proper police function, tracking down ... these war criminals, bringing them to justice in front of the International Tribunal, that you were, in effect, letting Goebbels and Hitler walk free through the countryside.

Here's the situation. Holbrooke wanted very much for us to have the same kind of autonomous powers that we had in Germany, post World War II. ... We didn't. ... If you go back to Dayton, do you think, for one second, that Milosevic would have ever signed that document if in that document it said U.S. forces are going to go after these indicted war criminals? It have not been signed, and I think Holbrooke knows that. He also knows, precisely, that General John Shalikashvili, the chairman of our Joint Chiefs of Staff, General George Joulwan ... my bosses, both of them, were clear and unequivocal: soldiers do not make good policemen, this is not a good idea. Don't send these guys on police missions; they are not policemen.

And I could not agree more. I will tell you this, Peter. Out of all of the senior military officers of the countries involved that I talked with, and I talked to a lot of them, chiefs of defense staff, not one single one, not a single one, was in favor of going down that road, because all of us felt that it was a very dangerous path, during that period of time; it was an unknown path. We could not guarantee success, and there were likely to be substantial causalities, which would have created a very difficult environment for the peace force to continue its work. ...

I will tell you, quite frankly, ... in western militaries, the military follow the guidance of their political leaders...their authorized and rightful political leaders, okay? If you want me to go after war criminals--and I do not think that's a good idea right now--if you want me to go after them, give me the order, get the hell out of my way, and stand by for the consequences.

But that wasn't going to happen?

Oh, no. I guess I was just too vocal about that. There was desire to put this issue, "Let's don't talk about this issue, Smith ... ."

One of the things that was striking to me, that Ambassador Holbrooke cites, in terms of a reluctance to [perform] what you would consider extra-mission [activities], was on the business [of] ... the fires in Sarajevo. The Serbs, as they pull out, under orders from home, basically, burning down the houses, and therefore, as he puts it, when Snuffy Smith and IFOR stood by and refused to do anything ... while these houses are burning down, they killed the dream of a multi-ethnic Bosnia, right there.

Well, that's one of the issues that I'd like to say, it's too bad that Holbrooke wasn't on the ground more, and had a better understanding for what really was going on. First of all, we need to understand that we didn't have a capability to fight fires. There was no IFOR fire department. We had one fire truck at the airport, and if we took that fire truck off of the airport, we shut the airport down, and that was the only way to get in and out of Bosnia at that particular point in time. And we did use that fire truck. ...

If you want me to go after war criminals--give me the order, get the hell out of my way, and stand by for the consequences. We even went to the Bosnians ... . I remember a meeting I had with the city council, in Sarajevo, ... I said, "Let us use your fire trucks," and they railed at me because we didn't bring fire trucks as part of IFOR. I said, "We didn't come here to fight fires, we came here to establish an environment in which you guys can make peace. Help us. Give us your fire trucks." They went in there once, as I recall, the first day afterwards, ... and the Serbs took a couple of shots at them, somebody threw a hand grenade in the street. Nobody was hurt, but they wouldn't go back again.

... Holbrooke said we stood by, as they burned their houses down. This is how they burned their houses down: They would turn the gas on in the house, light a candle, close the windows, and leave. Tell me how you're going to prevent that from happening. How do you stop somebody from being an arson in their own home? I mean, there are all kinds of ways to start a fire, and if you don't have a way to put the fires out, how in the living hell are you going to stop them?

Had you all undertaken to do some of the things you were asked ... go after the war criminals, put out the fires, oversee the repatriation. Guarding the grave sites, for example, was one that came up a couple of times. ... Had you all undertaken to do that, what would you have needed? Did you have a sufficient force to do what you were supposed to do, plus those things? ...

We did not have, at the very beginning, when all of this was coming up at the same time, we didn't have the forces in place. ... We weren't 100 percent sure we were going to be able to pull this off. [With] the problems in getting started and getting your infrastructure and all of that in place, we were extraordinarily vulnerable. So, to do something in the very early stages would have been a tremendously difficult problem, and I think could have made us vulnerable in areas that we would not have wanted to be vulnerable, and could have put at risk the entire operation.

As we began building up, one of the things that nobody really knows about--that's not true, a lot of people know about it and they don't make a lot of advertisement on it, and that is, the kinds of things that IFOR did incident to their military operations that went an awful long way to reinstating the infrastructure, to begin rebuilding that infrastructure in Bosnia: building of roads and bridges, the railroads, getting the airports open. I mean, these are things that we took on right away, the really important ones, getting water treatment plants and water distribution, trying to get power plants back up--we put an awful lot of effort on those kinds of things, because those are important. ... If we had diverted ourselves to guarding mass grave sites, we would not have been able to do all of those things.

Well, let's say you want to do all of those things, ... you wanted to take on guarding grave sites, and all of the other things--what would it have taken?

Well, we would have had to go back and redo the mission statement, number one. ... We would have had to do a completely new "scrub" given this new set of missions and objectives, and we would have put in an order for a hell of a lot more forces than we had. ...

We think there probably are on the order of 250-plus mass grave sites in Bosnia, and we don't know whether they're mined or not mined. Now, that means you've got to clear the mine field away, before you put your soldiers out there, stalking around. ... Now, some people I think got the impression that guarding a mass grave site would be, well, there's a hole over here in the ground, or there's this field, and we'll just put six soldiers and let them troop around this field, and then we'll replace them. Well, these things were deep in Serb territory. You've got to put a large number of forces up there. You've got to support them, you've got to swap them out, you've got to protect them. It's a whole new mission. It's a huge problem.

That's what I tried to convey to the President, when he asked me in Tuzla. I don't know whether I told you this story, but he said, in front of Madeleine Albright and a Congressional delegation, "Admiral, this is a very sensitive subject and one that's highly emotion, but how about these mass grave sites, can you guard them?" And I said, Mr. President, we can do anything you ask of us, but there's a price to pay, and, in this case, it means a lot more forces."...

adm smith with president clinton Later, at the airplane, as he was getting ready to go on the airplane, he came over to me--I happened to be standing by myself aside--he shook my hand and he said, "Admiral, I apologize for ask[ing] you that question in front of all those people, but it had to be asked, you had to answer it, and your answer was perfect. Thank you. ...They needed to hear that, from you." I was trying to be as honest as I knew how to be: Mr. President, you don't want to go down this path, because I can't do everything. And I don't really know ... what the number of forces would have been, had we tackled all of that. ...


... As you know, as we sit here this afternoon ... it looks very possible, if not likely, that we are about to commit ground forces to Kosovo ... .

And from what I gather, from Holbrooke and others, is that there is much greater willingness to assign to the military tasks that you might consider in this sort of "extra-mission" realm, because, using Bosnia as the example, well, first of all there were no casualties in Bosnia, therefore maybe it's not as risky a part of the world as we thought it was; and secondly, if we'd only done these things in Bosnia, we wouldn't have some of the problems we have now. So let's make sure that we assign them these tasks, and whatever the equivalent is in Kosovo, going in.

I guess one of the things I'd say to that is, Don't fight your last war, because you're liable to get your butt kicked. Kosovo's different than Bosnia. ... The fact of the matter is, we'd better nail that thing down pretty damn good, and as I think I mentioned to you before, we're not going to be able to go in there with airplanes and kick up a bunch of dust and destruction and expect anything positive to come of it. We've got to be prepared to put forces on the ground. Does that mean it has to be U.S. forces? Probably so. And for how long? Beats the hell out of me, but we'd best not put a time limit on it and think we'll be able to walk away from it after that time limit just because that's how long we said we'd stay. Because these things are trying to get people to go from a situation where they've been carving each other up for about two or three years to loving and hugging each other, is going to take a little bit longer. It just doesn't happen overnight. ...

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