A Warrior on War

Friday, July 30, 1999

On March 31, I sat in on the first meeting of the spring session of the Hoover Institution U.S. and World Affairs Seminar. The speaker: General John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. His topic: “America’s Interest in the Use of Force.”

Just one week earlier, the NATO allies had commenced Operation Allied Force, launching bombing raids into Yugoslavia. Who better to comment on the situation than the man who, as head of the European Command in 1991, had developed the attack plan for Yugoslavia?

Although he spoke specifically about Kosovo, General Shalikashvili’s remarks can also be applied more generally. He offered nine admonitions regarding the use of force.

General John ShalikashviliGeneral John Shalikashvili at the Hoover Institution, March 31, 1999.

1. BE POLITICALLY PREPARED. The Serb army, police, and paramilitary organizations are formidable foes, but our biggest worry may be whether the United States and NATO have the political will to carry Operation Allied Force to its conclusion. Americans have become accustomed to missions such as Desert Storm and the Grenada invasion, where losses were low and involvement short. This may not be the case in Kosovo. Our military leaders had prepared the president for the loss of ten aircraft during the first week of the attacks—fortunately, we lost only one. But the news wasn’t all good. No one had prepared us for the capture of three American soldiers. The president and our NATO allies must be ready to withstand criticism from political adversaries and, if military activity persists, from a wider range of public opinion. As the conflict expands, public support will no doubt fade. President Clinton is also faced with a $5 to $10 billion price tag for the U.S. involvement. Will Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Jean Chrétien, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schröder, and the other leaders have the political will to pursue the mission?

2. BE ADAPTABLE. The early results of Operation Allied Force proved disappointing because the Serbs kept their air defense systems and troops hidden. The Serbs studied and learned from our success in Desert Storm. They are aware that their air defense is no match for NATO air power and that deploying the system would merely expose it to attack. And because the Serb military is made up of small units that are constantly on the move, it is difficult to target. The Serbs learned and adapted, and we must as well.

3. BE WELL TRAINED AND DISCIPLINED. During the early weeks of the attacks there was relatively little of what the military calls collateral damage (i.e., civilian deaths). General Shalikashvili attributed this not only to expert weaponry and targeting mechanisms, but also to well-trained and highly disciplined pilots. With computers, laser targeting, and smart bombs, the margin of error is small; when a cruise missile is launched, it cannot be called back. The pilots are trained to release their bombs only when they lock onto well-defined, predetermined targets—without clear targets, the bombing runs are aborted.


During the Cold War, we focused our security concerns on the European theater. Now there are flash points all over the globe.


4. BE VIGILANT. During the Cold War, U.S. security concerns focused primarily on the European theater and the communist threat. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the focus has changed. There are now flash points all over the globe: the Middle East, the Korean peninsula, the Asian subcontinent, the Balkans. We must stay alert and be ready to act quickly and decisively.

5. BE WARY. In General Shalikashvili’s view, ethnic cleansing in Kosovo was all but inevitable. Milosevic had already lost a large part of the former Yugoslavia. The guerrilla warfare of the Kosovo Liberation Army and the political leadership in Kosovo had pushed Milosevic to the brink. Eliminating the troublesome Alba-nians was a way to reestablish Serb supremacy in Kosovo. The West should have been canny enough to see it coming.

6. BE PATIENT. From the start, the experts knew it would take not days but weeks or months to resolve this conflict. If bombing doesn’t work, ground troops may be deployed. The Balkan terrain differs dramatically from that of Kuwait and Iraq. This will cause logistical problems—possibly nightmares—in establishing an effective ground force. To introduce ground troops into the fight would take several weeks. For the ground forces to achieve their objectives, still more time will be needed.

7. BE PERSISTENT. If asked, General Shalikashvili would counsel the president to “stay steady.” There will be many bumps in the road and many rivers to cross, but now that goals are defined we must continue forward with fortitude.

8. BE COMPASSIONATE. The events in Kosovo led to the largest exodus of refugees in Europe since World War II. In fleeing war-ravaged Kosovo, the refugees fled to Albania, the poorest country in Europe, and to its poor neighbors, Macedonia, Bosnia, and the Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro. The refugees—more than half a million in number—overwhelmed the resources of these governments in mere days. As the world leader, the United States must provide food, shelter, and refuge to these unfortunate souls. The military itself can assist with medical aid, housing, logistics, and organization. The aftermath of war is ugly. Compassion will ultimately foster the peace that follows.

9. BE SELECTIVE. President Clinton’s foreign policy has been to maintain a full set of diplomatic and military options. But we must choose places where military intervention can provide us with a payoff. Before committing our forces to a conflict, we must ask, Are America’s vital interests (American lives and American economic interests) in jeopardy? Are other important interests at stake? Are there humanitarian issues that simply cannot be ignored? Once we do commit our military, we must do so with sufficient force and under unambiguous rules of engagement.

We can never predict when the use of force will be necessary, General Shalikashvili concluded. It would be nice to be able to develop a checklist of specific issues and actions that would warrant the use of force and others that would not. If country A does x, we bomb them; if country B does y, we negotiate, admonish, and/or impose sanctions. “I wish the world were so simple, but it’s much tougher,” General Shalikashvili said. That was the general’s final lesson.