The Book Club

Clark: Spinning It His Way

Dear Chris,

You’re too kind. But if our national security were in the hands of people like me, as I’ve said, the U.S.S.R. would reform, and we’d all have to learn Russian and dialectical materialism. When it comes to Realpolitik and dealing with the fanatics or the unscrupulous, I retreat. But surely there’s a personality type between mine and Attila the Hun’s, between disengagement and fascism. That’s where most Americans want our military-politico leadership to be, surely.

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I wonder, too, at Clark’s true motives for some of his claims, besides simply telling his side of an important story. I hadn’t thought there was any question that the Kosovo campaign was coordinated, so I also wonder why he goes to such lengths to claim otherwise. But telltale fillips like that riddle the book. (Killing civilians and consorting with villains, certainly, is no mere fillip, but most of the other suspicious sprinklings of half-truths and obfuscations mostly are).

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I suspect two things. First, Clark is thinking of his legacy, what the cadets in the service academies will be taught about him. Second, and more practically, he’s no doubt mindful of the possibility of finding himself before a congressional committee someday, a la Iran Contra. God forbid, some international tribunal. Witness Christopher Hitchens’ painstakingly specific indictment of Henry Kissinger a quarter-century after the fact. Kosovo is the kind of atrocity people tend not to forget; there may even now be some child in an orphanage mourning his lost family and planning his revenge. If I were Clark, however proud I might be of my conduct, I’d be thinking of old man Pinochet hiding behind his doctors to avoid prosecution. At a minimum, he can expect the very kind of treatment he’s received here for three consecutive days, can’t he? Why else, besides the book he likely began on the plane to Belgium, would he hhave kept such voluminous, meticulous notes except to establish a daunting, contemporaneous, and exculpatory paper trail? Throughout the book, his formulations made me suspicious. Far too many things leapt from the page, just begging for a few follow-up questions and a translation:

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“We don’t have non-lethal weapons. And we are going to protect ourselves. So you order those men to pull back. … I heard a few moments later the pressure had slackened off.”

Follow-up question: Does “slack off” mean “pull back”? Or did the milling unfriendlies start grinning and playing banjoes? Heard how, from whom? Where did his tedious specificity go?

Point: To look like a kick-ass soldier, not a chair-borne wonder.

My call: The unfriendlies backed up a few feet and perhaps looked sheepish but didn’t pull back out of weapons range.

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“Someone told me later that the Europeans twittered when they heard the Pentagon assertion that my recommendation exceeded my political guidance.”

Follow-up questions: Who’s “someone,” and does he owe his career to you? What does the “twittering” of Europeans connote, or even mean? That they were either outraged and or incredulous on his behalf, presumably, but I had to stop and think about it.

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Point: Score-settling and ass-covering. The Pentagon publicly embarrassed the thin-skinned Clark, he who is above their puny authority, and those in the know (the Europeans) know he is a military genius who never oversteps his bounds. They don’t name chow halls after disgraced generals.

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Translation: The Europeans snickered at the Americans’ infighting in general and Clark in particular since he was likely to be seen in person and further embarrassed. Someone who either pitied or sucked up to Clark was either pitying or sucking up to him in telling him this, if anyone actually did tell him this.

My computer is so broken it won’t even boot up, and I’m using a borrowed computer and an actual fax machine to file this. Say, you didn’t give me a virus, did you? I can’t find a more troublesome passage having to do with a classified discussion conducted on an unclassified line that Clark skillfully blamed on the other party, but you get my drift. No matter how mundane the transgression (only the lowly have to pay for security lapses) or murky the politics, Clark spins it his way. It makes it impossible to believe anything he says, whether it’s collaborating with invaders or catty dinner party chatter.

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It’s been three days, and I’d say we failed in our duty as Book Clubbers (vice book reviewers. I do wish somebody would point out the difference to the Fraygroids). Is there nothing positive to say about this book? Nothing to be learned, nothing Clark nails? Not even a choice turn of phrase?

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No, and all I can say is that this isn’t the kind of book one reads for pleasure. The subject matter is distasteful no matter your politics. People died, scores of lives were disrupted, uprooted, ruined. And for what? Life is good there now? Sometimes I wonder if all the Gis who claim to really learned the lessons of Viet Nam. Clark wanted to send large numbers of American troops (OK, he got the anti-gradualism part right) to fight a war that Americans didn’t support and resorted to disgraceful tactics when Plan A didn’t work out for him. Wise leadership will sometimes need to call for exactly that, and, in these CNN/Internet-saturated days, it will be nearly impossible to persuade America to wage war absent a direct threat. But Kosovo was not the war to unite Americans, and Wesley Clark not the soldier to lead us there.

Here’s to a happier book next time,
Debra

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