War In The Balkans: Paunch wobbling, Britain's warlord rallied his troops

GEORGE ROBERTSON had a little trouble climbing on to the armoured personnel carrier that had been laid on as his speaking platform yesterday. His paunch wobbled through his sports shirt when he was hauled aboard, but as he gazed out over the cream of the British army spread all around him in the Macedonian hills, he quickly got the hang of things, moving immediately into warlord mode.

As a once fervent CND activist, the young Robertson never had much time for the military. It wasn't until Tony Blair gave him the job of Secretary of State for Defence - and his own army - that he realised how exhilarating it could all be. And how great were the opportunities for Churchillian oratory. For 20 minutes he gave it the full Monty: good luck lads; God speed; get up that road and rescue the frightened and weak; drive out the evil force before you, the nation is proud ... and so on.

It seemed like his Agincourt-style harangue would never end. Peroration was topped by peroration, in a great cream cake of a speech, and when he finally threw out his arm (a la George C Scott in Patton) and pointed to what he thought was north, and Kosovo, he waited like all politicians for the roar of applause - and instead heard the sound of total silence from the 700-odd young soldiers who had gathered to hear him. A couple of hundred Gurkhas who were nearest to him had not the faintest idea who he was. And the soldiers slunk away, shrugging and grinning like schoolboys who had just heard the headmaster's waffle.

The entire performance was like so much of what has happened around this border in the past five days. Within an inch of bringing to a close the whole savage mess, the testosterone-fuelled behaviour of a handful of Nato military officers and inept politicians seemed hell-bent - by wringing the last ounce of humiliation from an enemy they never even faced on the ground - on sending it all spinning into weeks of additional bombing and the possible deaths of more innocents.

In the sweltering, choking dust of the camps lining the borders of Kosovo, the thousands of refugees wait to hear the common-sense words that will end this madness. Instead they hear the droning of pumped-up generals.

Yesterday it was Robertson's turn to beat the drum. He roared on about the raping and the looting and the killing, using his pet phrase - "Milosevic's murderous machine" - again and again. He almost relished his forecast that the brutal dictator would renege on his promises. And there was a drooling quality as he promised that the bombing would not only be stepped up - but intensified.

When cool and calm words were most required, when subtle negotiators were most needed to disguise the humiliation being heaped upon Serbian vanity and pride, we were witness to the worst kind of machismo. Demands for instant withdrawal and abject surrender were made by posturing Nato military chiefs in a sweltering tent in the middle of the night. And for days we have waited for a United Nations Security Council resolution to be hammered out by the semantic deadheads of the G8 - a simple document that could have been prepared in 24 hours. As meanwhile the bombers return once again to Belgrade.

All around the portly politician yesterday, in a great five-mile-wide bowl in the hills south of Skopje and just 15 miles from the poisoned and ravaged land of Kosovo, the cream of his nation's military force - the core of the entire Nato peace-keeping force - lay baking in the Macedonian sun.

Battle tanks throbbing in the forests, helicopter gunships roaring through the sky and thousands of young British soldiers waiting and cursing the brass and politicos everywhere. They are like soldiers throughout history. Just give us the job, and let us get on with it. And save us from politicians who like to have their picture taken on the turret of a tank.

There can be no complaints about these young men, or their officers. They will go down in history as the army that announced its intention not to fight until the enemy went home. But that piece of ludicrous strategy was devised by their political masters. They deserved better, because month after month we have watched them using their vast skill and ingenuity, sweating and toiling to build massive refugee camps, producing food by the hundreds of tons, and laying on high quality medical attention to the sick and wounded. The decency of these young men is a source of pride of all who have witnessed it. In countless meetings with the refugees they have made the same promise: you will go home because we will take you there, and we will protect you for as long as it takes.

Their professionalism as soldiers is not in question. This is the biggest battle force Britain has assembled since the Gulf War, and when everything is finally gathered together, almost one-third of the British Army will have been deployed. When the order comes to move, they will need all their ingenuity to combat the tens of thousands of mines, thousands of pieces of unexploded Nato bombs and countless booby traps in houses, road tunnels, bridges, public buildings, shops and offices.

The Serbs are the world's masters in the production of mines and booby traps. They have made scores of different varieties, from tiny plug-like devices that can blow off legs, to massive hidden monsters that can throw a 40-ton tank 10 feet into the air. And they have had months to prepare their nightmarish version of an adventure playground for the home- coming of people they regard as vermin.

"Kosovo is now the most dangerous place in the world," said a young bomb disposal man. "We will have to inch our way up that road. Even we, the experts, cannot possibly find all of these things. Anybody who goes wandering into the woods or hills up there is walking into a death zone, and for years to come, those mines, booby traps and unexploded ordnance will be killing and maiming people."

The first 20 miles could be the most lethal for the huge force that will enter Kosovo. It involves a deep defile, with three long narrow tunnels and eight bridges. And every mile of it is likely to be mined.

Huge four-wheel-drive vehicles called Mambas, with porcelain blast shields, will be needed to sweep a path ahead. And even the heavy-duty men of The Parachute Regiment, who will be first to secure all the mountains and passes before the "heavy metal" of the armoured division rolls in, are cautious about their job. "We won't be going walkabout in those woods and hills," said Brigadier Adrian Freer, commander of the 5th Airborne Brigade, the spearhead of the peace-keeping force. "We will let the mine disposal people do their job. Every inch of that place will be a loaded with bad pieces of kit and they have stuff that would blow a big helicopter to pieces if it landed in the wrong spot."

They do not expect to be fighting their way in. At least not against the Yugoslav army. They will, in effect, be protecting this army from marauding KLA fighters - now battle hardened and well armed - whose more hot-headed elements may want to wreak revenge on a departing enemy.

Some of the best combat units in the British army were camped out last night in the hills of the border. Gurkhas, honing their scythe-shaped knives, grinned at us. "Charming people," said one of their officers, "but their reputation for extreme violence is well deserved."

We watched the crews of the big Challenger tanks brewing up tea. They live in these things that look so impregnable. But they know the Serbs have a particular mine whose explosive force could cook them alive.

The soldiers know the invasion itself may take only days, but there is a feeling that this tiny piece of south-east Europe may become an almost permanent posting in the years, even decades, ahead.

All day we watched these young men preparing to go into the poisoned land. They have slept, eaten and trained in these hills for three months now, without alcohol or the company of women. But, strangely they are neither bored nor frustrated nor angry. They have seen, met and exchanged the valuable currency of life with hundreds of refugees. They know and understand the tragedy of Kosovo.

They also know and understand what they have to do. Not a single one was gung-ho. There was no macho talk about getting in there and doing the business. Watching George Robertson was something else.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
News
i100
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown, daughter of the late singer Whitney Houston, poses at the premiere of
people
News
people
News
The frequency with which we lie and our ability to get away with it both increase to young adulthood then decline with age, possibly because of changes that occur in the brain
scienceRoger Dobson knows the true story, from Pinocchio to Pollard
Voices
The male menopause: those affected can suffer hot flushes, night sweats, joint pain, low libido, depression and an increase in body fat, among other symptoms
voicesSo the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Life and Style
health
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen