A man made in Vietnam

PROFILE Wesley Clark As Nato's supreme commander, he will send the bombers against the Serbs.

Related Topics
f Nato takes military action against Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia this week, then the fate of much of the Balkans lies in the hands of a man born a Southern Baptist in Arkansas, who grew up in Little Rock after his father died, and who went on to to study as a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford at the height of the Vietnam war.

The parallels between the lives of Bill Clinton and Wesley Clark, Nato's supreme commander since 1997, are uncanny. The contrasts are also sharp. Both men are in their fifties - Clark is 54, Clinton 52 - and both are married, with one child. Their faces reveal profound differences. Clinton's sensual mobile face is lined and sagging, while Clark's face has an almost seraphic quality, making him look far younger than he is. The eyes, however, lack Clinton's twinkle. Clark intimidates with a penetrating stare of zealous intensity. His soundbites are not as colourful as Clinton's, but they do get to the heart of the matter. He has said that if Nato warplanes do hit Yugoslavia, it will not be "a one or two bomb affair".

Despite their common roots in Arkansas, Clark and Clinton did not meet until 1965 in Washington. Each was academically gifted. Clark passed first in his class at West Point in 1966 before going on to Oxford on the same scholarship as Clinton. Clark finished his PPE course. Clinton ducked out of finals. Their paths rarely crossed and their reactions to the great issue of their time as students could hardly have been more different.

Clinton dodged the Vietnam draft but his engagement with the anti-war movement in Oxford was tentative. While his future commander-in-chief took his pacifism lite, Wes Clark travelled around British universities speaking in defence of US policy. He left Oxford sooner than necessary to serve in Vietnam. In Britain, his pro-war stance only put him in the line of fire of egg-throwing radicals, but in Vietnam he took hits from Vietcong bullets. After receiving four wounds he was awarded the Silver Star. Having witnessed bloodshed first hand, he can be scathing about triumphalist politicians who talk of the US's "bloodless victory" in the Cold War: "It was anything but a cold war for those of us who went through that."

While in Vietnam, Clark converted to Catholicism. His President developed a love of the flamboyant public confession, but Clark chose a religion that insists on the privacy of the confessional. Like Bill Clinton, he has been married to the same woman for many years, but no whiff of scandal attaches to his name.Of course adultery is a court-martial offence in the US army - at least for all ranks below the Commander-in-Chief.

In Vietnam Clark commanded a mechanised infantry company; his service marked him out for promotion. He was drafted as an aide into the embattled Nixon White House. There he joined the nursery of future US military leaders established by Nixon's post-Watergate chief of staff, Alexander Haig. Haig set the precedent for military men to move via the White House on to lead Nato.

Clark rose steadily towards the top of the US army but never saw action again. His skills as a troop trainer and military organiser, however, meant that his reputation carried on growing. After the Gulf War he was a key figure in the repeated rehearsing of large-scale rapid interventions in the region. But all the time the Bosnian war was attracting more and more US attention and Clark became Washington's key military adviser on the conflict. It would be a mistake to see him as merely a soldier's soldier with no political side. Unlike British generals who affect a bluff distaste for politics, American generals understand the need to lobby their corner.

Like many in the US military he was suspicious of the anti-Vietnam generation of politicians who suddenly turned interventionists on getting elected to high office in the early 1990s. In Bosnia, furthermore, he instinctively seemed to find the professional officer corps of the Serb forces more to his liking than the rag-tag Muslim side.

In 1994, he fell into a propaganda trap when he visited the Serb commander, Ratko Mladic, with Britain's General Michael Rose. Like many brutal men, Mladic could alternate bluster with charm. After a tough discussion, he disarmed Clark with small talk, remarking how much he liked his US general's three-star cap. Impulsively Clark swapped his cap for Mladic's distinctive Serbian hat and walked out wearing it into a blaze of flashing cameras. After a convivial lunch, he even accepted Mladic's service revolver with an engraved message from the general most people held responsible for the worst massacres in Europe since 1945.

This faux pas did not hurt Clark's standing in Washington, because Clinton's real policy was building bridges to the Serbs to persuade them to accept a compromise peace plan. In 1995, after a series of Serb atrocities finally precipitated Nato bombing, Clark played a key role in the Dayton negotiations which ended that war.

After Richard Holbrooke, no American was more involved in dealing with Milosevic than Clark was. Holbrooke's memoirs recall the late-night bonding sessions with Milosevic at Dayton. US policy was to pressure the Muslims and the Croats into a deal acceptable to the Serbian leader, who would do his part by pulling the rug from underneath the local Bosnian Serb warlords, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. Clark did much to reassure the Serbs that their military security would be respected by the proposed accords.

After Dayton Clark was rewarded with the US command in Panama where he thought a lot about post-Cold War challenges to the US military. He recognised that peacekeeping was likely to occupy much of its time, but he also saw the "moral ambiguity" of peacekeeping operations where each side on the ground regarded the outsiders not as neutrals but as part of the jockeying for power. In fact, his eyes were never really off the Balkans. The souring of relations between the West and Belgrade after 1995 was a complex matter, but the ignition of the Kosovo conflict last year threatened the whole peace assembled at Dayton by Holbrooke and Clark.

Both of them were sent repeatedly to Belgrade as the crisis deepened to try to cajole their old partner Milosevic into backing off from his crackdown in Kosovo. Milosevic's implacable resistance seems to have disappointed and embittered Clark in his attitude to the Serbs.

When it comes to his own political survival, Milosevic treats friendship as an expendable commodity. Milosevic could accept a Nato presence in Bosnia but sees any US-led intervention inside his Rump Yugoslavia as a threat to his own power base. Repeated visits from his Dayton buddies Holbrooke and Clark have not shaken his resolve so far.

Ten days ago, Wesley Clark told the French Higher Institute for Defence Studies that Milosevic was "a tough negotiator and hard bargainer" but one who understood the military realities. "He's wily, shrewd and calculating but we are in a good position today because he respects Nato air power and is very much aware of what it can do." Milosevic may also realise that there is a limit to what air power alone can do. Another US bogyman, Saddam Hussein, has certainly understood that. Wesley Clark faces the likelihood that ground forces will have to go into Kosovo if his President is determined to get Serbian compliance with Nato demands.

Serb politicians have been promising any US interventionists a "second Vietnam" ever since the break-up of Yugoslavia began in 1991. For Clark, "Vietnam served as a military lesson for how such intervention should and should not be handled". Whether he has learned the right lessons from America's bitterest military experience remains to be seen, but in the coming week his commander-in-chief may well stake the credibility of his waning presidency on just that.

A "bloodless" (on the Nato side) Gulf War-style victory in Kosovo would presumably satisfy Clinton. Whatever happens, however, Clark is unlikely to rise further in the military. There is only one post left for a general of his seniority to be promoted to - the Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US armed forces. But, after two successive generals in the post, the US navy is determined to put an admiral in the job. After rising in the shadow of Bill Clinton for so long, perhaps it would be appropriate for the other boy from Arkansas to leave office at the same time as his commander-in-chief.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Kennedy campaign for the Lib Dems earlier this year in Bearsden  

Charles Kennedy: A brilliant man whose talents were badly needed

Baroness Williams
Nick Clegg (R) Liberal Democrat Leader and former leader Charles Kennedy MP, joined the general election campaign trail on April 8, 2010  

Charles Kennedy: The only mainstream political leader who spoke sense

Tim Farron
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific