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Washing His Hands

Retired Army General Wesley Clark defends controversial actions in Kosovo war


Retired General Wesley Clark
  • Retired General Wesley Clark

By most people's standards, Yelitsa Munitlak probably wouldn't be considered a combatant in the 1999 war between Yugoslavia and NATO, much less a participant in the ethnic-cleansing campaign unleashed against Albanians in the Serb province of Kosovo, which NATO's war effort was ostensibly designed to stop.

In the early hours of April 23 that year, Munitlak was killed by an American cruise missile that slammed into the Serb national television and radio headquarters in Belgrade, where the 27-year-old woman worked as a makeup artist. Fifteen other employees died along with her, crushed beneath debris. According to one report, Munitlak was so badly burned she had to be identified by the rings she was wearing.

On Monday night, the man who ordered the attack, now-retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, delivered a speech on "Peacemaking in the 21st Century" at Colorado College's Shove Chapel.

Clark had agreed to a brief interview before his speech, and I wanted to ask him about the bombing of the TV station, which had been condemned as a violation of international law by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In fact, such critics had said the bombing was only one example of NATO committing war crimes during the campaign, through indiscriminate use of force and the targeting of civilian facilities, both prohibited by the Geneva Conventions. Rather than just going after Serb forces committing ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, NATO bombed electric power grids, bridges, factories, oil refineries and other civilian installations throughout Serbia. Critics said the strikes were intended to wear down the morale of Serb citizens and the resistance of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

"NATO forces did commit serious violations of the laws of war, leading in a number of cases to the unlawful killings of civilians," Amnesty concluded in a report, urging the alliance to bring those responsible to justice.

Dual-use targets

Clark, as NATO's Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, was directly responsible for selecting the bombing targets, though each had to be approved by NATO political leaders. As he recalls in his own memoirs about the conflict, Waging Modern War, he aggressively pushed for approval of targets such as the TV station, despite allies' concerns about the possible illegality of striking them.

Clark's book doesn't make reference to the accusations leveled against him by human-rights groups, nor did he mention them in his speech. But in an Independent interview, Clark defended his actions, saying the targets in question were "dual-use" facilities serving both civilian and military purposes. Yugoslavia, he said, had a longstanding defense strategy of embedding civilian installations in its military infrastructure.

"Dual-use targets aren't prohibited by international law," Clark said. "What's prohibited are purely civilian targets or humanitarian targets. It's not permitted to bomb facilities in order to terrify or terrorize the civilian population. It's not permitted to deprive the civilian population of creature comforts in order to pressure their rulers. But it is permitted to attack dual-use targets. So if a road is used by the military and civilians, the road's a target. If electricity is used by the military and civilians, the electricity's a target."

Under such an interpretation, most target restrictions implied by the Geneva Conventions would be thrown out the window, critics have said.

"Contrary to the beliefs of our war planners, unrestricted air bombing is barred under international law," wrote Walter Rockler, an attorney who prosecuted Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, in a May 23, 1999 Chicago Tribune op-ed criticizing the war. "Bombing the 'infrastructure' of a country -- waterworks, electricity plants, bridges, factories, television and radio locations -- is not an attack limited to legitimate military objectives."

Clark, meanwhile, said the Serb TV station -- widely recognized as a government propaganda organ -- was part of Milosevic's war machine.

"We had to bomb the TV station," Clark said. "It was part of his command and control network. It was part of his control of the military forces; it was part of the mobilization of military resources."

Jeopardizing journalists

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New Yorkbased watchdog organization that tracks abuses against the press, disagreed. The committee condemned the bombing, saying it "permanently jeopardizes all journalists" in war zones and their status as noncombatants protected under the Geneva Conventions.

But Clark disputed the noncombatant status of Munitlak and the others who were killed. "If they're engaged in a military or quasi-military activity, whether or not they're in uniform, they are essentially just like people working in munitions factories. [If] you're engaged as a civilian worker in support of the war effort, you're a legitimate target."

Still, he ultimately washed his hands of the deaths. Asked whether the goal of disabling Milosevic's propaganda machine justified the deaths, he answered "Yes," but quickly added that the fault was really Milosevic's. In order to give personnel a chance to evacuate, NATO had warned the Serb government that it would bomb the TV station. But the Serb government ordered staff to remain in the building as a human shield.

"The deaths of those people was caused by Slobodan Milosevic," Clark said. "So if somebody has to justify those deaths, it has to be Milosevic. You have to ask Milosevic, 'Do you feel the international outcry caused by the death of this woman who was the makeup artist, I think justified leaving her there to be killed?' Ask him that question. That's his problem. That's his problem; that's not my problem."

The "predictable" result

Altogether, the 78-day NATO campaign killed several hundred civilians, left Serbia economically devastated, and caused significant environmental damage. Some still question whether it actually prevented ethnic cleansing. When the bombing began, the Serbs responded by intensifying their efforts to kill Albanians and burn their villages -- something Clark acknowledges was a "predictable" result of the air strikes.

And after the war ended, international peacekeepers were unable to prevent Albanians from exacting revenge against Serbs through a campaign of "reverse" ethnic cleansing that caused an estimated 200,000 Serbs and other minorities to flee Kosovo.

Meanwhile, debate has continued about whether the conflict could have been avoided altogether through diplomacy. Clark says diplomatic efforts failed, leaving air strikes as the only option. Critics say the NATO countries, during pre-war negotiations, deliberately created a pretext for bombing by presenting Milosevic with an unrealistic ultimatum that they knew he couldn't accept.

Clark dismissed his critics as "abstract European leftists" and said he's convinced NATO reduced the amount of suffering in Kosovo. Milosevic, he said, was about to kill or expel 1.5 million Albanians.

"I saved a million and a half people from being forced out of their homes," Clark said. "I, along with a lot of other people."


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