Sunday, 25 April 2010

Michael Jackson and the intelligent use of force

The other day I found myself thinking about Michael Jackson, as one does.

Not the late, lamented, serially two-toned singer and dancer. No, I mean the British General who commanded NATO forces during the Kosovo operation back in 1999.

The principal of the College where I was first a student was a former Major General from the British Army who once told methat, in his view, a military commander ‘has failed when the first shot is fired’ in an engagement. The real skill in the use of military force is to achieve your objectives without actually using violence. Michael Jackson showed just how you do that.

His initial intention when he was poised to move into Kosovo was to make his headquarters at the airport of the regional capital, Pristina. But just before he made his move, 200 cheeky Russians drove at speed down from Bosnia where they had been part of the UN peacekeeping force and occupied Pristina airport themselves.

It was amusing to watch the subsequent press conference. Journalists kept trying to get Jackson to admit that he’d had a slap in the face from the Russians, that their action had thrown his plans into turmoil. He attempted to play down the significance of the event, but they kept harrying him. Finally, he said something along the lines of ‘I don’t what it is you’re trying to get me to say, but as far as I’m concerned, we were going to set up our headquarters at Pristina airport and now we’ll set them up somewhere else.’

And that’s what he did. He ignored the Russians. NATO troops set up a perimeter around the whole airport area, leaving the Russians within it. Airports are quite large and you can hardly occupy the whole of one with just 200 people. So NATO was able to use the airport, just not the terminal building where the Russians were. So we saw film of NATO aircraft flying in and taxiing past the Russian positions, with not a hitch in their supply operations.

Then three days later we saw the best bit of film of the whole incident. NATO tankers drove through their own lines to the Russian ones beyond. They were delivering water to the Russians who otherwise would, quite simply, have died of thirst.

It was a glorious illustration of the use of military power without a shot being fired and therefore without a single casualty. Indeed, far from shooting at his adversaries, Jackson ended up providing them with essential supplies. The message sent was powerful: ‘they thought they would cause me difficulties, but in reality they can’t even operate, they can’t even survive without my help.’ The Russian gesture was revealed as the entirely childish act it really was – childish even to the point that its perpetrators ended up dependent on those they'd tried to provoke, like a naughty child on adults.

It wasn’t until many months later that it was revealed that Jackson’s immediate superior, General Wesley Clark, Supreme Commander of NATO in Europe, had ordered him to engage the Russians. Jackson had replied ‘I’m not starting World War III for you.’

Thank God for soldiers who don’t just know how to use force but when not to. Sometimes forbearance is just much more powerful.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I hope Dannatt reads your blog!