Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Book Review: A Time to Lead by Wesley Clark

Book Review: A Time to Lead

A Time to Lead: For Duty, Honor and County, by Wesley K. Clark with Tom Carhart. NY: Palgrave, 2007.

This book doesn’t really have a tie to Pennsylvania politics but Gen. Wesley Clark did some campaigning for candidates in the Commonwealth and I was on a conference call he participated in sometime during the 2006 campaign season.

Wes Clark is a military man by inclination as well as occupation. There is little personal introspection in the book and it is more a career biography than a personal biography. While he certainly mentions his wife we learn little of how he spent his time when off duty. It may have been intended as a campaign biography; if so there is much to admire but little to endear him to the reader, no emotional attachment is formed. To be honest I didn’t really warm up to the General until chapter 7 or 8, about halfway through the book. It is, however, a good book, a well-written book. It would be a great gift for an uncle with military experience or interest, or some other male relative for whom one does not know what else to buy.

In the acknowledgements Clark thanks several relatives for helping him with the chapters concerning his youth. One cousin mentioned is Mary Steenbergen. Yes, it’s that Mary Steenburgen, the actress. There is only one other real mention of her in the book. Tom Carhart, who helped Clark with the book, was a West Point classmate.

The preface (pp. 1-11) sets the stage for the military focus by opening in 1970 with Clark being wounded in Viet Nam. He was out with some of his men on the trail trying to pinpoint the enemy. He was shot and medevac’ed out. His son, whom he had not yet seen, was three months old at the time.

The introduction is truly just that; Clark sets the tone by discussing the importance of leadership, a major theme of the book. He says leadership is about performance, knowledge and skills. The taciturn tone is set, and his life story is given in condensed form, in one and a half pages (14-15).

With the tone and theme put in place Clark begins with a staccato outline of his youth and family background, as he knew it growing up. Chapter 1 (pp. 16-31) covers his life up to high school. His father died when he was not quite four and it was not until he was an adult that he learned Benjamin Kanne was Jewish and the son of Russian immigrants. Veneta Kanne moved back home to Arkansas. Victor Clark was his mother’s third husband and their courtship and early years of marriage were somewhat rocky, in part due to Victor Clark’s drinking. Wes Clark writes about the limitations on women in the 1950’s and the hardships single mothers face. Two quotes stood out for me. The first is a paean:

The bonds of love that build up between a single mother and her child can become the bark on the tossing sea of life that will carry those young souls safely to a future port of success and happiness. And your high expectations matter enormously to your youngsters; they are a force that can have a truly life-changing effect on them. (p. 24)

The second seems to me a bit clumsy:
But I worry that not every single mother has the kind of family network my mom had. As a nation, we need to help our single moms with child care, cooking, cleaning, the opportunity to advance their skills, and all the other support that’s so easy to take for granted. (p. 25)

Little Rock in the late 1950’s was in the throes of desegregation. In 10th grade he went to a private military school because the public high school was closed to avoid complying with the Supreme Court ruling on Brown vs Board of Education. This is outlined in the second chapter (pp. 33-41). Clark discusses his continued interest in swimming and the swim team, as well as visiting a nearby college library to try to each himself Russian. His leisure time reading is Plato and Toynbee. He writes about his first real leadership responsibilities as a camp counselor. One dream, to become an astronaut, is lost when he started wearing glasses, but he finds another when he decides he wants to go to West Point. He takes the initiative to contact his elected officials asking for their recommendation but is turned down the first year; the next year he is accepted. Even with the upheaval going on when he was young, Clark has this to say about his education:
Public schools are the crucible of the nation. Training and testing grounds where standards are set and norms established, they are crucially important in shaping and solidifying the personalities and character traits of the young people who pass through them. (42)

Clark’s description of West Point may be accurate but I’m not sure it will help with recruitment. He is in his first year (which does not sound like fun) before he realizes that “the purpose of the army is to kill” (p. 48) and later mentions “the raw power that gorges your body and floods your senses as you spray bullets at an enemy” (p. 62). He also shows his age a little when he refers to the cadences troops sing when running as “gay, bawdy ballads” (p. 50). Clark survives his first year and continues in his studies. Some of the faculty encourage him to think about trying to become a Rhodes Scholar. After a trip to Russia he again shifts his career focus, this time from physics to international relations. A trip to New York brings another life change when he offers to buy a young woman a drink in a bar; she will later become his wife. He ends the chapter with a long discussion of what “duty, honor, country” means to him.

After graduating he goes to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. His first few years after West Point were tumultuous, full of surprises, good and bad. He proposes to Gertrude Kingston, known as Gert, and they take a long drive along the European coast. A car accident puts a damper on the trip. After his first year in Oxford they married, honeymooned in Puerto Rico, and spent the summer in Arkansas where they “cuddled and cooed” (p. 75). This was in the late 1960’s and Clark presented the military’s point of view at some meetings on the Vietnam War. He also learns his father is the son of Russian Jewish immigrants.

In July, 1969, Clark left for Vietnam; Gert was four months pregnant. At first he was given an administrative job, preparing daily briefings for commanders, but he was eager for a command of his own. In January, 1970, he was put in command of A Company, 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry (Mechanized). On February 19th he was wounded in the shoulder, leg, hand and buttocks. He was sent back to the states, to a hospital in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and met his four month old son for the first time.

After recovering he took command of an armored brigade at Fort. Knox, and stayed with them from May through September, 1970. Their primary job was fixing tanks. Following that he went to a nine month program to learn tactics, logistics, and leadership, and then to the Pentagon for three months. Following that he went back to West Point, this time as a teacher, and stayed for three years. Clark questions some of Pres. Nixon’s decisions regarding Vietnam. One summer he worked on a report regarding energy and defense and the Persian Gulf. Clark writes about his West Point years as family-based as his son grows from toddler to pre-schooler.

He was sent to Ft. Leavenworth, to the Army’s Command and Staff College. Those who had been in the war didn’t discuss their experiences. “There were no good war stories from Vietnams. Not anymore” (107). Clark wrote a master’s thesis on contingency operations since World War II. Studying military theory and thinking about the Vietnam War, he decides the most important lesson was this “Don’t commit American forces unless you commit enough to win” (109). Following his education at Leavenworth, Clark was selected for a White House Fellowship, as a special assistant to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. This was during the first Bush administration and Clark’s view of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld is not always complimentary. However, he did have the opportunity to travel to the Middle East with the OMB. Later he had an assignment in Germany, another tank battalion, and then on to Belgium, to work for Gen. Alexander Haig.

In 1980 Clark again found himself in command of a tank battalion. His earlier experience came in handy; it is clear he knows the inner workings of tanks. The unit was in trouble, flunking inspections, and his job was to improve their performance. He discusses the change from a draft army to an all volunteer army. In part this continues his understanding of leadership, learning to motivate those in his command, and how to try to make everyone winners. He compares this to the organizational leadership in the corporate world. In 1982 he is promoted to colonel and selected to run the training and evaluation system for the army’s new training center.

There is a death in each of the first three rotations under his command. Reviewing what happened he comes to the realization that only soldiers win battles. Leaders can lose them but only soldiers can win them (136). Another realization is that people only see the faults you are looking for and only correct the mistakes you anticipate (137). After a quick rise through the ranks Clark is passed over twice before being promoted to brigade commander. The Army selected him to create a Combat Training Center. After promotion to Brigadier General he is placed in command of the National Training Center.

Finally Clark begins to discuss some of his personal life. In May, 1986 his mother dies and he writes: “No one can love you the way your mother does, and you can’t really love anyone else the way you love your mother” (138). Early in his military career Clark had noted that the military does not support military families the way it should. He writes more about it at this point and his experience as a parent of a child in base schools. He also acknowledges the efforts of his wife in volunteer and community activities. At the National Training Center he held town hall meetings to learn what people who lived there wanted. He heard about lines at the local Burger King and the base rule against planting flowers, among other problems, and made efforts to fix these types of problems.

When Saddam Hussein’s army invaded Kuwait he offered to go but was asked to stay stateside at the NTC. After Iraqi forces leave Kuwait Clark is in the Pentagon and talks with Paul Wolfowitz who says “we screwed up and left Saddam Hussein in power” (150). Clark also takes note of the ethnic strife in the Balkans.

The years 1991 and 1992 were busy one for Clark and his family. He was promoted to two star general and sent to the Training and Doctrine Command in Virginia. Within weeks he was given command of the 1st Cavalry Division. His personal life also had ups and downs. His stepfather died but his son graduated from Georgetown. In discussing his work with the 1st Cav, Clark again brings up the importance of supporting military families. As one example he made it possible for parents to be given time off work to meet with school counselors if a child or teen got in trouble at school. One of the military lessons he lamented had to be learned over and over is that “When you deploy, send cohesive units, don’t pick units to pieces, and don’t go into combat, or near combat, with patchwork outfits” (157).

He also writes about his interaction with Bill Clinton. Clark left Oxford a few months before Clinton arrived so they did not meet there, but had once had dinner when both were in Arkansas. However, in October 1993 when Clark was in Washington, Clinton invited him and his wife to dinner and some other people from Arkansas, including Mary Steenbergen. This is the only time Clark mentions his cousin, other than including her name in the acknowledgements. The dinner may have led to the rumor that he was on close terms with the president (164).

In 1994 he went to work for John Shalikashvili at the Joint Chiefs of Staff; his position was called the J-5, the Director of Strategic Plans and Policy. The work required him to be informed on issues around the world. He writes about Rwanda, Haiti, Croatia and other “hot spots.” Since many of these conflicts were within countries rather than between countries it was difficult to construct a military strategy to replace the Cold War strategy that had been in place. In regards to Rwanda, Clark writes (169):
We couldn’t go halfway in and fail. When the United States did something, it had to do it right, I believed. If there was one single principle to hold on to, the major lesson of Vietnam, this was it: Be slow to go in, and make sure you have enough power and capabilities to do the job. Otherwise, don’t go in!

On the political aspects of his job, Clark says this (173):
This is the way our political system works: The opposition party spots vulnerabilities in the presiding government and offers the electorate an alternative. In this case, the Republicans found what they believed was a glaring weakness, and they would exploit it. That’s elementary in principle, but in practice, it is often not so clear.

The weakness he is referring to is Clinton’s foreign policy and the sequential military problems of civil unrest in the countries mentioned above, as well as others. Clark takes his first trip to the former Yugoslavia to meet with Bosnian and Serb leaders. The political aspects of working in Washington also come into play when Trent Lott sends around a memo saying Clark is not to be trusted (174), might have tried to have him fired. Since Clark’s family had been stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, his wife volunteered in Rep. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s office, on military family issues.

As the situation in the former Yugoslavia deteriorated, Clark went to that area as part of a delegation led by Tony Lake, the National Security Advisor, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Bob Frasure. One of their vehicles hit a mine and some of their delegation were killed. On this trip Clark spent a lot of time with Slobodan Milosevic and says of him “for all his evil, Milosevic was a keen observer of human nature and as astute practitioner of power diplomacy” (184).

In further coming to grips with the limitations of military solution he writes (185-6):
We could restore a government, and even organize elections, but we couldn’t seem to heal a broken society, transform a social order, or create self-sustaining economic development. And when we intervened, we inevitably became responsible, not just for installing a new government, but for the enduring welfare of the whole society from which a functioning government should draw its support.

Clark is sent to Panama to become the Commander of the U.S. Southern Command and promoted to full general. He learned Spanish and looked into the effectiveness of the U.S. counter-narcotics program. Here also he noted that (191):
There were not national deployable “reserves” of doctors, lawyers, accountants, auditors, city planners, forestry experts, agricultural extension exercises, or police trainers.

However, he was not in South and Central America long before being transferred to Europe as the Commander of Chief, U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, which put him in charge of NATO forces as well. This would be his last military command, and much of it was taken up with Milosevic and Bosnia. He had to not only try to persuade American politicians but also European ones as well. Eventually Clark sent in bombers, some of which inadvertently hit civilians. Chapter 12 is primarily concerned with this part of his life, for anyone interested. The amount of political muscle he exercised had its drawbacks and he was asked to retire three months early.

He and his wife moved back to Little Rock and he took a job at an investment bank. Although he had converted to Catholicism the couple attended a Presbyterian church. He kept in touch with friends in Washington and was told by one general shortly after 9/11 that Bush planned to attack Iraq (231). While Clark, like many in the military, was not registered in a political party, but there were complaints when he appeared as a commentator on CNN that he was an unannounced presidential candidate. After some thought he does decide to get into the race but the campaign is short-lived.

The final chapter of the book discusses his philosophy, a discussion of the Iraq War and policy suggestions on a variety of issues.

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