Defence Mechanism

Questioning the Kosovo War, twenty years later

Twenty years ago, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization saw fit to violate the supposed sanctity of international borders, through a bombing campaign to protect the endangered Albanian-­speaking minority population in the Serbian province of Kosovo. Across the alliance, pundits claimed NATO had successfully applied the emerging “responsibility to protect” doctrine. Perhaps the earlier air bombardment of the Serbian strongman Slobodan Miloševic, which brought Serbia to the table to sign the Dayton Accord in 1995, was a precursor. But the 1999 Kosovo War was the first time NATO leaders alluded to R2P, a concept still in development, to justify their actions.

Serbian troops, apparently not deterred by the lessons of the Yugoslav civil war, began to round up Kosovars in 1998. The failure of the international community to save Rwandans or Bosnians from genocide in the early ’90s plagued the international conscience, and an intervention in Kosovo was an opportunity to do something different.

For Lloyd Axworthy, Jean Chrétien’s foreign minister in 1999, R2P was a logical extension of his “human security agenda.” Fostering the domestic well-­being of citizens worldwide ought to be a fundamental objective of international relations, Axworthy argued, most famously in a keynote speech at McGill University in 1997. In shaping his doctrine, he sought to create a paradigm that put individuals and their safety at the heart of foreign policy.

In retrospect, the Kosovo War represented R2P’s zenith. By justifying the protection of a civilian population from the murderous intentions of its own government, NATO ignored national sovereignty. Despite the concept’s apparent success, no one rushed to use it again. It was not called upon in Afghanistan in 2001, for example, where the prime objective was to root out a terrorist base threatening the West. Nor was it invoked in Iraq in 2003, where, ostensibly, the eradication of weapons of mass destruction served to justify ­invasion. A “coalition of the willing” did draw upon R2P in Libya, as a self-­validating motive for the aerial attack on Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. But once that North African country plunged into unforeseen chaos, the doctrine lost any allure it still had. On top of its failure to bring peace, critics condemned it as a thinly veiled excuse for “neoliberal, imperialist” interventions. Such charges may be facile, but they do weigh heavily on an idea whose time evidently has not come.

Bob Bergen, a former staff writer with the Albertan and the Calgary Herald , is an adjunct professor with the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military and Strategic Studies. With Scattering Chaff, he takes an in-depth look at Canada’s involvement in the Kosovo War, which ended in June 1999 after fifteen months. Rather than dwelling on the role of R2P, he focuses on the Canadian military’s campaign — waged mostly from the air — and the challenges it posed for the media. (Bergen and I are former colleagues. Our journalistic careers over­lapped at the Calgary Herald between 1980 and 1990, though our paths have not crossed since.)

Ensuring that air force personnel knew the war’s aims, Bergen points out, was vital to the effort. When they arrived in the European theatre, pilots were briefed thoroughly. He interviews many for the book. “I used an audio-­visual presentation to brief my folks. I used pictures of all the folks and all the — we call them atrocities but they were fairly close to that — ­happening to the civilian population in Kosovo,” one veteran explains. “They looked at that job you can do to help these people and they fairly quickly realized why we were there.”

Extensive interviews offer a vivid oral history, in the vein of Barry Broadfoot’s Ten Lost Years, Six War Years, and Next-Year Country. Through them, Bergen places Canadian men and women squarely at the heart of the action. “It just kind of clicked into place that the war or Allied Force — the NATO action to stop the war in Kosovo — was a war against old European nationalism and hate and lack of understanding of other religions and people’s beliefs,” another veteran tells Bergen. “It was that versus the spirit of unification that was going on in Europe at the time and compassion and understanding and co-­operation. When I looked at it like that, it became very clear to me that this was the right thing to do.”

The opening chapter of Scattering Chaff offers a riveting cockpit view of the sorties Canadian CF‑18s flew over Serbia: “Managing that many warplanes in a confined airspace before, during, and after combat missions is a science and a highly choreographed art of war.” Bergen explains how such choreography played out in Kosovo, inviting readers to imagine battle space management as a ladder superimposed lengthwise over a map of the Adriatic Sea, with its rungs forming six individual “boxes” or areas of responsibility at precisely designated Global Positioning System (GPS) locations. The long left rail of the ladder down the Adriatic close to the eastern coast of Italy behind those individual AORs was an air transit route code named Backstreet. Inside each AOR in the ladder were air-to-air refuelling tankers like flying gas stations.

He continues in this manner, layering operational detail on top of detail: “Each formation would leave their marshal point to hit their timing reference point at an exact time that would allow them to fly into the target area and deliver their weapons.” What emerges is a wholly fleshed-­out portrait of Canadian fighter-­bombers in action.

Such descriptions give Bergen’s work a drama and verisimilitude appropriate to the subject. But the compelling narrative is only a vehicle for the book’s two-­pronged critique of Canadian military management: first, a public affairs approach marked by inherent secrecy, lack of cohesion, and timidity; and, second, a procurement system that hampered Canada’s ability to deliver on its commitments.

These two areas are intimately related. Indeed, part of the secrecy surrounding the Department of National Defence’s communications was related to shortcomings in battle readiness. In this regard, Bergen uncloaks a web of lies and evasions offered by high military staff and Art Eggleton, then minister for DND. This is where Bergen derives his title, likening this strategy to scattering chaff — emitting random electronic signals to confuse adversaries.

In truth, Bergen’s evisceration of Canada’s public affairs program on Kosovo stings a little. In 1999, I was a communications adviser at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade on the interdepartmental task force organized to manage the Kosovo file. There I provided information and analysis about diplomatic initiatives, as well as the supporting theory behind Canada’s participation, to help keep the media informed at daily briefings at the modernist and austere National Defence Headquarters, overlooking the Rideau Canal. Jim Wright, senior spokesperson at Foreign Affairs and director-­general of the east, central, and southern Europe bureau, was the foreign policy expert at these briefings, usually sharing the podium with Lieutenant-­Colonel Raymond Hénault, who was then deputy chief of the defence staff.

Each day, Wright would discuss Canadian initiatives helping Kosovar refugees and Canada’s determination to see Miloševic brought before the International Criminal Court. But the media clamoured for military details, especially since this was the first action since the Korean War in which we had an explicit and aggressive fighting stance. (During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, we primarily offered defensive support.) Reporters were usually left unsatisfied, Bergen recounts, since Hénault and other military officials held back details — details that could have painted a basic picture of Canadian activities in the skies over Serbia. The task force was aware of media restiveness (I know I was), but DND jealously guarded its prerogative to withhold or dispense information as it saw fit.

Fumbled military procurement policies, Bergen’s second main target, are unfortunately a recurring motif for Canadian governments of all stripes. The interminable saga of the F‑35 stealth bomber, which was (and possibly still is) being considered as a replacement for our aging CF‑18s, is an example of such fecklessness. The current politically charged trial of Vice-­Admiral Mark Norman, over alleged security breaches in a naval supply vessel procurement, is just the latest blemish.

Bergen exposes several supply issues that materially affected the ability of Canadian pilots to carry out their Kosovo mission. Canada did not possess tanker aircraft that could refuel CF‑18s at efficient altitudes, for instance. And bombs, especially those that could be guided electronically to their targets, were in short supply. In both cases, we had to rely on materiel from the United States. More critically, Canadian forces had only begun to equip the CF‑18s, which had entered service twenty years previously, with forward-­looking infrared pods, to deliver laser-­guided bombs. But the FLIR equipment was already a generation behind the GPS-­equipped precision-­guided weapons used by our allies. Finally, Canadian pilots were not provided with infrared goggles and the corresponding dashboard improvements that would assist their nighttime sorties. Without the goggles, they had to rely on radar for their “eyes.” Flying in single file, each plane beaming its radar directly at the one in front of it, improved their nighttime sight but also made their movements more predictable for anti-­aircraft guns on the ground.

Each of these shortcomings, and many more, became the subject of obfuscatory stories dispensed by spokespersons during media briefings. On numerous points, Bergen quotes military statements and explicitly says “that was not the truth.” To cite just one example, he notes the official line that all pilots had access to the laser-­guided FLIR kits. In fact, in addition to their being stale-­dated, there was a limited supply that “was stretching pilot training to the limit.”

From the war’s outset, DND officials decided they would not disclose concrete details. Briefings would update reporters on the number of raids and the general category of targets, but these were never fleshed out. Indeed, this was not just policy out of Ottawa; NATO planners had decided that individual countries would not be identified with particular attacks. Canada went further, however.

Military leaders decided to withhold from reporters the names of pilots and their hometowns. This proscription drew on experience in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when stories circulated about protesters dropping military-­issue body bags on military families’ lawns. These stories, which Bergen analyzes in depth, were more myth than reality. Yet they provided the foundation for a restrictive media-­relations stance that generally denied access to personnel in the name of protecting them and their families. A pilot flying over Kosovo might give an occasional interview in the field, back turned toward the camera, but such appearances added little to the popular understanding of the campaign.

In modern warfare, dating back to at least the Second World War, reporters have been attached to military units, and they have filed dispatches under varying degrees of censorship. Starting with the 2003 war in Iraq, reporters were “embedded” with troops. Closer access to the action, however, meant a more restricted capacity to describe the events, lest they disclose too much. And in Kosovo — a war waged by pilots in single-­seat aircraft — such access was impossible anyway. How then to tell the story?

Bergen contends, with the solid conviction of a journalist, that in a democracy the public deserves to know what the government is doing in its name. And this applies to fighting wars. Canadians should have known, he argues, that air crews were short of bombs and had to get them from their American counterparts. But would it have been reasonable for the military to acknowledge a lack of infrared goggles? Or that sorties were flown in risky single file?

All governments prefer to withhold rather than publicize. Communications advisers must always fight the tendency of operational and policy managers to guard and suppress information. Lloyd Axworthy encouraged open communications about Canada’s foreign policy initiatives. Jim Wright could stress the paramount objective — to protect a vulnerable population — and underline all the diplomatic and aid-related actions necessary to achieve it. In this regard, transparency paid off. The public stayed on side, throughout the war, with about 70 percent of Canadians supporting the effort.

Even at DND, as Bergen points out, there were those who did try to help journalists. He credits, for instance, the work of Lieutenant-­Commander John Larsen, who worked with reporters at Aviano, Italy, where the NATO squadrons were based. At one point, he even tossed a video package of CF‑18 takeoffs and landings over the base fence, when U.S. troops were inexplicably closing the gates. Such efforts notwithstanding, DND’s communications stance was more closed than open.

Ultimately, for Bergen, the Canadian military’s secrecy in Kosovo was unnecessary and a violation of democratic norms:

If there is to be censorship in future wars, the censorship and operational security issues raised in this book on the Kosovo air war should be debated in the House of Commons by parliamentarians. They could, in their wisdom, exercise leadership in legislating censorship if they find it necessary. They should not leave it to the military to impose its own restrictions, which this work has shown it is more than ready, willing, and able to do in policy and in practice.

I largely endorse Bergen’s view, though I’m skeptical that such a debate could get far in Ottawa. At the same time, any government policy regarding public disclosure will only go part of the way to providing the public with the ability to know, understand, and assess military actions.

There will never be a substitute for the journalist who pursues his or her story into the same literally risky territory as the soldiers. That’s what the CBC’s Paul Workman did when he positioned himself at the Albania-­Kosovo border and described troop movements in the wake of the bombing. And newsworthy stories that go beyond real-time accounts (or government press briefings) almost always come from independent digging. During the war in Afghanistan, for example, Graeme Smith’s work for the Globe and Mail, on the maltreatment of combatants detained by Canadian soldiers and turned over to local government authorities, was a signal piece of reportage. Investigative reporting will always be the source of news that matters. And, indeed, Bergen’s many revelations in Scattering Chaff would have made for good scoops during the Kosovo War.

A self-congratulatory mood is not uncommon in the halls of government upon completion of major initiatives, and there was no exception at Foreign Affairs at the end of the Kosovo War in June 1999. But such moods never last.

Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, a declaration recognized by Canada shortly thereafter. However, today there are tensions between the Kosovar majority and the Serbs, now the minority. A small country with a small and struggling economy next to a hostile neighbour, Kosovo is challenged as it aspires to a closer relationship with the rest of Europe. Perhaps the 1999 war was a successful application of R2P, but no one wants to proclaim that assessment too loudly. R2P is unlikely to be invoked anywhere else soon — or ever again.