Sunday, March 21, 2010

Beyond the Rainbow Tempest

Retired Marine Corps General John Sheehan unleashed a tempest the other day, suggesting that gay soldiers "weakened" Dutch Army units assigned to defend a Muslim "safe haven" in Bosnia in 1995. That operation ended with Bosnian Serbs over-running the area around Srebrenica, hand-cuffing Dutch soldiers to telephone poles and the slaughter of thousands of Muslims.

Sheehan has more than a passing familiarity with events at Srebrenica. At the time of the debacle, General Sheehan served as Supreme Allied Commander for the Atlantic Region, making him on of NATO's most senior military officers. While the Dutch troops at Srebrenica didn't fall directly under his command, Sheehan certainly had knowledge of their capabilities--and potential problems within their ranks.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on efforts to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" restrictions on homosexuals in the military, General Sheehan highlighted the Srebrenica incident as a reason to keep openly gay men and women from serving.

Sheehan said Dutch officers told him that gay troops were one reason their unit proved unable to perform their mission, resulting in the deaths of more than 8,000 Muslims, mostly men and boys.

As you might expect, the committee chairman, Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, challenged Sheehan's assertions. Asked to identify a source for his claims, Sheehan named a "General Hankman Berman," but the Dutch military has never had a flag officer by that name.

Many observers believe that "Berman" is actually a cover for General Henk van der Breeman, who was the Dutch Chief of Staff when Srebrenica fell. Breeman subsequently ridiculed Sheehan's comments as "total nonsense." Other Dutch officials described his remarks as "shameful" and "beneath contempt."

So, did General Sheehan simply fabricate his conversation with that Dutch general? The retired Marine general has a reputation for integrity, and it's doubtful he would risk his legacy over a few concocted remarks about gays in the military of The Netherlands. On the other hand, it is plausible that a Dutch general might complain--or try to blame--gay troops for the army's most humiliating moment since World War II, then deny the comments when they become public. In ultra-liberal Dutch society, where homosexuals serve openly and the military is unionized, even former generals can't afford to make politically-incorrect remarks.

Still, the presence of gays in the ranks cannot fully explain the disaster at Srebrenica. And, to be fair, General Sheehan's testimony identified a variety of problems in European armies that rendered them ineffective in the Balkans:

[He said] European militaries deteriorated after the collapse of the Soviet Union and focused on peacekeeping because "they did not believe the Germans were going to attack again or the Soviets were coming back."

Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and other nations believed there was no longer a need for an active combat capability in the militaries, he said. "They declared a peace dividend and made a conscious effort to socialize their military - that includes the unionization of their militaries, it includes open homosexuality."

Dutch troops serving as U.N. peacekeepers and tasked with defending the town of Srebrenica in 1995 were an example of a force that became ill-equipped for war.

"The battalion was understrength, poorly led, and the Serbs came into town, handcuffed the soldiers to the telephone poles, marched the Muslims off, and executed them," Sheehan said.

"That was the largest massacre in Europe since World War II," he said of the killing of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim boys and men after Serbian forces captured the town.


I find General Sheehan's comments rather interesting, because the fall of those Muslim safe havens strikes a personal chord. In the mid-1990s, I was an intelligence officer flying missions on a U.S. Air Force command-and-control aircraft that was assigned to the Bosnia operation. I wasn't airborne on the day Srebrenica fell, but I was onboard in April 1994, when Bosnian Serb forces attacked the safe haven at Gorazde.

In hindsight, Gorazde is sometimes described as a "victory" for NATO. Serbian attacks eventually sparked alliance airstrikes that finally halted the ground offensive. But the Serbs still managed to push the small U.N. "peacekeeping" contingent out of the enclave, and inflicted heavy casualties on local defenders.

By some estimates, more than 700 local residents died in the battle against Serb ground forces. The fighting reached its peak on Saturday, 23 April 1994. My crew was assigned to coordinate air support for U.N./NATO forces on the ground. But most of the "peacekeepers" had fled the area, leaving only a British Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) to report activity and request air strikes, as required.

Not long after we arrived on station, it became apparent that air support was urgently needed. Serbian forces were inside the village of Gorazde, firing on anything that moved. The British controllers reported that a Serbian tank had moved into position at the local hospital--clearly marked with the Red Crescent--and was firing into the facility.

Taking out the Serb tank should have been a relatively simple process. The TACP radioed its exact location to us; we had two A-10s on station, with more than enough Maverick missiles and GAU-8 ammunition to handle the job. In most combat scenarios, we would have simply assigned the target to the A-10s, and pushed them to the TACP for terminal control.

But Bosnia was anything but a "typical" conflict. Because of the grossly restrictive rules of engagement, any request for air support (in those days) had to be approved by the 5th Allied Tactical Air Forces (ATAF) HQ in Vicenza, Italy. So, the tank kept shooting while we relayed the request to our superiors at Vicenza.

And, the approval process didn't end there. 5 ATAF was required to notify the U.N.'s senior civilian in Zagreb, Croatia, who (in turn) would discuss the matter with his bosses in New York. In theory, approval by the "civilian" chain was only supposed to happen once, but because of hesitancy by the U.N. and NATO, all requests for the use of force had to follow that process, which sometimes took hours to complete.

Meanwhile, the A-10s kept circling, and the Serb tank crew continued their deadly business. Frustration was at a fever pitch among the Warthog pilots, my crew, and the British TACP. "Why can't we just shoot the damn tank?" someone asked over the radio.

Miraculously, the U.N. approved the air strike request in near-record time (about 90 minutes, as I recall). The A-10s had used the interval to refuel, so they had plenty of orbit time--and munitions--to blast the Serb tank and any other targets in the area.

But the SNAFU was just beginning. Up until that point, American warplanes had dropped most of the bombs in Bosnia and some of our allies were pushing for a piece of the action. Rather than let the A-10s do the job, someone at Vicenza decided it would be a great thing to let a NATO partner handle the job. The target was passed to a pair of British Sea Harriers, just leaving their carrier in the Adriatic Sea.

The Harriers' short-takeoff-and-landing (STOL) capability burned a lot of fuel, so we had to get them into action quickly, before they ran out of gas. The A-10s were moved to a supporting orbit while we waited for the Royal Navy jets to arrive. Once on station, it took the Harrier flight a couple of passes to establish communications with the TACP and orient themselves to the target area. On the third pass, they would fire on the tank.

As you might expect, the Serbs knew what was up. The volume of anti-aircraft fire increased dramatically each time the Harriers passed overhead. And, on that third pass, before the British pilots could drop their munitions, the Serb gunners found their mark. One of the Harriers was hit, and the pilot forced to eject. The relatively simple task of destroying the Serbian tank now became a full-blown search-and-rescue mission.

Luckily for that Royal Navy pilot, the Muslims got to him before the Serbs. He was moved to a safe house where he managed to call his base back in England. We finally got the word more than two hours after the shoot down. By that time, it was late in the afternoon and Vicenza decided to send everyone home.

As for that Serbian tank, it rolled off into the darkness, untouched by Allied fire, and a testament to the convoluted mess that was the Bosnia Operation. And that brings us back to General Sheehan, who was near the top of the NATO chain during that time. Obviously, Sheehan and his fellow commanders ere constrained by many factors, ranging from timid European politicians to NATO ground units that lacked the ability to defend themselves.

But clearly, General Sheehan also deserves some of the blame. In his post as SACLANT, he had input into some of the onerous engagement rules that delayed (or crippled) our ability to respond militarily. So far, we haven't heard Sheehan comment publicly on those issues.

Here's the real bottom line: NATO forces in the Balkans had lots of problems that went well beyond the presence of gay soldiers in Dutch units. It can be characterized as an institutional weakness that begins at the top and continues to this day. Look at defense spending in European countries, which remains well below what the alliance requires.

And, consider the case of Afghanistan, where a number of NATO partners refuse to let their deployed troops participate in combat operations. The same risk-aversion that was evident in the Balkans is still a cornerstone of alliance strategy today. NATO is still willing to fight--as long as the Americans do all the heavy lifting, and play by constrictive rules of engagement.

5 comments:

Theodore said...

It is also quite possible that a Dutch general or so did say it was all the fault of some (nasty word used to indicate people with non-heterosexual preferences), not referring to troops on the ground.

morinao said...

Sheehan was SACLANT, not SACEUR.

Megaan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Theodore said...

"European militaries deteriorated after the collapse of the Soviet Union and focused on peacekeeping because "they did not believe the Germans were going to attack again or the Soviets were coming back."

Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and other nations believed there was no longer a need for an active combat capability in the militaries, he said. "They declared a peace dividend and made a conscious effort to socialize their military - that includes the unionization of their militaries, it includes open homosexuality."

If we look at Dutch military history only, we might notice that gay guys have been serving openly since 1974, and that the year given for unionization is usually 1966, (founding of the union for conscripts), but the oldest of the military unions, the one for Navy Officers, dates back to 1883, and it's not the only Dutch military union with 19th century roots.

Add to this that, no matter what one may think about military unions in general, the Dutch military unions tend to be more supportive of continued deployment in Afghanistan than the politicians, so insulting them may not be supporting the war effort.

As far as the Netherlands is concerned, Sheehan's description of the history of unionization and "open homosexuality" has been fabricated, but whether he did so deliberately I cannot say.

lgude said...

Well here is a different slant. A young Australian soldier of my acquaintance brought up Srebrenica recently in front of an older member of his family which has a long history of military service. To my surprise they expressed utter contempt for the Dutch military based of the experiences of the Australian military with Dutch troops during WW2 in Indonesia. That is harsh, and probably unfair, but an interesting angle nonetheless. Perhaps there are institutional problems in the Dutch military going back a long time. On the other hand we all know that Dutchmen can be magnificently courageous and decisive individually from what happened recently over Detroit.