“Driving back to Zamyn-Uud, Wilhelm talked about his experiences in northeastern Macedonia, in 1995, when U.S. and various Nordic units were patrolling the border with Serbia.
“I was a major; my bosses called me an ‘iron major,’” he said, referring to the middle managers so crucial to the U.S. military’s operations in the post-Cold War world. “I had a damn great job. I was the second-in-command on the ground of what was the Super Bowl of American military operations at that time. ‘We’re in a war zone’Â—what all soldiers live for. There were American generals saying the Balkans were a waste of time, that we should have been doing Bradley-combat-vehicle exercises in Germany instead. What a bunch of crap! Finally, we’re actually using our training, and these Cold War dinosaur generals want us to train for a war that would never happen. I’ll bet you the re-enlistment rate for the soldiers who served in the Balkans was greater than that of those who stayed in Germany. The Balkan deployments were the best thing for the morale of U.S. soldiers at the time. And they paved the way for how we fight now.”
Wilhelm’s men monitored the smuggling of fuel across the unmarked Serbian-Macedonian border. They tracked Serb patrols. They learned to integrate themselves with the Finns, who were part of the Nordic battalion but not part of NATO. They patrolled in full kit several times a day. “We were defining real peacekeeping,” Wilhelm said, “which is like war-making, since you monopolize the use of force in a given area. It was paradise after Germany. Somalia was over. Bosnia for us hadn’t started yet. Macedonia was the only game in town. Majors and master sergeants were defining national policy at the fingertip level.”
The full flowering of the middle ranks had its roots in the social transformation of the American military, which, according to Wilhelm (a liberal who voted for Al Gore in 2000), had taken place a decade earlier, when the rise of Christian evangelicalism had helped stop the indiscipline of the Vietnam-era Army. “This zeal reformed behavior, empowered junior leaders, and demanded better recruits,” he said. “For one thing, drinking stopped, and that killed off the officers’ clubs, which, in turn, broke down more barriers between officers and noncoms, giving the noncoms the confidence to do what majors and colonels in other armies do. The Christian fundamentalism was the hidden hand that changed the military for the better. Though you try to get someone to admit it! We never could have pulled off Macedonia or Bosnia with the old Vietnam Army.”
“We went to one village where the church had been destroyed and the Serbs had their headquarters on the wrong side of the street. They had had twenty days to move it to the right side of the street, as stipulated by Dayton, and they hadn’t. I took out the copy of Dayton that I carried around with me, and read it out loud. The Russian lieutenant with me repeated it to the Serbs. I told the Serbs we would bomb their headquarters with an Apache if they didn’t move it. I called in an Apache to do a flyover. The Serbs were in disbelief that they couldn’t drive a wedge between us and the Russians. ‘Let’s go now,’ my Russian companion told me. ‘Let’s give them their own space to absorb the bad news.’ An American would have stayed and drunk tea with the Serbs. But the Russians live more in an ambiguous world of negotiations without rules, especially because of their experience with civil wars in the Caucasus and Central Asia. They have a better sense of these things.
“My Russian lieutenant and I seized weapons that were hidden in haystacks. We destroyed anti-aircraft guns mounted on trucks. We called in Apache missions. The Serbs began calling me ‘Mean Mr. Tom’ because I kept threatening them with Apaches if they didn’t abide by Dayton, by disarming and dismantling their checkpoints. I’ve logged more hours in a Russian ACV [armored combat vehicle] than in an American one over my lifetime. I was taken in and accepted by a brotherhood that had seen exceptional combat in Chechnya and Afghanistan, and listened to them bitch about lousy chains of command and problems in Russia.
“Many national armies in Europe wouldn’t fight when push comes to shove. I’ve seen them corrupted by too much UN work and not enough real combat. But hell, the Russians would fight! Nothing about the American military in Bosnia impressed the Russians so much as our sergeants’ whipping out GPS [Global Positioning System] devicesÂ—which the Russians didn’t haveÂ—and calling in Apache strikes. Through us, the Russians learned the real power of technology, not the false power of it.”
The real power of technology, Wilhelm went on to explain, is that it provides an objectivity that even an enemy trusts. It has a calming effect. Because of the GPS devices the Americans were using in Bosnia, for example, there were no arguments about whether this or that outpost was on the wrong side of the cease-fire line.
The false power of technology, Wilhelm believes, was exemplified in the Cold War nuclear chains of command, which were elaborate theoretical constructs never intended to be put into actual use. “The Cold War wrought a whole bureaucratic culture that had no battlefield reality,” he said. “The Cold War armies were not great armies, because all the decisions were made by generals and politicians. In great armies the job of generals is to back up their sergeants. That’s just my opinion, but I know I’m right.”
In the Russian military calling in an air strike is a decision that no one below a colonel can make. Yet in Wilhelm’s opinion, the Russians have mid-level officers almost as good as those in the U.S. military: the result of combat experience in complex environments like Transdniestria, Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Tajikistan. And because their empire is collapsing, the Russian military today frequently finds itself in combat situations that encourage reform at the lower and middle levels. “I would have followed Colonel [Alexander] Lentsov into combat anywhere,” Wilhelm said, referring to his Russian commander in Bosnia. “On a tactical level we have more in common with the Russians than with a lot of our allies.” And yet the general staff in Moscow remains locked in a Cold War mindset.
In the spring of 1996 Wilhelm left Bosnia. By the fall he was in Tajikistan.”
The Man Who Would Be Khan. Robert D. Kaplan, a portrait of Colonel Tom Wilhelm, currently defense attachÃ© and security-assistance officer at the U.S. embassy in Ulan Bator, and liaison for the military’s Pacific Command (PACOM).