The Indianapolis News
April 23, 1999
Alan W. Dowd
As NATO enters its second month of bombing in Yugoslavia, two predominant views have emerged about the Battle for Kosovo.
One view holds that NATO cannot win, and in fact may already have lost this war. The other view is that NATO can and must win.
If nothing else, this striking divergence of opinion illustrates that the Atlantic Alliance stands at its moment of truth: The tiny enclave of Kosovo will become either NATO’s Waterloo, where it reached too far and failed, or its Sicily, where it took a stand and took some licks but succeeded.
The Battle of Waterloo began on June 18, 1815, as Napoleon launched a preemptive attack on British, Dutch, and Prussian forces based in Belgium (not far from NATO’s home of Brussels). The French emperor hoped to divide and cripple the allies before they could concentrate their forces.
Acting too quickly, risking too much, and reaching too far, Napoleon’s forces were routed in just three days. His vaunted and feared Imperial Guard was crushed. The defeat was so total, so rapid, so surprising in its completeness, that the anonymous town of Waterloo, which even today is not found on most maps, became synonymous with disappointment and debacle.
There is a real possibility that NATO will suffer the same fate in Kosovo.
A hamstrung air campaign, even a long one, may not dislodge Milosevic from Kosovo. If NATO sues for a false peace after a failed air war, and Kosovo goes the way of Bosnia––ethnically partitioned, bled of its youngest and strongest, vanquished by Belgrade and occupied by Brussels––then Milosevic will indeed win. And NATO will be his final victim.
Whether or not NATO would cease to exist in name after losing Kosovo is debatable. But the back-stabbing and finger-pointing following such a defeat in the Balkans would ensure that the Alliance would cease to exist in practice. With Kosovo partitioned or conquered, and NATO riven by its own failure, the chances of the Alliance again becoming a viable force in European security would be remote.
It would be a grim irony of history if Serbian militiamen were able to do what the Red Army never even attempted: defeat the Atlantic Alliance in battle.
However, that outcome is not pre-determined. A slow start does not translate into defeat, especially when conducting war by committee. While NATO’s political leaders are learning this, NATO’s generals know it. They know that the best historical parallel for the Battle of Kosovo is not Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, but the Allies’ victory at Sicily in World War II.
On July 10, 1943, Allied forces opened up a second front in Europe by launching a massive invasion of Sicily. Backed by a vast naval and air armada, 450,000 British and American troops squared-off against just 60,000 Germans, who were hampered by mass desertions within the Fascist Italian Army. Yet, the Nazis held the island for over a month, creating nearly 20,000 Allied casualties.
The reasons for the Germany’s success in Sicily are numerous and obvious.
Allied troops were under multiple commands, which were spread across Africa and the Mediterranean. Hundreds of paratroopers drowned or were gunned down by friendly fire. Those who survived were dazed and dispersed miles from their target landing zones, rendering them combat-ineffective.
The Allies failed to coordinate air attacks, thus limiting their effectiveness and leaving ground forces exposed. Naval guns were fired haphazardly, diluting their power.
General Omar Bradley would later say of the invasion: "Seldom in war has a major operation been undertaken in such a fog of indecision, confusion, and conflicting plans." (Sounds familiar.)
Allied generals squabbled over timing, strategy, who was in charge, and who was to blame. But they never disagreed on the objective. After thirty-eight days, the Allies liberated Sicily, paving the way for the invasions of Italy and France, the defeat of Hitler, the eventual liberation of Europe, and the end of the war. But that would be two years away.
The invasion of Sicily was not perfect, but as one World War II chronicler wrote, "If nothing else, it demonstrated that there was homework to be done." What the Allies learned in Sicily was critical to their success at Normandy. It wasn’t easy, but they won the battle. And then they won the war.
The same will happen in Kosovo, if the NATO allies forget about the slow start and focus on the finish.
The strangulation of Kosovo may not have been preventable. We now know that Milosevic’s hideous plans for his southern province were put in motion in the fall of 1998. However, the ethnic cleansing is reversible. Kosovo can be rebuilt, and most of its people––those who haven’t died in Milosevic’s mortar attacks, forced migration, or man-made famine––can return, but only if NATO now summons the will to win.
Trying and failing just isn’t good enough.
NATO does not have to suffer the fate of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard. Like their predecessors at Sicily, the NATO nations can win this battle. And if they remain united on the objective, NATO’s nineteen members can win the war against ethnic cleansing, thuggery, and brutality, which Hitler and Milosevic waged during the 20th century, and their imitators will wage deep into the next.