Updated: 06-Aug-2001 NATO Review

Web edition
Vol. 49 - No. 2
Summer 2001
p. 16-20


Can soldiers be peacekeepers and warriors?

Bill Nash is a retired US major general and director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Center for Preventive Action, who was formerly UN regional administrator in northern Kosovo and commander of the first US division to deploy in the Balkans.
John Hillen is the chief operating officer of Island ECN Inc and a former US Army officer who has published widely on international security and was a consultant to the Bush campaign during the last US presidential election.

Dear John,

We have needed this discussion about war-fighting and peacekeeping for some time and I am pleased we have finally found the time. I first had to come to grips with the relationship between peacekeeping, warfighting readiness and associated issues as my division prepared to go to Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) in autumn 1995. The success we enjoyed in Bosnia and upon our return to Germany a year later convinced me that our approach to peacekeeping was largely responsible for not only mission success, but also for our rapid recovery to a priori war-fighting readiness standards. I have three major points.

As commander of the 1st Armoured Division, I was determined to ensure that my forces would not be compromised in the way that the UN force preceding us had been. We therefore, took on a war-fighter's attitude as we approached the mission in Bosnia. The standard, as stated in the first sentence of my commander's intent, was that we would, at all times, present ourselves as "tough, disciplined, competent, professional" soldiers. In the first 60 days of the mission, I must have used that expression 50 times a day on average. And I think it worked. This is the first key to maintaining a warfighting capacity while on a peacekeeping mission.

With that appropriate mind-set, we then concentrated on "doing things right" and on integrating training into our day-to-day operations. By the former, I mean we instilled and enforced the routine field-craft skills and troop-leading procedures in everyday operations. Daily maintenance work, pre-combat checks and rehearsals were standard. Junior leaders became proficient in giving operations orders and in ensuring their outfit's ability to execute the day's mission. Staff coordination, horizontally and vertically, was carried out daily with painstaking attention to detail.

With respect to training, we established garrison-type training briefings and programming within 90 days of arriving in theatre. We built ranges and training facilities and fired all our weapons on a routine basis in Bosnia, and our tank and Bradley crews used Hungarian ranges on a rotation basis of one company a week. We even set up tank and Bradley proficiency courses for laser-training systems in conjunction with our observation points, which we used to monitor the military movements of local forces. We wanted them to see us practising for combat.

The third key was a re-deployment and post-deployment training plan for our return to Germany. How we got home and what we did in the immediate months after our return had a significant impact on how quickly we were ready to go again — for any mission. Our re-deployment plan called for spending four to six days in our intermediate staging base in Hungary. There, we did everything from issuing new uniforms and turning in excess equipment, parts and vehicles, through medical and dental checks, to firing exercises for our tank and infantry platoons. The time in Hungary saved our soldiers weeks of effort back at home station.

We took on a war-fighter's attitude as we approached the mission in Bosnia

Our training plan after our return began with a well-deserved leave period for the soldiers. This investment of approximately 45 days per battalion directly contributed to an extremely positive attitude on the part of the soldiers and their families for the work that was ahead of us. This quality-of-life issue cannot be overlooked, as we seek ways to deal with the military requirements of today and tomorrow.

Our training plan focused on those skills we had not worked on in Bosnia, such as deep attack and counter-reconnaissance planning and execution. Overall, we found that the improvements gained in diff icult battle staff and command skills while in Bosnia far outweighed any losses in specific war-fighting tasks while deployed for peacekeeping. Indeed, one senior commander commented after our Fort Leavenworth Battle Command Training Program exercise, which took place about 90 days after the division arrived home, that, in many ways, the 1st Armoured Division was better trained after Bosnia than some of the divisions returning from Desert Storm. Regardless, there is no doubt in my mind that we were a much more capable, fighting division after Bosnia than we were when we went there.

As we look to overall lessons from this experience, I must note two important facts. First, almost the entire division deployed together to Bosnia. We were therefore able to maintain unit integrity far more than any unit since the 1995 and 1996 period. The benefits of unit cohesion to long-term readiness are most significant, maybe critical. The second fact, sad to say, is that by the end of summer 1997, the division had experienced between 70 and 80 per cent turnover in generals, colonels and lieutenant-colonels to include all brigade commanders. That is no way to maintain readiness.

Well, John, I'm interested in your views and I've held back a little ammunition for the expected counterattack.


Dear Bill,

First of all, let me say I'm thrilled to debate these important issues with a man for whom I have so much respect — as a warrior, a diplomat and a thoughtful foreign-policy analyst.

I am no enemy of peacekeeping or other peace-support operations. In fact, in my book on the history of UN peacekeeping, I analysed almost 50 different missions and came to appreciate the enormous challenges of these endeavours as well as their contribution to international peace and security. And, like you, while in uniform I fought in wars and served in peacekeeping missions, so I've seen both sides of the coin.

Moreover, and it may surprise some, I think US forces should be involved in multinational peacekeeping. But for me, and for the work I did with the Bush presidential campaign, the question turns on the scale of the US commitment to peacekeeping operations and the opportunity costs inherent in those commitments.

My opposition is to the long-term, protracted commitment of US combat troops to multinational peacekeeping

My opposition is to the long-term and protracted commitment of US combat troops to multinational peacekeeping. I think the United States should be involved over the long term with support troops or reservists, and I think front-line US combat forces can play a key role only for short periods of time. From my perspective, National Security Adviser Condolezza Rice's famous line about the illogic of 82nd Airborne paratroopers (one of my old units) taking schoolchildren to class is rooted in three broad arguments that I hope to examine in greater detail throughout this debate.

First, there is the geopolitical argument about what role the United States military should play — vis--vis its allies and partners — in international security affairs. My argument that "superpowers don't do windows" recognises that since almost all international security missions in which the United States is involved are cooperative and "team-based", an important role for the leader of the team is to match roles and responsibilities to interests and capabilities. Given the enormous gulf in military capabilities between the United States and its European Allies in particular, I believe that NATO best serves its many different security roles (not just peacekeeping in Europe) by playing to the core competencies of its members. For the United States — and the United States alone — that is large-scale war-fighting. For every other Ally, it is much smaller missions and mostly peace-support operations.

What is gained in an operational environment more than compensates for the specific skill levels that may be degraded, and those skills are generally more easily recovered

Second, there is the practical impact of protracted US peacekeeping efforts on the rest of US military strategy. Unlike most NATO Allies, the United States has demanding security commitments throughout the world. While the United Kingdom commits war-fighting forces to allied missions such as the continued deterrence of Iraq, for the most part the United States is alone in guaranteeing that no hostile power can dominate East Asia or the Gulf region. Moreover, missions like these require highly trained combat troops and the full suite of American air, naval, and ground power — fully committed and trained around the clock for the stresses and challenges of war (which usually come with no notice!).

I would also offer that these are the missions in which the United States — and the Alliance — cannot afford to fail. As my book on UN peacekeeping showed, a great power can afford to muck up, muddle through, or even fail in a peacekeeping mission without a lasting impact on the international security system. However, if the United States and its Allies lose or even draw in a significant conflict (such as the Gulf War), the entire structure of the international arena can be shifted and changed for the worse. Even in this politically correct age, we must admit that some missions simply matter more than others.

Your initial comments mainly address the third factor, whether US soldiers can be trained to do peacekeeping and war-fighting equally well and almost interchangeably. My friend Professor Charles Moskos is noted for the line that: "Peacekeeping is not a soldier's job, but only a soldier can do it." That seems to capture the conundrum very well. There is no doubt that well-trained and disciplined soldiers can, with the right kind of transitional training, make very good peacekeepers. But I have my suspicions (and some evidence) about the ability of soldiers deeply involved in peacekeeping to then turn around with little or no notice and be at the top of their game in the complex and sophisticated business of three-dimensional war-fighting.

I will go into this in greater detail later in the debate, but the point I'd make now is that your absolutely heroic and admirable training efforts in Bosnia were geared towards this very phenomenon — one that is stretching US forces very thin. This is the need to have our peacekeepers ready at the drop of a hat to transition immediately to war-fighting. Studies on this have been done by various government agencies and research institutes and they all point to the fact that — simply because no institution can be equally good at two very different tasks — there is some degradation of combat capabilities among long-term peacekeepers.

The question for us here is: how much of the degradation risk is worth taking for the United States?


Dear John,

I will address your three points in reverse order. I agree that there can be "some degradation of combat capabilities among long-term peacekeepers". But the same unit does not stay long term. Tours are normally six to twelve months and that is not a particularly long time. Even with an additional three to six months of preparatory training, the effects are not overly debilitating. The key point is that what is gained in an operational environment more than compensates for the specific skill levels that may be degraded, and those skills are generally more easily and quickly recovered. The US military have far more readiness problems from other sources than from the relatively small impact resulting from peacekeeping missions.

But the long-term issues related to interventions that you raise need to be addressed. Here, we are talking not so much about peacekeeping as about peace-building. I believe this effort goes beyond the competencies of and proper role for military forces and enters the realm of civilian implementation in peace operations. The absence of civilian capabilities diverts the military and engages them in activities beyond what is appropriate. Until the civilian component of these peace operations receives the same relative priority in personnel and resource allocation as the military component, we will never achieve our foreign-policy goals. In my judgement, we spend far too much time talking about the military issues and too little analysing the political, economic, social and broader security problems that must be resolved to finish the task started by our intervention.

As to your first point, I would make a few observations. The comment about "windows" is clever, but not helpful. Leaders must always share the deprivations and risks, political and physical, with their followers. Matching competencies with missions is logical, but consensus must be built rather than demanded. We must never forget the difference between leadership and autocracy.


Dear Bill,

We seem to diverge not on principle but on subjective issues of scale. For instance, we agree that long-term peacekeeping by combat units necessarily degrades combat capabilities but disagree on where and when degradation becomes debilitating. Similarly, we agree that NATO Allies have different interests and capabilities but disagree on the extent to which the United States should replicate the capabilities of its Allies in smaller missions of collective security. Let me explain my position on both these fronts.

We never know when the degradation of combat capabilities is debilitating until it is too late. In May 1950, when the Korean peninsula was at peace, the fact that the combat training of US occupation forces in Japan and Korea was not razor-sharp did not seem debilitating. A month later, however, on 25 June, the North Korean invasion and the subsequent routing of US occupation forces changed attitudes in a hurry.

Many events that could require a US force ready for combat could come as a surprise. There may not be time to recover from peacekeeping missions and train up for combat. Let us be frank. No Ally has the global responsibilities of the United States, which could be called on to respond immediately to serious security contingencies. It would be foolish to risk the lives of US soldiers due to diminished combat readiness and sacrifice the unique and decisive capabilities of the US military simply to replicate the talents of our Allies in peacekeeping missions that are ultimately less important to world security.

This leads us to the second point of disagreement: the role the United States should play as NATO's leader in these smaller missions. Even in a diplomatic atmosphere that insists on the veneer of egalitarianism, the United States should not pretend that leadership is simply doing what everyone else is doing. It is true that leaders must share risks and burdens but, as our European Allies themselves lament, they are increasingly incapable of sharing the risks and burdens in missions that profoundly affect global security.


We have all grown very Balkan-centric these days but someone in NATO has to keep an eye on the rest of the globe

We have all grown very Balkan-centric these days but someone in NATO has to keep an eye on the rest of the globe. That someone is obviously the United States. Why use a combat unit that may have to respond within days to a situation like the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 (as the 82nd Airborne did) for jobs that any other Ally could do with paramilitary reservists? That might be good therapy for the Alliance but would be bad security for the world. The Alliance is not an end in itself, it is merely the means to greater security in Europe and elsewhere. We should therefore think twice before elevating short-term solidarity over long-term security.

I am all for US military participation in NATO-led peacekeeping missions but against the long-term and protracted deployment of US combat forces in such missions. History shows that we could all live to regret that.


Dear John,

It would seem that we have indeed found convergence, if not agreement, on the question at hand: soldiers can be peacekeepers and warriors. You just don't want US soldiers to do it for very long.

You are too much of an historian to use May 1950 as evidence that peacekeeping in 2001 is bad for American combat readiness. The two plus US Army divisions that were deployed early to Korea in June 1950 were the products of nearly five years of occupation duty in Japan where their manning, equipping and training were anything except combat focused. It was a different time, a different world and certainly a different US Army.

Leaders must always share the deprivations and risks with their followers

I accept reasonable debate on the degree to which US forces should be a part of long-term peacekeeping missions and, as I told you in my last letter, I think the real long-term concerns are more civilian in nature than military. The use of reserve formations as these missions are extended makes a lot of sense. But the readiness impacts are really marginal and we should not hide behind frivolous reasons, when there are so many real causes for readiness shortfalls that need to be addressed in order for us to be capable of fulfilling our worldwide responsibilities. We have fewer than 10,000 soldiers committed in the Balkans, many of whom are reservists. If we're called to combat elsewhere, this small number being diverted to a greater good will not risk victory or the survival of the United States.

Lastly, I suggest that we need to ensure a broadly based coalition of friends and allies as we prepare ourselves for the security challenges of the 21st century. Charges of American arrogance or exceptionalism, whether real or perceived, will not help us in our endeavours and will more likely than not detract from the security we seek. Going it alone will not be a successful long-term strategy.


Dear Bill,

Your points are well made and well taken. We agree that US combat soldiers can do peacekeeping as well as war-fighting, especially in NATO or other collective security missions. Moreover, you make a great point about reserve forces. The use of US reserve forces in these missions — a pattern many of our Allies already follow — is a positive development but it will not be without its consequences in the United States, where the reserve force structure and "covenant" will need to be retooled as both were built for the Cold War.

I firmly believe, however, that peacekeeping should be a secondary competency for US combat troops. The example of Korea in 1950 is not meant to be an exact historical analogy but was used simply to point out a pattern in history: 1) Bad things happen to good nations; 2) It is usually a surprise; and 3) The situation is painful to turn around if some nation or group of nations is not prepared to combat aggression from day one. The First and Second World Wars, Korea, the Gulf, ... you name it, they fit the pattern.

These are the missions in which the United States simply cannot afford to fail. Failure in these sorts of situations has more serious and far-reaching consequences than in the protracted and largely unsolvable internecine conflicts that characterise peacekeeping missions today. A little geopolitical reality is needed. These contingencies for which the United States alone is prepared are not necessarily situations that threaten our survival. That is a caricature of the argument. They are, quite simply, security threats that require the deployment and possible use of a fair amount of combat forces with little or no notice.

Few remember Haiti or Somalia today, though we were obsessed with their importance in the early 1990s. Yet, we would be constantly reminded of Saddam Hussein today, if he were occupying Kuwait and had Saudi Arabia under his thrall. To say that peacekeeping matters more than those sorts of security threats is therapeutic, but deeply unrealistic.

Only one NATO Ally has the stealth technology, precision munitions, large aircraft carriers, strategic airlift, satellites, large-scale deployable logistics packages, etc. Yet, at the same time, there are many nations with experienced peacekeepers, paramilitary police, civilian reconstruction experts and the like. Why dull the one true sword by using it along with the other ploughs?

There are mission in which the United States simply cannot afford to fail

Once again, I am only referring to the long-term deployment of US combat troops in Allied peacekeeping operations. We all know that the United States needs to be heavily involved in almost every other aspect (intelligence, support, logistics, transportation, etc.) of any NATO mission, or it simply would not happen. US dominance of the 1999 Kosovo air campaign is a case in point. It is by default, not by choice, that the United States will find itself going it alone in other security missions of greater consequence. Other Allies have by their own admission failed to retool their forces for combat missions outside Europe.

Someone in the Alliance needs to be able to respond to contingencies with well-trained combat forces. It makes for poor leadership for the US military to be deployed as if it were simply a large constabulary force for the sake of Alliance solidarity. As leadership guru Peter Drucker reminds us, leaders lead because of their unique knowledge and competencies, they do not lead by simply trying to replicate the skills of their followers.


For a European perspective on peacekeeping,
see also the views of General Sir Rupert Smith on pages 24 and 25