February 17, 2018

Q&A: Gen. Wesley K. Clark

By Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal

Say you’re going to present a series of biographies of American military leaders whose commands significantly affected the course of U.S. history. Say you want it overseen by someone who has both studied and lived military leadership. For its “Great Generals” series, which first published in 2006, Palgrave-Macmillan has looked to Gen. Wesley K. Clark (ret.) as series editor. Formerly NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and a Democratic candidate for president in 2004, Clark took a moment to answer LJ‘s questions as Robert V. Remini’s entry on Andrew Jackson (see review, right) is published. Coming in January 2009 in the series is Steven E. Woodworth on William Tecumseh Sherman.

You have an Oxford degree in philosophy, politics, and economics, and your graduate degree is in military science. What kind of books have you enjoyed reading in your leisure time?

I enjoy reading biographies, history, novels, and science—as well as political books.

Is there one general you find most compelling to study in the full perspective of his life, while there’s another you enjoy studying purely from a military perspective?

I don’t believe, when it comes to generals, that you can separate their lives from their military actions. Command in war draws on the complete personality, and that is expressed through a person’s more complete biography.

Your forewords in this series are always very helpful overviews and assessments. If you were to undertake one of the full biographies, which general would you pick?

I would have wanted to do Andrew Jackson; he had passion, fierce commitment, courage, and luck. Plus, he was driven by an incredible patriotic vision of the country.

In your foreword to Remini’s contribution on Jackson, you write that Jackson today would be considered “a deeply flawed personality.” Is it fair to say that most generals end up with some portion of their legacy questioned, no matter the era or conditions in which they lived?

Probably fair, because no war is ever perfectly fought. You only have to be better than your adversary. Lost battles don’t necessarily mean lost campaigns. Much is due to luck or happenstance.

For our times now, coping with insurgencies and terrorisim, is there a particular historical engagement or general who speaks most to our challenges in your estimation?

Not really, because both forces draw as much on the political as the diplomatic, and the record of generals dealing with these challenges tends to reflect mostly either excessive use of force, downright failure, or inadvertent success due to changing environmental factors.

The U.S. strategy in the Philippines in the early 1900s was roundly condemned, the British made a mess of the Boer War in South Africa, and so on. While the Soviets were succesful against insurgent movements in Eastern Europe post-World War II, outside support was very limited, and Soviet methods would certainly constitute war crimes by today’s standards.