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  •   What's Luck Got to Do With It?

        Bill Arkin
    By William M. Arkin
    Special to
    Monday, September 13, 1999

    Adm. James O. Ellis is the real invisible man. He had ultimate responsibility for the air war against Yugoslavia, but a Lexis-Nexis search finds that he was mentioned in only six stories – none of them in major U.S. newspapers – during the 78-day conflict. Ellis, based in Naples, supervised the NATO operations center and was the direct commander of the U.S. military's "Noble Anvil" joint task force during Operation Allied Force.

    This week, a postwar PowerPoint presentation prepared by Ellis's staff has been winging its way around via e-mail. Entitled "A View From the Top," it is full of the kind of inside baseball that nourishes Beltway policy wonks.

    Most notable is one slide that says: "We were lucky." It is the perfect political outcome: critical yet indeterminate, a conclusion that doesn't commit the sin of actually coming to a conclusion, one that allows all comers to take credit or vie for the spoils.

    Increasing the Odds

    From reading the Ellis briefing, the admiral, like others, is at a loss to explain what exactly brought Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to the negotiating table. Instead of going out on a limb to claim that it was this or that "strategic" target group in Serbia or the now-discredited effort to attack and destroy Yugoslav forces in the south, or some inscrutable strategy of military leadership, or anything, he cites luck.

    ''Luck shouldn't be 'a principle of war for the next commander.' ''
    – Adm. James Ellis

    What are the fiscal and policy implications of luck? More planes and weapons. Better technology. Finer intelligence. Luck shouldn't be "a principle of war for the next commander," Ellis cautions. Luck also doesn't mean that the military evidently has quite enough to muddle through. Nor does luck suggest that maybe the military needs to step back and rethink all of the fundamentals to ensure that the next conflict isn't a crap-shoot. Ellis may have four stars, but he isn't of a high enough rank to counsel that judgment.

    Delete the Luck Slide

    Was it luck? Ellis goes through a predictable laundry list of dangers and interests that are hot in the military: Collateral damage ("every incident is a perceived failure and will be exploited publicly"); bad weather ("all-weather weapons are needed: invest accordingly"); information warfare ("at once a great success ... and perhaps the greatest failure of the war"); platforms, systems, replacement costs ("impacts of this campaign will be felt for years").

    He decries the political decision to rule out a credible threat of ground invasion (read: lighter Army units, better airlift and sealift, more systems to get the services to cooperate better). Yet buried on that same slide is a telling contradiction of the luck thesis. Without a ground force threatening Yugoslavia, Ellis says, "only the enemy could decide the war was over."

    Here is the conundrum. The enemy does decide. Milosevic sought a negotiated outcome because he came to the conclusion that NATO wasn't going to crumble, that the Russians weren't going to save Belgrade, that collateral damage and the bombing of the Chinese Embassy weren't going to end the war. It wasn't what NATO bombed so much as that the bombing did not stop and that it significantly escalated in late May.

    "We called this one absolutely wrong."
    – Adm. James Ellis

    Ellis may lament that "our only sequential plan was to do more of the same ... with more assets," but the reality was that the very deployment of ground forces that Ellis and others think would have been so helpful in bringing more pressure to bear on Milosevic may have caused the alliance consensus to crumble. And that would have happened long before the march on Belgrade.

    "We called this one absolutely wrong," Ellis says, referring to the belief that 72 hours of air attacks would force Milosevic to capitulate. The identities of "we" are never specified. Ellis does admit a series of bad decisions (for which he evidently takes no responsibility), but from his perch at the top, he seems not to understand or cannot admit that, for this conflict, all NATO could do was to have the patience to wait for Milosevic to throw in the towel.

    Delete the Briefing

    Ellis's spokesman says the "View from the Top" is not necessarily in its final form. The e-mail distribution lists, originating at the war colleges, where it has been presented, are a Who's Who of military analysis. It is virtual reality, but, because of its electronic and abbreviated PowerPoint form, could be modified at any time. Are we to conclude, then, that if the briefing proves too controversial, or too candid, or it if doesn't hew to the politically correct consensus, that it is only a keystroke away from deletion?

    The Ellis briefing cautions that many of the new technologies of command – such as the secure video teleconference and the glitzy graphics possible with PowerPoint – are a "voracious consumer of leadership and key staff working hours," subject to misinterpretation and no substitute for "campaign planning and written orders." Said, without a hint of irony, in a PowerPoint briefing.

    William M. Arkin can be reached for comment at

    © Copyright 1999 Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive

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