David H. Hackworth
February 22, 1994


Sixty U.S. Senators have asked President Clinton to lift the U.S. arms embargo so the Bosnians can defend their country against stronger Serbian and Croatian forces that have grabbed about 40 percent of their turf.

Sen. Robert Dole, R. Kan., and an equal number of Democratic and Republican colleagues argue that the embargo should be lifted to correct the mismatch.

Bosnia has fought a lopsided battle since the first shots were fired in that three-way civil war. In 1991, when the Yugoslavian Humpty Dumpty fell and the states went their separate ways, Croatians and Bosnian Serbs glommed up the yolk. They cleaned out the former Yugoslavian Army's depots, grabbing the gear to outshoot and outscoot their Bosnian adversaries.

Since then. the World War II-style fighting in the rugged Balkan mountains has seen a Bosnian David with a short-range slingshot fight Croat/Serb Goliaths armed with the most modern weapons. A lessor opponent would have cut and run months ago. Guts, determination and a strong will to survive as a nation have allowed the Bosnian defenders to hang on against incredible odds.

Tanks, airplanes and other modern war-fighting gear will level the killing field eventually and strengthen the Bosnians' ability to defend their turf. But hardware doesn't make an instant army. It could take at least 10 years before Bosnia develops the leaders and technicians able to use high-tech equipment and train skilled teams of warriors to handle the complex details of war-fighting 1990s-style.

The war with Iraq proved once again that gear alone doesn't produce a winner. Just before Desert Storm, the Iraqi army was rated by U.S. intelligence to be world class. Sadden Hussein had sunk over $50 billion into modern equipment. His Soviet-trained leaders and soldiers were combat-experienced after fighting the Iranians for eight years in large formations during difficult maneuvers. Yet the U.S.-led coalition forces decimated their ranks in 100 hours like a bulldozer barreling through a snowbank. The South Vietnamese Army went through the same drill after the United States had spent 25 years and billions of dollars in hardware and training. Tens of thousands of South Vietnamese leaders and technicians trained in the United States, and when they returned to the battlefield they ware further assisted by U.S. trainers and advisors who spoon-fed them in the air, at sea and on the ground. Their equipment was far- superior to that of their Northern foes, but when the going got rough, they flung down their fancy gear and -- like the Iraqis -- raised the white flag.

The problem with providing gear that's more complicated than a tent peg or rifle is that such stuff needs trainers, advisers, teams of technicians on the battlefield and a U.S.- based training package to teach the users what dials to turn and switches to flip. We can't just send missiles and helicopters with a warranty and a do-it-yourself instruction booklet.

But training programs are the joker in the deck. They're the first step to towards taking sides, sucking in their sponsors and upping the ante. This was the case in Vietnam, where, when an adviser got killed, security detachments were dispatched. Then when a security team got zapped, heavier security forces in the form of U.S. combat units were deployed, and before you could say Westmoreland, we were stuck right in the middle of somebody else's quagmire.

As long as there are no strings attached or greedy U.S. arms merchants making a profit, the United States should lift the embargo of Bosnia and provide surplus war- fighting gear at no cost. This could be done by giving the gear to a third country. such as Saudi Arabia, whose army knows the equipment and can provide the training teams and logistical support both in Bosnia and in Saudi.

The senators are right to arm Bosnia. Unlike the Iraqi and South Vietnamese armies, the Bosnian people have the will to fight. But we must remember the lessons of the past, when equipment provided by altruistic lawmakers eventually sunk our nation in an unforgiving swamp.