|From his plebe year at West Point, Wesley K. Clark was always first in his class, a step ahead of his peers. His rise to the top of the U.S. military seemed almost preordained, given his drive, intellect and burning will to win.
But Clark, 58, who was awarded the Purple Heart and Silver Star in Vietnam in 1970 and commanded NATO's air war in Kosovo 29 years later, remains a highly controversial figure within the U.S. military, disliked and mistrusted by many fellow officers.
Supporters and detractors agree on this much: The retired general is immensely talented, possessed of a keen strategic sensibility and the kind of gold-plated military credentials that could make him a formidable candidate in the Democratic race for president.
Clark's intense, emotional personality and his aggressive -- some say abrasive -- command style are likely to be the focus of intense scrutiny as he takes on the biggest challenge of a peripatetic career almost defined by the pursuit of challenge -- a run for the presidency in which his national security credentials will figure large in his potential appeal.
Raised in Little Rock, Clark was the only member of his West Point class selected as a Rhodes scholar to attend Oxford University in England, where he was two years ahead of Bill Clinton. While some of his detractors in the military came to demean him as one of "Clinton's generals," Clark and Clinton were only casual acquaintances when Clark rose to prominence at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration.
As director of policy and plans for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Clark helped negotiate the Dayton peace accords in 1995 that ended the conflict in Bosnia. He led a team the same year that wrote a new national military strategy.
Four years later, having risen to command the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as supreme allied commander Europe, Clark held the fractious, 19-member military alliance together through 78 days of bombing and led NATO to victory, driving Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his Serb forces from the province of Kosovo.
But Clark's hard-charging style, his penchant for dealing directly with the White House and his ceaseless agitation for ground forces during the Kosovo conflict -- over the wishes of Defense Secretary William S. Cohen -- caught up with him a month after the end of the war. In July 2000, while dining with the president of Lithuania in London, Clark was called by Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who curtly informed him that Cohen had decided to ease him out of his NATO command. The call stunned Clark. It meant he would have to leave his NATO post three months earlier than scheduled and without a year's extension, which he had expected.
Clark had clashes outside the administration as well. In the war's immediate aftermath, when a contingent of Russian troops moved quickly into Kosovo and occupied the airfield at Pristina, the provincial capital, a British officer, Lt. Gen. Michael Jackson, refused a direct order from Clark to block the runway so the Russians could not fly in reinforcements.
Clark, who believed additional Russian troops could have led to a confrontation with NATO and possibly jeopardized the nascent allied peacekeeping mission, insisted. But Jackson stood firm, believing the Russians were isolated at the airfield and did not represent a threat. "Sir, I'm not starting World War III for you," Jackson replied.
"I saw the problem in strategic terms," Clark wrote in his 2001 memoir, "Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo and the Future of Combat," noting that he had approval to issue the order from the Pentagon and NATO. "This could be a defining moment for the future of NATO. Would we not be able to conduct our own peacekeeping missions? Would Russia be co-equal with NATO in this operation? Would Russia get its way by deception and bluff or by negotiation and compromise? Would we have an effective operation or another weak U.N.-type force?"
Much later, after retiring from active duty in 2000, Clark allowed as how he had had only two bad days in 38 years of service: the day he was shot in the hand, shoulder, leg and hip on patrol north of Saigon, and the day Shelton called him to say he would have to retire early.
"For me the [Kosovo] war was professional, but it was also personal," Clark wrote. "It drew on the experience and insights of my full 37 years of military service; it placed heavy demands on character and stamina, and it strained my relations with some American colleagues."
Clark saw Cohen and the Joint Chiefs as overly cautious in their opposition to the use of ground troops or Apache helicopters in Kosovo, which he advocated as options to force Milosevic to capitulate as his Serb forces proved skilled at surviving NATO bombing from 15,000 feet. At least one member of the Joint Chiefs, Clark wrote, "was almost looking for reasons why the ground attack in Kosovo would not work rather than how to make it work."
And his ease at interacting directly with civilians "across the river" at the White House only made things worse. "Some in the Pentagon had worked for two years to restrict my interactions within the broader U.S. government for reasons that were never entirely clear," he wrote.
One retired four-star general, who knows Clark well and represents a sentiment expressed by a number of his peers, said he fully understood Clark's ultimate clash with Cohen, Shelton and, particularly, the leadership of the Army.
"The guy is brilliant," said the general, who agreed to speak candidly about Clark only if his name were not used. "He's very articulate, he's extremely charming, he has the best strategic sense of anybody I have ever met. But the simple fact is, a lot of people just don't trust his ability" as a commander.
While his strategic analysis is "almost infallible," his command solutions tended to be problematic, even "goofy," the general said, "and he pushed them even when they weren't going to work."
The general said Clark "needs to win, right down to the core of his fiber," which tends to make him "highly manipulative."
"There are an awful lot of people," added another retired four-star, who also requested anonymity, "who believe Wes will tell anybody what they want to hear and tell somebody the exact opposite five minutes later. The people who have worked closely with him are the least complimentary, because he can be very abrasive, very domineering. And part of what you saw when he was relieved of command was all of the broken glass and broken china within the European alliance and the [U.S.] European Command."
Clark's many supporters inside and outside the military dispute the contention voiced by critics that his ambition and drive to come out on top made him untrustworthy in the eyes of his peers.
"I have watched him at close range for 35 years, in which I have looked at the allegation, and I found it totally unsupported," said retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, who taught with Clark at West Point in the 1970s. "That's not to say he isn't ambitious and quick. He is probably among the top five most talented I've met in my life. I think he is a national treasure who has a lot to offer the country."
McCaffrey acknowledges that Clark was not the most popular four-star general in the Army leadership. "This is no insult to Army culture, a culture I love and admire," McCaffrey said, "but he was way too bright, way too articulate, way too good looking and perceived to be way too wired to fit in with our culture. He was not one of the good ol' boys."
One fellow cadet at West Point said there is a photograph on the credenza behind the sofa in Clark's living room. It shows Clark, as a West Point cadet, standing next to retired Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs under President John F. Kennedy, and peering out across the academy's storied campus.
"It gives you a sense of where Wes saw himself going," recalled the classmate, who is also retired from the Army. "There are people who are put off by the silver spoon in his mouth, which he uses, and those who say it was unavoidable, because the big guys couldn't resist him."
One was William J. Perry, who as deputy defense secretary first encountered Clark in 1994 when he was a three-star general on the Joint Staff. "I was enormously impressed by him," said Perry, a mathematician and legendary Pentagon technologist who later served as secretary of defense under Clinton.
Perry was so impressed, in fact, that with Clark facing retirement unless a four-star job could be found for him, Perry overrode the Army and insisted that Clark be appointed head of the U.S. Southern Command, one of the military's powerful regional commanders in chief, or CINCs. "I was never sorry for that appointment," Perry said.
A year later, Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs who held a similar view of Clark, overrode the Army once again and made sure Clark became supreme allied commander Europe, traditionally the most powerful CINC, with command of all U.S. and NATO forces on the continent.
Army Col. Douglas Macgregor is thankful he did. An author and strategist who has also had his fights with the Army brass, Macgregor said he will forever be indebted to Clark for taking a chance and naming him as director of planning at NATO headquarters in Belgium in 1997.
"There is this aspect of his character -- he is loyal to people he knows are capable and competent," Macgregor said. "As for his peers, it's a function of jealousy and envy, and it's a case of misunderstanding. General Clark is an intense person, he's passionate, and certainly the military is suspicious of people who are intense and passionate. He is a complex man who does not lend himself to simplistic formulations. But he is very competent, and devoted to the country."