Which way does the wind blow for Wesley Clark?

WASHINGTON-Not many of those who served with the general who would be president are neutral about him. They either love Gen. Wesley Kanne Clark, or they hate him.

Clark, 59, who graduated first in his class of 579 at West Point in 1966, has shot toward the top of a field of 10 declared candidates for the Democratic nomination for president in just two weeks.

In an informal survey of active-duty and retired general officers, most of whom declined to be quoted by name, the most common descriptions of Clark were “very smart” and “very ambitious.”

At least four said that Clark was the “Courtney Massengale” of their generation, a reference to the anti-hero in one of the most popular novels among soldiers, “Once an Eagle” by Anton Myrer.

Myrer’s hero is Sam Damon, a Nebraska farm boy without the political pull to get into West Point, who earns his battlefield commission in World War II. Damon is a loyal, honest, self-effacing officer whose first thought and lasting love is for his sergeants and soldiers. Damon’s nemesis is Courtney Massengale, a fast-talking, politically connected West Pointer who cares only about his own career.

The book has a cult following among military men; most aspire to be Sam Damon and loathe the Massengales in their midst.

Retired Lt. Gen. Paul Funk said of Clark: “The all important moral force just wasn’t there when he was in command. His greatest asset was the ability to sort out which way the wind was blowing.”

One recently retired general, who used the Massengale descriptive, said of Clark: “He is a bright staff officer who should never have commanded above the captain level. The Republicans will have a field day with this.”

Retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey notes that Clark volunteered for duty in Vietnam after finishing two years at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Clark commanded a company of foot soldiers in the 1st Battalion 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970 and was badly wounded in combat. He earned a Silver Star for valor.

“(He) is probably the most intelligent officer I ever served with,” McCaffrey said. “(He has) great integrity, sound judgment and great kindness in dealing with people. He is a public servant of exceptional character and skill.”

McCaffrey acknowledged that Clark doesn’t fit the mold that most officers traditionally hew to, what he called the “model of courage, simplicity, lack of politics, total downward focus, scheming only to stay out of Washington.” He adds, “Wes does not fit-except for the courage-but he still has been a treasure to the national security process.”

A senior retired general said that Clark’s penchant for going around his bosses eventually got him fired as NATO commander in Europe. “He constantly back-doored the secretary of defense (William Cohen) by going directly to the secretary of state (Madeleine Albright) and the national security adviser (Samuel Berger) to work his agenda, rather than presenting his case directly to his boss.”

The general said Clark’s downfall as NATO commander was hastened by his actions before and during the Kosovo crisis and air war against the Serbs. He said Clark predicted that two days of bombing would bring Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to his knees. The war lasted 73 days.

A retired Air Force general who saw Clark operate in that war said Clark was “an extraordinary micro-manager – he would insert himself into individual cockpits.” He added, “If Wes Clark gets the nomination I swear to God I will call the Republicans and volunteer to form a one-man truth squad and follow him around setting the record straight.”

Another retired Army general said that after Clark, then a lieutenant general, had spent two years on the Joint Staff he went to see the Army chief, Gen. Dennis Reimer, to ask what his next assignment would be. Reimer told Clark the Army had nothing more for him, signaling it was time for him to retire.

Two of Clark’s champions, Defense Secretary William Perry and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili intervened. They engineered the promotion of Clark to four stars and command of U.S. Southern Command in Panama. Clark had survived to fight again.

What the generals who criticize Clark may not understand is that their ideal of a general officer-humble, honest Sam Damon-wouldn’t stand a chance in politics. Wesley K. Clark just might.

Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young.” Readers may write to him at: Knight Ridder Washington Bureau, 700 National Press Building, Washington, D.C. 20045.

(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.