They always say war is hell.
And so is peacekeeping.
And so is negotiating.
And so is dealing with geopolitical dysfunction on the macro and micro stage.
All these issues/problems/insanities are fodder for retired Major-General Lewis MacKenzie’s partial biography and partial treatise Peacekeeper: The Road To Sarajevo. A story that still has relevance today. Unfortunately.
MacKenzie came to prominence in the media with his role in the Balkan War in the early 1990’s, and this time of his life is the main chunk of the book, but the General starts at the beginning for him.
Not many details are given of MacKenzie’s upbringing or family or marriage or daughter, which is really not the focus of this book. With an almost laser like focus, he gives concise details of his joining the Canadian military, his training, and progression up the ranks.
And with MacKenzie’s rise, he also chronicles all of his United Nations Peacekeeping missions. The creation of late former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, the UN Peacekeepers are somewhat like a army for the world, but to help trouble spots remain calm and maybe help heal the rifts.
The General tells of missions for the UN in the 1960’s and 1970’s and 1980’s that each take place in different places across the globe, and each come with different challenges. The island of Cyprus, which he goes to twice in his career, is showcased with its political and racial problems, and how the Peacekeepers have to deal with all sides. Some moments are tense and at least once they prevent a big bloody battle.
MacKenzie keeps plugging away with the tales, quite often painting a portrait of military life in Canada and abroad full of fun and foibles, while still making sure we know of the importance of what they do. Sometimes drips of danger are inserted into humorist stories, all because that is simply the way that happened.
But very soon we reach the main meat and pinnacle of MacKenzie’s career. The former Yugoslavia. He is put in charge of one of the sectors of the country that was falling apart politically and being ripped apart by racial tensions stirred up by government leaders. And, no matter how many times, and how plainly MacKenzie describes it, understanding the clustersmush of what happened to Yugoslavia and who was responsible for what and the massive atrocities committed, is very very difficult. Despite their protests, it is obvious all sides have guilty hands, something MacKenzie makes clear. Now back to the UN, who against the Peacekeepers wishes put the soldiers headquarters in the city of Sarajevo. Right before the city explodes with violence and shelling and snipers.
MacKenzie and his soldiers and civilian support staff are plopped into this mess. They have a lack of pay, supplies, support at the UN, proper facilities, and completely no faith in the local political leaders. As the undeclared civil war rages on, terrible things occur all over, and MacKenzie desperately tries to broker major and minor deals, all to try and stem the carnage and save lives.
At one point the General realizes that getting the Sarajevo airport reopened for humanitarian supplies would be extremely helpful. And at that point MacKenzie also realizes the massively huge problems even this simple action will cause.
Different sides constantly attack the other, and use the Peacekeepers quite often as human shields. Every ceasefire brokered by MacKenzie, hoping to use the time to get the airport up and running, falls apart at superspeed. And every side blames the other. Media games and staged injuries keep popping up with rapid regularity, driving MacKenzie to distraction. Eventually he has to lay down the law to these so called leaders, who either claim they have no idea what his is talking about, or almost admit they have little control of some of their soldiers in the field. One government official is shown to be a sniveling lying coward, and the sneaking suspicion he is behind the smears on MacKenzie is never confirmed.
When the airport, against all luck and logic finally reopens, it also signals the start of the end of MacKenzie’s time in what’s left of Yugoslavia. And when comments MacKenzie made to the press about the war hit the UN, his time was up. The “scandalous” comment? This:
“Because I can’t keep the two side from firing on their own positions for the benefit of CNN. If I could get them to stop, perhaps we could have a real ceasefire.”
MacKenzie manages to delay his departure to his own timing, than comes back to Canada greeted as a hero.
The General talks very openly all throughout Peacekeeper of the bureaucracy and what seems like strange political decisions that the UN indulges in. His last chapter gives a very frank and brutal assessment of the problems facing Peacekeeping in general, including the lack of planning and central organization of the this arm of the UN.
Since the book has come out, waaaay back in 1993, and yes I have had it this long, MacKenzie has since tried to enter federal politics but did not get elected. These days he is enjoying his retirement, racing cars like he has for decades, and doing media interviews.
MacKenzie has been through many things, party for the adrenaline rush, but mostly because he thought he could make a difference. And as Peacekeeper aptly shows, MacKenzie did.
…is currently reading Pitouie by Derek Winkler, as recommended by Ainslie Keith
P.S. For another interesting look at the Canadian military and the people involved in all areas of the service, check out Mike Lacroix and his Canadian Military History Podcast. It is fascinating and can be found here.