Douglas & McIntyre
Soldiers Made Me Look Good

Book details:

September 2008
ISBN 978-1-55365-350-9
6" x 9"
272 pages
16 b&w photographs
Current Affairs
Biography & Autobiography / Biography
$32.95 CAD

Douglas & McIntyre

Soldiers Made Me Look Good

A Life in the Shadow of War

Excerpt / Additional Content


Chapter 20: Off's Fox

In 1999 I received a call from Carol Off, the award-winning CBC reporter whose documentary work I had much admired. She explained that she had been contracted to write a book about the Canadian judge Louise Arbour, soon to be appointed a Supreme Court justice and since 1996 the chief prosecutor for the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. The more Off researched the madness of Bosnia and Rwanda—the dual focus of Louise Arbour’s efforts during her tenure at The Hague—the more she realized the critical involvement of General Roméo Dallaire in Rwanda and yours truly in Bosnia. She requested, and I agreed to, an interview.

Having read my book Peacekeeper, Off was well prepared for the interview and merely sought clarification and elaboration regarding some of the more interesting events that occurred during my six months in Sarajevo. Whenever there was a discrepancy between her research and my recollection of events, I offered her my daily diary and the names of non-Canadian members of UNPROFOR who had been witnesses to those events. I had served many years on peacekeeping duty in areas where not all the locals appreciated the UN’s usually inadequate response to their crisis. They were therefore inclined to accuse the peacekeepers of bias and worse, so I always made sure that I was accompanied by some soldiers from other nations to serve as less-biased witnesses in dealing with any fabricated accusations. I explained to Off that she should not take my word where there were discrepancies in specific details, but rather that she should track down other, more unbiased witnesses. God knows there were enough of them.

At the end of the first interview, she was charming. She complimented my wife, Dora, on our home and promised to revisit when she had done more research. Months later, the second interview ventured into the sensitive subject of the allegations made against me by a prosecutor in Sarajevo. In brief, the prosecutor claimed that I had regularly visited a café in the Serb-held area of Sarajevo where captured Muslim girls served Serbian officers; that I took away young Muslim women, presumably for sexual favours, and that they were subsequently found murdered. I methodically explained that I had never been to that area of Sarajevo because there was no reason for me to do so. I explained that if I had done so, many of the international media hovering around my headquarters—reporters who tagged on to my every move—would have followed me there and filmed the entire event.

I also suggested to Off that she interview members of my staff from Egypt, Finland, Russia and the Palestine Authority for confirmation because I never went anywhere alone in the city. Once again, I offered my diary as evidence of my daily activities. Just before her book was published, Carol Off came to visit me at my home in Bracebridge and thanked me for my candid response to her questions during the interviews. As she was entering her car to leave, she said, over her shoulder, “I think you were really on the wrong side of history.” Little did I realize at the time how far on the wrong side she thought I was.

The Lion, the Fox and the Eagle hit the bookstores in November 2000. Of course I read the section focusing on me first. Riddled with disparaging innuendo, peppered with snide comments and a single-sided version of events, “The Fox” section read like it had been lifted from the professional propaganda that the Bosnian government had commissioned since the earliest days of the Bosnian war. I immediately considered suing for libel. I worked my way through the entire 112 pages of “The Fox,” highlighting the factual errors, and took the result to a friend who held one of the most senior judicial appointments in the country.

His advice was succinct: “Lew, you can sue and probably win, but you will undoubtedly sell at least 30,000 books for her, which is probably exactly what her publisher wants.” He went on to say, “You know, people who weren’t keen on you before they read the book won’t change their minds, and people who thought you were a pretty good guy—and I venture to say that they are the majority—won’t change their minds either.”

The last bit of advice turned out to be true. People would bring the book to my door and ask me to autograph it. I would say, “You know, I’m thinking of suing her.” The usual response was “Oh, we didn’t know it was negative, we bought it for our (fill in the blank). He’s a big fan.” I always signed, “All the best—Lew MacKenzie, under protest!”

The most disturbing aspect of Carol Off’s book was the naive notion that the war could have ended more quickly if only those of us representing the UN in Sarajevo, led by me, had acted differently. The fact that the UN Security Council had not adjusted to the post–Cold War world (and, in many ways, still hasn’t) and that it continued to hold to the idea that the presence of lightly armed, impartial UN soldiers could keep the lid on a three-sided civil war was ignored by Off. She believed that if I had only condemned the Serbs as the aggressors and highlighted the Bosnian, primarily Muslim, population as the victims, the international community would have shown up like the U.S. 7th Calvary and ended the killing. I am tempted to add: “Just like they have in Darfur over the past four years?”

This miserable reality was even recognized by Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic. After a few days of him accusing me of meeting too often with his enemy—the “Serb aggressors”—at their headquarters on the outskirts of Sarajevo, I replied in frustration: “OK, Mr. President, I’m the only one in your country meeting with the Bosnian Serb leadership, and I’m doing so with the same frequency as I’m meeting with you. I’m trying to arrange a lasting ceasefire, and so far it’s usually your side that keeps breaking the agreement first. But I’ll tell you what; I’ll break off all contact with the Bosnian Serb leadership, stay in my headquarters down the road and only represent your case to the UN, OK?”

“No!” he said. “The Serb artillery will wipe us off the map if they have free rein!”

I replied, “That’s my point, Mr. President. The international community is not going to come to the rescue of Bosnia. The international leaders that really matter have decided that the fourteen-thousand-man UN force currently in the entire former Yugoslavia is enough. You and I know it’s not. Before the war, you asked for ten thousand, just here in Sarajevo, to stop the war from starting. I’m afraid the fewer than one thousand I have with me is all you are going to get, and that means I have to maintain a working relationship with the Serbs or they will wipe you and your people off the map.

Off seems to think that if I had used my “macho,” “posterboy,” “media super-star” bully pulpit to condemn only the Serbs for their actions in a three-sided civil war, then President George Bush Sr., Prime Minister John Major, President François Mitterrand and the rest would have launched their forces in our direction, defeated the Serbs and pacified Bosnia. This is dreaming in Technicolor. When you are in charge and faced with both a moral and practical dilemma, you come up with the best plan possible to save the most lives. Taking sides in Bosnia in 1992 would have been an unmitigated disaster. It would have seen the withdrawal of the UN force under fire, the abandonment of Sarajevo and the elimination of Bosnia as a country after less then four months of existence.

Carol Off’s ideas about what might have been done differently and better by those of us in Sarajevo during the summer of 1992 might have more credibility if her analysis was not riddled with a multitude of factual errors—some serious, others less so, but in total they revealed bias and superficial research. A good example of the many serious errors of fact reflecting badly on both me and my soldiers is her comment about the aid that arrived daily at the Sarajevo airport once the airport was opened for the UN’s humanitarian lift. She writes, “A high proportion of the goods entering Sarajevo went straight to the Bosnian Serb army, and there was nothing aid organizations could do about it. Once the supplies were inside the besieged city, it was the turn of the Bosnian army to pick through them for what they needed. Civilians came last.” In fact—and this is not a secret—each and every aid flight was met and inspected by a team from my command consisting of UN officers, members of our UN civilian police, including members of the RCMP, un High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) personnel and, most importantly, officials from both the Bosniak and Bosnian Serb aid organizations. This was absolutely necessary to counter the inevitable accusations from both sides that their enemies were smuggling in weapons and ammunition on our UN aid flights. The aid was then loaded onto UN trucks, and the overwhelming majority of it—well over ninety per cent—was escorted by the Canadian battle group to food distribution points in the Bosniak area of downtown Sarajevo, where it was turned over to the appropriate local aid agency.

Absolutely none of the aid went to the Bosnian Serb army. After it left our hands, most of the aid did not go to the Bosniak army either, as suggested by Off; it ended up on the black market, presumably lining the pockets of those local Bosnian officials in charge. This was a constant source of frustration to my soldiers, who had risked their lives to deliver the aid. When I approached UNHCR in Geneva, the lead UN agency responsible for the airlift, to complain about the corruption, I was told that if twenty per cent of the aid actually reached the civilian population that needed it on all sides, we were doing better than the norm! Off had bought into and repeated the Bosnian myth that somehow the Serbs ended up with most of the aid. On a lighter note, but indicating a recurring acceptance of Bosnian propaganda as fact and without confirmation, Off relates an anecdote concerning my wearing of the UN blue beret.

Referring to the UN Bosnian ambassador’s displeasure with some of my speeches on my return to Canada, she wrote: “Ambassador Sacirbey tried to stop MacKenzie’s speeches, but the UN’s secretary-general declared that the retired Canadian soldier was free to say what he wanted. However, Sacirbey was able to persuade the UN to advise MacKenzie he couldn’t wear a blue beret at his appearances. ‘That blue hat is like a halo,’ says Sacirbey. ‘It represents truth and integrity, and it was being abused.’ The UN agreed and the general was told not to wear the peacekeeping symbol . . . ”

Presumably Off was duped by Ambassador Sacirbey, because she quotes him. In fact, any member of a peacekeeping force removes the blue beret the moment he or she is taken off the strength of the UN force after returning to his or her home country. This happened to me thirty-six hours after landing in Ottawa. I never wore the blue beret again. The UN never contacted me or anyone else about the inappropriate wearing of the “blue hat.”

In any event it would have been impossible to wear the beret because within days of my return I donated it to a Heart and Stroke charity auction in Ottawa. Its sale raised just over $500. Needless to say, the most disturbing part of “The Fox” is a gratuitous chapter entirely dedicated to repeating in vivid detail the allegations made by Bosniaks that I had raped and perhaps even murdered captive Muslim girls. Once again, there is disturbing evidence of superficial journalism. Off describes how a Bosnian prosecutor, Mustafa Bisic, and the Centre for Research and Documentation in Sarajevo had evidence from a Muslim woman who claimed that I forced her to have sex with me, following which I had her nine-month-old baby returned from captivity to her care.

This was a particularly ingenious bit of character assassination by the Bosnians, since as I have mentioned before it had a “happy ending” for the alleged victim. The prosecutor was pursuing the case but would release the woman’s name only if the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague agreed to his request that my immunity be lifted and that the tribunal pursue the case against me.

What Off didn’t know was that I had often given evidence to the ICTY investigators as they were preparing their cases against indicted Balkan war criminals. I developed a good working relationship with them, and during the last interview, years after Off’s book was published, I said to one of them: “I’m told that there is a request from the authorities in Sarajevo that I be tried for war crimes, including rape and murder. When you get back to The Hague, would you check with the appropriate office to see what the status is of the charges—including any request that my ‘immunity’ be lifted?”

The investigator, a member of the RCMP, replied: “We don’t have to wait to return to The Hague. We are responsible for your file, and I can assure you that there has been no request whatsoever from Sarajevo regarding you.” I would have thought that an investigative reporter from Canada, writing about criminal allegations against a fellow Canadian, would have discovered that fact, or would at least have tried to discover it.

Whether it was bad note-taking or inaccurate recall by Off, her repetitious misrepresentation of my opinion regarding a key aspect of leadership was one of the reasons I decided to dedicate the following chapter of this book to the subject in the context of my professional disagreement with Roméo Dallaire regarding a leader’s priorities.

While discussing leadership with Carol Off, I said that in war there is no debate about a commander’s priorities. They will always be mission, soldiers and self, in that order. I elaborated, however, that in poorly defined, poorly organized, under-resourced missions that had been put together by a dysfunctional committee (usually the UN Security Council), there would be rare occasions when I would change my priorities to soldiers first, then mission and lastly self. If the task assigned to me by the un headquarters in downtown Manhattan was impossible, or if my mandate was no longer relevant as the situation deteriorated, I would have no qualms about making the lives of my soldiers my first priority.

By error or design—and I suspect the latter—Off took that simple explanation to set up a false comparison between General Dallaire’s leadership style and mine. She repeatedly indicated that I would always put the safety of my soldiers first, thereby ignoring or, at a minimum, subordinating any responsibility I had to the innocent victims in the conflict zone where I was serving. This erroneous misrepresentation of what I said is supremely insulting to my soldiers who risked their lives in support of the mission in Sarajevo.

Compounding her error, Off repeated her convenient misrepresentation of what I told her in 1999 in an essay she had published in the 2001 book Warrior Chiefs: Perspectives on Senior Canadian Military Leaders. She opined, “Lieutenant-General Dallaire contends that peacekeeping missions should follow the codes of other military operations—most obviously war—where the mission comes first, the soldiers second, and the commander last . . . Major-General MacKenzie disputes it—not categorically—but principally in the area of peacekeeping. MacKenzie maintains his first priority is the safety of his soldiers, the second is the mission, and then, lastly, the well-being of the commander.” She goes on to say, “And yet, Major-General MacKenzie volunteered Canadian soldiers for—and then commanded them in—one of the most violent and questionable United Nations peacekeeping missions of the 1990s.” Off then argues that the daily delivery of three hundred tons of food and medicine to Sarajevo, facilitated by the Canadian battle group, was a bad idea. In hindsight, she makes some valid points; however, she concludes her assessment of my performance by writing, “What is clear is that Canadian peacekeepers found themselves wounded and even killed in the most dangerous city in the world on a mission that Lewis MacKenzie volunteered for on their behalf.” It’s unfortunate that Off did not do a cursory check of what the Canadian soldiers achieved in Sarajevo in July 1992 and of the price they paid. Thousands of tons of humanitarian aid were delivered to the city in accordance with the will of the international community, and no Canadian soldiers—no Canadian soldiers—were killed in Sarajevo at any time during the Bosnian conflict. In fact, very few were seriously injured—though one fine soldier from Newfoundland, Master Corporal Dennis Reid, lost his foot to a land mine.

In a comment breathtaking in its hypocrisy and repeated to the media during her book tour, Carol Off reinforced the convenient representation of what I said by stating: “I think that if my son was going to war to be a peacekeeper someplace, I would want him to [be] there under Lewis MacKenzie, because I know that he would come back alive. But if I was in a distant village about to be ethnically cleansed, I would really hope it was Roméo Dallaire out there, because he’d have my interests in mind.” The proverb says, “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good,” and in the case of The Lion, the Fox and the Eagle there was a dose of good—and some satisfaction for me—when the reviews were published. A few excerpts follow:

"Off even devotes a wholly gratuitous chapter to allegations made by the Bosnian Muslims that MacKenzie had a variety of sexual encounters with captive Muslim women. To say that there is not a shred of credible evidence in these pages is an understatement. In effect, Off uses biased Bosnian sources to smear MacKenzie, plumbing new depths in Canadian journalism . . . Thus we have a curate’s egg of a book. The parts that are good [Arbour, Dallaire] are very, very good; the part that is bad [MacKenzie] is simply horrid and full of bile." —J.L. Granatstein, Southam News

"The one-third of the book dealing with MacKenzie and Sarajevo is, in my view a travesty . . . Particularly upsetting is the author’s technique of innuendo. Off quotes an alleged war criminal, Borislav Herak, saying he witnessed MacKenzie at a Serb-run “rape camp” driving off with four Muslim women “for the purpose of satisfaction of personal lust.” After setting the scene, Off then knocks down the allegations—Bosnia’s ambassador to the UN, Mohammed Sacirbey, rejected the allegations, as did an investigative Newsday reporter, Roy Gutman. A UN inquiry found MacKenzie had never been to that site—and had left Sarajevo a month before the alleged incident. It later turned out that Herak was tortured and had told so many lies he was useless as any sort of war crimes witness." —Peter Worthington, Toronto Sun

"Unfortunately for the credibility of the other passages, Off’s denigration of MacKenzie’s tour of duty in Sarajevo is so rife with factual errors that it reads like partisan propaganda for the Bosnian Muslim cause." —Scott Taylor, Globe and Mail

"It’s in the third segment devoted to the Fox, Maj.-Gen. MacKenzie, that Off’s misguided thesis and venomous innuendo come gushing out . . . In Sarajevo, Gen. MacKenzie bent the rules, toughed it out and got the job done." —Bruce Garvey, Ottawa Citizen

In an unpublished portion of his review, Bruce Garvey made an important point: “Ms. Off has conceded she is no historian, a fact she ably demonstrates in her error-strewn account of the events in Bosnia. At times it is so skewed with Muslim propaganda that you begin to wonder if it wasn’t written by President Alija Izetbegovic himself.”

There is no doubt that controversy sells, and I daresay I helped sell the book. I could even live with her accusations if Off had confronted me with them and asked for my response during our two eight-hour interviews. But to come into my home, make nice with me and my wife, warn me of accusations that might hit the media but that never do—until they appear in her book—was, to quote Jack Granatstein, “plumbing new depths in Canadian journalism.” It was only the second time I had been duped in fifteen years of dealing with some of the best journalists in the world, and the fact that it was a fellow Canadian who was doing the “plumbing” was intensely disappointing.