Shalikashvili knows war as refugee, general Clinton pick for top military post

August 12, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Gen. John M. Shalikashvili has been a veteran of war since he was 8 years old.

A refugee from Poland who came to the United States at the age of 16, the man known affectionately as General Shali is no stranger either to the human dimensions or the high-stakes politics of combat.

The 56-year-old Army general, who was nominated as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by President Clinton yesterday, is the son of a Georgian military officer who fled Poland at the start of World War II. The general has commanded combat divisions and led humanitarian missions, including the one that protected Iraq's Kurds from the vengeful wrath of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 1991. He has coaxed former Soviet generals to bow to new civilian masters and he has fought pitched budget battles during three tours at the Pentagon.

But General Shalikashvili's (pronounced Shah-lee-kash-VEE-lee) also has seen the U.S. military from the bottom, as a confused and foot-weary buck private in the U.S. Army, drafted in the mid-1950s. And he has seen his country and his profession through the eyes of a refugee from war -- one who fled with his family in a boxcar when he was 8 years old.

"He has a sense of the larger world that's in a way a product of his refugee experience as a boy," said Paul Wolfowitz, a senior Pentagon official in the Bush administration who worked closely with General Shalikashvili. "He has a quality of judgment that's really kind of special, and a real feeling of service to his country, since it's his country by choice."

General Shalikashvili's English -- one of several languages he speaks fluently -- retains the slight accent of an immigrant. His voice, seldom raised but always heard by subordinates, betrays what one such officer called "his basic humility and humanity."

But do not mistake General Shalikashvili's apparent diffidence for irresolution, say those who have worked with him.

"He was always polite, considerate, and concerned about my position and my concerns," said retired Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Kelly, who was the Pentagon's senior operations officer during General Shalikashvili's last stint in the Pentagon. "But you could feel a bit of steel beneath the surface. If he had to be firm to get things done, he was quite capable of doing it."

General Shalikashvili's firmness, as well as his much-praised compassion, will be sorely tested as he takes hold of a military struggling to shrink its ranks and shift its vision to a world in which the distinctions between friends and adversaries, and war and peace, are not so clear as during 45 years of the Cold War.

In nominating General Shalikashvili, President Clinton described him as "the heir of a family caught in a cross-fire of the kinds of ethnic and national rivalries that now trouble so much of our world."

As a 16-year-old refugee settled in Peoria, Ill., General Shalikashvili learned his English by watching John Wayne movies. But while he may have learned his steady stare and his lingual parsimony from John Wayne, General Shalikashvili clearly did not adopt his swagger, say colleagues.

General Shalikashvili's rise through the military's ranks may indeed be, as Mr. Clinton declared it, "a great American story." But it is a story that many officers who have watched the general's career believed would end somewhat short of yesterday's announcement.

Trained as an artillery officer and decorated during a stint as military adviser in Vietnam, General Shalikashvili's thorough staff work and cool demeanor quickly marked him for the Army's senior ranks. But a persistent habit of giving subordinates credit and shunning the attentions of higher-ups appeared certain to clip his trajectory somewhere short of a general's stars, said several Army colleagues.

"A lot of us were amazed when he made general because he was not a self-promoting guy," said one officer who spent several years working for General Shalikashvili.

"He doesn't have upward vision," added General Kelly of the man who once worked alongside him on the staff of the Joint Chiefs. "Some officers only look upward because they want to get ahead. He looks downward because that's where the work gets done."

When General Shalikashvili left the Pentagon in 1987 to take command of the 9th Infantry Division in Fort Lewis, Wash., the promotion was widely considered a "terminal assignment." General Shalikashvili, admitting to colleagues that this probably would be the terminus of his career, happily sold his house outside Washington and returned to a world of soldiering. According to several officers interviewed, that was always his first love.

But General Shalikashvili then got tapped for another job seen as the graceful end of a general's career. As deputy commander-in-chief of U.S. Army forces in Europe, General Shalikashvili played a supporting role to the more flamboyant commanders of the Persian Gulf war.

When it ended, however, the world's eyes turned to the plight of Iraq's Kurds, desperately seeking protection from Saddam Hussein's angry military machine after the Persian Gulf war. General Shalikashvili was put in charge, and his easy manner with allies and evident compassion for refugees won admiration throughout the military.

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