In his memoirs, former Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie offers a harsh critique of Roméo Dallaire’s leadership during the genocide

September 1 2008


In his memoirs, former Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie offers a harsh critique of Roméo Dallaire’s leadership during the genocide

September 1 2008



In his memoirs, former Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie offers a harsh critique of Roméo Dallaire’s leadership during the genocide

In the 1990s, after the Cold War ended and Canadian peacekeeping troops found themselves embroiled in increasingly dangerous conflicts, the nation’s generals acquired a prominence not seen since the Korean War. The first to become a household name was Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, UN commander of Sector Sarajevo in 1992 during the Bosnian civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and now author of the forthcoming memoir Soldiers Made Me Look Good (Douglas & McIntyre, Sept. 20). He was followed by Maj.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire, force commander of UNAMIR, the ill-fated UN peacekeeping force during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The two men have come to symbolize opposing poles to Canadians urging a more forceful international intervention in the world’s murderous ethnic conflicts.

Dallaire is often portrayed as a tragic hero, a good soldier made helpless by UN inaction in the face of the murder of more than 800,000 Rwandans and 10 Belgian peacekeepers under his command; MacKenzie is seen as pragmatic, even cynical, in his response to backroom UN politics. As journalist Carol Off, now co-host ofCBC Radio’s As It Happens, said in 2000, “I think that if my son was going to war to be a peacekeeper, I would want him under Lewis MacKenzie, because I know 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.”

That characterization angers MacKenzie, who considers it a slur on what Canadian soldiers under his command accomplished in Sarajevo and his own standards of duty. Nonetheless, he insists there is a real and significant difference between his concept of military leadership and Dallaire’s, and devotes a chapter in his memoirs to outlining that distinction, as demonstrated during their UN commands:

In 1997, Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire was invited to the Canadian Forces Command and Staff College in Toronto to speak to the students, mostly senior majors destined to be promoted to lieutenant colonel in the near future, on the subject of leadership. During his presentation, General Dallaire explained that a military leader frequently faces a dilemma associated with assigning priorities. He made it clear that a leader’s priorities should and must always be mission first, then soldiers and, lastly, self.

During the question period that followed the presentation, a student rose and commented along the lines of: “General Dallaire, General MacKenzie spoke to us weeks ago on the same subject, and while his priorities matched yours most of the time, he made the point that there will be occasions, albeit rare, when orders are received that make no sense whatsoever or are impossible to carry out because the resources are not available, at which time his priorities changed to sol-

diers first then mission and self.” The disagreement between Dallaire and me regarding priorities was obviously confusing for aspiring senior leaders in the Canadian forces. The disagreement was far from healthy, and it was never resolved. As sides formed up on the issue, my qualifier, “in rare circumstances,” which was critical to my argument that loyalty to soldiers should occasionally come before mission, was conveniently ignored by some, particularly my critics.

I hold to my opinion that in some circumstances, ill-conceived and impossible-to-execute orders must be evaluated by the leader, and if warranted, they should be ignored or disobeyed. During the early 1990s, as the United Nations in New York (UNNY) was experiencing great difficulty in adapting to the post-Cold War world, some of the orders issued to its commanders in the field were ludicrous. For example, early on during the humanitarian airlift into Sarajevo in 1992, we were held up for hours at various armed roadblocks as we attempted to deliver food and medicine. Without any discussion or analysis, UNNY directed us to “use such force as necessary to guarantee the safe delivery of

humanitarian aid.” At the time, we had fewer than 1,000 personnel, including HQ staff and unarmed UN observers, in Sector Sarajevo. We were in a city of over 300,000 people, many of whom were less than sympathetic to our efforts to help them. We were surrounded by a heavily armed First World military force numbering in the tens of thousands who hated our guts because they saw a UN force with a mandate to be impartial in delivering humanitarian aid to their enemies. I realized that although we would be able to force our way through the first roadblock, there would nevertheless be about 20 more to deal with on the same route, and by that time our opponents would easily outnumber us 100 to one. I placed my soldiers first in my priorities, ignored the mission order from the UN and continued to negotiate our freedom of movement, a tactic that proved to be successful even in the short term.

Considering the importance of our disagreement and being at a loss to understand General Dallaire’s rationale for insisting on placing the mission first, no matter what the risk to his soldiers, I spent considerable time

researching his only overseas command: the military component of the UN’s mission in Rwanda in 1993-94Fortunately, the general’s wildly successful, bestselling book, Shake Hands with the Devil, proved to be an invaluable source of first-hand accounts. It was during this research that I unearthed some clues that might explain General Dallaire’s inflexibility on such a critical issue and I learned some lessons that may be of value for future leaders faced with similar dilemmas.

Whether by choice or by chance, Roméo Dallaire never served on overseas operational duty with the UN before he achieved the rank of general. During the Cold War, it was generally accepted that volunteering for peacekeeping duty with the UN was not beneficial for your career. In fact, many senior decision makers in the military regarded peacekeeping duty as “avoiding real work.” Real work was deemed to be tours of duty at army HQ in St. Hubert, Que., or at National Defence HQ in Ottawa, where you would be “exposed” to the minister and senior military brass.

But things changed after the Cold War, especially in the former Yugoslavia. This was

dangerous work—soldiers were being killed and seriously injured—and Canada was playing a leading role on the international stage for the first time since the Korean War. Officers who aspired to the highest ranks of the Canadian forces recognized the sea change and sought out a tour of operational duty with the UN. Perhaps that is why, in spite of having no operational experience with the UN in earlier ranks, General Roméo Dallaire volunteered for overseas duty.

A long-overdue attempt by the UN to resolve the conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups in both Rwanda and Uganda came to a head in June 1993. The UN Security Council authorized a modest mission of some 100 military and civilian personnel, which would be deployed to the Ugandan side of the border with Rwanda. The UN force would be unarmed, and it would be responsible for monitoring the border and verifying that weapons, ammunition and Tutsi reinforcements did not make their way into Rwanda. In spite of the availability of a large number of bilingual, operationally experienced Canadian general officers, Brig.Gen. Dallaire was offered to the UN as the chief military observer—in civilian terms, the man in charge of the military component.

General Dallaire has been criticized by some for accepting the appointment even though he was aware of his inexperience. In his book, he admits that his first response to his UN appointment was: “Rwanda, that’s somewhere in Africa, isn’t it?” It has to be mentioned in his defence, though, that the tiny mission was anticipated to be quiet, safe and routine, well out of the public eye and easily within his capability to command.

Three months later, the UN’s Security Council found some backbone and authorized the creation of a much larger mission that would facilitate the implementation of the recently signed Arusha Accords. The new UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) would be responsible for helping with the security of the capital city of Kigali. The first mission would be absorbed by UNAMIR, and the strength of the new mission was authorized at 2,548 souls, primarily soldiers from Belgium and Bangladesh.

Brigadier General Dallaire was promoted to the rank of major general and appointed force commander of UNAMIR, that is, commander of the military personnel in UNAMIR. Contrary to popular opinion, Dallaire was not in charge of the mission. As is the norm in most large UN operations, the UN secretary-general appoints a civilian to represent him—the special representative of the secretary-general (SRSG), who has the responsibility to oversee

the mission. In the case of UNAMIR, Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s unfortunate choice was a Cameroon diplomat and personal friend, Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh.

On April 6,1994, at approximately 8 p.m., the spark that led to the slaughter of some 800,000 Rwandans was observed by the unarmed UNAMIR observers at the Kigali airport. The plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, returning from continuing peace talks in Tanzania, exploded into a ball of flame while attempting to land. The cause of the crash has never been determined; at the time, everyone had an opinion and the one that counted the most and that led to the genocide was the one held by the Hutu majority: the Tutsi minority would be held responsible for the crash. The killings started with the slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutu senior government officials.

Following the crash, General Dallaire had a series of meetings with the Hutu-dominated military led by Colonel Théoneste Bagosora. Dallaire discovered that they were making plans to assume control of the government following the death of their president. There was also a midnight meeting with the SRSG at his residence, during which Booh-Booh confirmed by phone with New York that the

UN considered Prime Minister Madame Agathe Uwilingiyimana to be the legitimate head of government and that the Rwandan military leadership should consult with her. Bagosora scoffed at the idea.

Even though government officials were being slaughtered throughout Kigali, a senior official in the UN’s peacekeeping department insisted by phone at 3 a.m. the following day that Dallaire’s troops return fire only if fired upon—despite UNAMIR’s rules of engagement allowing the use of deadly force “to prevent crimes against humanity.” For a commander who had previous UN experience, this would be the time that he would indicate the phone connection had gone bad and he couldn’t understand what was being said at the other end—and then hang up.

By mid-morning, Kigali was in chaos and movement was both difficult and dangerous. Elements of the presidential guard and the army were going from house to house with a list of names and were killing at will. UNAMIR’s Belgian soldiers at the airport were being held prisoner, but UNHQ was still insisting that deadly force was not authorized unless UNAMIR was fired upon. Calls came to Dallaire’s HQ from senior Rwandan officials pleading for protection, and duty

officers could hear the caller’s family being killed before the caller himself was slaughtered. At this point, Dallaire states in his book that the possibility of a moderate government was utterly lost: “If it was a Bagosora-led coup by the hard-liners, aimed at derailing the Arusha Accords, I had no more mandate.” In fact, that’s exactly what was unfolding.

Dallaire left his HQ with two of his staff, looking for an alleged meeting taking place between Bagosora and the gendarmerie.

He had a handheld Motorola radio, another radio mounted in the vehicle and one pistol among the three of them. Soon their vehicle was refused passage at a roadblock, and Dallaire and one of his staff proceeded on foot. Their communication with Dallaire’s HQ was now reduced to the handheld radio. After walking for a few kilometres they were picked up by a Rwandan major, who after some consultation at Rwandan army HQ determined the meeting they were looking for was being held at the École Supérieure Militaire.

The route to the meeting took them past an entrance gate to Camp Kigali. As they drove by, Dallaire saw two of his Belgian soldiers lying on the ground at the far end of the compound. He ordered the Rwandan major to stop the vehicle but was ignored, and the driver carried on to the grounds of the École. While it would have been possible to reach over and turn off the ignition in order to stop the vehicle, any venture into the camp alone and unarmed would probably have proven suicidal. As Dallaire approached the meeting site, an UNAMIR military observer from Ghana was momentarily released by the Rwandan soldiers who were forcefully detaining him. He explained to Dallaire that five of his soldiers were being held nearby and that a group of Belgian soldiers had been assaulted in Camp Kigali. Dallaire immediately proceeded to the École for the meeting. Surprisingly, it would appear from his own account, that he did so without advising his


HQ of the fact that a number of his soldiers were detained and were being abused or worse. With over 400 tough Belgian paracommandos dispersed around the city, the potential existed for a UN show of force that would have been more than a little intimidating to the unruly mobs doing the killing.

Once Dallaire entered, Bagosora asked him to address the meeting, and when Dallaire agreed he stressed that his force would try to keep the Arusha peace process aliveeven though earlier in the day he had indicated that he “had no more mandate” if Bagosora was taking over. He further called for calm within the army units, but he did not immediately raise the issue of his captured Belgian soldiers. This, in spite of the fact that he was meeting with the very Rwandan military leaders who commanded the troops that were capturing and abusing his soldiers. He had hoped to raise the issue with Bagosora privately, but the opportunity never came, so he mentioned it to the chief of staff of the gendarmerie, Major General Augustin Ndindilyimana, who said he would look into it. Inexplicably, Dallaire then set the issue of his captured soldiers aside.

An hour and a half after entering the meeting, Dallaire called his HQ and was told that a number of Rwandan VIPs “protected” by UNAMIR (a bit hard to do, if you can’t use deadly force) had been murdered, as had their families. Thirty-five of his military personnel had been captured, and anarchy

reigned in the capital. His Bangladeshi troops refused to follow orders, except those from their capital that commanded them to not get involved or to take any risks. At around 1 p.m., Dallaire proceeded to the location where Prime Minister “Madame Agathe” was supposed to be guarded by UNAMIR personnel, only to learn that she and her husband had been murdered. Still without mobile communications, Dallaire walked to the Ministry of Defence, hoping to find Bagosora, who didn’t show up until 2 p.m. Bagosora indicated that he could not get into Camp Kigali (which housed his own soldiers) because of the chaos, but that he would put a force together to restore calm in the camp.

At this stage, Dallaire phoned his HQ and was told that the Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Army, primarily located in the north of the country, was preparing to move south to protect those Tutsis who had not already been slaughtered. Although the situation was completely out of control, Dallaire still held out hope that he could contribute to bringing some kind of resolution. This, in spite of the fact that two armies were squaring off and that his modest force was spread over the entire country, in exposed locations, under his orders to return fire only if fired upon, and with some of them receiving directions from their capitals to “stay out of trouble.” Dallaire spent the next two hours trying to get the two army leaders, Colonel Bagosora and Major General Paul Kagame, to speak with each other on the phone.


When at last the conversation took place between Bagosora and Kagame’s representative in Kigali, nothing was achieved. It was two hours before dark. Dallaire brought up the subject of his detained solders with Bagosora, who conveniently ignored the issue.

At 4 p.m, some six hours after he first saw his soldiers being held against their will, and after the murder of many political leaders and their families, after more of his soldiers were taken hostage, after a coup by the Hutu “leader” Bagosora was evident, after the Tutsiled army was moving to intervene, after a number of his troops refused to intervene and after a ridiculous order from the UN not to use deadly force to protect anyone, Dallaire in a quiet moment acknowledged to himself that “the path to war and slaughter was now open.” He decided it was time to consolidate his troops in order to ensure their safety and then for him and his troops to do what they could to protect the innocents.

Nevertheless, there was still one more meeting to attend that day. At 6 p.m., Dallaire drove to Camp Kigali. To his amazement, the camp displayed no evidence of the early morning chaos. Obviously someone, presumably Bagosora, was able to control the out-of-control mutineers when he wanted to. At the meeting with the Hutu military leadership, Dallaire was told that he should withdraw the Belgians as soon as possible—anti-Belgium hate propaganda was being transmitted by the local TV station. At long last, he blew his stack and insisted that the captive Belgian soldiers be turned over to him. Twenty minutes later, he was told that his soldiers had been found at the Kigali hospital.

The hospital was a mere 200 m away. On arriving there, Dallaire was directed to a small hut at the far end of a courtyard in front of the morgue. In the hut, he came upon a scene that would haunt any commander forever: the bodies of his Belgian soldiers were stacked on top of each other like “sacks of potatoes.” Their intertwined, tattered uniforms and mutilated bloody flesh made it impossible to do an accurate body count. Initially, Dallaire thought there were 11 bodies, but later it turned out to be 10.

The critical eight hours from the time Gen-

eral Dallaire observed his Belgian soldiers on the ground in Camp Kigali until the issue was forcefully raised with Hutu officers in the very same camp warranted a mere 90 seconds in the movie version of Shake Hands with the Devil. To say that the day’s events and General Dallaire’s priorities were glossed over would be an understatement.

The public has heaped much sympathetic praise on General Dallaire for his efforts as the force commander in Rwanda, but there has been much criticism of his leadership by members of the Profession of Arms, particularly in Canada. It is not my intention to pass judgment on the subject. This is, however, an opportunity to re-evaluate the events related to the loss of his Belgian soldiers in order to stress the importance of flexibility

when determining one’s priorities as a military commander.

Here is one way to understand military orders. Orders received by a commander in a war scenario that deal with immediate actions to be performed in the pursuit of victory are not debatable. Our nation’s participation in any war occurs as a result of Canada’s democratic process determining that it is in our national self-interest to do so. Orders received by a military commander, in the final analysis, emanate from the highest level of national decision making and must be obeyed. This interpretation will always put mission first in priority, before soldiers and self. It is worth noting that this interpretation was all that General Dallaire had ever experienced. Until his Rwandan tour of duty, he had spent his entire career training for conventional warfare on the Central Front, in West Germany, as part of the NATO forces squared off against the Soviet Union.

Orders received by commanders of multinational peacekeeping operations, most of them mandated by the UN Security Council, present a much more complex set of circumstances. Soldiers frequently and sarcastically remind themselves: “Just remember, all of our equipment was made by the lowest bidder!” There is a similar attitude regarding Security Council mandates: “Just remember, the wording of our UN mandate was the result


of the Permanent Five agreeing to the lowest common denominator!” When China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States look at a threat to international peace and security through the prism of their own country’s national self-interests, they will never completely agree on everything. What follows in the pursuit of “doing something” is a mandate for the UN field commander that is laced with compromises and omissions. Field commanders familiar with the UN’s flawed decision-making process learn to deal with the ambiguities and to rely on their own common sense. The unattractive and unworkable alternative is to regularly ask UN headquarters for advice or direction. Better to take the appropriate action, and ask for permission—or absolution—later.

General Dallaire, as a result of his inexperience in working with the UN, was not prepared to act on the fact that his mandate—by his own admission—had disintegrated by midmorning on April 7, some 13 hours after the president of Rwanda’s aircraft exploded and kick-started the slaughter. Dallaire had mused on the possibility of such a development a number of times that morning, but he took no action to shift his priorities, to concentrate his forces, particularly his Belgian paracommandos, and to place his soldiers’ secur-

ity first in the order of priorities. He opted for a futile attempt to perpetuate a mandate that had been overtaken by events and that was made even more implausible by the ridiculous direction from UNHQ not to use deadly force unless fired upon, no matter what the circumstances. If a Rwandan child is dragged off to be slaughtered under your very nose, so be it, the order implied.

Even with the benefit of 14 years of hindsight, now Senator Dallaire steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that the mission does not always come first in a commander’s priorities. There is perhaps an explanation.for his inflexibility on this matter; it relates to the fate of the 10 murdered Belgian soldiers. If Dallaire is permanently wedded to the view that the mission must always come first, then his Belgian soldiers’ sacrifice and the fact that he ordered no action be taken to assist them while they were being slaughtered could be both explained and justified. Acknowledging now that not immediately alerting his HQ that he would be mounting a rescue operation was incorrect would be a heavy burden indeed. There are those who argue, as Dallaire has, that a rescue attempt would have been suicidal. But they should realize that macho bullies who beat, torture and murder defenceless women and children become cowards when they are faced with well-trained, professional combat soldiers. If they had been ordered to intervene, there was certainly a chance that the Belgian paratroopers standing by would have got the job done; by their own accounts, they certainly wanted to try. Future Canadian military leaders should be aware that they will probably face similar dilemmas, and they too should ponder what their priorities will be and where their responsibilities will lie when the time comes.

I will go to my grave arguing that there are times—important times, albeit rare—when a commander’s responsibility for his or her soldiers comes before the mission. The trick is to recognize the times. Senator Dallaire, who has filled his life with good works both during his military service and since his retirement from the military, offers dangerously bad advice on this aspect of leadership when he argues to the contrary. M

Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Douglas & McIntyre. © 2008 Lewis MacKenzie.