Lewis MacKenzie and Roméo Dallaire are both retired Canadian military generals who served in United Nations peacekeeping operations. MacKenzie was sent to Bosnia in 1992 while Dallaire was posted to Rwanda a year later. Following their UN deployments both men became active in politics, MacKenzie running as a Progressive Conservatives candidate in 1997 while Dallaire was later appointed a Liberal senator. Beyond that similarity, however, their post-UN careers have followed opposing paths. Dallaire has become the spokesman for a cause larger than himself, and has worked tirelessly to bring the issue of genocide prevention to public attention. MacKenzie, by contrast, has for years engaged in a tasteless media campaign directed against Dallaire. Now MacKenzie has appeared in the pages of Maclean’s, where, like a dog returning to its vomit, he once again revisits his sad and misguided obsession.
MacKenzie’s recent article concerns events that took place on April 7, 1994, the first day of the Rwandan genocide. After the president of Rwanda’s plane was shot down, the Rwandan capital Kigali descended into horrifying violence. As Dallaire recounts in his powerful book Shake Hands With the Devil, he spent the day racing around the city meeting with Rwandan officials, trying to convince them to maintain order and halt the killing. On his way to one such meeting, Dallaire discovered that a platoon of Belgian peacekeepers was being held prisoner at a military base, where they were being assaulted by out-of-control Rwandan troops. Dallaire continued to proceed to his meeting. It was with an extremist Hutu colonel who was in charge of the Rwandan military, and who would later be tried as one of the leaders of the genocide.
According to MacKenzie, attending this meeting was a deadly error on Dallaire’s part. As he writes:
Dallaire immediately proceeded to . . . 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.
The substance of MacKenzie’s criticism is contained in the final sentence. Dallaire did not do enough to save the soldiers under his command, and he should have engaged in a “show of force” to rescue them.
There are three problems with this argument.
The first has to do with Dallaire’s radios. On the day in question, Rwandan military checkpoints were up all over Kigali, and assembling the “dispersed” Belgian troops amid all the chaos and confusion would have been a major logistical challenge. As Dallaire writes in his memoir, he was working with a dysfunctional radio system, one that “had never really been operational, let alone secure”:
Every message of concern to the mission or to me could pass over four different insecure radio nets and between operators who had a wide variety of languages . . . . Even the most vital messages had to be repeated time and time again as a Bangladeshi tried to relay it in broken English through a Uruguayan who in turn had to relay it through a Ghanaian who in turn had to relay it through a Flemish-Speaking Belgian.
In this environment, working with radios the Rwandans might overhear, it would have been next to impossible to assemble the para-commandos for an effective show of force. By contrast, face to face speech was the most reliable form of communication available to Dallaire. It was no small matter, therefore, that during the same meeting which MacKenzie criticizes him for attending, Dallaire confronted a group of Rwandan officers about his captured soldiers.
Problem two can be stated more succinctly. It is that even if Dallaire managed to assemble his 400 Belgian soldiers, they could not have freed the captives. As Dallaire writes, “I did not have the offensive force to take on a dug-in garrison of more than a thousand troops.”
Finally there is problem three. Suppose Dallaire did engage in a rescue mission, one that through some stroke of blind luck actually succeeded. It still would not have prevented the death of soldiers under his command. On the day in question, Rwandan soldiers and militiamen were dying for an excuse to go on a killing spree against UN personnel. Threatening the unruly soldiers who were holding the captives would have been all the excuse they needed. As Dallaire puts it in a key passage, “there were other UN staff in remote locations around the country who would become targets for retaliation if I met violence with force.”
There is something dishonest about the selective way MacKenzie draws on Dallaire’s book, ignoring details that undermine his argument. But that’s not the worst of it. The focus of MacKenzie’s concern is the fate of less than a dozen Belgians. He is exercised above all by their deaths, not that of the 500,000 or more Africans who were slaughtered all around them. The Belgians’ deaths was a tragedy, but there were only ten of them. Once the genocide began, Roméo Dallaire had a higher responsibility than undertaking a futile attempt to save his troops. He was obliged to do everything he could to prevent a crime against humanity. It is testament to Dallaire’s heroism that he recognized that duty, no matter what Lewis MacKenzie says.