Lewis MacKenzie: The Sorrow and the Disgrace


Romeo Dallaire in Rwanda, 1994 (Credit: CBC).

 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’swhere, 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. 

14 thoughts on “Lewis MacKenzie: The Sorrow and the Disgrace

  1. Great analysis, A.M. I reviewed Shake Hands With the Devil for the San Francisco Chronicle and found it a truly harrowing book. Reading MacKenzie’s Maclean’s piece, I noted three or four attacks on Dallaire in the course of page two alone, including claims of inflexibility, careerism, ignorance, and inexperience. And this is merely the backgrounder. MacKenzie’s accusations give the reader an unintentionally clear view into the jealousy and infighting that I suppose all officer corps must suffer from to some extent. Not terribly noble, this stuff.

    With regard to the question of prioritizing mission over troops (which MacKenzie thinks so inflexible), there’s an old saw that goes: “If the chief responsibility of the captain were the safety of his own ship, he would leave it in port forever.”

  2. Don’t get me wrong…I am a great admirer of Gen. Dallaire but your statement about the ship is dead wrong. Never heard of “No man is left behind”. Leadership in military operations means that the security of your own personnel is a top priority. Safety first. A line used in mining or police operations as well…
    How do you want to save lifes of others if your personnel gets the impression that they themselves are left behind? It simply means you can forget about the mission as a whole.

    I am a Belgian and I share Mr Dallaire’s criticism of our government. I don’t really know a lot about Gen MacKenzie, but I really feel that Gen. Dallaire could have done a lot more to save our troops, who, however, admittingly did a lot of stupid stuff in Rwanda. Anyway, he shoud have testified at the Belgian court about the killings of the Belgian paratroopers.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Caduco. But I’m afraid I don’t agree with you. The “no man left behind” policy that the U.S. military is so famous for refers mainly to dead bodies. It’s a promise that if you die in combat your body will be recovered to be buried back on American soil, not a promise that your commander will make preserving your life his or her top priority. You yourself phrased it correctly, by the way: security of personnel is “a” top priority, not “the” top priority.

    In this sense, military operations are fundamentally different from the military or mining operations you compare them to. No commander wants to lose his troops in stupid accidents (“safety first” plays a role in minimizing these), but all commanders recognize that in carrying out a mission they may well lose troops in combat. Sometimes, if the mission is important enough, they’ll lose a lot of them. Were the safety of troops the top priority, none of these missions would be undertaken.

    The same is true with navy captains and their ships and crew. Hence the old saw.

  4. It still surprises me that to this day 14 years later there are still so many in the general public that hold Ret’d General Dallaire up to near ‘hero’ like status, but have never studied the 1994 tragedy. I find distasteful the political posturing of both MacKenzie and Dallaire but I think MacKenzie generally feels duty bound to mention these mistakes of the past so that they are never repeated. Dallaire was a complete failure as a leader, commander, and soldier. His decisions were at the very least regretable and most military professionals I have met and served with (with the benefit of hindsight mind you) would find his actions completely incompetent of someone holding such a position (his first and only field command thank goodness). MacKenzie’s command resume is that of an accomplished career soldier with real field experience and that opinion matters here, Dallaire’s is that of an embarassing bureaucrat. I think the work Dallaire’s handlers do with him today (campaigning, speaking, promoting causes) is a very good cause but that man should never have been painted as what he appears to be. Post Somalia Canada didn’t want another military black eye so the media put a positive spin on a shameful shameful incident. Ask a Belgian soldier (or citizen) what they think of Canadian soldiers, they don’t talk about a world war, they remember how Dallaire betrayed their soldiers and hid from their inquiry. That he still claims 400 lightly armed Belgian paras couldn’t overrun 1000 Rwandan soldiers/militia insults an informed persons intellect. To this day I have not heard him take responsibilty for his action, that is not leadership. People have a right to the truth on this finally and give the families of those who died some closure.

    1. I would like to know who these military professionals are you refer to. I also think it is despicable to challenge Dallaire’s leadership and decision making skills without having “walked a mile in his shoes.” Lewis Mackenzie has found it easy to criticise Romeo Dallaire, but he never, in the former Yugolslavia found himself in a comparable position. Had he, would he have put his troops before the mission, one of peacemaking and protecting the innocent? I have read Shake Hands With the Devil, and Dallaire is the first to admit that he feels like he failed the Rwandan people, but the stark reality is with a Chapter 6 mandate aggressive action was forbidden time and again by the UN. Yes, perhaps massing 400 well trained, but apparently at times unprofessional Belgian para-commandos to rescue the 10 captured countrymen might have saved a few, but many more than 10 Belgians would have died in the attempt, and to what gain? If sacrificing lives to save a few put all UNAMIR personnel at risk, which a rescue attempt would have likely done, then Dallaire’s decision truly was to “sacrifice the few to save the many”, a decision, correct in every way, that neverthless haunts Senator Dallaire to this day.

  5. Well, after watching SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL this last weekend, another thing to consider too: it’s pretty hypocritical for Lewis Mackenzie to accuse Romeo Dallaire of so many failures in Rwanda in 1994, yet the former, during his time as UNPROFOR commander in Sarajevo in 1992, pretty much didn’t allow his UN peacekeepers to take any meaningful action against the VRS forces besieging the city, bombarding innocent civilians and UN personnel, or hijacking UN relief convoys. In terms of failure to protect innocent civilians, among countless other instances of tragedy in Bosnia, it was during June 1992 and under Mackenzie’s command that French UNPROFOR troops escorting Bosnian govt minister Hakija Turaljic didn’t lift a finger to protect him from being summarily murdered at a Serb roadblock. Definitely a case of the pot calling the kettle black I think 😦 Mackenzie also became infamous after his tenure as UNPROFOR commander by making what were perceived to be pro-Serb remarks and generally adopting the RS line about what was happening in Bosnia- so in that light it’s quite hard to accept the value of what he says regarding Dallaire, who at least TRIED to actively save lives during the course of the genocide…

  6. Minister Hakija Turalijic was killed in January 1993 some six months after General MacKenzie left UNPROFOR and returned to Canada.

  7. who do you think you are? Dellaire did nothing and watched innocent people get slaughtered. If he had the guts to kill those radical Hutus many lives would have been saved including the Belgium soldiers. If Mackenzie has been posted there he would have done what was necessary which is protect the men that he is in charge of and depend on him to do what is right, and save civilians.

  8. The battle was lost even before the first Hutu blade was swung. It appears Lt Gen Dallaire was uninformed about the imminent fomenting of riots, targeted and mass killings before it happened. Above all, it was a failure of intelligence.

  9. To add to my previous comment, if in any event Lt Gen Dallaire was briefed with regards to the possibility of a violent Hutu takeover, then it raises the question whether he planned for it or not.

  10. well I price general mckenzie for one think only important one he took video camera with him to prove what was happened yesterday wen you are between serbs croats thats include bosnian as well you would not be successful if you have no footage what was happened yesterday .For god sake have look what happening today in ALGERIA SYRIA YOU CAN blame saudis on first Russian and Iran on second lets price checks and slovaks how they done on nice way

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