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Canadian Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, commander of the NATO military operations in Libya, listens to a reporter's question during a media briefing at the NATO's Southern Europe headquarters in Naples March 28, 2011. (Reuters/Reuters)
Canadian Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, commander of the NATO military operations in Libya, listens to a reporter's question during a media briefing at the NATO's Southern Europe headquarters in Naples March 28, 2011. (Reuters/Reuters)

Military

Canadian directing war in Libya calls it 'a knife-fight in a phone booth' Add to ...

For the self-effacing helicopter pilot from Chicoutimi, the deputy commander's office in the prestigious but hardly over-worked NATO's regional command in Naples could have been a very pleasant last posting, a fitting swan song to a stellar 30-year-plus military career.

Exquisite Capri is close, the food is sublime, the living is easy and the Med is far from a hardship posting like Afghanistan or Haiti, nor is it the bureaucratic jungle of Ottawa.

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Instead, Charles Bouchard, the Canadian three-star air force general, is running NATO's trickiest war to date: 10,000-plus sorties, taking out Libyan tanks, fighting in alleyways with no boots on the ground while sending food and medicine to both sides and keeping the United States out of the uncomfortable limelight of commanding hostilities in a third Muslim nation.

It's a war suddenly in the spotlight. In Ottawa, MPs want to know about mission creep: How a no-fly zone turned into daily, methodical destruction of most everything that props up the Libyan regime. Some countries are running out of bombs, sparking new U.S. accusations that NATO means Europeans playing mutual defence on the cheap while the United States pays the bills and bears the burdens.

Tripoli has been hammered harder than ever in the last few days. Yet even as Colonel Moammar Gadhafi remains defiant, cracks are showing in the alliance as the war goes on.

In charge of it all is Gen. - "call me Charlie" - Bouchard. He is funny and modest about his role, yet is unquestionably in command of this 86-day-old war.

"It's not about me, it's about  the whole gang here that NATO was able to so quickly put it together," he says in an interview at his headquarters, now ringed with razor wire and on a full war footing. He recounts how the often-disparaged alliance managed to put together full-blown war headquarters, deploy scores of warplanes and dozens more tankers, reconnaissance aircraft, rescue choppers and the whole intricate circus of a modern air war.

It's a complex, 24-7 air-and-sea effort that can put a missile in a suddenly-spotted pickup truck or treat Col. Gadhafi, on his 69th birthday , to an intense series of daytime bombing runs in downtown Tripoli.

Still, the general personally signs off on every last preselected target. It's not just attention to detail, it's a visceral sense of personal accountability. Gen. Bouchard may be determined but he is hardly gung-ho. He's careful, deliberate and worries deeply about how to apply the big hammer of air power in the small circumstances of a brutal dictator clinging to power by indiscriminately killing and terrorizing his own citizens.

"I must meet rules, the mandate, the political guidance," but, he adds, and grows quietly pensive, "I look at every target … at the end of the day it's a judgment call … and I'm accountable, I'm accountable to Canada, I'm accountable to NATO, and more importantly I'm accountable to myself," he says.  Make the wrong call and the wrong people, or maybe too many people, die. And, Gen. Bouchard adds: "I want those who know me best to be able to look at me and say, 'you did the right thing.'"

There's an intensely personal aspect to target selection when the imagery is so good you can see children playing.

So even after the target list gets culled by half-a-dozen layers of political and military experts, Gen. Bouchard looks over the finished daily product. Some times he scrubs one off the list - too close, too risky, too much danger of killing civilians.

Free-ranging warplanes looking for targets of opportunity - say a tank in the open - face equally strict rules. If there are people nearby, it can't be hit.

For instance, a planned attack on four artillery pieces located hidden in hedgerows had to be scrapped because a soccer game was under way when the strike aircraft arrived. Once the game ended and the players dispersed, the four guns were destroyed.

War in the 21st century is no longer about overwhelming force or crushing victory, it's about using extreme violence in so precise and restrained a  fashion that political aims are met with minimal bloodshed.

"It's a knife-fight in a phone booth," Gen. Bouchard says of the vicious violence at close quarters pitting Gadhafi loyalists and mercenaries against a rag-tag rebel army, ill-trained and ill-equipped.

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