Risky Business

updated 02/12/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/12/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

DO YOU GUYS KNOW WHAT NONPROVOCATIVE means?" rasps Maj. Gen. William Lafayette Nash, commander of U.S. forces in Bosnia. Some 40 members of the Ready 1st Combat Team, camped in the snow near the Serb-ravaged village of Dubanj, respond with utter silence.

And so Nash—in camouflage and wire-rimmed glasses, a 9-mm. pistol on his hip—explains how a good NATO peacekeeping force handles a hostile populace without bloodshed. Say, for instance, a rogue townie tries stealing into camp to swipe supplies.

"Put trip flares out in the weeds," says Nash, 52, referring to a kind of booby trap that bathes the area in light. "So if a guy comes in to get stuff, he sets off a trip flare, he s—ts in his pants and he runs off. And we didn't kill anybody."

Lesson over, Nash asks his troops to make a wish list of creature comforts.

"Newspapers, sir!" yells one GI.

"Got it," Nash responds.

"How long before we see real eggs?" another soldier asks. Plywood tent floors, cots, stoves, latrines, showers—Nash dutifully jots it all down, then offers some parting words: "Okay, you guys. No slack. Pay attention. Nonprovocative. In the meantime, don't let anybody give you s—t."

Blunt and selectively profane, with a weakness for enchiladas and cigars, Nash normally runs the 1st Armored Division in Bad Kreuznach, Germany. Now, as commander of NATO's Task Force Eagle, based near the city of Tuzla, Bosnia, he will oversee 18,000 U.S. troops and another 4,000 from Turkey, Scandinavia and Poland. Nash is also "tactically coordinating"—to use the diplomatically correct euphemism—1,500 Russians who will police the Posavina corridor in northeastern Bosnia, which until the Dayton peace accord of Dec. 14, was awash in a genocidal bloodbath. In the face of daunting peril—to begin with, a cruel Balkan winter and thousands of land mines—Nash must buffer the fractious Serbs, Muslims and Croats, ensuring that all sides withdraw their heavy weapons and peaceably arbitrate their disputes.

All this while his own nation looks on, skittish about a second Vietnam. "We're not here to fight a war," Nash stresses. Nevertheless, "force protection"—military jargon for minimizing casualties—compels Nash and his troops to shoot back if attacked. "We would prefer to use reason, logic or any nonlethal means," he reiterates. "I mean, I'm moving an armored division through a fellow's backyard. It's probably a good idea to talk it over with him a little bit."

Gen. Crosbie "Butch" Saint, 59, former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, attests that Nash, a decorated veteran of Vietnam and the Gulf War, is more than up to the task at hand. "He's the right man for right now," Saint says. "Nash could be a little smoother, but he's direct. He doesn't hesitate to give bad news: If you ask him a question, he answers it. He tells it like he sees it." Tact aside, Saint calls Nash "a soldier's soldier—he cares intensely about the men and their families."

Nash showed some of that sensitivity on the morning of Dec. 31. With the whole world watching, after 14 days, his troops had finished building a pontoon bridge over the muddy, flooding Sava River separating Croatia and Bosnia. Failure would have been an unthinkable embarrassment—without the bridge, arriving NATO forces could not have made it to Tuzla. "I just shook their hands, squeezed their arms maybe a little bit," Nash says of his GIs. "And a fellow said, 'You're awful subdued.' I said, 'No, not subdued.' These soldiers don't need a cheerleader. They just need a soft voice and a hot meal. And some dry socks."

Nash calls his informal style of command "management by wandering around," a phrase he borrowed from In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters's 1982 executive bible. At any time he's likely to turn up for an impromptu chat with his troops. "He's like a shark," says Maj. John Suttle, 34, his press aide. "If he stays still, he'll die." Adds Sgt. Preston Ramos, 31, Nash's personal security officer: "He's a touchy-feely type of guy. He likes to grab people." As his bodyguard, Ramos admits, "I'm always nervous."

A crusty hero who cares, the jacket copy almost writes itself. But Nash retreats from comparisons with literary-lions Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf and Gen. Colin Powell. "It's far too early to worry about a book deal," he says. "Not going to do that." Thus grounded in the moment, he actually seems to relish his daunting assignment. "It's an awesome responsibility," Nash acknowledges. "But a great joy for one who likes soldiers, who likes the business."

The family business, one might call it. Born in Tucson in 1943, Nash is the son of William Lafayette Nash, a career Army cavalry officer, and his wife, Jean. The family moved from post to post, finally settling in Carthage, X.Y., where William Sr. commanded Camp Drum (now Fort Drum) until his death from a heart attack in 1959.

In 1961, William Jr. won an appointment to West Point but opted for Tulane University. "I think it was adolescent escapism—is that the right word?" he says. "I decided I didn't want all that Army regimentation. We were beatniks in those days."

Halfway through Tulane, Nash read accounts of snipers attacking U.S. peacekeeping troops in Korea, and it sparked a latent desire to serve. He quit college and enlisted in the Army, his mother filled out another application to West Point, and Nash signed it. He graduated 30th in a class of 700 in 1968. "It wasn't until after Vietnam," Nash says, "that I liked what I called the adventurous life of being a soldier." A platoon leader there, he won the Silver Star and received a Purple Heart for a wounded leg. But he is reticent about his experiences. "Vietnam was a long time ago," he says. "I'm more interested in talking about the future."

His first marriage, a 12-year union with Suzanne Mays, began in 1968. They had two children, and Nash offers a scouting report on each: "Rebecca [24], Ph.D. student (in anthropology), intellectual, deep thinker. Son, William L. [23], all-star kid, hard worker, great personality. He will serve his nation." "Bo," as his father calls him, is mulling a career in the foreign service. "The military is not my path," he says. Notes his dad: "A fellow's gotta do what a fella's gotta do. My father never pushed me [into the military], and I wouldn't push my son. If you don't want it, don't love it, being pushed into it is baaad."

Since the 1970s, Nash has spent nearly a decade on and off in Germany, specializing in mechanized operations. In Washington from 1978 to 1983, he eventually became an aide to Lt. Gen. John Vessey, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was in D.C. that Nash met his second wife, Donna Krout, a Pentagon personnel manager. Their first date was in 1981, at a Picasso exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. Dinner followed. "It was a nightmare," says Donna, 50, who had a sinus headache and nausea. "I went into the bathroom to throw up, and he sent a waitress in to find out if I had gone out the back door."

Married in 1983, they have since lived in 10 homes and endured countless separations. Their most trying time apart, Donna says, was during the Gulf War, when Nash, then a colonel, was instrumental in leading the knockout thrust against Iraq's Republican Guard.

With Bill on his mission in Bosnia, Donna plays mother hen to soldiers' wives back in Germany, baking cookies and throwing a New Year's Eve party after the troops began moving out. "I said, 'Hey, let's smoke some cigars, shoot some pool,' " she says. " 'Get the blenders fired up, we want some frozen daiquiris.' I have to set the example. Am I gonna cry the whole year?"

More than 1,000 miles away, her husband is walking the muddy road to Dubanj, wielding a Dutch Masters, stumping like a small-town pol. "Good morning, my name's Nash," he says through an interpreter to three scruffy Croatian soldiers, extending his hand. "Will you make peace work this time?"

"Yes," comes the very tentative answer, delivered with eyes averted.

"Happy New Year," Nash says. But as he departs down the road, past the deserted ruins of houses, shops and a church, the peacekeeper knows that any hope for joy in this tortured land is, ultimately, up to men like these—weary and filled with age-old angers perhaps not yet resolved.

JOSEPH HARMES in Bosnia, JOANNE FOWLER in Bad Kreuznach and ELIZABETH VELEZ in Washington

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