In the summer of 1999, western countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization were in the final stages of negotiating a peaceful end to the Kosovo War. For much of the 90’s, conflicts had erupted between ethnic Serbs and Albanians over the Kosovo region of Southeast Europe, an area occupied by both ethnic groups. NATO eventually intervened in 1998 by initiating an air-bombing campaign that was covered extensively in the media. By June of 1999, a ceasefire had been called and a peace agreement was reached, which included a NATO-led occupation of Kosovo in a peacekeeping role. But it was in the crucial moment between the ceasefire and the peace that probably one of the biggest international incidents ever was avoided.
As part of the planned occupation of Kosovo, NATO intended to move into the capital city of Pristina with approximately 30,000 peacekeepers. Russia, who had been the principal member of the Soviet Union that had collapsed less than a decade before, was not a member of NATO but still intended to jointly occupy the region along with NATO forces; unfortunately, the two sides did not fully communicate on the details.
On June 12th, 1999, the day after the end of the war, a large company of nearly 500 British and French troops was sent into Pristina under the command of a young British captain. Their mission was to secure major parts of the city ahead of the arrival of the main peacekeeping force. However, earlier that day, 200 Russian paratroopers had entered and occupied Pristina International Airport, apparently against NATO expectations.
At that time, US General Wesley Clark (who can now be seen on TV as the host of Stars Earn Stripes) was the Supreme NATO Commander – meaning that he was technically in charge of every soldier involved in the NATO mission, regardless of what country’s military they belonged to. Upon hearing of the Russian occupation, he furiously ordered the British and French troops already in Pristina to seize the airport. Knowing that this confrontation would almost certainly end in a shootout between NATO and Russian forces, the British captain in Pristina refused the order. Luckily for the rest of the world, he was supported by British general Mike Jackson, who told Clark “I’m not going to start the Third World War for you.”
So where does James Blunt come into the picture? You may have already guessed it: he was the young British captain who refused the order to attack the Russians, something that could have potentially snowballed into a world war. Instead of attacking, the British and French forces encircled the airport until a deal was reached, and everyone lived happily ever after…except Captain Blunt, who apparently still had a lot of sad stuff to sing about. So next time you hear “You’re Beautiful” on the radio, say a silent thank you to James for potentially saving the world before you start wishing that the song would just end already.