BOSTON — Dan Leaf acknowledges this is a strange war.
Sometimes before leaving for the office - a cramped F-16 cockpit thousands of feet above Yugoslavia - he talks about his day with his daughter and wife.
Then the Air Force brigadier general, who commands the 31st Air Expeditionary Wing at Aviano Air Base, Italy, goes to work.
"As much as he likes command, nothing gets him more fired up than talking about some surface-to-air missile site he just took out," says Capt. Ed Thomas, a spokesman at Aviano.
The stocky and well-spoken Air Force general commands the largest combat wing in history - 130 US warplanes - and is helping direct an air campaign that has stretched into its 10th week. While it is not unprecedented for a general to see front-line action in a fighter plane, it is not typical, either. But General Leaf says it's the best way to lead.
"I have a deep-felt sense that this mission is not just morally appropriate, but morally imperative," says Leaf, by many accounts a rising star in the US Air Force.
Optimism over air war
At his scenic base in northeast Italy, NATO has a total of 190 aircraft, including Spanish, Canadian, and Portuguese warplanes. During a telephone interview last week, Leaf expressed optimism about the impact of the air war, which has marched forward despite the lack of a ground force and blunders such as the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.
Leaf has flown 14 combat missions, some into the heart and teeth of Yugoslav air defenses. He characterizes the Serb military as isolated, trapped, and in danger of not being able to retreat safely.
The top Air Force officer involved in Allied Force, Lt. Gen. Michael Short, recently said the air campaign could be over in two months. Leaf says he cannot comment on that prediction, but offers several reasons why he believes the Serbs will lose.
"I was in on the first daylight strikes across Serbia three weeks ago - when you can do that, you clearly have air superiority," he says.
Leaf points to intelligence reports suggesting waning morale in the Yugoslav Army. But perhaps most important, he says, is that the NATO coalition has held together.
"We're still doing this 63 days later. If I can see that, [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic must see that," Leaf says.
Before arriving at Aviano in November, Leaf commanded the largest, and perhaps busiest, F-16 wing in the Air Force at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina.
His successor at Shaw, Col. Dan Darnell, describes his longtime friend as a master at merging the needs of his troops with the unpleasant nature of warfare.
"He's very good about balancing the needs of the mission with the needs of his people," Colonel Darnell says.
And he knows how to laugh.
Before sending a fleet of F-16s from Shaw off to the Middle East for a showdown with Iraq last fall, Leaf stood on the flight line with a microphone and implored his pilots this way: "Gentlemen, start your engines!"
Leaf's wry sense of humor is occasionally lost on others. As a young lieutenant, before his cockpit call sign became "Fig," Leaf had another handle. He was known as "Loose," a somewhat obscure reference to a child's school supplies.
No laughing matter
Not much about the current mission strikes him as funny. Leaf is morally committed to halting Serb atrocities. He suggests comparisons to genocide in Europe in the 1930s and '40s are imprecise, but describes Kosovo's exodus as the most disturbing moment in his life since he toured Dachau, Germany, as a young lieutenant.
"It was a day in early April, and I was watching Serbs go through Kosovo burning houses, seeing entire neighborhoods burning, watching fires progress from house to house. It was an extraordinarily horrifying moment," he says.
From his vantage far above the battlefield, Leaf has come to see the vagaries of this war. Visiting the US for several days recently to help commission his son into the Air Force, he noticed the absence of Gulf War sentiment such as yellow ribbons or morale-boosting messages on marquees. In some places, Kosovo is no longer front-page news. "We'd like to have bands playing," Leaf says, "but we know this mission is worth doing to closure."
The fight is odd in other ways. He talked to his daughter, Ya-Ting, before leaving his house. He recalls her asking him one day if he would be flying. "I said, 'yes,' and she said, 'cool,' as a teenager will. I sat down and said, 'It's not cool to have to go to war.' She said, 'That's not what I meant. I think it's cool that you would do this to protect us and the Kosovo people.' "
All wars create memorable, iconic images. One of them belongs to Leaf. He spent a day with the world press in Brussels a month ago, trying to explain what appeared to be an accidental NATO attack on a civilian convoy near Djakovica.
"It wasn't the most fun I've ever had," he says. "Going to Brussels was something I felt I had to do. Our pilots don't drop bombs frivolously. This is not a game."