In what may come to be called the Coward's War, civilian casualties mount as diplomacy languishes. The most recent accidental atrocity killed scores of Albanians in a Kosovo village. To these almost daily horrors, the White House-Pentagon-State Department line is first to deny responsibility and then categorize fussing about them as a Yugoslavian "public relations offensive." Similarly, the Serbian refusal to call dead people collateral damage and their persistence in publicizing the gory effects of our precision bombing is deemed a fraudulently transparent attempt to gain sympathy.
Washington's talk about making war for humanitarian goals has markedly lessened of late. When the slaughter began, Heartfelt Willie's speech was perfumed with the humanitarian sentiments he speaks with such facility. That word, humanitarian, was seldom off the lips of American officialdom, but the emphasis switched over from aid, comfort and help to winning. No more sweet talk, now it's crush the enemy, conquer them and on to victory.
At the beginning of the Reverend Clinton's Balkan mercy mission, the spokesmen were at pains to distinguish between Mr. Milosevic and "the Serbian people, with whom we didn't have a quarrel." The tone has turned jingoistic and the words are those characteristic of the armed missionary. We know best and if you fail to heed us, you'll have yourselves to blame for the evils which befall you.
Such is the theme that the Administration's organs like Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times are piping. Mr. Friedman writes, "We are at war with the Serbian nation, and anyone hanging around Belgrade needs to understand that. This notion that we are only at war with one bad guy, Slobodan Milosevic (who was popularly elected three times) is ludicrous . Mr. Milosevic is deeply connected to his own people, and too many of his own people are full of hate for the Albanians."
What Mr. Friedman may be full of we can but conjecture as he goes on to write, "Trying to cure that hatred is a fool's errand. The best we can do is bottle it up . Mr. Milosevic can stew in his own hatred. In fact, I can think of no greater punishment for the Serb people for what they have done, and what they have tacitly sanctioned, than having to live with himforever . [T]he Serbs, as they rebuild all their broken bridges, roads and factories, may start to ask: Was it worth it? . Only when they conclude that their nationalist fantasies have brought them to a very dark and lonely corner will they change. The Balkans don't need a new Serbian leader, they need a new Serbian ethic." And we needn't guess who stands ready to supply them with one. The doctrine of collective guilt is useful because it excuses any crime.
Mr. Friedman's bushwa is part and parcel of the proposition being floated by the administration that Slobodan is Adolf Hitler Jr. Well, he ain't.
Bloody-minded bastard that he incontestably is, to think that he and/or the situation in the Balkans now has even a fuzzy correspondence to Europe 60 years ago is to fall into the old trap of fighting not only the last war but the wrong one. Mr. Clinton and his confederates can advert as much as they wish to "Milosevic's war machine" but it still doesn't make the très petit Yugoslavian army into the Wehrmacht, and be glad of it, for otherwise Bomber Bill would be making more than one trip to the Dover, Del., air base to do his weep-and-snuffle act over the incoming body bags.
Whether the Serb Mr. Milosevic has more blood on his hands than the Croatian Franjo Tudjman or the Bosnian Alija Izetbegovic is best left to those with the stomach for entering into such disputes. They are terrible men who have done terrible things and it ought to have been our part to stop them, not join in on one side or the other. And certainly not to act like them in our new antiseptic way of killing safely from afar and then getting huffy when the survivors complain.
It's inconceivable that tiny Serbia-with 9 million people, if you don't count the Albanians, who do or did live in Kosovo-could hold out six days, let alone 60, but they're hanging in there against a military power that ought to have knocked them out in 18 hours. The Serbians have been defying the might of an alliance of the richest, most technologically advanced nations (saving only Japan) on the globe. The alliance's combined population is in excess of 400 million people, but nearly two months have passed and all that power hasn't succeeded in ousting 40,000 Serb soldiers and police officers from a space not much larger than Rhode Island.
Among those apparently taken by surprise by the Serbs are the professional soldiers who ought to have been able to anticipate the direction the war has taken. Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times saying that it was possible that "a force like the one [Mr. Milosevic] is using for ethnic cleansing and terrorizing Kosovo could hold out for quite some time." Then, in effect, complaining the Serbs weren't presenting the proper targets for him to blaze away at in thisshooting gallery, he added, "The effective tool that Milosevic's forces have been using have been the rifles and pistols that they've shot people through the head with."
At the outset we were told that the air attacks would "degrade the Serbian military machine" so that they could not harm the Albanians. There has been degradation aplenty, but it does not appear to have lessened the Serbian grip. Moreover, Albanians continue to flee to surrounding countries, but how many of them do so because they fear the Serbians and how many do so because they fear the bombs of their rescuers, none can say.
In the face of an enemy so weak it has not shot down a single plane or injured a single airman, the Administration line is switching again. No more talk of degradation. Having destroyed the Yugoslavian air force, if indeed it ever existed, and blown up their out-of-date tanks and their rusty field artillery, all, evidently, to no avail, we're now bombing to break their will.
The politics of the Coward's War have left Bomber Billy and the Blunderers with no choice but to plug on, killing more civilians than soldiers. Excepting World War I, this has been the case in every major war of the 20th century. Yet each time NATO commits another one of its whoopses, the briefing officers emphasize that the Air Force meant to hit military targets, that the last episode of noncombatant death and dismemberment was a deviation from the norm. The norm in modern warfare is killing civilians. It's killing soldiers that is accidental.
And the causes ascribed to accidents like the bombing of the Chinese Embassy would be laughable if the consequences were not unspeakable. When the Chicoms rejected our explanation as insulting (they steal our military secrets because they believe our stuff works), the Administration's media machine let go with a bucket of Billingsgate at the Chinese: They exaggerate their loss (a variant of the old saw about life being cheaper to Asiatics than to white men?); they are using the regrettable accident for which we've apologized to extort money from us; they have succumbed to their ancient and irrational hatred of the Foreign Devils who, in other times, invaded them, seized their cities, humiliated them, addicted them to opium and murdered them by the hundreds of thousands. On the plus side, the Chinese got an "I'm sorry" out of this inept warmaker, and that is more than the Republicans have been able to do.
With diplomacy regarded by Washington as a species of weakness, who can say how long the Coward's War may last. There are still a large number of as yet undead Albanians and Serbians whose lives may be spared if the droll men and women in authority will give peace a chance.
This column ran May 24, 1999 edition of The New York Observer
See Also Anti-War Links.