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Mercy Mission?

May 20, 1999

It's two months since Secretary of State Madeleine Halfbright's remark that
a couple of cruise missiles aimed at Slobodan and it'll all be over Over
There. We're heading toward Day 60 of bombardment and the buggers in
Belgrade still refuse to surrender.

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

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

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

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