Last year throughout the bombings of Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and occasionally Bulgaria, much was made on CNN and in other U.S. news reports about Serbs carrying out an organized genocide of ethnic Albanians as they advanced through the seceding province of Kosovo. I vividly remember sitting in front of television in a Morgan common room and watching a concerned journalist on CNN pointing to little blobs on a satellite picture and announcing that these were suspected mass graves. I also remember asking myself how the hell anyone could identify those little blurs as anything at all. The image was provided by the State Department, and I vaguely recall wondering whether in times of war supposedly independent news services actually believed everything the government was feeding them or whether it was just a propaganda stunt to galvanize public opinion in favor of the war.
In April, the State Department stated that perhaps 500,000 ethnic Albanians were missing and feared dead at the hands of Slobodan Milosevic’s army. About a month later, Defense Secretary William Cohen told a television interviewer that “about 100,000 military-aged men” were missing (Newsweek). After the end of the war in June, NATO revised the estimate to about 10,000. Guess what? In a report to the Security Council the chief prosecutor for the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal said that so far 2,108 bodies have been found in 195 “mass graves.” More are expected to be uncovered when the ground thaws in spring. The high estimates currently hover around 7000. The report added that many of these bodies were in individual burial plots, and only 11 sites reported more than 50 bodies. I am not trying to belittle the slaughtering of civilian Kosovars (however many), but instead I am trying to analyze the politics of war in a more realistic way than what the major networks have so far been doing.
With 500,000 civilian casualties out of a population of two million, one could really speak of a concerted and planned attempt to ethnically cleanse an area. With a little over 2000, suddenly that premise becomes very tenuous indeed. Slobodan Milosevic and several of his top aides have been indicted by the War Crimes Tribunal for Crimes Against Humanity, mostly attempted genocide. A top figure of 7000 hardly constitutes an attempt at genocide considering that the Serbian Army was entrenched in Kosovo for weeks until the NATO campaign and during the 78 days the war lasted. Perhaps a number of Serbian soldiers abused their situation to commit such atrocities out of ethnic hatred or frustration at not being able to differentiate KLA guerillas from regular civilians (Remember the U.S. had this very same problem in Vietnam. Something like four million Vietnamese died in that conflict and nobody indicted Nixon or LBJ for crimes against humanity). Certainly, accountability should be maintained and those responsible tried for their crimes, but holding the heads of the civil and military establishment of a nation responsible for crimes committed by underlings is a very dangerous precedent to establish.
Now let us look at the flip side. NATO, in carrying out some 37,465 aerial sorties, killed at least 537 Yugoslav civilians, according to the Geneva based organization Human Rights Watch. The Serbian government alleges many more, of course, but let us assume this independent analysis to be closer to the truth. How is killing civilians from the safety of a bomber any better, from an ethical point of view than doing so on the ground? In total, 55 of the verified incidents of civilian deaths occurred in Serbia and 32 in Kosovo. Almost half (43), the HRW report says, “resulted from attacks during daylight hours, when civilians could have been expected to be on the roads and bridges or in public buildings which may have been targeted.” NATO bombs hit factories, kindergartens, oil refinery plants, private homes, hospitals, refugee camps and convoys, electricity and water supply systems and other public service facilities, such as trains, buses and motorways. One bomb also found its way to an apartment complex in Sofia, Bulgaria and another to the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. In front of these facts, the claim made by all governments involved that the war was a humanitarian one quickly loses its potency.
The report provides a devastating picture of the brutality unleashed by the Western powers against a small, largely defenseless country and the half-truths and lies through which they sought to mislead public opinion. It concludes that in several instances NATO strikes were aimed at terrorizing the Yugoslav people. Now if even some of this is true, it’s a wonder nobody is asking for accountability for these excesses. If the same logic is to be applied to NATO as to Serbia, then could not President Clinton and Prime Ministers Blair and Jospin be justifiably be indicted?
My gut reaction is that in any war between two or more nations, enemy civilians may be killed precisely because they are the enemy. Do these deaths automatically constitute crimes against humanity? I would say no. Civilian casualties are an unfortunate consequence of any war. What crimes Serbian soldiers committed on the ground for whatever reasons they had need to be investigated, but so does NATO strategy, especially its bombing of civilian installations and either gross incompetence or deliberate targeting of the resident population. There is much evidence that the latter was probably the case.
War is never a pleasant business, and the victors always justify their means by the end, no amount of whining about rights is going to change that. Nor is anybody going to change the fact that in wartime the press of all countries involved is going to be heavily slanted, if not downright dishonest in its portrayal of events. My only concern is that we have developed a society very dependent on information and therefore based on trust. These days, too many people seem to believe everything they read or hear. When the manipulation becomes as painfully obvious as in the case of Kosovo, I merely wonder whether anybody still cares.
Does it matter to us what happens in tiny places like Kosovo? (Come on, can you place Kosovo on a map of the world?) Probably not. Does it matter if the government manipulates the press, the education system, and through these the people to make us believe whatever it is they feel it is in our (and their) best interests for us to believe? I don’t know. What kills old-fashioned people like me is the fact that we lie and smile at the same time, that we are perpetually seeking to sugarcoat our hypocrisy with righteous moral precepts. That we lie and cheat on a daily basis as a society bothers me less than the sad fact that those who might otherwise object believe the lies we spin. The postmodern age obviously has little room for integrity or dignity, but I suppose I have no reason to complain. This is all text, after all.