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U.S. and NATO leaders are eager to deny responsibility for
“collateral damage” in the form of civilian deaths and the destruction
of civilian property that might or might not be caused directly by NATO
bombing. The Serbs are laying waste to their own civilian enclaves and
blaming it on NATO, said a NATO spokesman on Thursday.

These things happen in wars. It is possible that the Serbs have done
precisely that. And there is some evidence that NATO pilots have been –

at least so far, two weeks into the bombing campaign — instructed to
minimize civilian damage. But the old cliche that in war the first
casualty is truth — on all sides — is a cliche because it rings true.

This century of total war is limping to a close reeking with evidence
that humankind — or at least that sector of it that practices politics
in the shadow of the modern state — hasn’t come close to learning what
we try to teach four-year-olds around the world: that violence begets
violence and solves nothing in any lasting way. In such a totalist war
environment information is naturally viewed as simply one more weapon to
be deployed against an enemy. All warring states use it this way. It is
more likely that both sides are lying — or at least spinning dizzily –
than that either is telling anything resembling the truth.

In a way the form of truth-stretching involved in demonizing an enemy
may be essential to those who conduct wars. If your enemy is the demon
incarnate, it’s easier to justify raining destruction and death in ways
that reasonably civilized human beings would otherwise never
contemplate. Even a war conducted in the relatively antiseptic
environment of war rooms thousands of miles from the battlefield,
directing weapons that can “stand off” from their targets and never
have to look closely at the destruction they are causing could make you
wonder if you were really a decent person. If you had secret doubts,
could you maintain the air of victimization that is assumed by all sides
and used as yet one more weapon of modern warfare?

While falsehood — perhaps most importantly falsehood to oneself –
might be essential to those who actually direct a war, however, those of
us not so implicated should try to think about responsibility.

Before we are finished thinking about Kosovo — before it is a memory
recalled only foggily along with all the other conflicts and tragedies
that have crowded the waning years of this century — we should consider
who was responsible for the heartbreaking wave of refugees that have so
stirred and angered most decent people.

It is more difficult than is generally acknowledged to do so.
Large-scale events in human history, affecting millions of people,
generally have many causes. Historians still conduct impassioned and
tolerably well-informed debates about who was really responsible for
events in World War II. They will be disagreeing about who was
responsible for aspects of the Kosovan debacle decades from now. Perhaps
no answer is final.

Given an inevitable shortage of information, however, and the fact
that (unlike a computer game) you can’t go back in history and try a
different strategy if the first one you try comes a cropper, I think it
is unavoidable to consider the likelihood that that the decision to
begin bombing Serbia made the situation in Kosovo worse rather than
better, and that those who suffered most were those the Western leaders
were ostensibly trying to help.

This is hardly to deny that the most direct responsibility for what
seems to have been and might well turn out to be a brutal campaign of
“ethnic cleansing” and depopulation against Kosovar Albanians lies with
Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and those on the ground who carried
out his orders. But NATO and U.S. politicians who had spent the previous
several months comparing Milosevic to Hitler should hardly have been
surprised. The fact that they seem to have been taken by surprise –
that no plans were made or (as near as we can tell) even considered to
deal with a huge flow of refugees — suggests at the least a degree of
amateurishness in decision-making that borders on the criminal.

Our sorry century is full of examples of populations subject to
bombing whose support for their wartime leaders was firmed up to the
point of fanaticism, from the Battle of Britain to the present day. Most
military experts agree that no significant war has been won by air power
alone. Yet President Clinton and other leaders began the campaign by
vowing they would not put ground troops in, which told Milosevic that he
had at least a certain amount of time to do as he chose with the people
of Kosovo.

William E. Odom, a former U.S. Army general and a Hudson Institute
fellow who favors ground troops wrote as much a week ago in the Wall
Street Journal. The air war to date was “fast turning into a disaster.
Today we are at war without an effective plan and properly deployed
forces, conducting combat operations that accelerate Serb atrocities
rather than deter them.”

“Thus the president.” Mr. Odom continued, “has made himself and the
American people at least partly culpable for the slaughter in Kosovo. We
cannot evade this reality. We can only decide how we deal with it. To
argue, as some administration officials do, that we bear no blame
because Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic would eventually kill or
expel all of those Kosovars in any case, is ludicrous. Even if it is
true, it is irrelevant. Today he is killing them because our bombing
campaign has given him both the opportunity and the incentive.”

The most important reason to consider the topic of responsibility is
to learn something from an experience that can be applied to future
decisions. If we understand and feel at least shared responsibility for
the fact that a decision to intervene in one of the nasty quarrels that
are all too abundant in this world leads to death rather than safety for
the objects of our humanitarian solicitude, we might think twice the
next time we are tempted to play Globocop. Some pressure might even be
exerted on future leaders to plan better and to be open, serious and
reasonably honest the next time an intervention is contemplated.

As we have all discovered, Slobodan Milosevic is not like
congressional Republicans, the kind of foe President Clinton is
accustomed to besting. While war may be politics by other means it does
have qualitative differences, especially in that it more often involves
stark life-and-death situations. It should not be entered into casually,
as if it were just one more way to divert attention from one’s other

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