Suck on war

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Mon Apr 12 11:24:25 PDT 1999

[Today's Suck <>]

War Stories

War is understood to advance along the rails of some fictional narrative or other, and the current example isn't doing much more in that regard than following the old rules. What's remarkable, though, is how much <,1051,SAV-9904020227,00 .html> huffing and puffing it's taking to make the machine move.

One of the strangest fictions is a lie of omission, repeated again and again as if the historical record had simply ceased to exist. On 5 April, for one nice example, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told reporters that the exodus of ethnic Albanians fleeing Kosovo represents "a mass deportation we have not seen since the days of Stalin and Hitler." Other officials shot for the same idea but with a different script; a week before, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea had described the situation in Kosovo as the worst the world has seen since the mass murders by the Khmer Rouge in the early '70s. Worst since the Nazi Holocaust, worst since the Soviet pogroms, worst since the killing fields of Cambodia - hey, close enough for government work.

But however the < 4/wl/nato_the_briefing_1.html> different scripts rendered the events in Kosovo, they all followed the same rough story line, building to the same final episode. On the same day Cook was making his comparisons to Hitler and Stalin, the US State Department announced the discovery of many of the signs of "genocide" in the region.

But the lines between genocide and mass deportation have tended to get a little fuzzy in the telling, with a little help from the nongovernmental organizations given the task of maintaining the narrative. On 6 April, newspaper readers in Los Angeles were greeted by a large, front-page photograph in the local excuse for a newspaper under the headline: "Witness to 'Ethnic Cleansing.'" The image, an aerial reconnaissance photograph shot from a NATO plane, shows armored vehicles clustered around a village said to be populated by ethnic Albanians; the villagers in the photograph are massed together in a loose knot, apparently herded into a field just outside the circle of structures forming the village. No story accompanied the photograph; captions repeated the words "ethnic cleansing."

Now, a quick question: What do you think "ethnic cleansing" means? Say you were looking at a photograph of villagers herded into a field by soldiers in armored vehicles; what would it mean to you? Diligent Times readers eventually would have managed to find a single paragraph, buried in the continuation of a story on other related topics - on page eight - explaining that the "ethnic cleansing" photograph was provided by NATO officials as proof of mass deportations. There was no word as to whether it was a photograph of Hitler-like deportations or Pol Pot-like deportations, but we'll give 'em time to sort that one out.

Whatever the fuzzy details, the lesson is supposed to be clear: Brutality is occurring, and the humane and enlightened governments of the West don't sit on their hands while innocent people are being killed. And if it might be genocide ...

Except that - it would be too obvious to bother saying if it wasn't being treated as obscure and forgettable - the humane and enlightened governments of the West overlook this kind of violence all the time. The most obvious and most severe example comes from the ancient past: 1994, almost before most of us were born. That was the year of the orchestrated and explicitly identity-targeted slaughter of Rwandan Tutsis, led by that nation's Hutu Power government. As Philip Gourevitch richly details in <> We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, the same Western governments currently screaming the word "genocide," over what has been described as "thousands" of deaths in Kosovo, responded quite a bit differently to the rapid killing of more than 800,000 people in Africa - which resulted, by the way, in a massive exodus of refugees into neighboring countries.

The decision to ignore the killing in 1994 didn't simply reflect a passive choice not to act; it reflected an active effort to escape responsibility. The US ambassador to the United Nations at the time, a diplomat by the name of Madeline Albright, even labored furiously to block UN efforts to vote on a resolution describing the killings as genocidal - a distinction that would have obligated the United States, a signatory to international treaties aimed at preventing a repeat of the Holocaust, to act. When a coalition of other African nations finally realized that the United States and UN had no intention of getting involved, they asked the Clinton administration for one thing: 50 armored personnel carriers, on loan. The answer: No. Under pressure, the US eventfully agreed to lease the carriers to the United Nations for US$15 million - this while being billions of dollars in arrears on UN dues - with the understanding that the UN could then choose to loan them out as it wished.

So, yes: Mass deportations mixed with occasional outbursts of violence are "genocide" and demand immediate military action; hundreds of thousands of orchestrated deaths add up to something, well, unfortunate. But this is a habit deeply ingrained in the behavior of enlightened nations. It's worth noting that Gourevitch was visiting Washington, DC, in May of 1994. He describes the experience of killing time while waiting in line at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, killing time, that is, by reading reports from Rwanda in the newspaper. The tour guides, he recounts, wore buttons proclaiming: "Never Again!" - a theme echoed by Bill Clinton at the museum's opening ceremony. "Apparently, all he meant was that the victims of future exterminations could now die knowing that a shrine already existed in Washington where their suffering might be commemorated," Gourevitch figured.

And then there's the <> question of just who NATO is rushing to defend. The Kosovo Liberation Army, an armed separatist movement, has grown increasingly violent since a collapse of order in neighboring Albania led to the looting of that nation's armories; as many as 30,000 automatic weapons came pouring over the border. In light of the new Western view of secessionist armies, though, look for NATO bombing campaigns against Spain and Turkey, where Basques and Kurds continue to struggle for liberty. We wonder how many airstrikes it'll take to put down the Royal Ulster Constabulary?

Judging by history, it'll take quite a few. The effectiveness of air power alone is clearly understood. Alert Suck readers will remember a <> recent comparison of the ongoing bombing campaign against Iraq - which is still going and still right on the verge of toppling that bastard Saddam - and the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail. American defense analysts studying the bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese supply route explained helpfully that bombing alone tends not to be effective and in fact tends to bring the people being bombed together in unity behind their political leaders. The United States rained 2 million tons of explosives on communist forces in Vietnam: See how it made them roll over and play dead? (Of course, the effort to <,1051,SAV-9904070165,00 .html> unite an enemy nation is helped along dramatically if you do things like bomb its capital city on the anniversary of the very day that the Nazis bombed their capital city.)

And so, after many days of warm-up demonizing - worse than Hitler, just like Stalin, a brutal dictator, a genocidal lunatic, etc. - the NATO nations all resorted to the same line when Milosevic failed to buckle after the first bombs hit: We couldn't have guessed that he'd be so unreasonable! Forgive us for doubting that the military and political leaders planning the attacks on Serbia had no clue at all that the airstrikes might not be instantly effective.

Forgive us, too, for doubting that no one in (or even near) the White House had any memory of Balkan history, back when the staff at that prestigious address was preparing the president's speech on the need for bombing that unstable region < a_124.html> until it turned stable again. Clinton helpfully explained that the Balkans have already exploded into violence twice before in this century; what he <> forgot to mention, unfortunately, was that the Balkans have erupted into violence twice in this century after outside powers entered the region and initiated it. But NATO bombing inside Serbia's partner republic in the Yugoslav Federation, Montenegro, shouldn't do anything to < 4/wl/yugoslavia_montenegro_4.html> drag them into the neighboring violence. Right?

In case it isn't clear what's at stake in Kosovo, the Washington Post just <> put it all into perspective: "The Gore team," that newspaper explains, "sees Kosovo as a chance to display both the vice president's knowledge of complex foreign policy matters and his toughness." And the wise men of the GOP agree that the bombing is an exciting opportunity for the vice president to firm up his image. "This is an opportunity to show he has some policy backbone and is willing to use America's might to protect freedom and human rights," Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio explained to the Post. "The only downside is if we get committed to a long, protracted ground offensive."

Republican candidate Steve Forbes wins the biggest idiot award, however, in the battle over narrative posturing. He argues that the best solution to the crisis in Kosovo is to "massively arm" the KLA. And so what if that kind of statement doesn't appear to have been thought all the way through? That's not the point. War is an opportunity to project toughness, and the only downside is that a protracted ground war may cost you points in the critical months leading to New Hampshire.

For Serbians and Kosovars, the fiction is already very real. For Americans, the narrative is <> building to the point where it turns human; two whole weeks after the repeated assurance that ground forces would never be used in Kosovo, that inevitability awaits only the polling results to determine the <> least offensive phrasing. Which would leave us, again, with young men and women - real flesh-and-blood humans - marching on the soft ground of vaguely considered political schemes. How surprising will it really be when that ground caves in again?

courtesy of <mailto:beers at> Ambrose Beers

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