Lend Me Your Ear
People supporting bombing argue that it is better than nothing and is somehow dealing with horrible ethnic crimes in the Balkans. They either claim that that was the bombing’s purpose and the purpose is being met — or they admit that the motive was something else but add that even so the bombing is doing good as a by-product so that they are for it despite its bad motives.
People holding these views often do so with great tenacity. The evidence and analysis offered in the Q/A and Chomsky article in the May Z and on our Kosovo web pages (http://www.zmag.org) are more than sufficient to counter such views logically, and so I heartily recommend such materials to you and won’t repeat their content here. But to get this evidence heard by folks sometimes one has to penetrate defenses by other means than just offering data and logic, and I suspect that how one does that is in large part personal. Nonetheless, here I will offer to whoever might be interested some of the techniques I have seen meet with some success.
Bombing advocates say:
“After all, Milosevic is horrible and there was genocide going on and someone had to do something and NATO did something, so that’s good…right.”
You might reply by using the information available in Z and at the ZNet site to explain in detail about the actual level of the crimes transpiring before the bombing (2,000 dead and 300,000 refugees which is about the same as held in Colombia for that year, though the Colombia total to date of course, is much greater, more like a million refugees), and to clarify the actual motives and results of the bombing. You might emphasize how and why we know that concern for humanitarian values isn’t operative as a factor in U.S. policy-making (because if it was such a powerful motivator it would of course also cause us to immediately stop abetting equal and larger human horrors in Colombia, Timor, and of course Turkey where there are over 2 million Kurdish refugees, over 3000 villages destroyed, vastly beyond Kosovo, and tens of thousands killed, all with decisive U.S. military and diplomatic support and cheerleading, increasing as the atrocities increased, and, crucially, within NATO), and what the bombing’s effects are, including, for example:
strengthening Milosevic and wiping out the work of those valiantly fighting him in the democratic opposition
weakening the nonviolent voices of the Kosovars
exacerbating ethnic hatreds even beyond their prior condition to perhaps intractable levels
killing and exiling more Kosovars and unleashing all restraints on the Serbs doing likewise
smashing Yugoslavia back decades and maybe a century in development with grotesque long-term human costs due to ecological and infrastructural devastation, and doing likewise specifically in Kosovo and perhaps worse
weakening the UN, while tearing international law to shreds
informing the world that yes, the U.S. is ready willing and able to bomb anytime anywhere it suits us
elevating NATO to a war machine, and providing rationales for further defense spending, arms trading, etc.
and “disrupting the countries of the region (Macedonia, for example, which had a fragile independence, may be torn apart by ethnic violence).
And you might also note, not wanting your list to be only negative, that the only good result that will come out of this situation is if well intentioned people can bring about widespread resistance, consciousness raising, curbs on future horrible undertakings, and maybe even movements that begin addressing and redressing underlying causes.
This may make a little headway for a bit…but then the bombing advocate most often will slide back and say:
“But even if the U.S. has been bad and bad and bad through all these cases that you offer (that is, the evidence you offered about Vietnam, Nicaragua, Grenada, Panama, Guatemala, Timor, Colombia, Turkey and whatever other cases you happen to mention, based on, for example, William Blum’s compilation in this issue of Z), isn’t that ancient history and shouldn’t we support and celebrate that at least this time around the U.S. is doing good.”
And now you have to try to restrain the primal scream tunneling through your mind and perhaps answer that, well, no, it isn’t ancient history, it is continuing into the present, it is our entire history, then and now, and yes, you would be the first to shout hooray and to celebrate if the U.S. or NATO, or any other power in history, for that matter, ever undertook to do good and seriously went about doing it somewhere, sometime, but that that is not occurring. Instead, from the options (a) do nothing, (b) make things better from the point of view of life and limb, and (c) make things worse from the point of view of life and limb, the U.S. is actually doing the last, and doing it systematically and aggressively, in accord with the traditional pattern, illustrated elsewhere as well as in the Balkans, right at this moment, and not solely in “ancient history.”
And the person may give a little ground for a minute and even let a ray of possibility through and say:
“Well, okay, then why is the U.S. bombing if not to save the Kosovars (by acting to make their suffering vastly worse)?”
Here, if you will excuse a diversion from the main purpose of this little essay, I think some leftists go off track. Leftists know into their toes that U.S. foreign policy is imperial so they look at this case and they start to see it in the most dramatic and familiar imperial terms at their disposal. They begin talking about grand designs over Eastern Europe or about oil pathways or about Yugoslavia as some kind of obstacle to U.S. economic agendas or maybe even as a good example trying to extricate itself from U.S. economic hegemony which cannot be permitted to do so…and it seems to me that all of this is shoehorning these events into an often viable but this time inapplicable framework rather than finding an appropriate framework that explains these particular events-which is not to say that motives like these others never play a role in U.S. policies (they do, often) or that even in this case these ancillary motives don’t play some role (they probably do, opportunistically, given that we are battering away already).
Anyhow, instead of those more explicit and straightforward but, I believe, inaccurate types of explanation of why the bombing is happening, the Serb/Kosovo conflict became a crisis for the U.S. and NATO not out of concern for the Kosovars (or pursuit of resources or desire to punish a disobedient nation), but because there was a growing danger that the area’s conflict would spread and affect important relations and assets in surrounding Europe and a growing sentiment that, well, what is the world’s cop going to do about it with the U.S.’s credibility as enforcer becoming ever more threatened if it sat by idly. At that point, one can imagine the Security Council and Clinton and what-all meeting together and unanimously agreeing on the need to respond both to contain the local conflict and to fulfill their role to police what are for them untoward world events. So they chat it up and consider their options, nary a voice raised mentioning human costs and suffering, of course (except as rationale for popular consumption), and they notice that the only tactic for interceding that they have which is consonant with the U.S.’s broader aims and orientation is bombing. To make this claim compelling, of course, you then of course have to use historical examples like those Chomsky repeatedly supplies to demonstrate that diplomacy, UN involvement, and international law, are as much as possible rejected as means of intervention by the U.S. because they do not advance and can even restrict U.S. interests, while bombing is clutched as a favored option to be employed, even wildly, because so doing always advances U.S. agendas.
Okay, after all this, with much evidence amassed in considerable quantities, some people do waver and even change their views. But, frustrating as it may be, many other bombing advocates just revert to:
“Well, I don’t know, I hate war, yes, but surely bombing is better than doing nothing.”
And if you don’t lose all communicative self-control at this point, as you may find yourself doing, you might reply (knowing that you already have on the table all required data about U.S. policy generally, and about the bombing and circumstances in this instance, etc.): Suppose that you see someone step out of a shoe store and look across the street fifty yards down to see a big guy mugging someone smaller. There are people around the mugging, too, but they have no means to deal with it. And, watching, you notice that this fellow exiting the shoe store wants to intercede, and you see him pause a second and realize that he can’t get there in time. He needs to act from a distance and quickly. He looks in his duffle bag and you can see that he finds only one thing he is willing to use, a wide-angle shotgun. Aha, he can do SOMETHING. So he picks up the shotgun, aims, and fires, killing the mugger, maiming the muggee, and crippling some bystanders as well.
Do you then defend what you have seen saying, “surely it was better to act than to do nothing”?
When I use this analogy, I tend to pause a beat, and then relentlessly – sometimes likely too relentlessly for effective communication — point out that this isn’t yet a good analogy because in fact the U.S. didn’t have only the shotgun in its duffle bag, but also had diplomatic and other options that could have been pursued but ruled those out as contrary to its geopolitical interests despite their potential to end the violence without violent means… (And now I am often interrupted, “what other means, there were no other means…” and I then reply, well, in addition to those that we don’t know about there was, for example, the UN peacekeeping force option that was on the table on March 23, the day before the bombing, when an (unreported in the West) Serbian National Assembly resolution rejecting the U.S. ultimatum and condemning the U.S.-ordered withdrawal of the international peacekeeping monitors, also suggested an “international presence” to oversee the implementation of autonomy to be negotiated among all ethnic groups, the same offer now presented by the Russians and now too visible to suppress, so it is now called a “new opportunity,” and deemed to be one of the good effects of the bombing that has led Milosevic to become more accommodating – by reiterating what Serbia proposed the day before the bombing. But then, I do on, and note that additionally, having rejected other plausible and even promising options the U.S. didn’t pick up and shoot the shotgun out of concern for the mugee (who it hit along with the mugger and bystanders and which would have been bad enough), but because a block down from the mugging the guy with the gun–or the U.S., by analogy–owns a store with a big picture window, and he was worried that the mugger/muggee battle was going to move down that block and break that window–so he deduced that to prevent THAT he must intervene and keep the conflict contained, and he knows that he doesn’t want to use anything but his gun, and so, even at the expense of hitting everyone in the vicinity, involved or not, he fires.
That’s a closer analogy, nauseating as it may be–though to make it more real, I add, we would have to also notice that the reason the guy only wants to use his gun and not other means of containing the conflict is because any other course of action (using international law, the UN, or diplomacy) would undermine his role as enforcer of the rules of the neighborhood, while using the gun preserves and extends that role and protects his window simultaneously.
And, if that doesn’t jog anything, then you might say okay, then think about this: imagine watching the Mafia intercede to correct serious race tensions in a high school because some of the participants are dealers so the Mafia fears that the racial conflict might spill over to disrupt their business as usual in the neighborhood indicating, as well, that it is okay to violate Mafia instructions, And so the mafia intervenes and puts a lid on the racial fighting, but of course it does this by treating the kids in the school as potential addicts, dealers, or targets, and by violently pacifying or employing them, requiring protection money from all. Do you look at this and defend the mafia saying, well, yes, but even if the mafia is generally not out for the well being of our kids, maybe in this case it was, or maybe in this case even though motivated by its own crass criminal interests it is having a positive effect as an accidental by-product? And meanwhile anyone with open eyes realizes that the kids are being enlisted to deal drugs, are being strung out as addicts, or are being shot. And when challenged by a person seeing that, do you say “but the racial situation is horrible and we have to do SOMETHING, don’t we?”
Finally, I just want to add for those who may get frustrated in scenarios like the above, that we all have to realize that when we start trying to change minds it doesn’t always happen. And so with all the above and everything else you manage to add, sometimes the person just stands pat. And the really intractable ones might even say, after all of it, still again:
“But for whatever reason, it may do good, and the achievement will be the measurable success of the operation. And hey, of course it gets worse for awhile, that’s the price of justice, the storm before the dawn.”
The “storm” in Iraq was the Gulf War. The “dawn” was the aftermath of vicious sanctions and continued periodic attacks. The storm killed ballpark 100,000. The dawn has killed ballpark 1 million. The storm kills when metal shards from dropped ordinance penetrate bodies and cut off life functions leaving a mutilated corpse. The dawn kills more subtly, by disease and starvation due to the destruction of the country’s ecology and infrastructure of medical and agricultural and water and sewage and industrial services (a kind of sustained biological warfare). In Yugoslavia what the U.S. and NATO are doing is setting the table for the same dynamics as we have seen in Iraq. So yes, you might reply, the success of this military operation will be measurable – exactly so – if we don’t develop sufficient opposition to stop the bombing we will see the “measurable success” in a moonscaped terrain, a devastated UN, a ravaged international law system, the annihilation of the anti-Milosevic movements in Yugoslavia, the enhancing of the U.S. military threat worldwide, vastly more graves at the moment and lasting production of still more corpses, many more, due to the devastation of Yugoslavian ecology and infrastructure… all of which are fine from elite perspectives since the only drawback for them comes if (a) the conflict grows without limit to affect serious assets and (b) resistance and dissidence causes a rise in consciousness that actually curtails the bombing and undermines U.S. global agendas-which achievement is largely up to people like us.
Wouldn’t it be nice, so to speak, if the only debates were between people against the war and people for it or undecided? Alas, that is not the case. On the anti-war side there are disputes too. Some of these have to do primarily with the war itself and how we understand and oppose it. Others extend into broader matters of how to organize more generally, what kinds of structures and decision-making we ought to employ, what issues we should highlight, and so on. Sticking to the main thrust of this article, however, let me just add a word on the key divide about the war, if you will, emerging among those who oppose it.
One school of antiwar thought urges that the assault against Yugoslavia is criminal and stems from U.S. imperial designs on the entire Balkan region that have been thwarted by Milosevic who must (in the eyes of the U.S.) therefore be eliminated and whose country must be dismantled. Milosevic and the Serbs, on their side, are waging a just war and deserve positive support. This view is loosely associated with The International Action Center (IAC) and Ramsey Clark, though weaker versions are simply that the war is horrific and any mention of crimes by those being bombed is out of place.
Another view says the bombing and any invasion by NATO/U.S. is criminal and immoral and must be ended. The ethnic cleansing by Milosevic and Serb troops is also criminal and immoral and must also be ended. U.S. policy stemmed from worries about U.S. interests being threatened (not concern for the well being of any local human constituencies) and took the form it did for reasons of big power cost/benefit analysis (to promote NATO, degrade the UN, undercut international law, and make good the threat of U.S. bullying by force). This view is associated with many diverse organizations and individuals, but for purposes of this Z article might best be identified with the articles by Chomsky and by Shalom and myself last issue.
Anti-war critics with these two stances, let’s call it Stance 1 and Stance 2, confront one another with partial agreement and partial disagreement. The agreement is that the war is horrible and the bombing should stop and no invasion should occur. The focus of actions bearing on the region ought to be the human well being of those living there, not the interests of elites in the U.S. or NATO nations. The disagreements are about the proximate cause and the proper stance to take in opposing the bombing. The difference about what the cause is, is far less critical than the diference about how to best oppose the bombing.
Stance 1 folks generally feel that what is going on was, from the outset, a plan to dismember Yugoslavia in order to either (a) punish or remove an obstacle to U.S. desires in the region, or (b) protect/grab valuable assets on the ground in the region, or (c) fulfill a grand scheme of Balkan domination. They tend to feel that the proximate events in the region are mere pretext and excuse. Stance 2 folks, in contrast, generally agree that these kinds of motivations sometimes drive U.S, policy as primary cause, but in this case operate only opportunistically and only after proximate events in the area brought on the attacks. However, Stance 2 folks go on to highlight that Serb policies in Kosovo brought on the attack not because of humanitarian concern by the U.S. or NATO for the Kosovar Albanians, of course, but because of concern that the evolving conflict would continue to enlarge, engulfing new regions and drawing in additional governments, finally undermining U.S. authority and threatening other assets in Europe if Washington did not take action. Both sides therefore agree that the U.S./NATO is not intervening to help people, but the two stances disagree about why the U.S./NATO is intervening. These differences though real and significant do not bear on opposing or not opposing the bombing. Both stances come to the same conclusion on that score.
The difference about how to oppose the bombing is more substantial and important, however. Stance 1 folks generally say that the events in the area not only have nothing to do with U.S. motives but also are not relevant to discuss much less to denounce on the left. There is no need or reason to decry Serb crimes, they believe, and in fact Stance 1 folks rarely acknowledge that the Serbs have been criminal at all, or at least criminal beyond what one would anticipate in such a setting, or beyond, say, the parallel acts of the Kosovar Albanians. More, Stance 1 folks tend to say that to talk about Milosevic in negative terms, or about Serb policies in negative terms, is to play into the hands of NATO who is demonizing Milosevic and now the entire Serb population to acclimate audiences to bombing them to oblivion. They criticize criticism of Milosevic as abetting the warmakers.
Stance 2 antiwar folks, in contrast, say (a) the true facts are that Serb policies have been horrible and that Milosevic is indeed a purveyor of criminal ethnic policies in the region and against the Kosovar Albanians–though at far less scale than NATO propagandists portray, (b) to deny Milosevic’s criminal acts or even just side-step discussing them casts into doubt one’s honesty and sensitivity to reality, thereby undercutting potential for one’s anti-war efforts, and (c) people will stay out of and distrust a movement that downplays the crimes of Milosevic’s regime because of not wanting to abet Milosevic, hide injustice, etc. Yes the U.S./NATO are demonizing Milosevic and the Serbs as a community, but to counter that one can’t just reflexively come to the conclusion that the opposite is true.
This is not a small difference. It affects what type of writing and speaking one does, what type of demands and focuses one favors, and what type of demonstrations with what tone and styles and constituencies one organizes. Stance 1 folks claim that by criticizing Milosevic and ethnic cleansing at a demo one is driving away certain folks who are anti-war…militant Serb nationalists, among others. This is likely true. But Stance 2 folks reply that by not criticizing Milosevic and welcoming such folks, giving demonstrations a pro-Serb and even pro-Milosevic appearance and tone, one is driving away other folks, those who oppose war but don’t want to side with ethnic cleansing. This is a tactical matter, so to speak, though one in which I have to admit the Stance 2 position seems overwhelmingly more tactically wise. Above tactics, however, there is the matter of principle and truth. The simple matter that, in fact, ethnic cleansing is vile, is occurring, and deserves to be opposed.
It would be remiss to close without also noting that it turns out that advocates of the Stance 1 analysis and lay-off Milosevic approach are often guided by Marxist Leninist and sect leadership — not always, certainly, but often. The IAC, for example, is largely guided by the Workers World Party. Advocates of the Stance 2 analysis who critique and oppose Milosevic while primarily fighting the war are often independent leftists, often quite critical of Leninism and especially of sect politics – though again, not always (for example ISO leans toward Stance 2). The connections between these underlying allegiances and the debate over how to address the war or even basic causes no doubt exist–perhaps, for example, in allegiance to the idea of setting aside all but principle contradictions versus trying to deal simultaneously with all important dimensions of any conflict or issue–but are hard to identify.
And okay, I admit, sometimes a primal scream is okay, but do it in private, and then get back to work.