The NATO-Media Lie Machine


NATO’s “humanitarian”
enterprise in Kosovo was built on a structure of lies, many of them flowing
from NATO headquarters and officials of the NATO powers, and uncritically
passed along by the mainstream media of the NATO countries. One of the great
ironies of Operation Allied Force, NATO’s brief 1999 war against Serbia,
was that Yugoslavia’s broadcasting facilities were bombed by NATO on
the claim that they were a “lie machine” serving the Yugoslav apparatus
of war. This was contrasted with the NATO media, which in the view of NATO
officials, and in that of media personnel as well, were “objective”
and provided what Richard Holbrooke described as “exemplary” coverage.
It never occurred to media leaders and journalists that Holbrooke’s accolade
should embarrass them—although were Slobodan Milosevic to have lauded
the Serb media’s performance as “exemplary” we suspect their
NATO-bloc counterparts would have interpreted this as proof of the “lie
machine” accusation. The double standard runs deep.

An important reason for the congruity between Holbrooke’s and the media’s
views was the sense of self-righteousness that accompanied Operation Allied
Force. The belief that NATO was fighting a “just war” against an
evil enemy had been so well cultivated over the prior decade that for the
media, “getting on the team” and thereby promoting the war effort
seemed perfectly consistent with “objective” news reporting. This
perspective, which was not shared by most governments and media outside NATO,
or by a vigorous but marginalized media within the NATO countries, was ideal
from the viewpoint of the NATO war managers, as it made their mainstream media
into de facto propaganda arms of NATO. Ultimately, this gave NATO and its
dominant governments a freedom to ignore both international opinion and international
law—and to destroy and kill—that would have been far more difficult
to achieve if their media’s performance had been less “exemplary.”

Genocide Politicized

One of the many successes of the NATO-media
lie machine was effectively pinning the label of “genocide” on the
Serbs for their operations in Kosovo. “Genocide,” like “terrorism,”
is an invidious but fuzzy word, that has long been used in propaganda to describe
the conduct of official enemies. It conjures up images of Nazi death camps
and is frequently used along with the word “holocaust” to describe
killings that are being condemned. On the Nazi-Jewish Holocaust model, genocide
implies the attempt to wipe out an entire people. But in the Genocide Convention
of 1948 the word was defined more loosely as any act “committed with
the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or
religious group as such.” The Convention even included in genocide acts
that were causing serious “mental harm” or inflicting “conditions
of life” aimed at such destruction. This vagueness has contributed to
its politicization, and Peter Novick notes how in the 1950s its users “focused
almost exclusively on the crimes—sometimes real, sometimes imagined—of
the Soviet bloc” (The Holocaust in American Life).

It is a notorious fact that the Clinton administration carefully refrained
from using the word genocide to apply to the huge 1994 Rwanda massacres of
Tutsis by the Hutus. To have allowed the word to be used there would have
suggested a need to act, and having decided not to act, the decision to avoid
using an emotive word that might have mobilized public opinion on the need
to act followed accordingly. By contrast, in the case of Kosovo, the decision
to act demanded the mobilization of opinion to support violent intervention,
so the aggressive use of the word genocide followed.

In the context of the wars over the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and in its
opportunistic use elsewhere, the word genocide has been applied loosely wherever
people are killed who are deemed “worthy” victims. In our view this
is not only opportunism but also a corruption of meaning of a word whose unique
sense implies not just killing or massacre but an attempted extermination
of a people, in whole or substantial part.

Genocide Pinned on Serbia

The word genocide was applied to the
Serbs in the early 1990s by some Western analysts and journalists who had
aligned themselves with other Yugoslav factions (notably the Bosnian Muslims),
but it came into intense use during the NATO 78-day bombing campaign and briefly
thereafter. In good part this escalated usage was a result of the virtual
hysteria of NATO leaders at the Serb reaction to their bombing, which had
been put forward as necessary to stop Serb brutalities against the Kosovo
Albanians but which caused their exponential increase. With the help of the
media, and cries of genocide, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Gerhard Schroeder,
and other NATO spokespersons were able to transform the consequences of their
bombing strategy—the refugee crisis—into its retrospective justification.

To make their case the NATO leaders needed generous numbers of victims, stories
of Serb terror, and images of women and children in flight or being put on
expulsion trains, allowing recollections of trains to Auschwitz. The number
allegedly “missing” and suggested to represent massacre victims
by William Cohen on May 16 was 100,000, a figure which peaked at 500,000 in
a State Department estimate. Both during and after the bombing campaign the
main interest of the cooperative NATO media was in finding victims; a scramble
to unearth and report on “mass graves” was launched. There were
many victims, but the media’s appetite for them was insatiable and their
gullibility led them to make numerous errors, exaggerations, and misrepresentations
(see Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman, eds., Degraded Capability: The
Media and the Kosovo Crisis
, forthcoming from Pluto press, for many illustrations).
Numerous published images of departing Albanian woman and children were linked
to the “Holocaust,” although as one British commentator noted “the
Nazis did not put Jews on the train to Israel, as the Serbs are now putting
ethnic Albanian Kosovars on the train to Albania” (Julie Burchill, Guardian,
April 10, 1999).

The word genocide was applied to Serb operations in Kosovo even before the
NATO bombing, although the number killed in the prior 15 months was perhaps
2,000 on all sides and despite the fact that there was no evidence of an intent
to exterminate or expel all Albanians. The Kosovo conflict was a civil war
with defining ethnic overtones and brutal but not unfamiliar repression (less
ferocious than that carried out by the Croatian army against the Krajina Serbs
in August 1995, in which some 2,500 civilians were slaughtered in the course
of a few days). Even for the period of the bombing the term genocide is ludicrously
inapplicable. The Serb reaction to bombing, while frequently savage, was based
on their correct understanding that the KLA was linked to NATO and that NATO
was giving it air support (Tom Walker and Aidan Laverty, “CIA Aided Kosovo
Guerrilla Army,” Sunday Times [London], March 13, 2000). Their
brutalities and expulsions were concentrated in KLA stronghold areas, and
those expelled were sent not to death camps but to safe havens outside Kosovo.
The intensive postwar search for killings and mass graves has produced under
3,000 dead bodies from all causes—killings of the same order of magnitude
as the 1995 Krajina massacres of Serbs, carried out with U.S. support.

In short, the use of the word genocide for Serb actions in Kosovo was gross
propaganda rhetoric designed to mislead as to the facts and to provide the
moral basis for aggressive intervention. It paralleled the use of the War
Crimes Tribunal to indict Milosevic in the midst of the NATO bombing campaign—an
indictment that was also designed to justify NATO’s increasingly civilian-oriented
(and illegal) bombing of Serbia by demonizing the head of the state under
NATO attack.

Media & Left NATO Propaganda

Having encouraged the disintegration
of Yugoslavia from 1991, and actually obstructed peaceful solutions to the
problem of protecting minorities in breakaway states, the policies of Germany
and the United States in particular assured ethnic violence. Their chosen
villain was Serbia, and an intense official and media focus on Serb crimes
followed. This involved not only selectivity of outrage and a misreading of
causes and locus of responsibility, but also a demonization process helped
along by the one-sided, ahistorical portrayal of events frequently infused
with disinformation (as in the British news station ITN’s fabrication
of a “death” or “concentration” camp at the Trnopolje
refugee center in 1992; see Thomas Deichmann, “The Picture That Fooled
the World,” Living Marxism, Feb. 1997).

Demonization and the continuous purveying of atrocity news created a moral
environment receptive to charges of genocide. This reached deeply into the
liberal and left communities and media, with many liberals or leftists passionate
supporters of “doing something,” including the NATO bombing war.
This was to be expected of the New Republic, where the notion of collective
Serb guilt a la Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners,
conveniently justifying attacking Serbian civil society and committing war
crimes, found a happy home. (Stacy Sullivan, “Milosevic’s Willing
Executioners,” New Republic, May 10, 1999). But it also affected
the Nation, whose UN Correspondent Ian Williams was pleased to see
the UN bypassed in the interest of humanitarian bombing (April 2, 1999), and
where Kai Bird (June 14, 1999) and Christopher Hitchens (November 29, 1999,
among others) both found Serb behavior “genocidal” in the course
of their quasi-defenses of NATO policy. Only Hitchens seemed to suggest that
the Serbs were trying to exterminate a people (based on ludicrous arguments;
see Herman, “Hitchens on Serbia and East Timor,” Z Magazine,
April 1999).

In the mainstream media, genocide was used even more lavishly and uncritically.
Often it was presented in the form of assertions by officials, with numbers
like Cohen’s 100,000, but reporters or commentators rarely if ever challenged
the figures or questioned whether the actions designated as genocidal were
intended to exterminate a people. It was rare indeed to mention the difference
between trains to Auschwitz and to the Albanian border, as did Julie Churchill
in the Guardian.

Genocide was used as a symbol of aversion and disapproval, justifying extreme
measures against the “dictator” and his people—the media felt
impelled to call Milosevic a “dictator” even though this put a crimp
in condemning “ordinary Serbs” as responsible for his actions, but
they managed to do both at the same time (Anthony Lewis, “The Question
of Evil,” NYT, June 22, 1999). Some commentators were carried
away by their own passion, David Rieff, a New York Times, Wall Street Journal,
and Chistopher Hitchens favorite, asserting that “the Milosevic regime
was trying to eradicate an entire people” (“Wars Without End?,”
NYT, September 23, 1999). But most commentators were satisfied with
using the word without getting specific as to meaning or providing facts.
They never acknowledged any military rationale to the post-bombing expulsions
and killings: it was evil people doing evil things for evil reasons.

In a masterpiece of the NATO anti-genocide apologetics genre, the New York
provided Sebastian Junger’s “A Different Kind of Killing”
(NYT Magazine, February 27, 2000), where it is explained that even
if the number of bodies found in Kosovo were not of genocidal scope and some
stories turned out to be untrue, nevertheless “A single murder can be
considered an act of genocide if it can be shown that there was an intent
to kill everyone else in that person’s group.” Junger then recounts
his visit to the site of an unclaimed body of a teenage woman, allegedly kidnapped,
raped, and killed by Serbian “irregular forces.” Junger then says
that, “it was not until this century that a mechanized army carried out
such crimes in the service of its government. That is genocide; the rest is
just violence.” Junger makes not the slightest effort to show that the
“irregular forces” had done this as part of a government plan and
“in the service of its government” rather than on their own, or
that the KLA or U.S. army didn’t carry out similar acts. In short, this
is completely worthless nonsense—but it pins the word genocide on the
official enemy, and therefore the New York Times allows this travesty
to appear in its sunday magazine.

Some Comparative Data

We can also measure the spectacular
politicization of the word genocide by comparing its lavish use in describing
Serb conduct in Kosovo with its minimal use for Turkey’s treatment of
its Kurds in the 1990s (indeed, for decades) and Indonesia’s treatment
of East Timorese in 1999 as well as in earlier years. The force of this comparison
is strengthened by the facts that Turkey killed far more Kurds in the 1990s
than the Serbs killed Albanians in Kosovo, not only before the bombing (whose
number presumably elicited the “humanitarian” intervention) but
even including those killed during the 78-day bombing and war (see Chomsky’s
New Military Humanism). Indonesia’s invasion-occupation led to
the death of almost a third of the East Timor population (1975-1980), and
Indonesia was subsequently responsible for the 1998-1999 slaughter and expulsion
of a still untold number of East Timorese associated with a UN-sponsored election.
The number of East Timorese killed in this latest round of Indonesian terror
far exceeded the pre-bombing total of Kosovo Albanian victims—estimates
run from 3,000-6,000 killed even before the August 30, 1999 referendum unleashed
unrestrained Indonesian destruction and murder—and the grand total for
1999 is surely far larger than the overall total of Kosovo Albanians killed
by the Serbs in 1998 and 1999.

But as Turkey and Indonesia are clients of the United States and the recipients
of aid, military supplies, and diplomatic support from the United States,
Britain, and the Western powers generally, their human rights crimes are never
referred to by Western officials as genocide. In fact, in a droll feature
of the NATO campaign against Serb genocide in Kosovo, Turkey, a member of
NATO, took part in the war against Yugoslavia with direct bombing missions
and the provision of bases for flights of other NATO powers, perhaps generously
reallocating its own forces from the ethnic cleansing of Kurds to “humanitarian”
NATO service.

Given this warm relationship between the NATO powers and Turkey and Indonesia,
we would expect the NATO media to follow in the footsteps of their leaders
and treat Turkey and Indonesia kindly, refraining from serious investigative
effort and the enthusiastic searches for “mass graves” they pursued
in Kosovo, and avoiding the use of an invidious word like genocide in reference
to these client states, no matter how applicable and inconsistent with their
usage of the word as regards Serbia. This expectation is fully realized.

We will limit ourselves here to usage in the New York Times, although
we believe the findings applicable to the general run of mainstream media.
In the Times the bias is startling, and has some unexpected sidelights.
The accompanying table shows that in the year 1999, the word genocide was
ascribed to the Serbs in Kosovo in 85 different articles, including 15 that
began on the front page, and in 16 editorials and op-ed columns. In some of
these articles the word was used repeatedly. (In one remarkable example, during
the current year and outside our sample proper, Michael Ignatieff repeated
the word genocide 11 times in a single op-ed [February 13, 2000]).

By contrast, the word showed up in the Times in only 9 items referring
to East Timor in 1999, only once in an editorial or opinion piece, and only
15 times for East Timor in the entire decade of the 1990s. The word was never
used in a front-page article during the 1990s. Furthermore, no Times
reporter or editorial writer ever used the word genocide in application to
East Timor over the entire period, 1975-1999. (That is to say, in all instances
where the word did appear, it did not express the opinion of the Times
writer, but was attributed to another source.) Anthony Lewis, who repeatedly
referred to Serb action as genocidal and called for Western intervention there,
spoke of “human rights abuses in East Timor” (July 12, 1993), but
he never called it genocide or urged intervention. Barbara Crossette repeatedly
complimented Suharto for bringing “stability” to the region. In
a notable mention of the word genocide, veteran Times reporter Henry
Kamm explicitly denied its application to East Timor, calling such usage “hyperbole,”
and allocating the mass deaths to “cruel warfare and the starvation that
accompanied it on this historically food-short island” (February 15,

Equally remarkable, the table also shows that the word genocide was never
once used in application to Turkey and its treatment of its Kurds in 1999,
and was used only five times for such a relationship in the decade of the
1990s, never in a front-page article. However, in a wonderful illustration
of how the Times follows the line of U.S. foreign policy, the table
shows that Iraq’s mistreatment of its Kurds in the years 1990-1999 was
described as genocidal 22 times, in five cases in front-page articles.  

In short, only “worthy victims”—that
is, the victims of officially designated enemies like Yugoslavia and Iraq—suffer
from genocide; those that are unworthy, like East Timorese and the Turkish
Kurds, are merely subject to “cruel warfare” and adverse natural
forces, as Henry Kamm explained in regard to East Timor. So the Western media
and “international community” will be mobilized on behalf of the
former, and the latter will be compelled to suffer in silence. But as we have
stressed, there never was genocide in Kosovo, so that the NATO war there was
based on a lie. And that lie, like the May 27 indictment of Milosevic by the
War Crimes Tribunal, served mainly to provide a moral cover that allowed NATO
to bomb the hostage population of Serbia into submission. That population
now joins Iraq’s in being subject to further “sanctions of mass
destruction” whose effects offer a much closer fit to “genocide”
than the Serb actions which, allegedly, precipitated NATO’s war.                              Z