War Crimes

Edward Herman offers a moving perspective on U.S. responsibility for the massacre of 3000-5000 prisoners at Dasht-e Leili, Afghanistan. (ZNet, April 7, 2004) But while informing us about this recent crime, he misleads us about earlier war crimes of comparable magnitude. Those offenses were not committed by U.S. allies, but rather by a state that was out of official favor – the former Yugoslavia. Perhaps that is why they seem less significant to Herman – so much so that we find him selectively denying the occurrence of some war crimes as vehemently as he exposes the truth about others.


Let’s look at some of his misstatements – which are found in almost every mention he makes of the Balkan conflicts.




Herman writes:


It will be recalled that 45 bodies at Racak in Kosovo in January 1999 caused then Yugoslavia Tribunal prosecutor Louise Arbour to cry out about war crimes and try to rush to the scene, with ensuing publicity that had much to do with the March 1999 commencement of the bombing attack on Yugoslavia.”


The Serbian massacre of 45 villagers at Racak has been documented in tremendous detail. Independent investigators, including Human Rights Watch and the European Union’s Forensic Expert Team, have reached the same conclusion – that the victims were civilians. (1)


In writing about the Racak massacre, Herman ambiguously refers to 45 “bodies.” Thus he preserves his previously articulated position that the Racak massacre was actually faked by the Kosovo Liberation Army. See, for example, Herman’s ZNet Commentary of July 4, 2001, where he wrote:


“The one pre-bombing incident mentioned in the indictment, the Racak massacre, has been called into serious question; and at present the most credible among the competing claims is that the “massacre” was a KLA-staged event organised following a fire fight” … (2)


Racak was not the only “pre-bombing incident” in the Hague indictment of Milosevic and others. (The March 8, 1999 Serbian attack on the village of Kotlina is also cited.) (3) But more significantly, there were numerous other Serbian war crimes committed against Kosovo Albanians in 1998.


* In that year, Serbian forces committed widespread killings of Albanians, destruction of villages, and expulsions of the civilian population. (4)

* Serbian authorities killed over 1900 Albanians, burned over 40,000 houses and flats, and looted extensively. (5)

* About 460,000 people had been expelled from their towns and villages before the beginning of NATO’s intervention. (6)


For Herman to have participated in such war-crimes denial in the immediate aftermath of the Racak massacre could be portrayed charitably as the reflexive musing of an uninformed pundit. But by 2001, and certainly at this late date, the most generous description on hand is “willful disregard for the truth.” Why has he been a consistent denier of Serbian war crimes in Kosovo?




Continuing, Herman misrepresents the well-documented history of the Serbian massacre of over 7000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica – endorsing claims that even the Bosnian Serb authorities have now abandoned:


The Srebrenica killings in July 1995 were alleged to number 7,000-8,000, but nowhere near that number of bodies were ever found, and many of those found were not executed but were killed in furious battles (with hundreds of Bosnian Serb soldiers killed in the same fighting).”


As of last July, over 6,000 bodies of civilian massacre victims had been found near Srebrenica, according to the London Independent (7); there have been more than 1,600 DNA identifications. The rest, exhumed from mass graves, await identification, but there is no doubt that they are also civilian victims of the Serbian massacre of Bosnian Muslims. So far, 60 mass graves had been found in the Srebrenica vicinity as of last year.


These numbers are certainly out of date already, and excavation of graves continues. One employee of the International Commission for Missing Persons recently said, “I don’t really know if there will ever come a time when finding bodies will stop.” The same month that Herman’s article appeared, Bosnian Serb authorities revealed the existence of previously unknown mass graves of Muslim victims. This is no surprise, since more graves are regularly found throughout the exhumation season – the season that the ground is not frozen.


The New York Times (October 12, 2003) reported the confessions of two high-ranking Bosnian Serb officers; in May 2003 the officers had admitted their participation in the planning and implementation of the massacre, and the subsequent burial and reburial of the victims’ bodies. In November 2003, the London Independent reported that “The Bosnian Serb government has admitted for the first time that Bosnian Serb forces were responsible for the mass slaughter of Muslims in Srebrenica…” (8) For the complete depositions of the Bosnian Serb officers, see the links at the end of the Independent article.


Herman asserts that “many of those found were not executed but were killed in furious battles (with hundreds of Bosnian Serb soldiers killed in the same fighting).” But Herman’s claim is false – the Srebrenica massacre took place without a battle. The Srebrenica victims exhumed from mass graves were not killed in any fighting. There was an ineffective Muslim resistance in the years before the fall of Srebrenica, and minor skirmishes afterward. No Serbs were killed in commission of the massacre of Bosnian Muslims, and in any event, Serbian forces killed in minor fighting elsewhere were not buried in mass graves by their compatriots.


False quote from the State Department


Herman writes:


“—The Principles: Where the Godfather can use killings to justify his intervention, killings by the target will be labeled a “massacre,” or even “genocide,” their size will be inflated (100,000 and 500,000 killed in Kosovo were figures thrown out by the State Department during the 78-day bombing war), and large resources will be expended in forensic searches for bodies (Clinton gave the ICTY $26 million for such a post-bombing-war search in Kosovo in 1999).”


An interesting claim, this figure of 500,000, but where did Herman get it? Not from the State Department (9). Rather, it apparently originated in a New York Times article of November 11, 1999, which said,


“During the war, however, estimated death figures were very high. On April 19, the State Department said that up to 500,000 Kosovar Albanians were missing and feared dead.” (10)

But the Times erred, and two days later it published a retraction, stating, “The [State] Department did not say that up to 500,000 Kosovar Albanians were missing and feared dead.” (11)

Herman might make a case that the U.S. manipulated public opinion to gain support for intervention in Kosovo. But it is unfortunate that he is still relying on misinformation, and at the same time denying Serbian atrocities.

Why question these details at this late date?


Herman continues, 5-10 years after the fact, to present false versions of the Balkan wars. Perhaps he has been misled by his sources, in which case I urge him to find primary sources of information and evaluate them critically, rather than ignoring the readily available facts. (12)


The effect of Herman’s use of false information about the Yugoslav wars is to demean the efforts of the Albanian people of Kosovo, who struggled against the Milosevic tyranny for over a decade. His denial of the crimes committed against the Albanians is found not just in the ZNet articles, but repeatedly over the past several years. And his denial of the war crimes of Srebrenica is another attempt to turn history upside down, again victimizing the victims. Arguments such as his surely contributed to the failure of most progressives to oppose crimes against humanity in Bosnia and Kosovo.


What would be Herman’s purpose in misrepresenting history to such an extent? His ersatz facts are used to make his case that Western powers should not have intervened in the Yugoslav wars of dissolution. That argument can be made, and opposed, but it must be made on the basis of the truth. Otherwise, progressives will find ourselves cluelessly supporting the “enemy of our enemy.” We can act as anti-imperialists without joining forces with regional fascists whose interests happen to be different than those of the U.S.


This is not the first time we have had to face such issues, and probably not the last.



(1) Click here for an index of credible reports on the Racak massacre.


(2) “Report on Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law in Kosovo in 1998.” February 1999, No Peace Without Justice, the CAMPAIGN section (III), part C.


(3) See the indictment here. The March 8, 1999 attack on Kotlina (Kotlinë) is mentioned in Count I, paragraph 63k (i). For details on this attack, see transcripts of testimony at the Hague war crimes tribunal here and here.


(4) Posted at http://www.spectrezine.org/war/EdHerman.doc.htm.


(5) “Report on the violation of human rights and freedoms in Kosova in the course of 1998.” Council for The Defence of Human Rights and Freedoms (Prishtina), January 22, 1999.


(6) â€œUNHCR Kosovo Crisis Update,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees. March 30, 1999.


(7) “Remains of dozens found in Bosnia’s largest grave” The Independent (UK), July 29, 2003.


(8)Bosnian Serbs finally admit truth of Srebrenica deaths” The Independent (UK), November 5, 2003.


(9) Checking the State Department’s press release of April 19, 1999, we find the following language:


“Refugees have claimed that Serb forces are systematically separating military-aged men from the groups, and the vast majority of refugees crossing international borders out of Kosovo, especially into Albania, have been women and children. We are gravely concerned about the fate of the missing men. Their number ranges from a low of 100,000, looking only at the men missing from among refugee families in Albania, up to nearly 500,000, if reports of widespread separation of men among the [Internally Displaced Persons] within Kosovo are true.”


A misreading of this press release was the basis for the erroneous New York Times report of November 11, 1999 (corrected by the Times two days later).


(10) New York Times, November 11, 1999. Reproduced at Balkan Peace.


(11) See the correction, published November 13, 1999.


(12) Among many others, one useful source for Herman, would be Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), whose investigation of the Dasht-e Leili deaths he cites. In 1996, PHR’s forensic scientists conducted investigations establishing that that Bosnian Serb forces had systematically murdered thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica. See PHR-USA, and search the site for references to Srebrenica.

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