Source Sid Shniad
Date 99/05/10/20:52

The National Post Monday, May 10, 1999


We've reached such a level of callousness that our media
barely notice NATO's accidental murder of scores of civilians
in one incident after another. After the war ends, we'll surely question
the barbarism into which we've descended.

By Michael Bliss

The idealists who support NATO's war against Yugoslavia will
suffer multiple disillusionments in its aftermath.
The ability to mobilize idealism has been the key to the public
support NATO's attacks on Yugoslavia have enjoyed. Important
legal and strategic issues have been swept aside by the claim that
the Milosevic regime represents radical evil, that it is pursuing a
genocidal policy of ethnic cleansing, which, according to NATO
and many Western politicians, includes systematic rape, mass
executions, and other atrocities. We are fighting a regime that
commits crimes against humanity, we are told, a government that
ranks with Hitler's or with the murderous regimes of Cambodia and
Our side has no aim in the war except to stop the evil. We
desire no territory, and we are promising to spend billions after the
war rebuilding Yugoslavia and neighbouring countries. Even if the
war isn't going very well, we can at least take comfort in knowing
that our intentions are honourable. It's all OK, Gwynne Dyer told
Canadians early on in The Globe and Mail, because "at last," we
were involved in "a good war." The editors of the National Post
seem to take the same consolation.
Canadians are a particularly idealistic people when it comes to
world affairs, and this explains why we are one of the more hawkish
NATO warriors. Our Parliament is far more supportive of the war
than the U.S. Congress (A cynic might note the Americans are
expected to do most of the fighting and dying in the good war.)
When Opposition leader Preston Manning cited the "moral
imperative" in justification of the war and began reciting biblical
commandments, those of us who had hoped for tough
parliamentary debate knew it would not happen.
The good people who take a black and white view of the war
will become disillusioned on as many as three levels. First, there is
no doubt that NATO is already working very hard to find a way of
making a deal with the devil. When a diplomatic settlement is
reached, it will leave Milosevic's government in power. He will not
be indicted, let alone tried, as a war criminal.
This will obviously be disillusioning, for the logic of Hitlerizing
Milosevic is that the war must not end until he is captured or dead -
- found, if necessary, in a bunker in the ruins of Belgrade by
invading NATO armies. The American idealist William Safire is
already forecasting a disillusioning settlement, a Clinton sell-out of
the humanitarians, that would be "a triumph for mass murderers
The second level of disillusionment will be triggered when the
NATO governments try to head off just such charges by
downplaying the "mass murderer" theme. The wild accusations of
genocide, mass executions, rape camps, et cetera, will suddenly
end. The official spokesmen who spread the atrocity stories will
remind us that they always said they were unconfirmed. Politicians
such as Tony Blair, Art Eggleton, and Lloyd Axworthy will admit
they exaggerated a bit in the heat of the moment. We will be told
that Madame Justice Louise Arbour's court has standards of
evidence so high they cannot realistically be met. Also that there
seem to have been illegalities on both sides, such as the little matter
of KLA terrorism, and they sort of cancel out, and it's best to put
such matters behind us and get on with the job of rebuilding.
Idealism having served its purpose, being realistic will become the
mode again.
The third level of disillusionment will set in when, after the war
if not as it continues, we realize what NATO has wrought. Our
humanitarians gave the professional destroyers in the military a
mandate to force the Milosevic government back to the bargaining
table and to help the Kosovars. The NATO strategists quickly
found they could not do the latter because the Yugoslavian army
could hide, escape from, or otherwise avoid the air strikes. If
anything, according to The New York Times, NATO has managed
to upgrade the image of Milosevic's army. A previously discredited,
demoralized force is now seen as the protector of the motherland.
Since NATO's air campaign cannot destroy the Serb military, it
has turned to trying to destroy Serb morale. It has gradually
escalated its assault on the infrastructure of everyday life -- bridges,
roads, automobile and fertilizer factories, television stations, now
electricity. Such a campaign inevitably means more "collateral
damage," i.e. civilian casualties. One can imagine NATO planners
whispering to one another -- they won't be so stupid as to put it on
paper -- that the more collateral damage there is, the faster civilian
morale will crumble. In other words, NATO is skirting as close as it
dares to the kind of terror bombing that we inflicted on Hitler's
The radical idealists, claiming the causes are equally just, see no
reason to stop. Yes, it takes a while to break the will of a people --
but punish them enough and they'll finally give in. We've already
reached a level of callousness where our media barely notice
NATO's accidental murder of scores of civilians in one incident
after another. After the war ends and we come to our senses and
we see how little else has been achieved, we'll surely question the
barbarism into which we've descended.
Hitler's war, which we fought coldly and cynically, is the wrong
analogy to the Yugoslavian conflict. The last great humanitarian
war, which Canadians and Americans fought in the shining hope
that it would establish a new era of peace and human rights
everywhere, was the Great War of 1914-1918. Then, as now, we
had no ambition except to do good. Then, as now, we demonized
the enemy, believing all sorts of wild atrocity stories that turned out
to be unfounded. Then, as now, we blundered into a grim war of
attrition. We sacrificed the lives of hundreds of thousands of good
people and were driven by our idealism to support horrible
slaughter. We achieved almost nothing, worse than nothing
according to Niall Ferguson's new book, The Pity of War, and we
became disillusioned afterwards.
NATO bills this assault the war to end the tyranny of the nation
state and to establish the new regime of human rights. A new
generation of innocents believes in a great cause and sends their
bombers off to kill and maim. (Though it's true that we do not quite
have our forefathers' courage in the matter, so we won't risk very
many of our own or our children's lives.) We assuage nascent guilt
about the war by promising aid to rebuild afterwards.
The truth is that no amount of conscience-money will bring
back the lives sacrificed when idealists and politicians, with hardly
any idea of what they were doing, unleashed generals, their
firepower, and their propaganda machines. In the name of stopping
crimes against humanity we find ourselves committing humanitarian
crimes. What a way to usher in a new millennium.

Michael Bliss is a professor of history at the University of Toronto.

[View the list]

InternetBoard v1.0
Copyright (c) 1998, Joongpil Cho