Anti-War Movement and Kosovo
By MARTY JEZER
Dan Ellsberg, who I recently heard speak about Kosovo, said that anyone
who isn't conflicted about the war hasn't thought about it deeply.
Ellsberg is the former marine and Pentagon official who turned against the
Vietnam war and made public the Pentagon Papers, a collection of government
documents that proved the anti-war movement's claim that the U.S. government
was deceiving the public.
Before Ellsberg acted, he agonized about his changing opinion of the war.
Kosovo engenders similar anguish within the anti-war movement. It pits two
strong impulses against each other. The first is the belief that the U.S.
is inherently imperialistic, that all our wars are waged for economic dominance.
The second is that we must stand up and defend victims of racial, ethnic,
or religious oppression.
Ellsberg was like many anti-war activists who reacted viscerally against
the Serbian ethnic cleansing. Whatever they thought of U.S./NATO motives,
they supported the intervention to protect the Kosovars. As readers of this
column know, I, too, held this position.
Very quickly it became apparent, however, that the bombing was not helping
the Kosovars and was, indeed, making the situation in the Balkans worse.
Ellsberg, with his military knowledge, quickly concluded that bombing alone
could not help the Kosovars and that a ground invasion would incite the
Serbs to move from ethnic cleansing into full-scale genocide, exterminating
fighting-age Kosovar males and using women and children against NATO ground-forces
as hostages and shields. In his talk, Ellsberg called for stopping the bombing
and negotiating a settlement as the only solution.
Early in the war, I made the distinction between bombing in Serbia, which
I opposed, and bombing military targets in Kosovo, which I thought legitimate.
But NATO seems to have collapsed that distinction, adopting a strategy of
deliberately targeting civilian areas in order to break the will of the
Serbian people. The U.S. tried this strategy in Vietnam (bombing Hanoi)
and the policy failed.
There's another wing of the anti-war movement, and it has opposed the NATO
intervention from the beginning. The "anti-imperialist" wing has
insisted that NATO's motive is economic dominance. But the facts don't fit
their ideological paradigm. Capitalism doesn't care who wields power in
the Balkans. Multinationals have done business with leaders as bloody as
Milosevic. It makes no difference for them if there is a Greater Serbia
or a Greater Albania. The war in Kosovo isn't an uprising of exploited workers
against economic oppression. It is a war of ethnic hatred, with an identifiable
aggressor and an obvious victim. Economics does not enter into it.
Opponents of NATO also argue that while Milosevic is bad, it was the NATO
bombing, not Serbian forces, that sent the Albanians fleeing. Here, too,
the facts don't fit the argument. When it comes to bombing Serbia, NATO's
opponents assert, it wasn't working. It only steeled Serbian resolve. The
Albanians Kosovars, on the other hand -- after one day of NATO bombing,
they upped and ran, abandoned their homes and fled for safety. They can't
have it both ways: Bombing either dislocates a people or it doesn't. The
Serbs remained in Serbia because no one was attacking them on the ground.
The Kosovars fled for their lives not from the bombing, but because they
were driven out by the Serbs.
Increasingly, it seems, the "anti-imperialists" wing tilted toward
the Serbs. Anti-NATO websites regularly published distressing e-mail messages
from English-speaking Serbs. One website featured a Serb in Belgrade who
described the NATO bombing as worse than anything Hitler had done to Serbia.
I don't argue with the Serb's anguish. His city was under attack. I am appalled,
however, that his message was used as anti-NATO propaganda. To compare the
NATO bombing, however horrendous, with anything the Nazis did is an insult
to our ability to make moral and factual distinctions. The e-mail messages
also created a one-sided sympathy. The Kosovars could not flee with their
laptop computers. The Serbs stole all their valuable possessions.
How do we know this? How do we know that ethnic cleansing was Serb policy?
In the New York Times, veteran journalist John Kifner gave a convincing
account of what happened in Kosovo in the days leading up to and shortly
after the first NATO bombing. Ethnic cleansing was planned, organized, ruthless,
and effective. But who believes the Times anyway? Kifner covered
the anti-war movement during the Vietnam Era and was much admired by activists
for the fairness and accuracy of his reporting. He was a good reporter then
and he remains one now. The best accounts of Balkan ethnic cleansing have
come from journalists like Kifner, honest reporters who propagandize for
The anti-imperialists were correct on an important point, however. NATO
and the U.S. are unable to effectively conduct a war for humanitarian purposes.
This campaign was ill-conceived and poorly planned. The intelligence was
lousy. NATO thought it could force Milosevic to withdraw from Kosovo with
a few days of intensive bombing. And it seemed that NATO prefered total
victory than a solution that helps the Kosovars.
Diplomacy worked, however slowly. Had the bombing stopped earlier, diplomacy
might have worked earlier. But the anti-war movement may have to acknowledge
this discomforting contradiction: Perhaps it was the bombing that forced
negotiations. And if NATO had done nothing, as the anti-imperialist faction
proposed, the Kosovars would likely be facing a hard winter in refugee camps
and the rest of their lives in exile.
Marty Jezer of Brattleboro, Vt., was a founding editor of the pacifist
magazine WIN (Peace and Freedom Through Nonviolent Action) during
the Vietnam Era. Comments appreciated at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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