Anti-War Movement and Kosovo


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 no one.

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

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