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News & Politics

Peering Through the Smoke: The Truth about the Balkan War

After months of coverage on Kosovo, most Americans probably assume that they are well-informed about the war in the Balkans. But are they? How many know, for instance, that the war may cost us more than $50 billion, or that the Kosovo Liberation Army fought our ground war for us? Paul Rea takes a hard look at the media myths spun by government spokespeople and mainstream reporters about the Balkan war.
"The first casualty of war is truth." -- Herodotus, Greek historian, 450 B.C. After months of coverage on Serbia and Kosovo, most Americans probably assume that they are well-informed about the war in the Balkans. But are they? How many know, for instance, that the Serbians have not only forced great numbers of refugees to flee Kosovo, but that just a few years ago, several hundred thousand Serbians were themselves forced to flee Bosnia and Croatia?Or how many Americans know that the Air Force has used the same depleted-uranium warheads that, because they spew out radioactive dust, have led to an epidemic of cancers in Iraq? A responsible reporter might have posed these simple questions to the president: "If we're saving the Kosovars, why are we irradiating their homeland? Aren't there safer ways to take out Serbian tanks?" But during wartime, much of the mainstream media serves as patriotic cheerleaders, not truth-seekers. Given the often skewed coverage by the mass media, it becomes increasingly crucial that responsible citizens inform themselves. A critical examination blows the lids off the following six myths, which were successfully spun by government spokespeople and daily reporters.1. The war achieved its objectives.To be sure, it is heartening to see Kosovar Albanians returning to their homes and to observe a halt to a government's genocidal mistreatment of its citizens. But as in the bombing, there has been excessive "collateral damage." President Clinton's statement to the nation last March indicated that a central purpose of the NATO bombing was to prevent further "ethnic cleansing." Obviously this objective was not achieved, for the atrocities increased with the onset of the bombing. Granted, President Milosevic may well have harbored plans to intensify his attacks on ethnic Albanians. But during the entire year before the bombing, 2000 Kosovars had died in "ethnic cleansing;" many times that number died in just the first few weeks after the bombing started. The allied strategy backfired disastrously.The Center for Defense Information suggests that once allied airmen had taken down the Serb air defenses, "NATO resorted to simply punishing Serbia for its deeds -- hence the bombing of industry and infrastructure unrelated to the horrible events going on in Kosovo." There was little reporting about this strategy of punishing Milosevic -- it all focused on stopping the violence in Kosovo.In fact, the air strikes may have protected the Serbian military more than the Kosovar refugees. It was hardly effective to intervene against small Serbian units from 15,000 feet, yet NATO was not willing to take the risks involved with striking the perpetrators more decisively. U.S. Army Apache attack helicopters, often touted as the ideal weapon to eliminate the Serb armored forces, never even saw action. There was a vast difference between the risks that the U.S. military was willing to run in order to retrieve a single downed American pilot, compared to those it was willing to run to save the lives of thousands of Kosovars.The tragedy that ensued can hardly be seen as a victory for anyone. Tens of thousands people died; hundreds of thousands became homeless; much of Serbia lies in rubble; and whole areas of Kosovo lie in utter ruin.2. The war was minimally costly.While the lack of casualties might lead Americans to imagine that their country executed this campaign cheaply, such is not the case at all: American taxpayers will be paying off the bills for a long, long time. As one might expect, high-tech warfare is very costly. Cruise missiles cost $1 million apiece, and the military fired hundreds of them. The F-117 fighter bomber that went down cost a cool $50 million, and each B-2 Stealth bomber cost $2.2 billion, more than the total yearly economic output of Albania. So far, the cost to the American taxpayer is estimated at more than $3 billion; the damage to Serbia runs at least $40 billion.As he pursued the bombing campaign, President Clinton had to ask Congress for several billion dollars in extra appropriations to pay for it. Already, Mr. Clinton has dipped into the Social Security fund to pay for the war. Already, Mr. Clinton has promised $72 million in food for Macedonia alone. Washington dangles the carrot of a new "Marshall Plan" before the Yugoslav people, urging them to overthrow Milosevic. But who pays for the reconstruction? Over the course of several wars a pattern has emerged. First, taxpayers pay to build the high-tech weaponry. Next, they pay to destroy the target country. Then they pay to feed and house the populations ravaged by the war. Finally, they pay to rebuild the country's infrastructure. Much as the original Marshall Plan allowed many Americans to overlook their country's excessive use of air power at the end of World War II, the current plans to rebuild Kosovo encourage Americans to feel good about a morally and legally indefensible foreign policy.Without a never-ending supply of enemies, how could the Pentagon justify its budget of nearly $300,000,000,000 a year? According to The Economist, we spend 3.3 percent of our Gross Domestic Product on the military, fully double the 1.5 percent that Germany allocates and one-third more than all the other NATO countries combined. Imagine how our country would have benefited had these same sums of money gone toward improving education, saving Social Security, reducing pollution, or funding Medicare.But such monetary costs are just the beginning; the less tangible costs of the war run equally high. Significant damage has been done to relations with many countries. NATO's high-handedness has repeatedly humiliated Russia, a nation with a large nuclear arsenal under an unstable command structure. These humiliations are influencing the ongoing prospects of world peace. Given Russia's desperate economic conditions and the power-oriented mentality of leaders both here and there, the U.S. may soon find itself playing a high-risk game of nuclear Russian roulette. As the editors of The Nation report, "in the middle of the war the Russian National Security Council approved the modernization of all nuclear warheads. The derailing of nuclear arms control is one the gravest long-term costs of the Kosovo war."And then there is the sharp deterioration of U.S. relations with China, a development with similarly ominous consequences. Michael Hirsh, a diplomatic correspondent for Newsweek, reveals that Russia and China have "formed a joint front against NATO. If it holds, this could be the ultimate blowback: Russia, devastated economically, has weapons to sell; a new nationalistic China, which is backward militarily but wealthier economically, may now want to buy a lot more of them." Could a China emboldened with more nuclear weapons possibly attempt to seize its former province of Taiwan, provoking a nuclear showdown?The current increase in anti-Americanism around the globe could have been foreseen. Earlier this year, before the bombing began, Samuel Huntington of Harvard warned in Foreign Affairs that Washington is treading a dangerous course. In the eyes of much of the world, Huntington suggested, the United States is "becoming the rogue superpower," and a threat to foreign governments' sovereignty. Furthermore, several veterans of the American foreign policy establishment have, since the war's completion, expressed concerns about the rise in hatred of this country, especially its arrogance of power.If this seems simplistic, consider that, on the very same day the Senate voted to reduce American support for the U.N. it also voted three times as much -- $3 billion -- to bolster security at American embassies around the world. Perhaps we should add these expenditures to the total price of American militarism.Any reduced security for American citizens, whether to relax at home or to travel abroad, marks a reduction in the freedoms we profess to cherish. How ironic that military interventions supposed designed to "protect America's freedom" are having exactly the opposite effect. 3. Air power did the job.Media pundits and government sources have tended to promote the myth of "victory" via bombing alone. However, contrary to the U.S. Air Force's self-congratulations, the Center for Defense Information explains that the outcome was not decided through air power alone. If it were not for the Kosovo Liberation Army, the Center's military professionals note, NATO pilots might still be squinting through their bombsights in search of Yugoslav tanks.The Pentagon's June 10 press briefing itself substantiates that most of the damage inflicted on Serb forces began around the time of the Kosovo Liberation Army offense in late May. In short, NATO did send its ground troops into battle -- there were Albanian soldiers fighting in their place. Even when abetted by ground support, however, the massive bombing campaign had limited military effects. The thousands of Serb tanks, armored personnel carriers, and trucks that clogged the roads during the 11-day withdrawal period obviously found ways to evade NATO's saturation bombings.4. The former Yugoslavia can simply be rebuilt.This war, like the Gulf War, was an eco-catastrophe. At best, the war damage will take generations to repair. Within two weeks following the end of the bombing, two British peacekeepers were killed by an unexploded American cluster bomb, a particularly vicious weapon which explodes into small pellets that rip apart human flesh. If experience in Vietnam is any guide, American "smart bombs" may be blowing away Kosovar farmers as they plow their fields for years to come.Even worse are the pollutants from the destroyed chemical factories and oil refineries. The newspapers featured spectacular shots of fires raging and smoke blackening the skies, but rarely even began to examine what these releases do to living beings. What about the tens of millions of people who drink water from the Danube? What will happen to the already-stressed Black and Mediterranean Seas as all the toxic chemicals eventually find their way there? While most chemical toxins break down over decades, nuclear contaminants take far longer. Radioactive depleted-uranium shells have irradiated large areas -- much as they did in Iraq, where they contributed to many American soldiers contracting the infamous "Gulf War Syndrome." Given the long-term destructiveness of today's weapons, to wage war is to inflict further serious damage on our beleaguered planet.5. NATO did all it could to avert the conflict.The Rambouillet talks preceding the air war can hardly be considered real diplomacy. Secretary of State Madeline Albright insisted on positions that no country could accept. The American media seldom mentioned "Chapter 8, Appendix B," which demanded that NATO soldiers have "unimpeded access" to all of Serbia, not just Kosovo. No leader can accept an ultimatum that asks his country to give up its sovereignty and a key part of its homeland. Rather than looking for creative compromise, then, NATO made Milosevic an "offer" he had to refuse; to accept it would have been to commit political suicide.But was Washington ever interested in a peaceful settlement? Abundant evidence suggests that Secretary of State Albright, supposedly this country's top diplomat, did not favor diplomacy at all. Her prejudice against the negotiation process was blatant; on the eve the Rambouillet talks, for instance, she declared, "If the Serbs are the cause of the breakdown, we're determined to go forward with the NATO decision to carry out air strikes." Yet while she held a gun to the head of the Serbs, she made no such threats to the Kosovo Liberation Army, the other source of violence in Kosovo. The Clinton administration (and, not surprisingly, the American media) have long resisted seeing that the Kosovo conflict was a civil war, and that the level of Serb "ethnic cleansing" had increased with the rise of the KLA.Nor was Albright acting on her own. Soon after the war began, Congress added $16 billion to the already enormous Pentagon budget, while cutting the funding for the U.N. and for the State Department -- in the latter case by nearly one third. Why would Washington favor war over peace? The answer, as usual, comes from following the money. Most obviously, when wars break out, the American arms and aircraft industries get a surge of new domestic orders. Furthermore, the visibility of American weapons assures new overseas arms sales. Wars also provide unparalleled opportunities for advertising high-tech hardware, one of this country's main exports.Moreover, the Pentagon is now able to claim that it is performing, if not its traditional mission of national defense, at least an essential humanitarian service. Since the Iron Curtain came down, the U.S. has lacked any real military threat, making it difficult to justify the Pentagon's inflated budget. As a result, Clinton has made modest cuts. But now, with Russia and China becoming potential antagonists again, and with the Osama Ben Ladens of the world armed with new fuel for their terrorist fires, it should be easier to procure additional money for the national security apparatus.NATO has had a similar identity problem. When the Soviet Union disbanded in 1989, NATO was left with no real purpose. At a May, 1999 meeting NATO attempted to solve this problem by radically redefining itself. Under NATO's new "Strategic Concept," the organization claims the right to "deterring and defending" against any threats within a vaguely defined "EuroAtlantic area." This amounts to a virtual carte blanche for further NATO interventions, all of them outside of -- and in violation of -- the U.N. Charter. Under this formulation, Washington can deflect criticism when it forces its will on other countries. This, of course, is the tactic that Washington has already used to cover its attacks on Iraq and on Kosovo -- American wars cloaked under banners of "multinational intervention." Washington uses the U.N. when it proves useful, but undermines the U.N. when it does not.6. By defending Kosovar Albanians, NATO was upholding international law.In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. NATO's actions repeatedly violated international law, include NATO's own Charter, which authorized military action only in a response to an attack. The U.N.'s Charter also prohibits any international use of force, except in self defense, unless approved by the Security Council. The Geneva Convention forbids many of the military acts committed by NATO. Richard Falk, specialist in international law at Princeton, concludes that "Recourse to bombing civilian targets such as water and electricity infrastructure was a grave violation of the law of war."Unlike the mainstream American press, the World Court has not ignored the flagrant NATO violations. In fact, the tribunal's judges have expressed "profound concern" about the legal basis for NATO's actions. Ironically, the NATO alliance applauds Milosevic's indictment under international laws, while setting itself above these same standards.Our mainstream media's false presentation of the Balkan war is at least troubling, if not downright outrageous. If we fail to challenge these smokescreens, we can expect to suffer a societal moral numbing. And when our moral outrage against war is numbed, what sort of world awaits us and our children in the next millennium?Paul W. Rea, author of Canyon Interludes, welcomes comments at [email protected].
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