Jul
01
1999

Legitimate Targets?

How U.S. Media Supported War Crimes in Yugoslavia

NATO justified the bombing of the Belgrade TV station, saying it was a legitimate military target. "We've struck at his TV stations and transmitters because they're as much a part of his military machine prolonging and promoting this conflict as his army and security forces," U.S. General Wesley Clark explained--"his," of course, referring to Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic. It wasn't Milosevic, however, who was killed when the Belgrade studios were bombed on April 23, but rather 20 journalists, technicians and other civilians.

Clark's logic is exactly the same as that of the death squad commander who orders the assassination of a journalist or a publisher whose opposition newspaper supports the goals of a guerrilla movement. The targeting of the studio was a war crime, perhaps the most indisputable of several war crimes committed by NATO in its war against Yugoslavia.

But let's accept for the sake of argument that it is legitimate to target and kill journalists who are furthering the war aims of your military enemy. Wouldn't the vast majority of U.S. journalists covering the war in Yugoslavia have been, in that case, legitimate targets?

Actually, it could be argued that Yugoslavian state TV was doing less to support its government's war than the bulk of media outlets in the U.S. For the most part, the Serbian media were ignoring the war crimes committed by their own government--the massacres and brutal expulsion of ethnic Albanians from their homes in Kosovo--pretending instead that the massive flow of refugees from Kosovo was solely the result of NATO bombing.

The U.S. media, on the other hand, attempted to justify the war crimes committed by their nation's government, and sometimes even complained that criminal attacks were not being carried out. In their zeal to present the war against Yugoslavia as a moral crusade, members of the media sometimes slipped into the mentality that the attack on Yugoslavia was supposedly intended to combat: the logic of ethnic cleansing.

Real crimes, false guilt

Ethnic cleansers mobilize support by portraying their victims as deserving of victimization--by asserting that, as a group, they are guilty of such crimes or are otherwise so contemptible that being driven from their homes is a small price for them to pay.

Ideally, the propaganda will make use of real atrocities committed by members of the group that one wants to expel. In drumming up support for ethnic cleansing in majority-Serb areas of Croatia and Bosnia, for example, Serbian media in the early '90s dwelt obsessively on the collaboration of some Croatians and Bosnian Muslims with the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia during World War II--collaboration that was real enough, and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Serbs, but which did not transmit a genetic culpability to Croatians and Bosnian Muslims in general. (Belgrade's media seems to have generally avoided this imputation of blood guilt to Albanians during the conflict over Kosovo, instead presenting mostly disingenuous assertions of brotherhood.)

This same technique can easily be used against ethnic Serbs, since there's no lack of atrocities committed by Serbians. Here's the New York Times' liberal columnist Anthony Lewis (5/29/99), explaining why "those who have been critical" of the bombing of Yugoslavia should "think again about which side they are on":

In 1992 the Serbian commander in Bosnia, Ratko Mladic, told his gunners in the hills around Sarajevo, "Burn it all." And they did: hospitals, universities, mosques, homes. That should be remembered when Serbs today describe themselves as victims.

What should be remembered, exactly? That a Serbian committed infamous war crimes, therefore whatever is done to Serbians is excusable? That's probably not too different from what Mladic was thinking about the Bosnian Muslims.

Target Milosevic--or Serbs?

At the beginning of the bombing of Yugoslavia, NATO was stressing the idea that Milosevic alone was responsible for the war, and that the airstrikes were aimed at only him. "We're not at war with anybody, and certainly not with the people of Yugoslavia," NATO spokesperson Jamie Shea insisted at a NATO briefing.

And at first, most of the U.S. media went along with this line, presenting a rather colorless, opportunistic bureaucrat as a Hitlerian lunatic who had single-handedly launched war after war to satisfy his own personal hatreds. "The Face of Evil" was how Newsweek described Milosevic on its April 19 cover. Time's Lance Morrow (4/12/99), with astute grasp of the use of physical detail to inspire hate, described Milosevic's "reddish, piggy eyes set in a big round head." Time (5/3/99) took him even lower down the bestiality scale with a cartoon of "Slobbo the Nutt," a "worm-like leader."

From the beginning, however, there were prominent pundits and news outlets that took issue with the idea that Serbian civilians should not suffer from the bombing. In the April 5 Time, for example, reporter Bruce Nelan took issue with NATO's use of lighter bombs in the Yugoslav war, noting that "smaller bombs means there's less certainty about destroying the target in one attack. And if the pilot has to come back, that increases the risk to him in order to lessen the risk of civilians on the ground--a kind of Disneyland idea of customer service that rankles many war fighters at the Pentagon."

Not long into the war, NATO did relax the rules of engagement for the bombing campaign, quite predictably increasing the number of innocents killed by U.S. bombs--a development that was cheered by some pundits. New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman wrote on April 6 that "people tend to change their minds and adjust their goals as they see the price they are paying mount. Twelve days of surgical bombing was never going to turn Serbia around. Let's see what 12 weeks of less than surgical bombing does. Give war a chance."

Likewise, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer (4/8/99) criticized the "excruciating selectivity" of NATO's bombing raids and applauded the fact that "finally they are hitting targets--power plants, fuel depots, bridges, airports, television transmitters--that may indeed kill the enemy and civilians nearby."

"There would be nothing moving"

It's worth remembering that the laws of war, which the United States and other members of NATO are obligated by treaty to observe, specifically forbid the targeting of civilians or facilities used mainly by civilians. (A rare U.S. media acknowledgement of these obligations occurred in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch op-ed, "Is U.S. Committing War Crimes From on High?", 5/3/99.) Protocol 1, Section IV of the Geneva Convention sets forth the basic rule:

In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.

Keep that legal standard in mind when you read Friedman in the New York Times (4/23/99), sounding remarkably like Ratko Mladic:

Let's at least have a real air war. The idea that people are still holding rock concerts in Belgrade, or going out for Sunday merry-go-round rides, while their fellow Serbs are "cleansing" Kosovo, is outrageous. It should be lights out in Belgrade: Every power grid, water pipe, bridge, road and war-related factory has to be targeted.

Like it or not, we are at war with the Serbian nation (the Serbs certainly think so), and the stakes have to be very clear: Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set your country back by pulverizing you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389 too.

And when you listen to Bill O'Reilly, the top-rated commentator on the Fox News Channel (4/26/99):

If NATO is not able to wear down this Milosevic in the next few weeks, I believe that we have to go in there and drop leaflets on Belgrade and other cities and say, "Listen, you guys have got to move because we're now going to come in and we're going to just level your country. The whole infrastructure is going."

Rather than put ground forces at risk where we're going to see 5,000 Americans dead, I would rather destroy their infrastructure, totally destroy it. Any target is OK. I'd warn the people, just as we did with Japan, that it's coming, you've got to get out of there, OK, but I would level that country so that there would be nothing moving--no cars, no trains, nothing.

These commentators, and others like them, are advocates of war crimes; they're advocating that NATO commit the exact same crimes for which Milosevic was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal. The same section of the Geneva Protocols that forbids the deliberate killing of civilians forbids the targeting of civilian objects, and obviously it's no more legal to tell people to leave their homes or be bombed than it is to tell them to leave their homes or be shot. And the laws of war do not allow one side to commit criminal acts against civilians because crimes have been committed by the other side.

Accountable for the dictator

The concept that underlies these bloodthirsty calls for attacks on Serbian civilians is collective guilt: the idea that an entire ethnic group can be held responsible for the actions of their leaders--or rulers. As Anthony Lewis put it (New York Times, 5/29/99): "NATO air attacks have killed Serbian civilians. That is regrettable. But it is a price that must be paid when a nation falls in behind a criminal leader."

U.S. media saw no contradiction between calling Milosevic a "dictator" and holding the people of Yugoslavia morally responsible for his actions. After starting out with a paragraph worrying that Milosevic might "retreat...from Kosovo with his dictatorship intact," the New York Times' Blaine Harden went on to assert: "It is worth remembering, though, that Mr. Milosevic is an elected leader, having won three elections that were more or less fair." Arguing with a member of Congress, Fox's O'Reilly (4/26/99) declared: "I don't understand why you don't think the Serb people should be held accountable for this dictator. He serves at their behest."

Actually, in his current role as president of Yugoslavia, Milosevic was not popularly elected; he was chosen by the Yugoslav federal assembly, in an irregular vote in which he was the only candidate allowed. Perhaps a more direct indication of the level of Milosevic's support is the fact that an opposition coalition won the November 1996 local elections in 14 of Serbia's 19 largest cities, including many of the communities where NATO's attacks were concentrated.

Still, there was a widespread sense that the Serbs, by failing to respond with outrage to reports of atrocities in Kosovo, had lost the moral standing to protest the NATO bombs falling on Belgrade. In a New Republic article (5/10/99) headlined "Milosevic's Willing Executioners," Stacy Sullivan writes: "The relative absence of effective Serbian protest and, especially, the silence of intellectuals on the matter of war crimes raise disturbing questions about the culpability of Serbs as a whole in the actions of the authoritarian government that rules them." The New York Times' Harden (5/9/99) makes a similar case in an article with the frightening headline "How to Cleanse Serbia"--though it's hard to take an analysis of the Balkans very seriously that refers to Montenegro as an "obscure" place.

How could the people of Serbia sit by while such terrible things are being done? In a country like the United States, where the government has sponsored massive atrocities in countries from Indonesia to Guatemala with only muted protests--where the secretary of state replies to a report that half a million children have been killed in Iraq by sanctions with the statement that "we think the price is worth it" (60 Minutes, 5/12/96)--this question should really not be such a puzzle.

Clearly, believing that there is something essentially wrong with Serbs is a more comforting position than recognizing that people in various countries have the ability to rationalize away the bad things that their governments do. That's a syndrome that media figures who justified the U.S. bombing of civilian targets in Yugoslavia should hardly have been unfamiliar with.

See also:

"War Crimes Law Applies to U.S. Too," by former Nuremberg War Crimes prosecutor Walter J. Rockler (Chicago Tribune, 5/23/99)

"Humanitarian Hypocrisy," by Robert Hayden, from the Law Professors' Network's Legal Guide to the Kosovo Conflict.