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 Posted Monday, May 10, 1999

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Toronto, Canada, May 10, 1999


When we see how little was achieved, we'll regret everything

Post-war disillusionment ahead

Professor 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 Rwanda.

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 everywhere."

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 Germany.

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.

Our opinion
  ONCE again the National Post has given space to an academic who has expressed sentiments shared by millions of ordinary civilians around the world.

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