Bad Reasons to Oppose the War in Yugoslavia

This war has gone so badly that we have the luxury of sorting out good reasons for opposing it from bad reasons. There are many opponents of the war with whom we have to work, but are obliged to make clear where we take issue with them.

The arguments for the war are so ludicrous that we would not dignify them with a response. What can you say in reply to people who say "any loss of life is regretted" each time they blow up a bus, leaving the dismembered corpses of seven-year-olds scattered along the road? People who insult our intelligence by trying to personalize the war by talking of "degrading his facilities", meaning killing people, or wonder how much punishment "he" can take. People who complain of the smell of death from "the killing fields of Kosovo" at the same time as they turn the whole of Yugoslavia into a graveyard? Who use the third person to describe events - "unfortunately, after weapon release, a bus crossed the bridge" - rather than "we did it". "We have to do something to prevent another Hitler" has turned out to be such a stupid argument, it is leading to questions about why "we" started World War Two.

But if the reasons for supporting the war are obscene, there are also bad reasons for opposing it.

The majority of opponents of the war in the US are conservatives. Among their reasons for opposing the war are that it's too expensive and that Clinton does not have The Moral Authority To Send Our Boys Into Battle. This implies that, if he had the moral authority - like George Bush, who served in the military and was never caught lying in court - it would be ok for him to send Americans to get killed killing Yugoslavs.

There are the anti-fascist arguments, which say we should not kill the Serbs because they fought heroically against the Germans in World War II. A tongue-in-cheek version of this position can be found at A War Too Far by Julie Birchill, The Guardian, 3 April - "Except this time, by reducing Serbia to rubble, side by side with our buddies, the Luftwaffe, we're the Fascists". The crimes of Tito's Yugoslavia against unarmed German and Croatian prisoners and even their families, aided by the British Army, was one of the great atrocities in a century of atrocities. Churchill didn't mention the story in his history of the war.

Even worse is Simon Jenkins' The manner in which we conduct this war demeans British values - The Times, 28 April. Has he never heard of the bombing of Dresden?

Then there are the arguments for staying out of the Balkans because they've all hated each other for hundreds of years and "we" can't stop them. William Rees-Mogg writes in The Times, May 3 1999, "The Balkans have been at war for as long as human history has been recorded". This is simply false. For most of recorded history, and the whole of prehistory, the Balkans was not at war. Marija Gimbutas's extensive archaeological research (eg. The Civilization of the Goddess) shows that even during the birth of the agricultural period, from the 7th to the 3rd millenium BC, Balkan peoples lived in peace. War didn't exist until Indo-European warrior civilizations conquered them. More recently, socialist Yugoslavia was all about affirmative action and ethnic harmony. According to Mogg, "Yugoslavia itself, established in 1919, was always more of a timebomb than a nation. It contained at least six hostile ethnic groups, forced to live inside its borders: Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Bosnian Muslims, Albanians and Hungarians, as well as the smaller minorities".

Does he mean that all the ethnic groups were hostile to all the others all the time? The truth is, most of the people of Yugoslavia didn't even think of themselves as belonging to ethnic groups until their rulers insisted upon it. And they didn't generally fight each other. In fact, most people in Yugoslavia still get along with their neighbors. NATO bombs have destroyed housing projects in which Albanians, Turks and Serbs lived relatively happily. If they had arguments, they were not along racial lines. All the ethnic violence has been caused by small gangs of heavily armed men claiming to belong to particular ethnic groups. These gangs are not an expression of the people they claim to represent. It is these gangs that international bodies like NATO and the UN negotiate with and promote into governments as they carve up the Balkans. In many cases, the violence has not been along ethnic lines anyway. The Yugoslav army has frequently shelled villages regardless of who lives there, forcing the entire population to flee. NATO has of course killed hundreds of civilians of all nationalities.

Give old Moggie his due. At least he opposes the war. But like American conservatives, who oppose the war because "our boys" should not lose their lives fighting Europe's interminable racial conflicts, he does so for the wrong reasons. He concludes from his dismal view of human nature that the Balkans has only been at peace when it was ruled by a strong empire. And "NATO is not an empire" so it should stop trying to knock the backward Balkanites back to their senses. It should be obvious that this is a nominalist argument. NATO is the armed force of a civilization which thinks it can and should rule the world, just like the British Empire, and NATO's conclusions follow from his premises: "we" have to go in there and stop the savages from killing each other.

The USA is a particularly racist country. By this, I'm not referrring so much to outbreaks of race hatred like the recent murder of a black man who was dragged behind a truck by a gang of Texas rednecks until his head came off. I mean the everyday emphasis on ethnicity as an important category. I often meet people who say "I'm Irish" or "I'm Italian". I say "No you're not, you're American". It's a different matter when an African American makes a big deal out of it. Slavery was A Bad Thing, ok? But Americans are generally prone to make an issue out of ethnicity, even where it's clearly irrelevant, as in the case of Italian Americans. Americans are often surprised that British and Irish people are not constantly fighting each other. The US media is largely responsible for projecting their own racism onto other countries. However, the widespread stupidity which prevails in the USA has got something to do with it as well.

Every time someone uses the innocuous word "we" to describe their country's military, they should be challenged, even if they oppose the war, eg. Face it, America, we blew it, Harley Sorensen, SF Examiner, 6 April. George Orwell pointed out at length how language is demeaned by politics to make people think along the lines drawn by politicians. I don't describe the government's campaign of murder as "we". I don't say "we" fought Hitler, or "we" went into Vietnam. I am not involved in the bombing of Yugoslavia. Neither is anyone I know. It isn't us, it's them. The average Joe in Yugoslavia has a lot more in common with us than we have in common with "Mad" Albright and the rest of Washington's Trenchcoat Mafia.

Racism is not natural. If it were, we would have problems figuring out which race to identify with. Measurements of human DNA have shown, roughly, that half of the people in Africa are more closely related to people in the rest of the world than they are to the other half of the people in Africa. Appearances can be deceptive. Racism is produced by a constant barrage of propaganda by the state, backed up with violence. In many cases, a government force will bomb members of their own ethnic category, and blame it on another. This has happened at least twice in Bosnia. Governments, and armed gangs with the ambition of becoming governments, drive people into their allotted ethnicities, often against considerable resistance. Far from being an endemic illness which needs government to keep the lid on, racism is a product of the state.

It is fairly obvious why the state promotes racism. It keeps people divided, so they can't unite and overthrow it. Ethnic conflict and the breakup of Yugoslavia was started when the Yugoslav Communist Party ran out of other ways to prevent strikes. The leading bureaucrats split the party up into its national sections and helped each other out by starting a vicious cycle of racist violence and counter-violence.

The left is just as racist as the right. It is just as racist to make a point of being positive towards members of particular ethnic groups as it is to make a point of being negative. Both left and right emphasize race, giving it more importance than it deserves. From the innocent, bumbling attempts of an American to identify with his Italian ancestors' culture to the assumption that Albanians and Serbs are unable to live together, racism is the road to hell.

The question arises whether it is justified to use arguments you don't believe to achieve something. For example, we think dodging the draft was the only decent thing Clinton ever did. But it is possible to undermine his standing in the military by arguing that, as a draft dodger, he has no right to lead the troops. If, somehow, you could bring the US troops home by arguing that the USA has no vital national interest in the Balkans - the argument of Pat Buchanan et al. - would you not do it, even though you don't support the US national interest?

The answer is not as easy as it seems. In general, we simply try to tell the truth as far as we are able to see it. But this is a war! There is no principle saying you have to be honest. The arguments against dishonesty are practical, not moral. In the first place, you have to be able to back up your original dishonesty with more. Arguments have implications, and false arguments have false implications. Eventually, you would start believing the lies yourself. This is called leftism. The false arguments would backfire - you would be propping up positions which eventually do lead to war. Suppose they replaced Clinton with a man or woman of unimpeachable integrity? Arguing that the USA has no business sorting out European problems implies that European powers do. This was Hitler's delusion. In short, dishonesty is a slippery slope, which no-one is agile enough to step on and survive. We try to stick to our real positions, without making concessions to what most people appear to believe. This does not mean promoting The Dictatorship of the Proletariat for the Abolition of Wage Labor every time you open your mouth. It is necessary to put forward partial arguments. This is particularly easy in a situation like the Kosovo crisis, when the enemy is failing even according to its own standards. There is no point in preaching to workers in uniform in the 90's using the terminology of the communist left in the 20's.

To repeat: the use of the word "we" to describe NATO should never be allowed to pass without comment. It is necessary to defend, in simple terms, the real reasons for bringing this massacre to an end. "Vietnam" is a simple argument. "Innocent civilians" is another. "NATO is making things worse" gets the point across. "We have no interests in common with Clinton and Milosevic, and every interest in common with our fellow workers in Yugoslavia" is a bit more complicated. It is necessary to temper one's anger with patience. Rome wasn't burned in a day. It is justified to undermine the war effort in Western countries by describing in detail the nuclear bomb-proof tunnels from within which the Serbian army could wage guerilla war for a year. The fact that the Serbs didn't take prisoners during world war two. The fate of German Army Group E. Nasty business. It is not justified to glorify Serbian resistance, as some journalists are doing, calling on the Serbs to fight and die for murderer Milosevic.

People don't usually turn against war because of rational argument. It's usually a complex combination of bad leadership and unrelated developments like a rise in the class struggle. But given that arguments have a purpose, good ones are better than bad ones.

Richard Tate, May 4, 1999