WASHINGTON — Fifty-three Augusts ago Europe's peace died amid cries of ''Why die for Danzig?''
Today, because the peace of the rest of Europe is not threatened, few people are prepared to die for Bosnia, or for the blue flag of the United Nations. But reports of Serbian ''death camps'' are causing some people here to insist on the necessity, legal as well as prudential, of doing something -- anything rather than nothing.
Modern history, from ''brave little Belgium'' in 1914 to Kuwait in 1990, teaches that reports of wartime atrocities should be handled with care. But even while judgment is suspended regarding Serbian camps, the indisputable fact is that Bosnia, an internationally recognized state, has been invaded. ''To do nothing,'' says Sen. Pat Moynihan, D-N.Y., ''is to invite the 1930s back.''
When Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., who calls himself ''the only congressman who owes his life to the Red Army,'' speaks about what Serbia calls ''ethnic cleansing,'' pay him heed. Jewish and Hungarian, he escaped from a Nazi slave-labor camp and survived with Raoul Wallenberg until the Red Army drove the Nazis west. Mr. Lantos wants Europe to take the lead in finding some middle way between jumping into fratricide and merely watching it through binoculars.
Mr. Lantos compares today's United Nations to the guns that failed to protect Singapore in 1942. (The legend is that the fixed guns faced the wrong way. Actually, the problem was the wrong ammunition.) He regrets that the United Nations has peace-keeping but not peace-making capabilities.
But the world, emphatically including the United States, is not about to equip the United Nations for such military peace making. And the United States can do little unilaterally beyond symbolic measures such as (as Mr. Lantos suggests) quickly opening a U.S. embassy in Bosnia.
The United Nations could authorize members militarily to (Mr. Moynihan enumerates the possibilities) stop the flow of oil to Serbia, seal the Dalmatian coast, destroy all bridges in Belgrade and ''blow the side off a mountain'' to silence some of the Serbian mortars shelling Sarajevo. But Americans reasonably believe they have done quite enough liberating, resuscitating and defending of Europe. So any bombs that fall on Serbia should fall from European planes.
Even bombs probably will do nothing to improve Serbian behavior. People who believe that a few air strikes -- ''surgical'' is always the adjective of choice -- will reform a people that struggled with the Turks for a thousand years are overestimating air power and underestimating Serbs. Besides, most Americans do not believe their interests are at issue in the Balkans.
Senator Moynihan believes they are mistaken about that, because international law is at risk. He says force will be constructive even if it has only the political effect of dispelling the impression of international indifference.
Indifference, the senator insists, is not just morally but also legally impermissible, given our and other nations' formal undertakings. Mr. Moynihan, a Wilsonian, believes the U.N. Charter, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Nuremberg norms concerning aggressive war and crimes against humanity could all perish in the corpse of Yugoslavia (itself a product of Woodrow Wilson's overreaching diplomacy).
The U.N. Charter authorizes military ''demonstrations, blockades and other operations.'' Mr. Moynihan believes some ''demonstration,'' even just the blowing-off of a mountainside, is now a legally as well as morally imperative response to war crimes.
He says the vitality of international law depends less on the success of measures to enforce compliance than on attempts to so. Absent attempts, not just the vitality but the reality of international law seeps away.
Now, some people (I among them) are skeptical about what Senator Moynihan celebrates -- the dilution of U.S. sovereignty and the entangling of U.S. interests in the toils of many vague and largely unenforceable international undertakings. But there they are; they have been undertaken.
So Mr. Moynihan reminds Serbian killers that the Fourth Geneva Convention was drawn to make legal the sorts of juridical acts that were extra-legal when done by the Nuremberg tribunal. That Convention makes individuals subject to international law. Mr. Moynihan says, ''you can get yourself hung for running a concentration camp. We should see to it that in time some people get hung.''
But seeing to that sort of thing requires a nation's unconditional surrender. A large, long land war would be required to bring Serbian war criminals to the dock. That will not happen.
So a moral consideration supersedes all legal considerations: We may not be economizing violence when we hold out the gossamer hope that international law can help the people resisting Serbia.
9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.