Bombing for peace: What's moral about it?

April 01, 1999|By Charles M. Madigan

"Ending this tragedy is a moral imperative. It is also important to America's national interests . . ." -- President Clinton, explaining NATO's decision to bomb Yugoslavia.

THAT'S THE perfect TV bite for an audience weaned on the assumption that the United States, in this case functioning as the military backbone and brain trust of NATO, is responsible for all that is right and good in the world.

God, or at the very least, goodness, is always on our side in matters that require application of military force.

The realities of collateral damage seem a little less damaging when morality is the motivator.

Easing our minds

It helps to ease the uncomfortable truth that in the business of carrying death to an enemy, there are no "innocent perpetrators."

But there is a problem with the moral imperative argument. Pursuing the moral imperative in going to war brings the combatant nation face to face with a collection of enemies who are pursuing their own moral imperative.

Such folks complain that the whole story is not being told, that no one is paying attention to the moral imperatives on the Serbian side.

Here is one way to think about it: Somewhere in Serbia tonight, someone deeply believes God is compelling him to shoot Kosovar Albanians.

The Albanians are, after all, separatists and, some might argue, terrorists causing nothing but trouble in a region that is steeped in Serbian culture and history.

The Russians, for cultural, historical and political reasons of their own, have come down firmly on the side of the Serbs. This is not surprising given Russia's own record in dealing with dissent and ethnic strife. Serbia, after all, seems to be acting just as the Russians and the Soviet Union acted in so many cases before. It is almost as though all of those Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles and Kalashnikov rifles and T-72 tanks came with attitude attached.

Soviet attitude

In every case, whether it involved marching into a fatal conflict in Afghanistan or unleashing tanks and troops on Hungary or Czechoslovakia, the Russians rationalized their behavior by invoking the Soviet version of a moral imperative -- fraternal socialist brothers had requested aid in the face of threats from imperialist tools.

On the other side in the Serbian conflict, there are the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, cast in this scenario as victims of untold brutality. Undoubtedly, they, too, believed they had a moral imperative to act, perhaps one that stretched back hundreds of years to the point at which local Christians became Muslim under the dominance of the Ottoman Turks.

See?

Believers can create a moral imperative almost anywhere they need to.

For that reason, moral imperative is terrific rhetoric but, in this case, where God is speaking in many different languages and sending conflicting messages to people who hear whatever they need to hear, it is a very bad policy.

It would have been far better just to cite vague national interests here and in Europe, along with the need to provide humanitarian support.

This is not to argue that moral imperatives don't exist.

The world had a moral imperative to stop the wholesale slaughter of the Jews by the Germans during World War II. But the world chose not to know much about that until the war was long over and the secrets of the Holocaust camps became widely known.

Truth be told, it might have been very difficult in the America of the late 1930s and early 1940s for Franklin D. Roosevelt to sell the thought that saving the lives of a couple of million helpless Jews was worth going to war in Europe. That's not a pleasant assumption, but it is probably the truth.

The thought that our concerns about the Holocaust had anything to do with why we went to war in Europe was developed later and only after we knew all about what had happened.

One can argue endlessly about bombing the Balkans. It depends on how one feels about the application of force, or on how much one knows about the history of one of the most tormented regions on earth.

But making the argument that the attack involved some kind of moral imperative just doesn't work very well and makes Mr. Clinton and the alliance sound a bit too much like Queen Victoria or some other monarch whose authority flowed from a mysterious divine right.

The other problem with moral imperatives as rationalizations for warfare is that eventually they melt away, revealing the real reason for the intervention.

What most likely will be left standing in the wake of NATO's attack on the Serbs is the argument that it had to happen because of "America's national interests." The explanation of what those interests might be is likely to evolve as the battle deepens.

Charles M. Madigan is a Chicago Tribune senior writer.

Pub Date: 4/01/99

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