A war of moral imperatives

Argument: Like NATO, the Serbs can claim that their recent military actions are fitting -- that they, too, have God on their side.

April 04, 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.

MORAL imperative" has a nice ring to it. It is the perfect TV bite for an American 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. We warm to arguments that depict us as moral beacon.

God -- or, at the very least, goodness -- is always on our side in matters that require application of military force. Somehow, it makes the idea of slaughter from the night sky more palatable, perhaps even a little attractive.

The realities of collateral damage, with its "innocent victims" (which brings home the awareness that bombs might be very smart but shrapnel isn't), seem a little less damaging when morality is the motivator.

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.

In almost every case, 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.

It has been apparent from the reaction to news stories in the first few days of the air assault on Serbia that a vocal part of Chicago's Serbian community believes there is a moral imperative at work on the other side, too.

They 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, because that is the morally right thing to do.

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.

China recognized this version of reality in its initial comments condemning the NATO attack. It argued that the Serbian police and military were only responding to threats and attacks from rebels and separatists.

The Russians, too, 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 record (and the Soviet record before it) in dealing with dissent and ethnic strife.

Serbia seems to be acting just as the Russians and the Soviet Union acted in so many cases before. It is almost as though all those Soviet-made, surface-to-air missiles and Kalashnikov rifles and T-72 tanks came with attitude attached.

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 are the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, cast in this scenario as victims of untold brutality. Undoubtedly, they, too, believed that they had a moral imperative to act, perhaps an imperative 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 any time 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 causus belli.

It would have been far better to cite vague national interests here and in Europe, along with the need to provide humanitarian support for a troubled ethnic people facing threats of extermination.

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

The world had a moral imperative to stop the wholesale slaughter of 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.

That moral imperative, 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 what had happened.

Joining in the cry "Never again" might add to a feeling of partnership with Jews and their sad 20th-century history, but the better phrase for most of us would be "Why even once?"

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 doesn't work very well and makes 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 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 senior writer for the Chicago Tribune.

Pub Date: 04/04/99

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