Compassion for Kosovo, worry over U.S. role

Columbia residents share emotional, moral views on war in the Balkans

War In Yugoslavia

April 10, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

As Americans brace for a deepening conflict in the Balkans, their talk often brims with confident descriptions of the United States as the world's only "superpower." But when discussion turns to the prospect of American-flag-draped coffins and a protracted war, public opinion becomes something murkier than red, white and blue optimism.

Despite broad public support for the U.S. role in the conflict, and considerable backing for the use of ground forces, nagging questions remain. What does the United States hope to achieve? How long will it take? Will American ground troops fight? And finally, how many U.S. casualties are too many?

Residents in the quiet suburb of Columbia, like many others surveyed in national polls in recent days, gave voice to a rising sense of fear about the conflict -- a deepening worry that this crisis in a country they barely know will only get worse for Americans.

"I do worry about another Vietnam," said Vicky Kness, a 29-year-old college student studying at the public library. "I worry about our soldiers. I worry that we'll be thinking, in the long run, `Was it really worth it?' "

At the same time, most here believe that greater U.S. involvement in Kosovo is almost a certainty. With Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's campaign of "ethnic cleansing" as a backdrop, some say they see no alternative to ground troops.

On a placid street named April Journey, some neighbors talk about the United States in superhero terms. The country, they say, has a moral obligation to enter the fray in Kosovo.

"I support whatever it takes to save humanity," said Edward McKay, 47, a sales manager and father of two who sings in his church choir. "I know it sounds like a glittering generality, but if little children are dying and we're the superpower, how can we turn our backs?"

McKay is not daunted by the notion of casualties. With a volunteer army and no draft, he said, soldiers must understand that their profession could put them in harm's way. "You know when you volunteer in the Army that you could be called into battle," he said. "If a few of our young men and women have to sacrifice for millions, then that's an unfortunate reality."

In Washington, the Clinton administration continues to publicly resist the idea of ground troops, saying airstrikes should be enough. But one by one, foreign policy experts and U.S. lawmakers say NATO ground forces, including American soldiers, may be the only option left.

The public is divided. In some national surveys, a slim majority supports the use of ground troops; in other polls, a slight majority is against it.

"For a lot of people, this comes out of the blue," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. "These pictures of the Kosovars in terrible shape have done a lot to solidify support for the basic decision to get involved, but there's still quite a leap from that to signing on for casualties."

For now, opinion revolves around those images of widespread suffering.

Natalie Doyle, 30, who is eight months pregnant, said she gets teary when she sees pictures of Kosovo refugees on television. Her support for U.S. intervention, she said, is based largely on emotion. "I feel horrible," she said while watching her 19-month-old daughter, Molly. "I see what's happening there -- those pictures of children -- and it just breaks my heart. It's hard for me to separate my emotions from my politics."

A year ago, most folks say, they probably could not have found Kosovo on a map. And even today, some confusion persists -- one woman thought the conflict involved the Romanians, and another thought the food aid to refugees had something to do with the Y2K problem.

But more and more, people who describe themselves as not very politically active want to see U.S. action. Some argue for the safe return of Kosovar refugees to their homes, others for the independence of Kosovo, and a handful for the assassination of Milosevic.

"There's genocide going on," said Mustafa Chaudry, a 24-year-old respiratory therapist, adding that as a Muslim, he understands ethnic hatred. "If Europe suffers, we suffer too."

Dan Bromberg, 52, a former schoolteacher who avoided the draft in the 1960s, agrees: "For this war, I would find it hard to be a conscientious objector. Unlike Vietnam, this is very meaningful to me. I worry about people like Milosevic being in power. Hitler was enough. Morally, we have an obligation to take out people like that."

What exactly would be the cost of such intervention? Some look at the experience of Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf and say the United States can fight a modern war with minimal casualties. They point to U.S. military technology, and call the war in Kosovo winnable. They do not dwell on the idea of body bags.

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