Lessons of war

April 18, 1999|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- "It would be nice," says Sen. John McCain with acid understatement, "if the president would say to the American people that things are not going according to plan." President Clinton be truthful, and lead? This utopian suggestion is a rare McCain departure from realism regarding the Kosovo crisis.

The judge who cited the commander in chief for contempt added nothing to our knowledge of Mr. Clinton, but the citation was a timely reminder of the mendacity that drenches his presidency, including his Balkan policy. For example, he had to know it was dishonest to say U.S. troops would be out of Bosnia in a year.

War plans, said Dwight Eisenhower, are fine right up to the moment fighting starts. Mr. Clinton's plan -- a short, antiseptic air war that would prevent the humanitarian disaster that has now occurred -- may be changing by increments with the dispatch of Apache attack helicopters. Mr. McCain (in an interview with Gregg Easterbrook in the Los Angeles Times) said Apaches are not air-war weapons: They provide close-in support for ground fighting and require spotters near the targets and ground-support fire.

NATO's military leaders have had their options -- their targets as well as their weapons -- restricted by civilian planners, some of whom at first favored "representational bombing." That was to be largely symbolic bombing intended as a kind of NATO scowl that would cow Slobodan Milosevic, or give him a face-saving reason for retreating from Kosovo.

NATO's military leaders hope their air armada can starve all Serbian forces out of Kosovo by interdicting fuel and munitions. However, Mr. McCain notes that in the Korean War the United States had uncontested control of the air but could not prevent China from resupplying its troops.

The starvation that is imminent is of hundreds of thousands of uprooted Kosovars held hostage in Kosovo, many of whom have been outdoors for weeks. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright says NATO "will be patient" and Mr. Clinton says NATO has "the patience to endure" a long campaign to degrade Serbian forces.

However, the campaign was begun to save those who may perish during NATO's patience. Wars waged, as this one really is, not for national interests as traditionally defined but for what Ms. Albright calls "values" can have tragic complexities.

Bombing alone allows Milosevic to control the war. If the threat to him is exclusively from the air, the war is simply a contest of endurance: How much damage does he choose to consider acceptable? But a gathering ground force would pose a threat that could not be stymied by stoicism.

The threat posed by international law, in the form of prosecution by the international war crimes tribunal, could prolong the lawlessness if it causes him to conclude that he must either be in Kosovo or in the dock.

However, having defined the war as an affirmation of values, including those of international law, and having defined Milosevic as the Hitlerian antithesis of those values, the logic of the war almost dictates an immediate indictment of him. Again, wars of value-affirmation rather than of other, more traditional interests acquire a logic of their own.

The NATO nations' staying power is being tested as their values are affronted by civilian casualties that are inevitable even with precise munitions delivered under scrupulous rules of engagement. So it is well for Europeans to be reminded (by Air Chief Marshal Sir Patrick Hine, a British military leader in the gulf war) of the nature of the war that liberated their continent: "In 1944, to guarantee to hit a target the size of a football field, a force of 3,000 bombers would have been required."

Still, war is a powerful solvent of standards. Millions who were appalled by the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War in 1937, and about German bombing of Rotterdam in 1940, were by 1943 inured to the saturation bombing that produced the Hamburg firestorm.

Recently, when some Kosovars were driven from their country but were not physically abused and were allowed to keep their identity papers and other personal documents, a European official monitoring the Kosovo border said, "It appears to be a civilized cleansing." That is "defining deviancy down" in the Balkans with Milosevic rampant.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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