The value of life, American style

May 07, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Did you see where the Senate, by a 92-0 vote, passed a resolution praising Jesse Jackson for obtaining the release of the three American soldiers from captivity in Yugoslavia? Who can argue with sponsoring Sen. Robert Byrd's intonation that "in this one small corner of a terrible conflict, good has triumphed over evil"?

For all of President Clinton's guarded thanks to Mr. Jackson, however, you can bet that if a vote had been taken in the White House, it would have turned out much differently.


You can just imagine the seething that went on among national security advisers there at the photo of Mr. Jackson, head bowed in prayer, holding hands with Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic just prior to Mr. Milosevic's agreement to release the prisoners.

Beyond the unquestioned good achieved by the Jackson intervention, his mission stuck a pin in the concentrated and justifiable effort of the Clinton administration to paint Milosevic as a bush-league Hitler in the eyes of the world, and thus reinforce the rationale for the intensified NATO bombing.

In flatly rejecting the Jackson call for a reciprocal bombing halt, Mr. Clinton clearly signaled that the reverend's humanitarian effort was not going to derail his administration's commitment to strong-arm Milosevic to accept NATO's full terms for a cessation, including an armed international peace-keeping force in Kosovo once the killing stops.

Mr. Jackson's mission struck a very responsive chord with Americans who not only revere the sanctity of life but particularly revere the sanctity of American life. And in that regard it shared a basic ingredient with the administration's campaign to reverse the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

Although hundreds of thousands of Kosovars have been slaughtered or driven from their homeland by the Milosevic forces, American military policy from the outset of the current bombing campaign has been inhibited by a reluctance to face the inevitability that when a war occurs, combatants on both sides will die.

In the Persian Gulf war, videotape of "smart bombs" showed targets in Iraq being hit with surgical precision, as U.S. military spokesmen basked in reports of few American casualties while saying little of those, military and civilian, on the receiving end.

War means death

Likewise, the current campaign against Yugoslavia has been fashioned to avoid or minimize the fact that war risks the death of our own forces, not to mention those of the other side.

The Vietnam experience no doubt colors this attitude. American casualties were minimized and enemy "body counts" inflated, and it was not until American servicemen began to come home in body bags in frightening numbers did public revulsion to that war really mount.

So it is not only a natural reverence for life but concern that American deaths will undercut the administration policy toward Yugoslavia that dictates uncommon military caution.

It led the American president to dig himself into a deep hole on assurances that American ground troops would not be sent into Kosovo, thus giving Milosevic grounds to doubt his resolve. And the attitude has delayed the use of certain U.S. aircraft, including the Apache helicopters, in less-than-ideal flying weather.

Training crashes

Two of them have crashed in training exercises, one with the loss of two Army pilots, and questions already are being raised about whether it's worth losing any more of the $20 million choppers and their pilots in super-dangerous night missions.

But just as in Vietnam, "limited war" is an oxymoron to the military leaders charged with winning.

It is laudatory that a democracy concerns itself with the sanctity of life, even in war. But in praising Mr. Jackson for the rescue of three American soldiers, as desirable as that was, the feat should not blur the fact that Milosevic is a butcher, and many more lives, including precious American lives, may yet have to be lost to stop his slaughtering.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 5/07/99

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