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The Truth About NATO's Air War

James Carroll

 by the Boston Globe

One year ago dust was still rising from the rubble of the NATO air war against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. From March 24, 1999, until June 10, 1999, Operation Allied Force conducted 38,000 combat sorties, including more than 10,000 strike sorties - an explosion of violence that sparked furious debate. Those opposed to the NATO bombardment were vilified as friends of genocide, while its supporters clung to a self-justifying vision of humanitarian war.

When the air campaign ended, a troubled American people was relieved to put the hard feelings behind, allowing the NATO operation to tumble down what George Orwell called the memory hole.

But what does it reveal about this nation if we can engage in such massive violence and then forget about it without follow-up efforts to measure what was actually done against what was said? Did Operation Allied Force achieve its goals? Was it moral? Or even practical? In this political season, has anyone asked Al Gore or George W. Bush what they learned from the NATO air war? Or whether they would embark on such a course again? And what of us citizens? What do we say now about the mayhem of which we were sponsors?

Such questions are not only prompted but required by the report issued last week by Amnesty International: ''NATO/Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: Collateral Damage or Unlawful Killings? Violations of the Laws of War by NATO During Operation Allied Force.''

As the title suggests, the Amnesty analysis finds serious fault with the conduct of the air war and concludes that aspects of the allied campaign violated laws of war, even to the point of war crime. The deliberate or careless targeting of civilians is the issue. Amnesty's finding contrasts with that of the tribunal in The Hague, which two weeks ago absolved NATO of such charges.

What makes Amnesty's criticism pointed is the fact that the NATO intervention was justified at the time mainly by the rhetoric of human rights, a value of which Amnesty is the avatar. In one instance, the report asserts - the attack on the headquarters of Serbian state radio and television (RTS) - NATO launched a direct attack on a civilian target, killing 16 civilians. The attack breached Article 52 (I) of Protocol I of the Geneva Accords and therefore constitutes a war crime.

Hundreds of other civilians on other occasions were killed as a direct result of improper NATO targeting. But it is impossible to read Amnesty's exhaustive analysis without reaching other equally troubling conclusions. By keeping war planes above 15,000 feet to avoid antiaircraft fire, for example, the likelihood of collateral damage was significantly increased. Avoiding risk to pilots multiplied the risk to civilians exponentially.

In effect, NATO promulgated a new principle of the ethics of war making. Force protection means that military forces are protected by civilians who die in their stead.

While the war was going on, NATO was extravagant in claiming high levels of military success that later turned out to be seriously overblown. More than 300 tanks, for example, were declared destroyed. Belgrade later put the figure at 13, other analysis put it not much higher, and even NATO now admits it was less than 100. Despite the much-ballyhooed precision bombing, it seems clear today that destroying Yugoslavia's military force was not actually NATO's purpose at all. Rather, the point of the air war was to break the spirit of Yugoslavia's population. That is why targets in Belgrade were hit, along with 34 highway bridges, 11 railroad bridges, petroleum reserves, civilian airports, the power grid, and that television station. Ultimately this strategy worked.

While the air war against Yugoslavia's military was a dismal failure (13 tanks? Even 100?), the campaign against the civilian infrastructure convinced Slobodan Milosevic that NATO was indeed prepared to obliterate Serbia's viability as a nation. So he quit a year ago last week.

The terms then imposed upon Milosevic did not include the key points he had rejected at Rambouillet four brutal months before. The war was fought for nothing. But its defenders even now would say the war was fought to establish the principle that ethnic cleansing will never again be accepted in Europe. And yet, of course, a campaign of ethnic cleansing has continued in Kosovo unabated since last June with nary a hint of humanitarian protest - only now it is Serbs being cleansed by Kosovar Albanians, whose vengeful hatred was exacerbated by the war.

Or the war was fought, its defenders would say, because Milosevic was a heinous tyrant. Yet Milosevic is still there, apparently more ensconced than ever. His opposition was decimated by the war, and his store of weapons untouched. Milosevic remains a threat not despite NATO, but because of it.

A year later, those who dare to think about it at all have no choice but to conclude that the NATO air war, having criminally killed civilians, having elevated the protection of warriors above that of children, having preferred violence over authentic diplomacy, having enabled ethnic cleansing instead of halting it, having strengthened Milosevic rather than toppling him, having alienated Russia at the worst time, having through all of this dulled the conscience of the West - the NATO war was even more unjust than its fiercest critics thought.

© 2021 Boston Globe
James Carroll

James Carroll

James Carroll a former Boston Globe columnist, is the author of 20 books, including the new novel "The Cloister" (Doubleday). Among other works are:  "Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age." His memoir, "An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us," won the National Book Award. His 2021 book is "The Truth at the Heart of the Lie: How the Catholic Church Lost Its Soul." He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He lives in Boston with his wife, the writer Alexandra Marshall.

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