Collective Guilt


The day after NATO started its war with Yugoslavia, President Clinton videotaped a message in which he urged the people of Serbia not to interpret the bombs falling on them as signs of hostility. "He wants to make clear that the current conflict is not aimed against the Serbian people," a spokesman explained. "It's against President [Slobodan] Milosevic's brutal regime and its brutal repression of the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo."

Nearly two months later, this is still the official U.S. position: NATO is not indiscriminately wreaking havoc; it is trying to limit Milosevic's ability to wage war and weaken his grasp on power.

But these goals, it turns out, can be used to justify the destruction of just about any target. The exceptions are things like homes, hospitals, foreign embassies, and buses filled with Kosovar refugees, which NATO blows up only by accident.

Early on, NATO bombed factories that made cars, appliances, and heavy construction equipment. All were said to produce munitions as well–claims that should taken with a grain of salt, especially given the Clinton administration's failure to back up its assertion that the Sudanese pharmaceutical plant it destroyed last year was making ingredients for chemical weapons.

In any case, NATO has also bombed industrial targets, including a cigarette factory, that could not reasonably be considered part of Milosevic's war machine. Such attacks, we're told, are aimed at destroying the property of Milosevic's cronies, thereby undermining his support.

NATO has bombed bridges, highways, and railroads in Belgrade and throughout the country, saying they could be used to move troops and tanks. If that sounds reasonable to you, consider how you would feel if a foreign power offered the same rationale for destroying the Golden Gate Bridge or Interstate 10.

NATO has knocked out Yugoslavia's oil refineries, because the military uses gasoline. It has hit electrical transformers, leaving Belgrade and other parts of Serbia in darkness, because the military uses electricity. By the same logic, NATO could start targeting farms–soldiers have to eat, after all. Perhaps this explains the attacks on fertilizer plants.

The air strikes have had a dramatic economic impact in Yugoslavia, which was already one of Europe's poorest countries. Independent economists estimate that NATO's attacks have doubled the unemployment rate and cut per capita GDP in half.

NATO has refrained from bombing the White Palace, Milosevic's ceremonial residence, partly because it contains a Rembrandt on loan from the National Museum. But it has not hesitated to bomb TV studios and government buildings in the middle of Belgrade, knowing that such attacks would kill civilians who had nothing to do with "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo. Too bad for them they were real human beings instead of paintings.

NATO did bomb another of Milosevic's residences, but it maintained that it was destroying a "command and control center," not trying to kill him. "Although NATO sent a missile into Mr. Milosevic's bedroom," The New York Times dryly reported, "officials insisted that it was nothing personal." This stance reflects a perverse policy that forbids the assassination of foreign leaders, even those guilty of mass murder, yet sanctions the slaughter of innocent noncombatants as unavoidable "collateral damage."

In short, instead of punishing Milosevic and his henchmen while sparing "the Serbian people," NATO has done almost precisely the opposite: It has ruined Yugoslavia's economy and killed hundreds of civilians (including scores of ethnic Albanians), while leaving Milosevic firmly in power and his military forces entrenched in Kosovo.

Writing in the May 17 New Republic, historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen suggests that we needn't feel too bad about this situation, because the Serbs deserve to suffer. "Any people that commits imperial war, perpetrates wholesale murder, and assaults entire peoples–not just their armies but unarmed men, women, and children–has forfeited the protections that the norms and conventions of sovereignty usually afford," he writes.

Committing imperial war, perpetrating wholesale murder, assaulting an entire people: That's a pretty accurate description of what NATO's member states are doing to Yugoslavia, especially if they follow Goldhagen's recommendations for invading, occupying, and "remaking Serbia" in their image. Would it be fair to say that every American is morally responsible for the consequences of this campaign?

Of course not, and Goldhagen himself, in a bold self-contradiction, explains why: "The notion of collective guilt, conceptually and morally indefensible, must be rejected." If so, then so must the war against Yugoslavia.