When Numbers Get Serious


NATO's war against Serbia was aimed at stopping "genocide in the heart of Europe." We know this because President Clinton said so.

In his speeches last spring explaining why the U.S. and its European allies had started bombing the remains of Yugoslavia, Clinton repeatedly referred to the Holocaust. He also likened Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic to Adolf Hitler.

In case you had trouble accepting the word of a notorious liar, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright backed Clinton up. "President Milosevic has unleashed a rampage of ethnic cleansing and genocide directed at the expulsion or total submission of the Kosovo Albanian community," she told a congressional subcommittee in April.

Albright invited the legislators to assume the worst. "We have all seen the images of families uprooted and put on trains, children crying for parents they cannot find, refugees recounting how their loved ones were led away, and ominous photos from the sky of freshly upturned earth," she said. "Behind these images is a reality grimmer than any seen in Europe in more than half a century."

Although it seemed that she already had reached pretty firm conclusions, Albright talked about "gathering evidence and documenting the truth." Now that effort indicates that she and the president grossly exaggerated the magnitude of Milosevic's crimes to build and maintain support for the war.

In a report released this month, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal investigating war crimes in the former Yugoslavia said 2,108 bodies had been found at 195 grave sites in Kosovo. That number is far lower than had been anticipated based on reports from refugees.

An extensive investigation at the Trepca mine, where 700 bodies reportedly had been dumped in shafts or dissolved in vats of hydrochloric acid, found no evidence to confirm the rumors. There were only five bodies at a grave site near Pec that had been said to contain 350.

Investigators plan to examine more than 300 other purported grave sites, but they have already looked at those considered the most serious. Based on the progress so far, they may ultimately find the remains of 5,000 or so people.

Not all of these can be counted as victims of Serbian war crimes. Some were Serbs, some were Kosovo Liberation Army guerillas, and some may have died from nonviolent causes. On the other hand, some bodies may have been burned or removed from their original graves.

Still, it's clear that the numbers tossed out by U.S. officials during and after the war were wildly off. "We've now seen about 100,000 military-age men missing," Secretary of Defense William Cohen told CBS News in May. "They may have been murdered." At a June press conference, President Clinton asserted that "tens of thousands of people were killed."

Now the war's defenders say we shouldn't get bogged down in numbers. "It makes no difference whether investigators turn up 2,000 bodies or 20,000," said a recent editorial in The London Free Press. "Or whether 'genocide' is the right word. Monstrous, grotesque acts were being committed and NATO had the obligation to stop them."

There's no question that Serbs committed atrocities in Kosovo. They burned homes and murdered men, women, and children, brutally driving ethnic Albanians from the province.

But even these savage acts–similar to what the Russians are now doing in Chechnya–are a far cry from trying to exterminate an entire population. It was the prospect of genocide that supposedly justified NATO's unprecedented attack on a country that had not threatened any of its members, and it was Milosevic's alleged attempt to carry out that crime once the bombs started falling that supposedly confirmed the war's necessity.

"With genocide in the heart of Europe, it is appropriate for NATO to get involved," said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), speaking for the humanitarian hawks. "NATO will not allow this century to end with a triumph of fascism and genocide," said British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.

The genocide charge was a way of suggesting that the bloodshed would have been far worse without NATO's intervention, even though in reality the civilian death toll increased dramatically after the bombing began. Indeed, it's conceivable that NATO's bombs killed roughly as many civilians as Milosevic's men did.

In that case, even those who believe in killing one group of innocents to save another will have a hard time defending the war. They can hardly claim that the numbers don't matter.