Stepping Into A Dark Room

Instead of reflexively invoking the specter of Adolf Hitler whenever they are confronted with a troublesome tyrant, American leaders should take seriously one thing Hitler said. Formed by the First World War, destroyed by the Second, Hitler thought of little other than war in between, and he knew whereof he spoke when he said that going to war was like stepping through a door into a dark room.

NATO is stumbling around in such a room, barking its shins. Emblematic of the confusion is the "NATO official" who tells The New York Times why Slobodan Milosevic's presidential palace cannot be bombed. It used to be the King of Yugoslavia's residence and is a prized cultural treasure--why, it even contains a Rembrandt: "How can we win the hearts and minds of the people of Yugoslavia if we destroyed the palace?"

One's heart sinks. Is that how NATO thinks? Surely bombers are not dispatched to do only things that will leave undisturbed the mood of the masses in the target nation. NATO's problem is military force wielded by one Yugoslav. Victory will not come from restraining NATO force in the hope of some sort of gratitude from the Serbian public.

Concerning the Serbian mentality, and the symbolic importance of Belgrade buildings, consider the mordant observation of John Keegan, the foremost military historian of our time, writing in the London Daily Telegraph. The center of Belgrade is, he says, dominated by the Serbian military museum that occupies an ancient fort built by Turkish occupiers. Three wings are devoted to Serbia's struggle against the Turks, against the Austrians in the First World War, and against the Nazis. ("Yugoslavia," writes Keegan, "true to its long historical tradition of strategic intransigence, was the only one of the Balkan states not to recognize in 1941 that Hitler was too strong to defy.") The way Serbians see themselves can be seen, Keegan says, in the fact that a military museum, rather than an art gallery or some other cultural monument, dominates their capital:

"War is central to the Serb national myth--and war of a certain sort. The museum is not a hall of victories but of almost endlessly repeated defeats, out of which the Serbs plucked, inch by inch, some shreds of independence."

Much has been made of the material asymmetry of this conflict--$2 billion bombers deployed to stop marauding "policemen" murdering with pistols. As much should be made of the emotional and moral asymmetries.

Serbia's museum, that shrine to war, contains a reproduction of the tower of Serbian skulls that Turkish occupiers built to deter insurrection. In the Second World War, Keegan reminds us, Yugoslavia lost 1 million people from a population of 15 million, while America lost half a million out of 200 million. Today Serbia's principal adversary, America, is so averse to casualties that when a single combat aircraft was downed, and then three soldiers were captured, journalism swiftly and seamlessly turned to soap opera--pictures of yellow ribbons blowing in the breeze, interviews with loved ones. The story changed from the war to the melodrama about the recurring surprise that wars have costs.

Remember when airman Scott O'Grady was shot down over Bosnia? After a few days, Marines rescued him by helicopter. It was an interesting story of military craftsmanship. O'Grady soon left the Air Force, wrote a book about this minor episode and did some lecturing. There is nothing the matter with that, but it does indicate a national fixation with the risks involved in the projection of American power--perhaps an unhealthy fixation, given the need for such projection.

America's 18 allies include NATO's newest members--Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic--who must find membership more stimulating than they had imagined. They joined the 50-year-old alliance last month, just in time for its first war, which has included something that must give those three pause--Germany's first combat since 1945.

(By the way, can you name the only time the territory of a NATO member has been invaded? The 1982 Falklands invasion.)

So far, NATO has waged this war in comprehensive defiance of Sir Michael Howard's three rules about intervening in civil wars: (1) Don't. (2) If you do, pick a side. (3) Make sure your side wins. But by the end of last week the war, which was begun for largely humanitarian purposes, was becoming of secondary importance to the humanitarian chore of coping with refugees from the war. That seems to be exactly what Slobodan Milosevic intended. Which is why NATO's loose talk about "genocide" mattered: it bewitched NATO's intelligence. Milosevic has no intention of killing 1.8 million Kosovars. He wants hundreds of thousands of them on the move, shivering and hungry, spilling out of Kosovo and displacing the war itself as the West's most imperative humanitarian challenge.

So much is said about the "post-Cold War world" that this fact is lost sight of: About 80 percent as many people live under Communism today (1.4 billion) as did when the Berlin Wall fell 10 years ago (1.7 billion). This is because China is still governed by its Communist Party and China's population is growing. Milosevic, the author of the current crisis, is a former Communist hack reincarnated as an apostle of that which Marx considered a retrograde, anachronistic, preindustrial phenomenon--nationalism.

Serbia's only significant source of sympathy, Russia, has a premier, Yevgeny Primakov, who is a former Communist spymaster who has made a smooth transition to the ruling class in Russia's kleptocracy. (U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin delicately says that many billions of dollars of international aid have been "siphoned off improperly.") Russia's foreign minister, who has a pre-perestroika, even pre-Khrushchev style of invective, says NATO's leaders should be tried on charges of genocide in Kosovo. In some ways, the "post-Cold War world" is not sufficiently "post."