Kosovo and The Pathos of Military Help

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

In a poignant moment in A River Runs Through It, a minister talks about the difficulty of trying to help anyone:

So it is....that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don't know what part to give or maybe we don't like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed. It is like the auto-supply shop over town where they always say, "Sorry, we are just out of that part."

Jews in particular (I am one) grow up believing that the United States could have done much more to help the Jews in World War II. Accepted more refugees (we all know about the ship sent back to Europe in 1939). Bombed the railroad tracks to Auschwitz. Raul Hilberg in Victims, Perpetrators, Bystanders reveals that President Roosevelt was very concerned not to do anything that would allow the isolationists to say the war was being fought to save Jews. The Auschwitz tracks were not a "military target". An early telegram revealing the existence of the death camps, sent from Switzerland via diplomatic pouch, was never given by the State Department to its intended recipient, a leading rabbi in New York. Where European Jews were concerned, the perception is that the Allies didn't "like to give any part" of themselves.

But that begs the question of what could have been done. The famous success of two rogue diplomats who issued visas for Jews to leave Germany, and of private saviors like Oscar Schindler, certainly suggests that a few more people could have been saved from the Holocaust, if efforts had been run or funded by Allied countries.

But anyone who thinks that military action can effectively prevent or limit genocide should find the Kosovo experience of the last few months an eye-opener. The Serbs have killed as many ethnic Albanians as they could have been expected to do without the bombing, and possibly more. In this case, the part that we offered--the bombing of military targets--appears not to have been the part that was needed.

U.S. intentions were good. The problem is that the whole mission, to the extent it had clear and attainable objectives, was founded on two obvious myths.

The first is the myth that precision is possible. This is the idea that we can hit a precisely defined and limited target and avoid any collateral damage. This is by far the most primitive and damaging belief, and has led to more disasters than any other. In World War II, Hitler was smart enough never to use his paratroopers again in a general engagement after their terrible loss of life in Crete. We threw ours away in Normandy and in Operation Market Garden, dropping them miles away from their objectives, into withering machine gun fire, and sometimes into water where they drowned. The persistent idea that war can be precise, "surgical", that pressure applied at the precise point can be victorious rather than massive force across a general front, is laughable and lethal. Either the intelligence is wrong, or the pilot panics, or equipment malfunctions. In the Sudan, we bombed a pharmaceutical factory last summer, under the mistaken belief that it was affiliated with bin Laden and was manufacturing nerve gas. In Serbia in recent weeks, we killed civilians when bombing bridges, and when bombs went astray and hit civilian neighborhoods. We have even accidentally fired missiles into a neighboring country on two occasions.

The second related myth assumes the truth of the first one and says that precision does the job. It has never yet been proven that the bombing of military targets is sufficient, without a ground war, to win a war. Bombing Iraq in recent years, Libya before it, accomplished nothing. Bombing the North didn't win the Viet Nam war. Even the bombing of Germany in World War II had only debatable results.

Military historian John Keegan in The Second World War has a chapter entitled "Strategic Bombing". The bombing of Germany before ground troops got there had several problems. Early on, attrition rates were extremely high and success in hitting targets very low. More than ten percent of bombers were lost, destroying air crew morale because the probability of being shot down across the required thirty missions was very great. A 1941 British study showed that only one in four bombers was getting within five miles of its target in Germany; over the Ruhr, the heartland of German industry, the proportion was one in ten. Keegan writes, "During 1941, when 700 aircraft failed to return from the operations, Bomber Command's crews in short were dying largely in order to crater the German countryside." High attrition rates and low morale led to crews deliberately dropping their bombs early, away from the targets, and returning to base.

The Germans dispersed and hid manufacturing targets, though oil fields and airplane manufacturing facilities were not so easy to hide. The experimental U.S. raid on the German ball-bearing factories in 1943 was a failure: 16% of the planes were lost, three times the RAF's permissible attrition, and the Germans continued to obtain ball bearings from other sources, including neutral Sweden.

In short, since the introduction of bombing in this century, there has not yet been an example of a military goal successfully accomplished by the precision bombing of military and industrial targets, in the absence of a related effort by ground troops. Either the attackers fail to hit their targets, or if they succeed in "precision" bombing, as in the ball-bearing raid, the ultimate goal is not accomplished.

What happens next is predictable: the wholesale bombing of enemy civilians is pursued. In 1941, writes Keegan, the RAF "brought itself to accept that the bombers it already deployed must in future be used to kill German civilians, since the factories in which they worked could not be hit with precision." The notorious Bomber Harris "was a commander of coarse singlemindedness. He had neither intellectual doubt or moral scruple about the rightness of the area bombing policy...."

We are seeing the first signs of the broadening of attacks on Kosovo from military to civilian targets. The most prominent example so far is the shameful bombing of the television studios with fatalities among journalists and support technicians.

In World War II, we next entered the era of the "Baedeker" raid on beautiful tourist cities of little military importance. "I wanted my crews to be well 'blooded'", Harris said, "to have a taste of success for a change." He was successful. Keegan writes, "Lubeck, a gem of medieval timber architecture, burned to the ground, and the crews returned to base 95% intact."

Most people have heard of the "firestorms" produced in the bombing of several German cities, including Hamburg and Dresden. "A firestorm," says Keegan, "is not an effect that a bombing force can achieve at will..." It depends on weather conditions.

When such circumstances are present, however, the consequences are catastrophic. A central conflagration feeds on oxygen drawn from the periphery by winds which reach cyclone speed, suffocating shelterers in cellars and bunkers, sucking debris into the vortex and raising temperatures to a level where everything flammable burns as if by spontaneous combustion.

After six days of firestorm in Hamburg, 30,000 people were dead, twenty percent of them children. Female casualties were forty percent higher than male. Eighty percent of the buildings had been destroyed.

Germany, of course, was ultimately conquered by ground troops and consequently, "the claims of the strategic bombing advocates that they possessed the secret of victory have not and can never be proved." Keegan is certain that "German civilian morale....was never broken by bomber attack." He says that nothing "better vindicated the German people's reputation for discipline and hardihood than the resilience of their urban men and women under Allied air attack..." It is worth noting that the German bombing of England, which was never coupled with any ground invasion, similarly reinforced British morale and the resolution to defeat Germany.

Journalists are reporting this same effect in Serbia today. People who did not support Milosevic are rallying behind him out of patriotism and a growing hatred of NATO and the U.S.

The only World War II bombing campaign--and probably, the only one in history-- which succeeded in breaking a combatant without the need for a ground invasion, was the one against Japan. Keegan writes, "between May and August 1945, the dropping of 158,000 tons of bombs, two-thirds incendiaries, on the fifty-eight largest Japanese cities, all largely wooden in construction, destroyed sixty percent of their ground area and brought their populations to destitution and despair." Even before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But this only supports the proposition that wars are won by brute overwhelming force, not by precision and limited campaigns. The moral of the story is that there is a terrible and pathetic mismatch between our announced goals--the saving of Albanian lives in Kosovo-- and our tactics. It was perfectly predictable that the bombing would prompt the Serbs to kill as many Albanians as possible.

We are now in the Viet Nam dilemma. In order to declare victory in Serbia, we will have to apply the brute force we haven't been willing to bring to bear in any conflict since the Second World War. This will mean either that we commit ground forces, or enage in the mass destructive bombing of civilian populations. Neither approach will save any Albanians.

But let's assume for a second this is not so: that there is some level of commitment which would end the genocide. But, if we go to the next step, we will also start losing American lives. And we will do so without having engaged in any debate as to whether we desire to give our own lives for this purpose. Speaking as a Jew, I am moved by stories of nonJews who risked and gave their lives to save us from the Nazis. But I cannot argue that anyone has any moral obligation to die for me, any more than I do to run into the burning house on the next block, and die to save a stranger. There is a calculus---one we never engaged in before Viet Nam. Is it worth fifty thousand American lives to prevent genocide in Kosovo? What is the sliding scale of moral costs and benefits? Have we discharged our moral obligations by condemnations, by embargoes, by limited bombing? What if the "part that is needed" involved tremendous suffering here? Let us not slide into these commitments as we have before, through self-deception, lack of will, and the need to save face.