The opinion column reproduced below from April 1999 goes a long way towards revealing the failings of the western media in its coverage if the Balkan conflicts. More than a year after a Kosovo Liberation Army – trained and armed by the US, Germany, France and the UK – had crossed into Kosovo with the aim of seizing the whole of the Serbian province by force, the author seems entirely unaware that this had happened.
Nor does he appear the least grasp of the history of Kosovo, or the reasons why a Serbian majority at the beginning of the 20th century had become an Albanian majority over the course of the next 75 years.
Mr Aaronovitch reaches all his conclusions on the basis of uncritical acceptance of the coverage in the western media. It does not seem to have occurred to him that it was a bit odd that NATO, established as a Cold War defensive organisation and still officially operating as such under its Charter, should have commenced a massive bombing campaign against Serbia without even consulting the UN, let alone seeking its formal approval for this action.
The barrage of uncorroborated anti-Serb propaganda seems also to have escaped his notice. By this stage in the conflicts the power of this misinformation was no great secret.
The Independent 6th April 1999
My country needs me – and the cause is worth fighting for
By David Aaronovitch
We pampered Westerners are all very martial as long as we are only dropping ordnance from the sky.
The air is thick with the stink of attitudinising. Every columnist, reporter, letter-writer, pub bore and backbencher knows what should have been done, and what ought to be done now. You can sense the determination to be on the right side of history when you hear them utter sentence beginning with words like “it was quite obvious from the beginning that.”
Yesterday morning, disgracefully, I went back over past pieces that I havewritten about Kosovo, hoping that they would show what a prescient and clever fellow I am, and that they would defend me from the various charges that those opposed to intervention now level at those who support it.
Sometimes I disgust myself. What I believe about Kosovo – that we had little alternative but to intervene, and that we should now begin to deploy an army charged with winning it back for its dispossessed people – is not the consequence of deep strategic and military insight. It is, rather, a product of conscience allied to a deep worry about what would happen elsewhere were we to fail this test. People on either side of this argument, who proclaim a clear and almost infallible understanding of cause and effect in the Balkans, are seeking to mobilise opinion rather than telling the truth.
The desire to be vindicated by events is particularly strong in those currently in opposition in Britain and America. At the end of last week, I heard an interview with the Tory Party chairman Michael Ancram (William Hague has been practically invisible since the bombing began), in which he more or less said that his support for Nato action was dependent upon its eventual outcome. In the US, the Republican front-runner for the 2000 presidential elections, George W Bush, answered the question about action with one of his own. “My question is: is it good for America?” said the man from Texas. “Right now, as governor, I’m going to figure out how to get a tax-cut through.” So if it turns out to be a success, then they are in favour of it. If it is a catastrophe, then the weedy, liberal focus-groupies in power in Washington and London will face the justified wrath of the people.
So far there has been surprisingly little wrath. In Germany, opinion pollsshow more than 60 per cent in favour of the air strikes, while in France, there is 58 per cent support, including for the possible use of Nato ground troops. Here there is a big majority in favour of bombing, and a smaller one that agrees to the use of the army. Slobodan Milosevic and his colleagues in Belgrade, however, may well believe that such support is soft. We pampered Westerners are all very martial as long as we’re not taking any casualties and are dropping ordnance from the sky (he may well tell his generals), but like Corporal Jones’s fuzzy-wuzzies, we don’t like it up us, you know. And Slobodan Milosevic has to look no further than the gung-ho Sun for some proof. Slapped all over yesterday’s page one was the banner headline: “Don’t send our troops off to die”.
Let us forget all this nonsense about how The Sun rules the world. Its threat to Tony Blair to withdraw its support from the war effort if ground troops were to be deployed should be treated with total contempt. Last week, at the Press Gazette awards, the editor of The Sun got so pissed that he sat for quite some time on the floor, unaware that he had fallen off his chair. Beaverbrook he ain’t.
But that doesn’t mean that the argument should not be taken seriously. Many soldiers’ families read The Sun, I imagine. And common sense suggests that, should we lose dozens of casualties in a Balkans war, then that bit of opinion in Britain that hasn’t cared much either way so far may decide that this was never our fight anyway. All of a sudden, Mr Ancram might discover a strong opinion on Kosovo and Mr Hague might reappear from exile.
Central to The Sun’s objection to the risking of British lives in Kosovo is its perception of those who are not quite so squeamish. “Too many armchair generals and media commentators are calling for force on the ground,” it said, suggesting, somewhat surreally: “Maybe they should go and see the movie Saving Private Ryan to see what a ground war is like.” Or El Cid, perhaps?
This reproof to the supporters of action is now one that is almost universally used. To the ever-madder John Pilger, people like me are “junior Lord Haw Haws” (this invocation of a Fascist traitor and collaborator with the Nazis is explained by Pilger’s eccentric view that Nato is always the enemy), who prescribe force “having never seen a shot fired”. In its editorial, the New Statesman states: “Whether those who advocate a ground offensive have relatives in the services – or whether they would countenance the conscription that might be required to sustain a long conflict – is unknown. But the world has never been short of those willing to send other people’s sons to war.”
And Alan Watkins in our Sunday sister paper observes: “Those with some knowledge of warfare are members of the Peace Party, whereas the War Party is composed largely of those who have not even heard a popgun fired in anger.”
Now, I don’t find it necessary to slap my weapon on the table and compare it for size with that of Alan Watkins, John Pilger, the editors of the New Statesman and The Sun, or anyone else for that matter. Their jibes are cheap and obvious. There has been no glorification of war amongst those who have called for action – quite the opposite. Those in power in the US, Britain, Germany, France and Italy are not demagogues or right-wing populists, but people who grew up opposing the war in Vietnam and distrusting talk of “collateral damage”.
But there is one point that the antis make that must be addressed. Is this cause, the cause of the Kosovar Albanians, a cause that is worth suffering for? What would I myself be prepared to sacrifice in order to stop the massacres and to strike an immense blow against the politics of racial and ethnic nationalism? Would I fight, or (more realistically) would I countenance the possibility that members of my family might die? Would I be prepared to explain to the mother of a dead soldier why her son had been killed? Would I accept my children’s education being disrupted, my comfortable lifestyle being altered?
I think so. There are, indeed, some unlikely warmongers around at the moment.
Joschka Fischer, a Green member of the Germangovernment, spoke for a generation of political activists this week. “When you are confronted by genocide and mass human suffering,” he said, “you cannot sit with your hands folded and ignore the killing of innocent civilians. There are certain human values more important than pacifism.”
So yes, for this cause, if the government asked me to, I’d do what was necessary without complaining a lot. I can’t live with too much self-disgust.