The Lies Last Time
by Phil Hammond
Would Nato have been able to sell its Kosovo bombing to the public if we had known then what we know one year later?
Last June, when Nato troops entered Kosovo, everyone got rather carried away. The tabloids, of course, were jumping up and down with excitement: 'Here we come, Slobba', proclaimed the Daily Star's front page; 'In We Go' said the Daily Mirror (11 June). In fact, in 'we' failed to go: troops spent the day in a field before returning to camp because the Russians reached Pristina first. But the excitement was not confined to the tabloids. In the Sunday Times, Mark Franchetti described entering Kosovo alongside Nato troops as 'a unique and thrilling experience', while the Independent on Sunday's James Dalrymple found 'it was a moment of exhilaration' (13 June). On TV, even usually level-headed broadcasters like Channel Four's Alex Thompson gushed about 'the success of the US policy' (22 June).
That 'success' has turned to ashes in the months since 'liberation', but apologists for the 1999 Nato bombing apparently feel no shame. In an effort to put the right spin on the anniversary, Nato spokesman Jamie Shea appeared on daytime TV (Esther, BBC2, 16 March) arguing that despite the present 'difficulties' in Kosovo, the situation had been vastly improved by bombing; while in the Guardian (17 March) Martin Woollacott said that 'to proceed from these difficulties to conclude that the intervention was mistaken is illogical'.
'Difficulties'? Hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Roma, and other minorities (and many ethnic Albanians) have been driven out of Kosovo since Nato went in, many of them intimidated, beaten, kidnapped or killed by the Kosovo Liberation Army. Contrary to what Woollacott says, not only it is perfectly logical to judge a policy on its results, but the chaos in Kosovo today was also an entirely predictable consequence of Nato's actions.
In the 1990s we came to know 'ethnic cleansing' as something the Serbs did (despite the fact that in the largest single instance of 'ethnic cleansing' of the Croatian and Bosnian wars, in August 1995, Serbs were actually the victims). Throughout the 1980s, however, the term was used almost exclusively to refer to the actions and policies of ethnic Albanian nationalists in Kosovo. In July 1982, for example, the New York Times reported their aims as: 'first to establish what they call an ethnically clean Albanian republic and then the merger with Albania to form a greater Albania'. As recently as February 1998, a US envoy described the KLA as a 'terrorist organisation', but when the bombing started the KLA became 'freedom fighters', while the Serbs were portrayed as the new Nazis, collectively guilty of crimes against humanity.
Though some evidently find it more convenient to forget, it is worth recalling that Nato's bombing and subsequent occupation of Kosovo was supposedly going to bring ethnic tolerance to the province. Imagine if Nato had announced its plans honestly: 'The United States, Germany and Austria have helped to arm and train a terrorist organisation with criminal connections and a policy of ethnic purification. Nato will now start a war on its behalf.' Sign up here for the new humanitarianism.
To circumvent the lack of UN authority for its actions, Nato first told us bombing was needed to 'avert a humanitarian disaster'. US State Department spokesman James Rubin explained on 25 March 1999 that, if Nato had not acted, 'you would have had hundreds of thousands of people crossing the border'. In a special broadcast the following day, Tony Blair told the nation: 'fail to act now and we would have to deal with hundreds of thousands of refugees'. Would war have been seen as an attractive option if Nato had instead announced that, within days of the onset of bombing, hundreds of thousands of refugees would indeed flee?
Reflecting on the anniversary, Nato's new Secretary General, George Robertson, said with some satisfaction: 'the refugees are home'. Has no-one told him that while some refugees are home, another set has fled the country? Evidently Serb refugees do not count as far as Western politicians and journalists are concerned. According to the OSCE, around 60 per cent of Kosovo's Serbs and Montenegrins - 100,000 people - fled during Nato's 78-day war. Yet they were implacably ignored by the Western media. Presumably it was inconceivable that anyone would flee humanitarian bombs dropped democratically from ethical aeroplanes.
Nato's second justification for its otherwise illegal actions was that it had to stop 'genocide' in Kosovo. Nato told us 10,000 - perhaps even 100,000 or more - had been killed by Yugoslav forces. Now we know the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia has so far found 2,108 bodies (a figure which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants, nor between Albanians and Serbs). We know that at around 25 'mass grave sites' examined by investigators, no bodies at all have been discovered. We know a team of Spanish pathologists sent to investigate the 'killing fields' found 187 bodies instead of the thousands predicted. As they left Kosovo in August the Spanish team denounced Nato propaganda, and declared 'we did not find one - not one - mass grave'.
Reacting to such revelations, the Guardian's Maggie O'Kane argues that 'numbers talk cheapens life'. Perhaps the true casualty figures are far lower than claimed at the time, she concedes, but 'does it really matter?' (BBC Radio 4, 19 February). It matters because it was Nato and its supporters who played a cynical numbers game. If, instead of wild claims about a new Holocaust, Nato had announced its bombing would lead to the intensification of a local civil conflict, there would have been no grand moral cause for enthusiasts of Nato violence to rally around.
A year ago, Nato assured us every care would be taken to avoid civilian casualties. We now know Nato killed at least as many civilians in its 78 days of bombing as the total number of people who had died in Kosovo during the previous twelve months. On 12 April 1999, for example, Nato bombed a passenger train, killing at least 14 people. This, said Nato, was an accident: the train had been travelling too fast for the missiles' trajectory to be altered. Nato even showed us a videotape to prove the point. Yet in January it transpired that this video was played at triple speed, making a nonsense of the initial claim.
Suppose Nato had announced in advance that it would hit trains, buses, bridges, domestic heating plants, electricity stations, factories, marketplaces, hospitals, homes, schools. Would this have been welcomed by liberal commentators as the dawn of a new 'ethical' foreign policy?
There are two things we have to do in trying to counter this kind of propaganda. Firstly, we should demand that the record be set straight. On 14 March at the High Court in London, ITN won its libel case against LM magazine over a story about coverage of the Trnopolje camp in Bosnia. The verdict has several disturbing implications. But perhaps worst of all is the fact that the shrill media debate which followed the case has obscured its most important outcome: LM's revelation that it was ITN's journalists who were surrounded by barbed wire - not the men they were filming - was shown in court to be true. Even the presiding judge noted in his summing up: 'Clearly Ian Williams and Penny Marshall and their TV teams were mistaken in thinking they were not enclosed by the old barbed wire fence'. 'But', the judge asked rhetorically, 'does it matter?' It may not matter in the English libel courts, but surely to those of us seeking to understand the Bosnian war and its media coverage - indeed, to most reasonable people - this is exactly what matters most.
Despite some difficulties over particular incidents, Nato's Kosovo propaganda war was easy because the coverage of Bosnia has never been subjected to much serious and sustained criticism. Since we had been drilled and schooled for a decade by politicians and journalists about how view the Serbs, all Nato had to do was to say: 'Milosevic, Serbs, ethnic cleansing, genocide', and the news frame snapped into place.
Secondly, we should expect more of the same in the future. In theory, we all know the first casualty of war is truth. Yet in practice it seems a lesson we are doomed to learn again and again, always when it is too late and the lies have been sold. As well as nailing the lies from the last war,
let's be ready for the lies next time.