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Moral doubts and the nightly news


On April 22, Tomislav (“Tomi”) Mitrovic, 60 -- as he had done for over 30 years -- said goodbye to his wife, daughters, adopted son, two cats and his dog, and set out for work. Mitrovic loved America, reflected in the “American-style” ranch house he built himself, with three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a connected living room and dining room, a nice garden and a lawn with the grass cut short.

His job: program director for Belgrade’s Radio Television Serbia. He had nothing to do with content -- he was the guy who coordinates the cameras. He had started in the mail room in the early 1960s and worked his way up, and now was looking forward to retirement in a year, when he would settle down and scrape by on his pension of $100 a month.

He had no use for the Milosevic government and no desire to work tonight, but the supervisor told the staff: Patriotism demands that you work. No work, no job. Later that night he told his subordinates to go home and stayed on alone.

He was, said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon, “as much a part of Milosevic’s murder machine as his military.”

No more. At 2:10 a.m. NATO missiles slammed the station and killed Tomi and four other technicians. It was six days before they could identify his body. He was unlike the other 300 (American press estimate) or 1,200 (Yugoslav count) Serbian and Kosovan civilians NATO has killed only in that, thanks to terrific reporting by Steven Erlanger of The New York Times, we know his name.

The Times, unlike the TV networks, has been bold enough to chronicle the suffering of Serbia’s civilian population in a way that, at least indirectly, raises questions about the morality of NATO tactics and American foreign policy.

As in the Gulf War, we have steadfastly maintained that our smart bombs avoid “collateral damage.” Nevertheless, since the bombing began, according to various sources from the BBC Web site to the New York Daily News, by human or technological error, in Serbia and Kosovo, our bombs have gone astray at least 9 times, plowing into busses, convoys of refugees, passenger trains, private homes, the Chinese Embassy and a hospital.

A 63-year-old woman who lived next door to a house wiped out by a missile said to Erlanger, “Why are we guilty? We think nothing bad about anyone. But what should God do to these people? Let Clinton’s daughter be under a broken roof like the children next door.”

Meanwhile, the NATO bombing strategy is clearly aimed -- if not to indiscriminately kill civilians -- to make them as miserable as possible by depriving them of light, power, medicines, food, transport, sanitation and water. A woman who fears her pregnant daughter’s baby will die told the Times’ Carlotta Gall, “NATO is targeting the psychology of people. Now we feel anger, which is not characteristic, and we think all the world is our enemy, and that is not good for people.”

When a reported eight cluster bombs killed 79 refugees in the village of Prizren in southern Kosovo May 13, I stayed up late Friday to take notes on TV coverage. The “CBS Evening News” gave it about 4 minutes, noted that the injuries had required 7 amputations, but paid more attention to the Pentagon spin than the dead refugees. Then a quick shift to the good news -- the little 17-month-old boy who fell down a Kansas well and got rescued. The “Lehrer Newshour” finally featured a substantive discussion that touched on the moral issue. ABC’s “Nightline” was about grandmothers.

In the late-night C-Span replay of his Pentagon news conference, Air Force four-star Gen. John Jumper, commander of the Allied Air Force in Central Europe, like Defense Secretary William Cohen on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” gave the classic spin:

1. Express pride in the great work American servicemen are doing. Morale is high. Everything is being done to protect the safety of American fighting men.

2. Mistakes are rare. Out of 20,000 sorties, only 12 instances of “collateral damage.” Very low percentage.

3. On tough questions, plead ignorance. Were cluster bombs used? “Can’t say.” A cluster bomb, we recall from the Vietnam War, is an antipersonnel weapon that explodes above the ground and spreads a hail of shrapnel and/or razor-sharp needles over 1,000 square yards. How is this an appropriate weapon in a city? Jumper says, “We always match the weapon with the effect.”

4. Blame the Serbs. Earlier NATO spokesmen had said Serb artillery had shelled the refugees. Now, offering no proof, Gen. Jumper said it was “possible” that the Serbs had rounded up the refugees as human shields and put them where they could be killed for propaganda purposes.

In Cohen’s words, there is no level to which Milosevic will not stoop. This, of course, is true enough. The question is whether we, desperate for some kind of success in a war policy that seems to be failing, have let our own moral standards slip.

The blame-Milosevic-for-everything line of argument is reinforced by a thesis advanced in The New Republic in articles by Stacy Sullivan of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard (May 10 issue), and Daniel J. Goldhagen, author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (May 17 issue). I risk oversimplifying their argument by joining their pieces, but the general idea is: The Serbs are bad. Ordinary Serbians, like “good Germans” during World War II, have had an opportunity to speak out against the atrocities of their leaders but, because they really approved of the slaughter, have preferred to keep quiet. As a result, after the war we must occupy Serbia and transform the population into moral human beings -- like us. Meanwhile, if Tomi Mitrovic has to die, too bad. He should have stayed home and given up his pension.

The trouble with this line of argument morally is that it can be used to justify an “any means necessary” strategy -- fly high to avoid antiaircraft fire, sacrifice accuracy and regret “collateral damage.” We are committed to “degrading” Serbia’s military, but not committed enough to risk American lives.

In a passionate essay in The Nation (May 24 issue), Stephen F. Cohen, professor of Russian studies at New York University, argues that this policy degrades ourselves. Our military leaders care nothing of morality, only the “credibility” of NATO, he says. “To this we must answer: We care more about the moral reputation of America.”

In the one sensitive moment of weekend TV commentary, retired General Robert Gard reminded “Newshour” viewers that, unlike any war in recent memory, this one has been defined by its humanitarian goals. Therefore, the means must be consistent with humanitarian ends. That clearly rules out cluster bombs. We should have positioned troops ready to move in, rather than imagine that Milosevic would fold under air attacks.

Now, writes Georgetown’s Charles King in the Times Literary Supplement (May 7 issue), we are “destroying the Yugoslav economy in order to build democracy, and now, killing Albanians in order to save them.”

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is assistant dean of Fordham College Rose Hill.

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 1999