Well, well, well. The mainstream press is catching on to the tissue of lies woven by Pentagon and NATO spokesmen to justify the late, lamentable war on Kosovo and Yugoslavia. The question is whether the skepticism they are able to display now, more than a year after the war was begun with near-universal cheerleading from most of the "mainstream" media, will come to the fore the next time our leaders want to sell us on a splendid little war perhaps in Sierra Leone?
A report in the current (May 15) issue of Newsweek magazine on a damage assessment done after the Kosovo war suggests that the old saw, "In war, the first casualty is truth" retains all too much validity. According to "a suppressed Air Force report obtained by Newsweek," John Barry and Evan Thomas reported, "the number of targets verifiably destroyed was a tiny fraction of those claimed."
The Pentagon and Air Force, as of Monday, not surprisingly denied that the Newsweek report was accurate and came close to denying that the report Newsweek said it had obtained even existed.)
Remember the jubilant news conference held after victory was declared last June, by U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen and joint chiefs Chairman Gen. Henry Shelton? Of course you do if you could keep your dinner down. "We severely crippled the [Serb] military forces in Kosovo by destroying more than 50 percent of the artillery and one third of the armored vehicles," crowed Mr. Cohen. Gen. Shelton put numbers on the boast, saying NATO’s high-altitude bombing campaign had destroyed "around 120 tanks," along with "about 220 armored personnel carriers" and "up to 450 artillery and mortar pieces."
The actual numbers, as reported by a Munitions Effectiveness Assessment Team (MEAT) (some members afterward described themselves as "dead meat") sent to inspect bombing sites in helicopters and on foot? According to Newsweek they were: "14 tanks, not 120; 17 armored personnel carriers, not 220; 20 artillery pieces, not 450. Out of 744 ‘confirmed’ strikes by NATO pilots, the Air Force investigators, who spent weeks combing Kosovo by helicopter and by foot, found evidence of just 58."
SPOOFING THE LIARS
The Serbs turned out to have been rather skillful at "spoofing" bomber pilots by creating "targets" that looked like something else from the lofty altitude of 15,000 feet, the altitude chosen by NATO strategic geniuses to ensure no NATO captives or casualties.
"The Serbs protected one bridge," Barry and Thomas wrote, "from the high-flying NATO bombers by constructing, 300 yards upstream, a fake bridge made of polyethylene sheeting stretched over the river. NATO ‘destroyed’ the phony bridge many times. Artillery pieces were faked out of long black logs stuck on old truck wheels. A two-thirds scale SA-9 antiaircraft missile launcher was fabricated from the metal-lined paper used to make European milk cartons. ‘It would have looked perfect from three miles up, said a MEAT analyst."
The most disturbing aspect of the Newsweek story was the assessment that "Air power was effective in the Kosovo war not against military targets but against civilian ones. Military planners do not like to talk frankly about terror-bombing civilians (‘strategic targeting’ is the preferred euphemism), but what got Milosevic’s attention was turning out the lights in downtown Belgrade. Making the Serb populace suffer by striking power stations not ‘plinking’ tanks in the Kosovo countryside threatened his hold on power. The Serb dictator was not so much defeated as pushed back into his lair for a time. The surgical strike remains a mirage. Even with the best technology, pilots can destroy mobile targets on the ground only by flying low and slow, exposed to ground fire. But NATO didn’t want to see pilots killed or captured."
Let’s be sure we understand clearly just what is being said here. NATO sold this war as immaculate bombing, a campaign that would destroy Yugoslavian military capability with no threat to NATO pilots or other personnel. Early on, when the credulous still believed the "optimistic" estimates, military historian John Keegan crowed that this war proved that "a war can be won by airpower alone." For a western alliance eager to impose its will on the backward, wayward and intransigent of the rest of the world without alienating or endangering its own populations, this was intoxicating news. A war with no costs except big money to the taxpayers, and they have more then they need anyway looked to be the perfect paradigm for a squeaky-clean 21st Century Empire.
But it turned out, as even NATO strategists began to figure when Milosevic refused to yield in a few days, that even if the optimistic (assuming that believing you have done mass quantities of wanton destruction is the working definition of optimism) assessments of military damage were correct, that wasn’t enough. So NATO turned to what it had said at the outset it wouldn’t have to do, the kind of terror-bombing of strictly civilian targets that even veteran warmongers tend to condemn (or at least to feel mildly discomfited about) in hindsight.
NATO bombed civilian power plants. It bombed TV and radio stations. It bombed civilian neighborhoods. It bombed bridges, trains and other elements of the civilian infrastructure. It rained terror on Yugoslavia in particularly wanton ways enough to get Milosevic to agree to a settlement so NATO could declare victory, and not get out but get in.
HARDLY ISOLATED LIES
The exaggeration about destruction of military targets provides a bookend to exaggerations that set the stage for the war. Before the bombing began, US and NATO spokesmen insisted that "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo Albanians was occurring on a massive scale. Estimates of 10,000 to as many as 100,000 civilians murdered by the Serbs were bandied about to justify starting the bombers on their way. After the war, NATO investigators uncovered evidence of about 3,000 Kosovars killed by Serbs, with much of the slaughter occurring after the bombing had begun. By comparison, between 3,000 and 5,000 Serbs, most of them civilians, were killed by NATO bombing attacks.
These "after-action" reports should reinforce our natural skepticism next time our leaders want to involve us in a splendid little war. It is hardly unique to the United States or to NATO that once the wartime propaganda drums start beating, there is a strong tendency for anything resembling truth to fly out the window.
So what did it profit the western powers to carry out their splendid little war fed by lies and more lies? The US wreaked death and destruction to find itself with a long-term commitment. The United States and NATO, contrary to early promises, will be in Kosovo for the duration. Kosovo, according to a recent Herald International report is without a functioning legal system or police force, and is in the throes of a crime wave of "epidemic proportions." The US and NATO are scrambling to set things right, without much success.
On May 2, the top US commander in Kosovo predicted "that NATO peacekeepers will have to remain in the Balkans for ‘at least a generation.’" Brigadier General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of Task Force Falcon, noted, as reported by the Boston Globe, "that the two US camps in southwestern Kosovo, Montieth and the sprawling Bondsteel, were being built to support and house US troops for at least three to five years."
"In order to guarantee the safety of all the people here, we’re talking at least a generation for NATO’s commitment to secure the Balkans region," General Sanchez said. "I’m not saying the troop size would be the same. But it’s a long-term commitment for NATO."
A HABIT OF LYING
About 6,000 US troops are still in neighboring Bosnia after a deployment in 1995 that was supposed to be temporary a year at most. The president and his entourage don’t even bother with the periodic "they’ll be out by next Spring" lies anymore, largely because the Washington press corps never asks.
The implication behind Gen. Sanchez’s assessment that it is the duty of the US and NATO to "guarantee the safety of all the people here" when the government can’t claim to guarantee the safety of civilians in American cities was also not questioned. If that’s the goal, of course, utopian as it is, the commitment will never be ended.
And it won’t be only in Kosovo. At a news conference in Kosovo May 1, Secretary of Defense Cohen declared that NATO has unilaterally decided that it has the right to enter Serbia if it feels like it or at least to enter the "buffer zone" in the Presevo Valley. So continued aggression against Serbia, continuing and escalating resentment and perhaps more armed conflict are in the cards.
Would aggressive skepticism by some of the media during the buildup to the splendid little war that couldn’t have prevented this kind of tragedy. Perhaps not but at least a few members of the press might have been able to believe they had carried out the self-assigned duty to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" that one sometimes hears about in journalism school rather than being mere courtiers to power.