The First Casualty

In war, goes the old saw, the first casualty is truth. That was certainly the case in the Kosovo war/bombardment/whatever, but it is important to remind ourselves and others of the fact. Lies will certainly be told during the next conflict – and who among us can doubt that there will be a next conflict.

However, as in the Kosovo war, it might not be possible to prove at the time that certain government statements are lies, or it might be difficult to figure out which statements are lies and which contain at least some elements of truth. It should be helpful then to remember and remind people just which official government statements turned out later to be lies. That might at least induce a healthy skepticism among citizens who don’t normally study such matters all that closely.


The news is a couple of weeks old by now, but it remains important. United Nations and European Union investigators in Kosovo have all but completely confirmed that NATO’s estimates of the number of Kosovar Albanians being slaughtered by Serbian forces during the propaganda buildup to the war were grossly overblown. The latest evidence suggests that somewhat fewer than 3,000 Kosovars were killed, most of them probably by Serbs – and that much of the slaughter took place after the NATO bombing campaign had begun.

I would never argue that the death of 3,000 people is anything other than horrifying. But there’s a context. UN and EU investigators now estimate that between 3,000 and 5,000 Serbs, many of them civilians, were killed by the NATO bombing attacks on Yugoslavia. And an unknown and perhaps unknowable number of the Kosovar Albanian casualties were killed by NATO bombing attacks rather than by Serbs. That is horrifying as well.

The information becoming available now that reasonably skilled teams are able to inspect onsite contrasts sharply with what we were fed before and during the war. NATO spokesmen solemnly spoke of "ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo of horrifying proportions. Estimates in excess of 10,000 Kosovar Albanian deaths – before the war started – were commonplace. Some spokesperson got carried away and started bandying about truly ridiculous numbers like more than 100,000, but such numbers were so clearly unbelievable that exaggeration on that order was quickly abandoned.


A virtually constant drumbeat of NATO briefings during the war revolved around aerial photographs of alleged mass graves "reliably” suspected to hold the bodies of hundreds of Kosovars murdered by Serbs in each location. Subsequent investigation has turned up a few bodies at some of these sites, none at others. No "mass graves” at all have been documented.

Among the features of the NATO propaganda campaign were allegations that hundreds – at least – of Kosovars had been slaughtered and their bodies dumped down the shafts of the Trepca mines. "The Trepca mines were alleged to hold 1,000 bodies of Albanians murdered by Serbs,” wrote Brian Mitchell in Investor’s Business Daily recently. "If the bodies weren’t just dumped down mine shafts, they were supposed to have been burnt or dissolved in acid in the mines’ smelter … But no bodies were found at Trepca. No human remains at all.”

Up to a couple of weeks ago, some 2,100 bodies had been found by investigators from the "victor” countries. Some were in fairly large gravesites. Not all of them were Kosovars and it’s still unclear how many died in a battle of some kind rather than simply being summarily murdered. The final count will probably be somewhat higher, but it won’t approach even the lower range of the estimates made before and during the war.

In short, US and NATO officials repeatedly lied to us.


It should also be remembered that these inflated body counts undoubtedly played a large role in building up support – or at least in neutralizing latent opposition – among ordinary Americans. With or without inflated body counts, we were told repeatedly by official spokesmen and their unpaid media flacks that a virtual genocide – a wholesale slaughter of unarmed Albanian civilians of horrifying proportions – was taking place. Only a hard-hearted isolationist (or perhaps – wink, wink – a Milosevic lover who took pleasure in the death of innocents), the propaganda line went, could fail to be moved and to support at least some effort to stop the slaughter. Bombing might not have been the perfect answer in many Americans’ minds, but at least it was a gesture of outrage.

But it is now becoming clear that the U.S. government undertook a massively expensive and ill-planned but enormously destructive bombing campaign against unarmed civilians to prevent a genocide that was not taking place – to stop a mass deportation that had not happened. Now – see Bosnia where, as a Monday night "Nightline” report makes clear, there is no end in sight to foreign occupation – US and Western European troops are likely to be ensconced in Kosovo engaging in fruitless and counterproductive "nation-building” for years to come.

All based on lies.

(All right, I’ll concede that some of the spokesmen, forced to rely themselves on necessarily partial information, might actually have believed some of the lies they told when they told them. But some of them clearly knew they were lying at the time and continued to do so with gusto.)


It was enormously frustrating to watch the process, as a journalist with more than a few years of professional experience, during the war. One watched the NATO briefings and knew numerous lies were being told, if only because all too many of the assertions were so implausible. But it was too facile to say, simply, "of course they’re lying; their lips are moving” without some documentation, some countervailing evidence from reliable sources or authorities on the ground.

But I wasn’t in a position to investigate personally, and few of the journalists close to the action were inclined to undertake lengthy and possibly dangerous personal investigations that might have debunked some of NATO’s claims. And even if those in a position to do so had wanted to look more closely at NATO assertions, the assertions were so numerous and came at us so quickly that it would have been virtually impossible to do so in a timely fashion.

Most of the "journalists” near the action were content to be mouthpieces for unrebutted NATO claims anyway. But to cut them a bit of slack, it would have taken battalions of skilled investigative reporters with wartime experience to run down all of NATO’s claims.


We did have the advantage of the Internet during this war, an information tool not available either to supporters or to opponents or skeptics of previous wars. But in part because it was the first time the tool had been used – was the best but not the only conscientious disseminator of information skeptical of the official line – it was difficult to have as much confidence as one might have liked in the sources made available through the Internet. There’s little doubt, for example, that official Serb sources had an ax to grind and should be viewed with at least a modicum of skepticism.

So I, for one, was completely convinced NATO spokesmen were lying early and often, but more than a bit uncertain what countervailing information to believe. It was almost impossible to pinpoint and document the lies when they were being told. So those who questioned the official version were subject to skepticism – sometimes warranted – themselves.


One other NATO lie recently came to the surface. NATO and US officials grudgingly acknowledged in the last few weeks that one of the vaunted Stealth aircraft – coated and shaped so as to be virtually "invisible” to radar – was shot down during the war. I remember claims from the Serbian government and from Serb sympathizers during the war that at least one of the Stealth planes had been shot down.

Without dismissing the possibility, I and many others were skeptical of such claims as obvious Serb wartime propaganda. NATO spokespeople, of course, vigorously denied not only the claims but even the possibility that one of America’s proud technological triumphs was potentially vulnerable to enemy fire. These were super-weapons, symbols and instruments of the Empire’s ability to impose its will on smaller countries without taking personal casualties.

It turns out, however, that however many lies and whoppers the Serb spokesmen might have told during the war – and I have no doubt they told plenty – they were more reliable as purveyors of information than "our” side.

Please, please, let’s remember this and be able to remind others during the buildup to the next conflict – when those who doubt the wisdom of further adventures or question the claims of official spokesmen will once again be dismissed as unthinking critics with no proof or even as sympathizers with whatever leader (who will undoubtedly have plenty of real blemishes) is being demonized by the war propaganda machine and its subservient courtier press.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).