On Saturday 15 February I joined the anti-war demonstrations in London. I did not agree with everyone there, particularly not with those few carrying anti-Semitic slogans, but my personal opposition to war provided a good enough ‘justification’ for me to join in.
I say ‘justification’ because when four years ago Nato bombed Yugoslavia, my home country, I refused to join anti-war protests. So, what has changed, when the two crises appear very similar, as both critics and supporters of a war against Iraq have argued?
The Kosovo precedent
In early 1999, as calls for a war from Washington and London became louder and less compromising, it was obvious that only a miracle would prevent an American-led military campaign against Milosevic’s Yugoslavia.
The ostensible reason was Belgrade’s mistreatment of Kosovo, the mostly Albanian-populated southern Serbian province. It has since become clear that there were other reasons for the war: the west’s feeling of guilt that it had not acted to prevent Bosnian atrocities; the question of the credibility of Nato itself at a time when the organisation was undergoing an identity crisis; and personal animosity towards Milosevic, particularly that felt by the then US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.
Then, as now, America, backed by Britain, vowed to wage a war against a ‘rogue state’ and its ‘evil dictator’.
Then, as now, the ‘evil dictator’ was a former ‘our son of a bitch’, who had become too much of an annoyance to be left merely isolated by United Nations (UN) sanctions (and, in Saddam’s case, by sporadic bombing).
Then, as now, Russia and China, two permanent members of the Security Council, opposed the war, while France (another permanent member) and Germany, like most of the rest of Europe, expressed reservations towards the Anglo–American initiative (although the current European opposition to war is undoubtedly much stronger).
Then, as now, America cared little for the UN or its Security Council, let alone for ‘old Europe’.
Then, more often than now, various ‘experts’ competed to draw quasi-historical parallels with Nazi Germany.
On 24 March 1999 Nato began the bombing of Yugoslavia. The humanitarian catastrophe intensified as a result of this action, as many had warned Nato. Yugoslav forces began a campaign to expel as many Albanians from the province as possible, while Nato used cluster bombs and depleted uranium bombs, killing both Serbian and Albanian civilians. It bombed the Serbian state TV, killing sixteen employees. Most infamously, it bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing a few more civilians.
When not denying its blunders, Nato described them as ‘collateral damage’, while an old map was blamed for the Chinese embassy bombing. Eventually Nato won, but not before making some concessions, including that Kosovo remains part of Serbia, albeit in form only.
The Yugoslav army withdrew from Kosovo virtually unscratched, despite Nato’s spin-doctors previously claiming that the Alliance had destroyed Milosevic’s ‘killing machine’. The promise of Britain’s defence minister (and later Nato’s secretary-general) George Robertson – ‘Serbs out, Nato in, refugees back’ – was met.
However, the ‘Serbs out’ part was also amply fulfilled in a way that included most of Kosovo’s Serb civilians. The reversed ethnic cleansing was proportionally even greater than the Serb cleansing of ethnic Albanians. Under the noses of international peacekeepers most of the pre-war 200,000-strong Serb community left Kosovo, while many were killed.
A conflict of head and heart
During the bombing of Yugoslavia I was torn between a fear for my family and friends who were under the bombs and the realisation that my own people were committing atrocities against innocent Albanian civilians in Kosovo. Nato’s increasingly dirty war did not make my choice easier.
But, how could I put aside images of my mother placing a kitchen table above my 88-year old grandfather, who had suffered a stroke, to protect his body, then remaining alongside him, unable to carry him to a nearby shelter and unable to leave him alone?
Where did that fit into the wider picture of Kosovo’s tragedy? I found answer as well as refuge in my profession: academic history. Although I had long realised the impossibility of the 19th century historiography’s ideal of an emotionless and therefore ‘objective’ historian, I fought my emotions, refusing to produce an instant, even less ‘Serbian’, history of the conflict.
Although I opposed the Nato bombing, I also opposed the Serbian campaign against Albanian civilians. I refused to join either the war or pro-war camp – I agreed wholly with neither side. I struggled to maintain my individual position, precisely because I knew that it was individualism which was the first casualty of any war. I did not wish to become Nato’s or Milosevic’s ‘collateral damage’. I did not join anti-war demonstrations, although I did not criticise my Serbian and non-Serbian friends who did. To this day my father has not forgiven me this ‘betrayal’.
Last month I went to demonstrate against the increasingly likely war against Iraq and I do not feel I have betrayed my ideal of individualism and scholarly distance. Although Saddam is much more of a dictator than Milosevic ever was and although he is probably guiltier of mass murder of innocent civilians, I feel that a case for a war against him now is weaker than it was against Milosevic in 1999.
The alleged link between Baghdad and al-Qaida is unconvincing, while the ‘preventive action’ argument would remind one of a Philip K. Dick novel if it had not been frighteningly real. Needless to say, by protesting against the war on 15 February I did not support Saddam’s dictatorship.
Is it a paradox that I marched for ‘another’ cause, but not for ‘my own’? Perhaps. Have I reassessed my position because of a feeling of ‘guilt’ for not joining anti-war demonstrations in 1999? Probably not. But, it is certainly easier to be confident in one’s own judgement when personal issues are not so much at stake.