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Jewish Journal

Oh What a Lovely War

April 22, 1999 | 8:00 pm

You'll pardon me for a moment if I interject a personal note here. But I have a son who is heading off soon to Albania with the expectation (which I share) we will soon send ground troops into Kosovo to save most of the people there. By then, of course, there will be few Albanians left in Kosovo to save; though, there is always the possibility that the Serb sweep will have by then spread into neighboring Montenegro, which will have its share of Albanian Moslems to rescue.

Don't misunderstand. My son is not a soldier or a reservist. He is a different sort of volunteer: He is a photojournalist. No one is forcing him; he has options and choices. And I suppose if I thought our present military intervention in the tragic circumstances of Kosovo had been thought out, planned, or was even inescapable and urgent, I would merely be anxious, like most other parents. Instead, I find myself enraged.

So enraged that when a friend of mine who lives in the lovelier sections of Brentwood carefully explained to me why it was necessary for us to intervene with ground troops, I wanted to whirl on him and inquire how many of his sons and nephews, friends and neighbors would be risking their lives.

I wanted to yell that these are not some Team USA Olympic stars led by Michael Jordan whom we are sending to teach the Serbs how the game is really played. These are soldiers mainly from the working class, volunteers for whom the Army represents an opportunity, a second chance. It is no accident that two of the three American soldiers captured by the Serbs are Mexican Americans. I wanted to tell my friend that since ours actually is an army largely defined by class boundaries, it behooves those of us untouched by the military to be extra careful about committing other people's lives.

I know, nothing comes free. You want an opportunity at government expense? The price: Place your life at risk when the president decides it is in our national interest.

Why is it necessary and in our national interest? My friend explains it to me carefully, as though it were a school assignment. We need to teach Slobodan Milosevic, and other dictators, a lesson. He cannot simply wreak havoc on innocent people. We need to bring stability to the Balkans. Otherwise, well, otherwise, in Russia and Turkey and Greece, who knows what will happen. We need to utilize American power, to lead the world toward peace and political morality. It's the right thing to do. To borrow from "Seinfeld": Yada, yada, yada.

His arguments lead me to irreverent thoughts. I want to take off my hat, place my hand over my heart and sing the national anthem. I want to tamp down the surge of moral pride and virtue that looks like it will soon overwhelm me (or at least him). I want to kick him in the shins and tell him to look carefully at recent history.

In recent years, we tried our hand at nation-building, at bringing the benefits of democracy to Bosnia, Haiti and Somalia. None of these forays resulted in workable solutions or even achieved results close to what we were seeking. I have not even mentioned the fruits of the economic and political democracy that we have urged upon the former Soviet Union.

The lessons we are intent on administering should actually be aimed more at our own policy planners than at Milosevic and the Serbs. For example, our victory in the Gulf War and the subsequent bombing of Iraq has not eliminated Saddam Hussein, nor has it convinced the Serbs (or, for that matter, the Croats, the Afghans or the Hutus) to alter their behavior. The fact is, every political situation is unique, different: in terms of national interest, political reality (read: China) and terrain. The message seems clear to me: "Lessons" in one political instance do not readily transfer elsewhere.

Then there is the matter of bombing. It is almost a military axiom: Bombing without ground troops is not effective. Nor does it divide a populace; quite the contrary. We have the experience of Britain in 1940; the fire-bombing of Dresden during World War II; Vietnam (where we did use ground troops as well); and, most recently, Iraq and Saddam Hussein. The only successful use of air power alone was in Japan, when we dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It ended the war. Are we seriously proposing to drop atom bombs on Yugoslavia?

Unfortunately, there is a lesson from the past, a memory that lingers from 60 years ago, to be learned: Save the refugees, those who have been stripped bare and forced to flee to havens outside of Kosovo. Reports indicate that there are more than 600,000 who have left their homeland, with estimates of another 600,000 wandering homeless, trying to leave the country. It is they who should command our attention...and our funds. When President Clinton spoke earlier this week, he explained that he wanted $6 billion for military operations, and that $517 million would be set aside for aiding the displaced refugees. His priorities are confused.

The Israelis and the Germans have acted with dispatch and have already set up field hospitals (see story on page 20). But that barely scratches the surface. Food and shelter and medical care are in short supply and are desperately needed. As is some organization for the homeless by NATO and logistical planning. Beyond that, we probably will have to transport large numbers out of the area despite the financial and political burdens involved.

The Israelis have much to teach us here, particularly with their settling of Russian and Ethiopian immigrants. If and when a political solution is arrived at, then some/many of the refugees might be able to return home. We can decide how best to proceed with Yugoslavia once we care for the refugees. Will it entail bombing? Ground troops? Severe economic sanctions? The outline will be clearer as to our goals and policies after the images that haunt us today are removed from the headlines and the TV screens. We will then have a more focused understanding what actually is in our political interest.

We Jews apparently understand human despair; perhaps because we have had the lessons of 60 years ago imprinted on our skin. It is why our response locally (see Julie Gruenbaum Fax's story on page 12) is so directly and solidly the correct one, from schoolchildren to the synagogues, from our Jewish Federation to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

I am reminded that, years ago, when I lived in London, a journalist friend and I went to see the play "Oh What A Lovely War," which had been produced and directed by Joan Littlewood. It was a biting satire about the First World War, about its pointlessness, its hollow patriotism, and the disastrous and inept behavior of the military officers and government officials waging the war.

My friend's father had fought in that war. He had been gassed and severely wounded, and, so, perhaps for that reason, he had purchased two tickets for himself and his wife to see the play. My friend told me that once the play began his father had broken down and started weeping. Before the first act was over, he had left the theater. Would that we too could start weeping now, that we could jettison the bombing and the ground troops before the first act is over. -- Gene Lichtenstein

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