The pinpoint accuracy of last year’s Pentagon bombing missions over the Balkans transformed war into mere Nintendo for most Americans. Piped into our homes on live TV, these triumphs of U.S. technology reaffirmed this country’s status as Earth’s unchallenged megapower. Over 78 days, Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian military was vanquished with literally not one U.S. or NATO soldier perishing in the process. God bless America.
Of course, the situation on the ground is far less tidy than the black-and-white news footage produced by those missile-cams. As Gary Dempsey and Aaron Lukas explain in a new documentary, the people of the Balkans are still sifting through the war’s cinders, struggling to regain anything resembling normalcy.
Dempsey and Lukas produced “Collateral Damage: The Balkans After NATO’s Air War,” a compelling, 53-minute film on the unintended consequences of spring 1999′s Operation Allied Force. These two policy analysts — who normally wear coats and ties in their cozy offices at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. — show no fear in accompanying U.S. servicemen on patrol in Kosovo and elsewhere in the region. They take their digital video cameras into buildings now reduced to rubble and through fields and paths in areas still littered with land mines, hand grenades, and some 14,000 unexploded NATO cluster bombs.
They visit a hospital run by the U.S./NATO-led KFOR or Kosovo Force that is treating a little boy injured by one of those cluster bombs. Metal pins hold his right leg together inside a cast. It’s not pretty, but is in much better shape than his left leg, half of which is gone.
In addition to these medical duties, U.S. and allied forces now provide basic public services. “KFOR is the only law enforcement in the area,” states Army Lt. Col. Richard Swengros, even as organized crime grows. He says he is awaiting a United Nations police force, “but right now, KFOR is it.”
Aaron Lukas tells me that “U.S. KFOR troops are doing things that peace keepers ought not to be doing, such as collecting trash and building schools. These are all worthy projects, but it’s not the job of the U.S. military to pick up garbage off the streets.” He adds: “What we are seeing in Kosovo is social work masquerading as defense policy.”
While U.S. G.I.s may find the gap between their training and tasks perplexing, the real pain is felt by the residents of the Balkans. They are the ones who suffered tremendously at the hands of Milosevic’s bloodthirsty henchmen, endured some 1,000 civilian deaths due to NATO bombs, were displaced in mass movements of refugees and now try to return to work within a crushed economy.
“Collateral Damage” quotes Bulgarian exporters, for instance, who have lost access to Hungarian, Austrian, and German markets due to the demolished bridges that now clog the Danube, the Mississippi River of central Europe. With his boats unable to traverse the waterway, cargo shipper Daniel Karamochev laments, “We are at the edge of bankruptcy.”
Romania has plunged deeper into poverty as many of its companies have lost their Yugoslav joint-venture partners as well as land routes to markets in Slovenia and Macedonia.
The political wreckage also has been considerable. Milosevic himself used NATO’s hostilities as a pretext to suppress independent news media, such as the broadcast channels and publications of Serbia’s B92. Pro-U.S. politicians in the Balkans find it very difficult to promote free-market ideas against a backdrop of roads and buildings pulverized through allied force. Anti-Americanism is waxing, not waning.
And yet, Milosevic has been stopped. We never will know what further mayhem the Butcher of Belgrade may have perpetrated in Kosovo, Montenegro, or even Albania and elsewhere had America and NATO looked away. Likewise, Milosevics-in-the-making around the globe may have watched NATO’s bombs on CNN and thought twice about unleashing their own ethnic cleansing campaigns.
Flattening Berlin in 1936 would have been equally tragic, but worth every shard of broken glass had it prompted Adolf Hitler to withdraw from the Rhineland and then leave his neighbors alone.
America’s role in the Balkans should be judged in this light. Frustrating Slobodan Milosevic’s territorial and genocidal ambitions remains vital to regional stability and world peace, as is also the arrest and prosecution of this indicted war criminal who began this bloodshed in 1991. But let’s be honest: as “Collateral Damage” vividly illustrates, America’s Balkan intervention — and perhaps others in the future — comes at considerable human and material cost. Call that a necessary evil.
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