BY BARBARA EHRENREICH
A round of applause, please, for the Serbian people. No
matter how often they're pounded with bombs or told their
leader is Hitler incarnate, none of them seems to be
launching impeachment proceedings.
Instead, they gather in Belgrade
for patriotic rock concerts
featuring some of the very same
performers who, only a couple of
years ago, were busily rocking
against Slobodan Milosevic. In an instructive contrast to
NATO, which fights only when the weather is agreeable,
the Serbian civilians don bullseyes and form human chains
over vulnerable bridges.
Confronted with this extraordinary surge of Serbian
solidarity, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea opined that they'll
get over it soon enough. A follow-up question, if you don't
mind, Mr. Shea: If the Serbs are still smarting from their
defeat at the Battle of Kosovo more than 600 years ago,
what makes you think they're going to forget the bombings
of Belgrade, Novi Sad and Aleksinac in a couple of weeks?
The historical analogies are far from encouraging. When
the Luftwaffe bombed London, you may recall that the
English failed to rise up against Winston Churchill.
Similarly, the obsessive bombing of Iraq by the United
States has yet to produce a mighty pro-democracy,
anti-Saddam movement on the ground. In fact,
persecution--real or perceived--is the very seedbed of
nationalist enthusiasm. Observe how the Australians still get
misty-eyed over the Battle of Gallipoli, at which they were
You don't have to read Serbo-Croatian to understand what
the Serbian rockers and demonstrators are trying to tell
us--namely, that there's more than one person in Serbia.
This should come as no surprise, since the almanac lists 11
million residents in addition to the president and his
immediate cronies. But the NATO assault so far has been
conducted against a single individual, just as the United
States likes to imagine that Iraq contains only one
occupant, Saddam Hussein.
This is the one-man theory of the nation-state, and its
effect is to transform war into an S/M psychodrama: Now
that we've degraded "his" infrastructure and knocked out
"his" supply lines, will he finally break? When will he cry
uncle? No one in NATO seems to have realized that when
Milosevic looks out his window, he doesn't just see
mangled bridges and smashed ministries, he sees the same
militant crowds that we do. Imagine the warm feeling it
must give him to know that this time the people aren't
calling for his ouster, they're hailing him as their beloved
The one-man theory of the nation-state undoubtedly has its
charms. For one thing, it eliminates the psychological
imponderable that is nationalism, which can be ignored
while we concentrate on the individual psychopathology of
a Slobodan or a Saddam. Furthermore, it eases any guilt
occasioned by civilian casualties, since those civilians never
fully existed in the first place. Finally, it restores the lost
glories of the days of individual combat, when brave men
rode out on horseback to joust with the other side's warrior
heroes, while the foot soldiers fell back in awe. Which
would you rather watch on TV: NATO vs. the Federal
Republic of Yugoslavia, or Bombin' Bill going mano a
mano against Sadistic Slobo?
The alternative, multi-person theory of the state is not only
conceptually more challenging, but it requires an entirely
different approach to conflict. You would start, not with
bombs, but with an information blitz aimed at an entire
population. If, for example, it's true that the Serbian people
think the Kosovar Albanians are fleeing NATO bombs, not
Serbian forces--why not deluge them with faxes and
e-mail? Maybe an information war wouldn't work, but with
a literate, PC-possessing population, there's no excuse for
not giving it a try. Next, you'd bend over backward not to
injure a single Serbian civilian, even if this means passing
on a tempting downtown target or two.
If peace is the aim, then the peacekeeper's rule should be
the same as the medical profession's: First, do no harm. If
all this sounds disgustingly soft-minded, bear in mind that
the current NATO strategy seems designed to turn the
children in Belgrade's bomb shelters into tomorrow's
international terrorist menace.
In the end, of course, we bomb because bombing is what
we know how to do. Here, another historical analogy may
apply: In the Hundred Years War, the French knights tried
to battle English archers by charging them on horseback in
the usual knightly fashion. Again and again--Crecy through
Agincourt--the French knights charged very nicely indeed,
and were duly slaughtered by English arrows. Yes, NATO
does a commendable job of bombing. But it has yet to
prove it can accomplish anything useful.
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of Blood Rites.
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