NATO's insincere apologies
By James Carroll, 05/18/99
Thirty-one years ago today we woke to news of what had happened the day
before. ''Our apologies, our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good
order.'' So begins Daniel Berrigan's poem about the symbolic burning of draft
files, a protest against the war in Vietnam, that he and eight others carried out in
Catonsville, Md., on May 17, 1968. Apologies ''for the burning of paper, instead
Apologies, apologies. The phrase returned to haunt us last week as American and
NATO leaders apologized repeatedly for the accidental bombing of the Chinese
Embassy in Belgrade. Obviously, the grave diplomatic crisis that ensued was
what made the apologies so abject - and necessary. But the contrast was striking
between NATO responses to China and its now habitual response to the
anonymous mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, and grandparents in Kosovo and
Serbia whose lives are being obliterated by this war. Why can't we apologize to
There have been expressions of regret, as Secretary of State Madeleine K.
Albright and British Foreign Minister Robin Cook put it in The Washington Post
the other day, at ''perhaps hundreds of innocent casualties as a result of NATO
action.'' But such sentiments have a way of seeming pro forma, especially in
light of NATO's more frequently offered denials and equivocations.
''War is hell,'' the allied briefers seem to say when asked about civilian dead, but
they always say it from the paneled sanctuaries of Brussels and Washington.
Here is how Secretary of Defense William Cohen reacted to Serb objections to
NATO's bombing of the village of Korisa last Thursday, where dozens of
civilians were killed (Belgrade put the number at 80): ''For the Serbs to lament
publicly about the deaths of these refugees is almost tantamount to Adolf
Eichmann complaining about Allied forces' bombing of the crematoriums.''
The Holocaust continues to be the Clinton administration's moral trump card.
The president himself played it again in his speech last week. The thought,
apparently, is that references to the Final Solution can substitute for the practical
work of measuring stated aims against methods employed to achieve those aims.
Secretary Cohen seems not to have noticed that what NATO has achieved thus
far in its seven weeks of bombing, in addition to the ''collateral damage'' of
burned children in places like Korisa, is the setting loose of Adolf Eichmanns
throughout Kosovo, not the prevention of their crimes. Human Rights Watch
monitors told The New York Times this weekend that there were ''credible''
reports of Serb soldiers pushing more than 60 civilians, mostly women and
children, into a house, then attacking it with grenades and rifle fire, killing
NATO says that at least 4,600 ethnic Albanian men have been slaughtered by
Serb forces, and the figure may be as high as 100,000. NATO spokespeople pass
along such estimates without the slightest indication of having noticed that it is
NATO's own air war that has put Kosovar civilians so at the mercy of berserk
Today, a long overdue Red Cross convoy is making its way into Kosovo, the first
relief being brought to the thousands of desperate fugitives still inside the killing
zone. And NATO's attitude toward this convoy? Spokesman Jamie Shea said,
''We support these humanitarian convoy efforts, but obviously we cannot
guarantee the security of those humanitarian convoys, and our operations will
continue.'' And one can only reply, Why is that obvious?
Here, in a nutshell, once again, is the revelation of NATO's moral confusion. If
the aim is to help the Kosovars, why can't NATO simply say that this and other
relief convoys will have an umbrella of protection instead of a threatened rain of
possible bombing? Here, at last, could be the perfect mission for those idle
Apache helicopters - a shielding escort for the rescue effort. But, of course, in
doing that NATO would have to escalate the risk to itself. In this war, NATO has
perfected the escalation of risk to everyone else. And if the Red Cross convoy is
accidentally bombed, who will utter the apologies, and to whom?
Thirty-one years ago, in that spring of 1968, led by brave souls like the
Berrigans, the American people woke up to the harsh reality that only they could
reverse the disastrous course their government had set in Vietnam. By voting for
peace candidates in presidential primaries at one end of protest and by refusing
induction at the other end; by taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers,
demanding change in every way they could, Americans forced a president to halt
a futile bombing campaign, to begin negotiations.
The war went on for years more, but that spring it was America, not its
government, that renounced the goal of victory and the savage escalation it
required. Once again, America must find a way to act against its leadership. As
the bitter tone of Berrigan's poem suggests, apologies are not the point quite yet.
An immediate end to the deaths of children is the point. Before apologizing, we
must stop the war.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 05/18/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.
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