The deadly semantics of NATO bombings
By Howard Zinn, 05/28/99
Isn't it time we stopped using the word ''accidental'' to describe the NATO
bombing of Yugoslavian hospitals, residential neighborhoods, buses, trains,
trucks, and refugees on roads that has killed or maimed at least 1,000 civilians,
The word ''accident'' is not an accurate description of the mayhem we have
caused in Yugoslavia. True, the world ''deliberate'' does not fit either. It is
understandable that Serb leaders would call it ''deliberate,'' just as it is
understandable that our leaders would call it an ''accident.'' Both words are
propaganda devices that blur a reality more complex than that two-word
vocabulary can convey.
An accident implies something unforeseen. True, a recent bombing - to take an
example of the hospital bombed in Belgrade - may have been unforeseen as a
specific consequence of bombing the city. But it was foreseeable, given the
magnitude and nature of the bombing, that some hospital, school, village, or bus
would at some point be hit, and civilians would die.
If I drive my car at 80 miles an hour down a street crowded with children, and 10
of them are killed, I cannot dismiss this as an accident, even if I had not intended
to kill these particular children. When an action has inevitable and terrible
consequences, it cannot be excused as ''accidental.''
That is an imaginary situation, but let me describe a real one. Just before the end
of World War II, flying as a bombardier with the Eighth Air Force, I dropped
canisters of napalm on a French town on the Atlantic coast of France. I have no
idea how many civilian inhabitants died because of what I did - my target was
''military,'' that is, a bunch of German soldiers waiting for the war to end. But
can I claim that the deaths I caused - how many were children I have no way of
knowing - were the result of an ''accident''?
When Serbian troops in Kosovo kill Albanians, the proper word is ''deliberate.''
But when our planes drop cluster bombs on a residential neighborhood and
children are either killed or left in agony because of the steel fragments
penetrating their bodies, that should not be passed off as an accident, even if it is
not ''deliberate'' in the same sense as Milosevic's evil deeds. Both are war
crimes, legally and morally.
I am focusing on children as victims because they are true innocents. We are
bombing Yugoslavia every night, and citizens there report that their children
cannot sleep and live in constant fright. Bombing a city at night is a form of
terrorism, because even if the target hit is a ''military'' one, the entire population
must live in fear. Indeed, whether in World War II or Vietnam, the terrorizing of
the civilian population has always been an objective of bombing, no matter how
official propaganda denies it.
We can expect NATO and US officials to use language intended to absolve their
guilt. But why do reporters, who are not supposed to parrot the propaganda of
governments, keep using words like ''accidental'' and ''mistake,'' which suggest
an innocence not appropriate to the massive bombing of towns and cities?
The attempts by officials to defend the deaths of civilians border on the absurd.
In defending an airstrike on a village, the administration said that Kosovars were
used as ''human shields.'' Do ordinary civilians not live in villages? Were the
patients who died in the devastated hospital forced into their beds? Were the
civilians killed on the bombed train deliberately sent on that trip?
That explanation brought back the ugliest of memories of My Lai and other
Vietnam massacres, justified by ''the Vietnamese babies are concealing hand
grenades.'' It also brought Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's response afer
Pakistani troops had fired into a crowd of Somali citizens: ''They are using
civilians as shields.''
Another explanation used by the administration is that the deaths caused by
NATO bombings don't compare to the numbers that Milosevic has killed. Does
one horror excuse another? In the simplest of moral mottoes told to all of us as
children: Two wrongs do not make a right.
For us to react to violence with more violence is especially reprehensible when
our violence has no effect in stopping a catastrophe and, indeed, makes it worse,
as it is clear our bombing has made things worse for the Kosovars we claim to
If we cannot deny culpability in the killing of large numbers of innocent people
by claiming ''accident,'' if these deaths are the inevitable result of our policy, the
conclusion should be clear: We must stop our bombing. And we must go to the
negotiating table - not deliver ultimatums with the arrogance of a superpower -
to end the horrors committed by both sides in Yugoslavia.
Howard Zinn is professor emeritus at Boston University and author of ''A
People's History of the United States.''
This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 05/28/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.
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