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,
 including children?

 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
 care about.

 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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