The Toronto Star
April 4, 1999
HOME AND AWAY / RICHARD GWYN
NATO's hubris will seal its soldiers' fate
VANITY. PRIDE. Arrogance. Vaingloriousness. Conceit.
Presumption. Self-regard. And over all of these, hubris, overweening,
unexamined, unchallenged and, ultimately, coarse and vulgar.
It is hubris, the downfall of the Greeks, that has brought NATO to its
One week or another, NATO is going to ``win'' its war against the
Serbs. A nation of only a little more than 10 million - about the same
size as Denmark, but a lot poorer - cannot stand forever against the
most powerful military alliance in history.
But NATO is also going to come out of this contest a loser. Its leaders,
including Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy and
Defence Minister Art Eggleton, are going to end up looking like the
1990 equivalents of the ``best and brightest'' of the 1960s and 1970s,
who led the U.S. into the debacle of Vietnam.
Today, no differently from three decades ago, the driving force for the
disaster is hubris.
Start with the hubris that because NATO is so powerful, all its leaders
took for granted - and kept on telling each other - that no state and no
people would dare stand up to it, and would rather retreat than be
blown to bits.
Under ordinary circumstances, this calculation was sound enough.
But, as NATO's planners ought to have recognized, the circumstances
in Yugoslavia are not ordinary. Kosovo is sacred territory to the
Serbs. Maybe this is all an historical fantasy. But many people define
themselves by some iconic incident in their past, no matter what
actually happened then. (Roland's stand against the Moors at
Roncevalles that is sacred to the French was mostly later invention.)
Only conceit and the historical amnesia that comes easily to those
who assume their superiority, would have prompted NATO's leaders
to doubt that the Serbs would die for what they believed to be holy, or
doubt that if Milosevic gave up Kosovo he would lose his job, and very
likely his life.
Consider the hubris of the belief that technology could do everything. It
can do a great deal. The cruise missiles and smart bombs will wreck
and cause immense damage, and increasingly do this upon civilians as
with the demolition of a bridge over the Danube, which has minimal
military utility but which will further impoverish ordinary Serbs.
Military technology, though, is distant, remote, antiseptic. It can break
bodies. It cannot change attitudes and values.
The related hubris of assuming that a war started by NATO would be
NATO's war. Instead, despite the disparity in power, it has become,
as it was always bound to, a Serb-NATO war, in exactly the same
way that the war in Vietnam started out as a technocratic,
computerized, American war and became increasingly a
Vietcong-American war, and eventually, exclusively a Vietnamese
Unless the Serbs break, NATO will have to send in ground troops in
order to win the NATO-Serb war that this conflict has now become.
This, though, will mean casualties and body bags.
Here is the apogee of NATO's hubris. The organization was so certain
of its potency and effectiveness that it made no effort to explain the
war to the peoples of its member-states, or to the international
community by way of a debate at the United Nations. Indeed, NATO
was so certain it would win easily and quickly - and as important as
either, would win safely - that its leaders deliberately avoided talking
to their publics.
Now, too late, they wish they had been more honest. There was
something chillingly pathetic in President Bill Clinton's declaration
following the capture of three American GIs along the
Kosovo-Macedonia border that, ``There was absolutely no basis for
them to be taken.''
By what presumption, and conceit and self-regard, does Clinton
assume that it is proper for Serbian soldiers to die in American
air-raids,but improper for Serbian troops to capture uniformed
Americans, who by overconfidence or incompetence exposed
themselves to risk?
This war has another aspect to it, and an entirely different one. The
motive for undertaking it was the wholly laudable one of
humanitarianism, if not the exclusive motive for it since NATO
bureaucrats also wanted to create a new justification for themselves.
With the mass eviction of Albanians that's going on in Kosovo, this
humanitarian war has now become become a ``Just War,'' or an
undertaking that can no longer be quarrelled with.
It's also, though, a war of hubris, of self-satisfied conceit, vainglorious
and arrogant. Those who've started it will now have to finish it - on
the ground. When it's over, these leaders are going to have to answer
for the body-bags they will have filled.
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