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Kosovo: The Lessons of History?

by Ron Briley on Aug 27, 1999

“If our bombs are so ‘smart,’ how come they’re always hitting refugees, hospitals and children?”

“How are we supposed to peacefully resolve our differences when our government uses violence instead of diplomacy?”

As American and NATO bombs fell upon Kosovo this spring, these were some of the voices I heard in my high school classroom. I should have been better prepared for these questions, for they echoed my concerns during the Vietnam War. Only this time I found myself arguing for the use of military power in support of humanitarian goals. As I listened to the reservations expressed by my students, I began to reexamine my initial enthusiasm for the air war.

“So,” asserted one young woman who sports a counterculture image, “teenagers with their violent movies, music and video games are responsible for the violence at Columbine High School. Well, what example is set for us by the older generation? When the government doesn’t get its way, it simply uses cruise missiles and cluster bombs.”

Her friend chimed in, “I don’t want to hear about school mediation programs as a way to avoid violence in the schools when our government is blowing people up in Yugoslavia.”

My students’ frustration is understandable. Much as in the 1960s, young people today are accused of lacking positive values, but if we listen carefully, their voices convey a sense of compassion, coupled with disappointment. Often stereotyped according to their clothes and hair style, they have little use for what they perceive as hypocrisy, insisting that their elders should consistently apply such values as nonviolence and toleration.

The debate over Kosovo had just begun when another young man broke in: “Wait just a minute, the United States has to use force because the Serbs are guilty of ethnic cleansing, murder, and rape. Would those of you criticizing the actions of our president and government want us to stand idly by while people are slaughtered as they were in Bosnia?” He added, “We have to take a stand against genocide.”

Others brought up the American record during the Holocaust. “We should have done something earlier and not refused to accept boatloads of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany,” exclaimed one passionate individual.

“Yeah,” added her friend. “We have to support our president and military. We’re a great power, and we have a responsibility to stop aggression.” I had to rub my eyes as I listened to his argument. It seemed as if Robert McNamara was there making the case for Vietnam, except that I was nodding in agreement rather than protesting. Like my student, I wanted to relieve the suffering of the Albanians fleeing Kosovo. Did McNamara have similar visions of helping the Vietnamese people?

“Learn your history,” insisted a serious young man. “Milosevic is not the same as Hitler. Milosevic wants to create a greater Serbia in the Balkans, not take over the world. Domino expansionist theories got us into a lot of trouble in Vietnam. I don’t want Kosovo to turn into another Vietnam.”

“We also need to more carefully define our terms,” suggested another student. “While what is going on in Kosovo is terrible, is it really genocide? Is the Serbian policy in Kosovo a final solution which wants to wipe out a race or classification of people? Or is it just the use of force, and sometimes murder, in the pursuit of territorial aggression?” While his point may have contained some logical consistency, I was uncomfortable with the implications of an argument that could be used to minimize the impact of slavery or manifest destiny.

“You are all missing the point,” argued an articulate young woman, whose voice many found persuasive. “The United States is being hypocritical. Worse atrocities have taken place in Cambodia, Rwanda and Turkey, where the government persecutes the Kurds. So why are we so interested in Kosovo? Are European politics and lives more important than those of the Middle East or Asia? And if the cause is worth Americans fighting for, then is it also worth Americans dying for? Or are some human lives worth more than others?”

Her words gave me pause. Why should the military might of the United States be applied in Kosovo and not in Africa? The answer seems to be that the United States has greater geopolitical commitments and economic interests in Europe than in Africa. But such a rationalization made me feel like Henry Kissinger, and my moral high ground for intervention was crumbling.

During the course of our debate, I was struck by the parallels between Vietnam and Kosovo. In both cases, the application of military power was justified as necessary for humanitarian ends. But in the final analysis, did force save lives or cause more death and destruction? In the case of Vietnam, I believe that the United States did more harm than good. The jury is still out on Kosovo. But my students reminded me that such answers are never easy and that we must never rush to judgment.


Ron Briley is assistant headmaster of Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, N.M., and a writer for the History News Service.