AS USUAL, we know who we’re bombing, but we’re not sure just what the effect will be. That sentiment rules not only Washington, where, after a week of high-pitched rhetoric questioning his decision, the Republicans scrambled to back up President Clinton’s policy, but also the streets and grocery stores across the rest of the country. Clerks and busdrivers ask with proper seriousness: What exactly will this action accomplish?
While the U.S. has never suffered any major, organized bombing of its cities, we’ve grown to accept the fact that aerial damage solves little if anything politically. After the failure of the air war in Vietnam–a strategy so confused as to anger both pilots and peace protesters–America shied away from overtly using its military strength. The CIA handled things quietly, feeding arms to our allies whenever open conflict developed. To use force beyond that, it was tacitly accepted, would be an act of war, requiring congressional approval–as the disputed Tonkin Gulf incident had lead to the Tonkin Gulf Act, giving the U.S. military the power to defend itself against North Vietnamese aggression.
This policy changed under the Reagan administration with the battleship New Jersey’s shelling of Beirut, the invasion of Grenada and the bombing of Libya. While all three incidents drew protests, they were widely hailed as victories–politically, at least, for the Reagan administration. In the long run, all three accomplished little, if anything, but they paved the way for later U.S. actions.
No longer are Americans shocked and saddened when the government authorizes airstrikes–whether under UN or NATO auspices (which organizations Americans arrogantly and wrongly see as transparent and powerless agencies relying solely on our strength and existing solely for our government’s convenience). But after the war with Iraq, neither do Americans believe the bombing will accomplish anything. The idea of a “surgical strike” with stealth aircraft and smart bombs, so widely applauded here during the war, soon soured. It looked good on TV, those flashy video arcade graphics, but in the end Saddam Hussein retained power. The ones who suffered most, it appeared, were the people of Iraq, who now hated the Americans even more.
To secure any area, you need ground troops, and Americans and American presidents don’t like that idea. They point to Mogadishu as a perfect example. But Kosovo is an entirely different case; once the term “ethnic cleansing” enters the picture, Americans immediately think of the Holocaust, and feel obligated to intercede. (Never mind that we ignored and continue to ignore the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, Uganda, etc.)
This makes the decision to commit military forces easy for President Clinton. Obviously something must be done; Milosevic must be punished and the ethnic Albanians saved. (Yes, saved, for the moral imperative has been portrayed here in the most desperate rhetoric.) Bombing, to the average American, seems an easy and finally unproductive gesture, protecting no one. Yet nobody wants to send ground troops until we (the U.S., since we wouldn’t trust anyone else to come up with it) have a political solution to the country’s problems (long- and short-term) which we can implement within a certain and brief period of occupation, and one which can be explained to and overwhelmingly accepted by the American public. Obviously that’s not going to happen, even if it were possible, which it isn’t.
The problem is that the public doesn’t see the value in risking lives by fighting a war for an uncertain peace. That Kosovo means nothing to the average American doesn’t help. “Ethnic cleansing” is a start, but even that loaded phrase with its attached visions of muddy graves and boxcars may not be enough to move us. It didn’t in Rwanda.
The fact that the German military is actively fighting alongside NATO forces has provoked some comment here, but Americans who grew up during the Cold War have always considered at least West Germany an ally against the former Soviet Union, with East Germany the Soviets’ unwilling, possibly brainwashed pawn. With its focus on the Berlin Airlift and the Wall, the American media portrayed Germany as an ideological battlefield, radically simplifying global politics into a choice between one of two mutually exclusive and diametrically opposed systems. We were thankful Germany was on our side and in the way of the Russian tanks. We watched Germany fight that war for 40 years for us.
The echoes for Germany itself may be stronger this time because their aircraft are bombing a city–an event that recalls London and Coventry burning and that last occurred well after British and American planes had leveled Koln and Dresden and Hamburg. Children and young adults from that generation understand what an air raid means, and how it feels, and what it does. The rest of us luckily do not and, with luck, will never share that knowledge with them. The people of Kosovo–and now Belgrade–do.