FLC029, Thoughts on the Serbian War, 26th March 1999

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Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment published on the Internet
Issue Number 29
Friday 26th March 1999

Thoughts on the Serbian War
by Sean Gabb

As I write, the Royal Airforce is being readied for a third night of bombing raids on Serbia. The pro-Government media here in London is filled with the usual atrocity stories that attend these aggressions. Some may be true, though I do not suppose that those publishing them care very much about truth or falsehood. What I want to do here fairly briefly is to explain why this war with Serbia is to be opposed whether or not the atrocity stories are true.

Though I do not like war, I do accept its legitimacy as a use of state power. This being said, it should only be resorted when five conditions are satisfied. There are:

  • First, that there is a vital national interest to be secured which cannot be secured by any other means;
  • Second, that there is sufficient unity of political will in the nation going to war;
  • Third, that there is the ability to commit sufficient force to win the war;
  • Fourth, that there are aims clearly defined enough for most people to agree when the war has been won;
  • Fifth, that the long term costs of the war are not greater than any short term benefits of fighting it.

All these conditions were met in the Falklands War that we fought with Argentina in 1982. A British territory settled by British citizens had been invaded by a foreign enemy. The war was supported by all but a small fringe of malcontents, some of whom wanted to use a defeat to bring down Margaret Thatcher or who were against all wars without exception. We were able to send an adequate task force to the South Atlantic. We knew the war was over as soon as the Argentine forces had surrendered and the Union Flag was flying again over Port Stanley. Once the war was over, we were able to withdraw most of our forces from the region and to reestablish acceptably good relations with Argentina.

In these respects, the Falklands War was a model of what a war ought to be. However, none of this applies to the current war with Serbia.

Where is our national interest in the Balkans? Whatever happens in Kossovo will not affect the lives and property of anyone in this country. There is no balance of power that we need to consider. However strong he may grow, Slobodan Milosevic is never likely to be able to invade this country or cause any serious inconvenience to British trade. What he is doing within the borders of his country may be deeply unpleasant, but is no more our concern than the many other unpleasant things that are done elsewhere in the world but over which we do not even think of going to war. The Albanians of Kossovo may be our fellow human beings, but they have no more intimate claim on our affections. They can hardly mean the same to us as the Falkland Islanders. They do not even mean the same to us as the people of Hong Kong, who were our fellow subjects when we handed them over to the Red Chinese in 1997. Whatever is happening in what used to be Yugoslavia is not worth the bones of a single British Serviceman or a penny of British tax money.

Where is the unity of political will? The war is supposedly being waged by NATO as a whole. Yet the Greeks and Italians are openly opposed. At home, I have spoken to no one who is in favour of the war. There is opposition from both the Conservative and Labour back benches. Even our normally controlled media is not unanimous. I have seen opposing articles in The Times, The Daily Mail, and in The Daily Telegraph. The only unquestioning support comes from newspapers like The Sun, which would support involvement in any war anywhere in the world because its marketing people think that will sell more copies, and The Daily Mirror, which would support the Blair Government even if it began gassing Jews. This lack of general support can be ignored so long as the war remains easy and safe for our own forces. Once ground forces have been committed, and the casualties start to grow, we can expect mass demonstrations in Trafalgar Square.

And ground forces will need to be committed. The idea that a war can be won by bombing alone has haunted British and American strategists since the end of the Great War. But—unless we accept the highly unusual precedent of Hiroshima—it remains as elusive now as it has ever been. Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf—these show that bombing by itself cannot break an enemy. At best, it can soften an enemy for an eventual ground attack. Are we going to send British soldiers into battle against the Serbs? Are we going to set our men against a numerically superior enemy that is fighting in a difficult terrain that it knows better than any invading army can hope to do. Bear also in mind that the Serbs would be fighting in defence of their own country, and can therefore be expected to fight with a passion that might fully overcome any deficiency of equipment or leadership.

If Tony Blair cannot face the thought of a bombing campaign in London, and so is willing to surrender to the insignificant military force of the IRA in Ulster, can he seriously be expected to commit the entire British Army to a protracted and deadly war a thousand miles from London? Something tells me not.

How about victory—what is this supposed to be? Do we want independence for Kossovo? Or do we want to attach it to Albania? Or do we want to secure greater autonomy for it within Serbia? No one has announced what our aims are, and so I do not see how we can possibly know when the war has been won. I am not even sure if the British or American Governments have bothered to define any credible aims whatever. A vague feeling that something must be done to stop human rights abuses is no substitute, and that is all we have so far been given.

Even if we do decide which of these three aims is our reason for fighting, how are we supposed to secure it without remaining permanently in the region? Bosnia was given the shadow of independence a couple or years ago. It is in fact a NATO protectorate. Its government is a puppet of the army of occupation that we maintain there. Pull that army out, and the civil war would begin again, and Serbia would invade again to "protect" the Bosnian Serbs. It is the same with Kossovo. As an independent state, it would be just another Bosnia. Attached to Albania, it would become a cause of war between an enlarged and confident Albania and an humiliated but still powerful Serbia.

Then we have a real balance of power consideration. The Russians are already angry at our attack on a nation of Orthodox Slavs. Just wait for a Serbian Thermopylae or some other public relations victory, and see if the Czech and Polish recruits to NATO still ignore the emotional pull of pan-Slavism.

I am uncertain what to think of the causes of this war. It may be another flexing of muscle by the New World Order. It may be a deliberate attempt by the concerned special interests to provoke another cold war with Russia—imagine the status and contracts that would be restored after a decade of scaled down armaments budgets. Or it may be that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are cynical but incompetent warmongers.

There would be a rich irony in this last possibility. Mr Clinton was a draft dodger in a previous war. Mr Blair used to be a member of CND. So did many of his Cabinet colleagues. Indeed, his present Defence and Foreign Secretaries were known opponents of the Gulf War in 1991.

I spent the Falklands War virtually jumping up and down with a Union Flag in each hand. In this war, I find myself in practical agreement with Tony Benn and the other opponents of military action. It is being fought in a region which we do not fully understand and which we cannot hope to control except by the threat of an overwhelming military force that we have not the will to maintain on permanent alert. It may result in hundreds of British deaths for no valid reason. It will certainly result in at least hundreds of foreign deaths for no valid reason. Because the war is useless, it is also immoral.

Turning to purely domestic politics, I note with anger—though not with surprise—that William Hague, the Conservative Leader, has made a fool of himself yet again. By standing up the other day in the House of Commons, and denouncing the war for the reasons given above, he could have not merely embarrassed Mr Blair, but might also have split the Labour Party and even destabilised the Government. I cannot imagine that the old Labour people on the back benches—and in the Cabinet—would have maintained their miserable silence in the face of a hard Conservative taunting. I suggested opposition to Mr Hague last August, after Mr Blair had endorsed the American bombing of that aspirin factory in Sudan, and again last Christmas when Mr Blair joined in the atrocious bombing of Iraq. Perhaps on those occasions Mr Hague might have been constrained by opinion on his back benches. Not so this time. At least a third of the Parliamentary Conservative Party is resolutely opposed to the war. As ever, Mr Hague has shown his utter unfitness for what ought to be the very simple job of destroying the Blair Government.

So my country is governed by one gang of imbecile murderers who are opposed by another gang of plain imbeciles. What miserable times we live in—what public morals we are forced to accept!

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