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Belgrade Degraded

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Every now and then it really happens. A "military spokesman" emerges to prove that Joseph Heller was a realist, and Catch-22 a work of reportorial integrity. Right in the middle of the "Military Analysis" column in the New York Times:

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Indeed, Pentagon and NATO officials have even mused that the complete expulsion of Albanians from Kosovo would give the alliance a big military advantage. "There would be Serb troops primarily left, and we would be able to attack them with more precision and more concentration," a Pentagon spokesman, Kenneth H. Bacon, said recently.

Even the name of the spokesman seemed right somehow: Pork-barreled to the roots of his tight and curly tail, the porcine propagandist squeals the inadvertent truth. Throw all the pesky civilians out to make a new life on the rubbish-tips of neighboring lands (it was this same Bacon who instructed us earlier that the mass expulsion had been foreseen and, so to speak, factored in), and we can have our ultimate wargasm--a free-fire zone and a clear field of bombardment. What's the frequency, Kenneth? In a Catch-22 scenario, as well as in the abjectly real world, this would also help insure that the Kosovar refugees had nowhere to go home to.

This objective collusion, between the aims of Milosevic and the aims of NATO, is what renders null the current debate between the remnants of the American "peace movement." On one wing are those who say that NATO is doing the right thing by taking an antifascist position at last. On another are those who speak smugly about how all this bombing has upset the Serbian democrats. Such people also describe the bombing as an "aggression" and cleverly ask why we don't bomb to save the Kurds or the Timorese. The other day at a "peace" event in Cambridge, I was solemnly handed a "target" symbol of the kind worn as a fashion statement in Belgrade these days. I threw it away at once. Those who wear such symbols are the self-pitying and not-so-reluctant supporters of a national-socialist demagogue--people who have never said a word about the aggressions and massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo. It was noticeable, at the recent funeral of the murdered Belgrade editor Slavko Curuvija, that none of the mourners displayed this false-populist logo. They were the serious opposition, who understand that the main enemy is at home. One who attended the ceremony told me that the silence, even between friends, was terrifying. "If we could not talk about the fact that he was murdered by the police death-squads, then what could we talk about?"

A principled peace movement in this country should at least attempt to contact the few genuine Serbian internationalists, ask them what they think and inquire how they can be helped. I try at least once a week to hold a conversation with either Srdja Popovic or Dusan Makavejev, both of whom have long and honorable records as Serb antifascists. Popovic was the human rights champion of the former Yugoslavia and acted as defense counsel for the leaders of various national minorities, including the Kosovar Albanians. Makavejev, a brilliant film director, is still remembered for his WR: Mysteries of the Organism, one of the defining movies of the seventies and a cultural achievement that earned him a jail sentence until it became clear that the motion picture was also the country's chief cultural export.

Popovic says openly that NATO should cross the Hungarian border in strength and remove the Milosevic regime as a precondition for a settlement. He feels terribly torn about the bombing of Belgrade and other cities, because he favors the military defeat of his own government but finds it uncomfortable to take such a position from a place of exile. Clearly unkeen on the actual bombardment, he still fears that if it stopped, the Serbian leadership would claim, and perhaps win, a victory. The worst possible outcome--foreshadowed in the Bacon scenario--is one where the Albanian civilians are dispersed and the Serbian civilians get punished for it. Milosevic would then have confirmed his membership in that exclusive club--founded by Saddam Hussein and ornamented by Manuel Noriega--of despots who can switch between demonization and strategic value.

Makavejev used to demand, while actually living in Belgrade, that NATO destroy the Serbian positions that were torturing the people of Sarajevo. (His reward was to be denounced as a Jew, which he said was no insult to a Serb like himself.) But he is entirely against the present bombing and also speaks scornfully of the ineptitude of NATO propaganda. "None of the Serbian democrats--not even the Orthodox bishop in Kosovo who favors coexistence with Albanians--was even invited to the Rambouillet conference. The Montenegrin leadership was also excluded completely. Now Clinton says that Milosevic can pick up the phone anytime and call. This is to treat everyone as if they were puppets."

Both men feel that a huge opportunity was lost when NATO failed to help the nascent movement for democracy and independence in Montenegro. A democratic secession would have altered the whole balance of internal power against Milosevic and his openly fascist coalition partners like Seselj and Arkan. "But nothing was done--they kept putting it off--and now the Serbian Army has threatened the editor of a Montenegrin paper with jail if he even prints an interview with me," I was told by Popovic. Moreover, and despite the pleas of the Montenegrin leadership, NATO bombs have actually fallen on Montenegrin soil. This crass policy now faces NATO with two options--either a sordid carve-up brokered with Russia, as Clinton and especially Gore show signs of favoring, or a full-scale invasion, which might not now receive (as it once might have done) popular support from Serbian civilians.

"I hate it when people blame someone else and don't take responsibility for what they did." Thus our eloquent President in the aftermath of the school bloodbath in Colorado. At last, a Clintonian statement that we can all get behind. To speak with men like Popovic and Makavejev is to learn what this principle means in a real crisis, which is why it is alarming to understand that their names are unknown to the Bacons of this world.

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