The spectacle of human beings acting out mindless violence through pack behavior instills more terror in the heart than perhaps any other event in the natural world. State-directed violence, capable of wielding today’s deadliest technology, especially evokes nightmarish thoughts about apocalyptic ends. But science has not worked overtime to find a satisfactory explanation for collective madness and, not surprisingly, has not produced one. Literature and the visual arts have done their best to pick up the slack. William Golding articulated our fear of human wilding in Lord of the Flies. George Orwell gave the psychology an overt political spin in Animal Farm, as did C.S. Lewis from a Christian perspective in That Hideous Strength. Inspiration runs the gamut from highbrow to lowbrow. George Romero’s film Night of the Living Dead belongs to the genre, for example, and is notable for having transformed a primordial terror into an image so alien it can be laughed away. In reality, though, this fear won’t go away. It can’t, because we all feel a subtle pull of unaccountable madness. And life demands of us, some more than others, a relentless struggle to explain these elemental experiences for which language apparently has not–yet–acquired the proper constructs.

Noam Chomsky’s book The New Military Humanism: Lessons From Kosovo, ably demonstrates how far we’ve come and, inadvertently, suggests how far there is to go. Chomsky contends that almost everything you have read or heard or seen on television about Kosovo has been a partial truth or outright falsehood. For a general readership such an assertion would seem like fiction, as if Animal Farm were actually our controlled society. And Chomsky goes further, asserting that after NATO’s war for Kosovo the malicious use of American power has become, more than ever before, the dominant fact of international politics. He writes, “It could be argued, rather plausibly, that further demolition of the rules of world order is by now of no significance, as in the late 1930s. The contempt of the world’s leading power for the framework of world order has become so extreme that there is little left to discuss.” The scope and audacity of Chomsky’s critique stagger the imagination. To call it radical practically misses the point. On the one hand we have the established media, the respectable community of foreign affairs analysts, the government–and on the other, Noam Chomsky. Assuming he is right, or even partly right, a question begs to be asked: How is it possible for things to be so out of kilter? Alternatively, what sets Chomsky’s critique apart from common conspiracy theories?

Chomsky rather sensibly assembles a thick file of facts, carefully documented in endnotes, to buttress his assertions. He weaves these into a highly persuasive big picture of media and government shenanigans. So far, so good. But clearly he is not writing for those who are not already interested in his ideas. He meanders, he repeats himself, he overindulges his sarcastic streak and he doesn’t organize his arguments, at least not so you’d notice; Chomsky needed an editor to impose more discipline. The reader might imagine herself scouring a beach with a metal detector looking for nuggets–of which there are plenty. And when it comes to the “How is this possible?” question, Chomsky assumes the reader’s more than casual familiarity with his voluminous past writings, in particular Manufacturing Consent (co-written with Edward Herman). In any case, he completely ignores the magnitude of the problem. Marxists, or anarcho-syndicalists–which may describe Chomsky’s political leanings–or other Old Left activists may shrug this question off, thinking it answered a thousand times before. Others are left with a vague and ultimately quite unsatisfying impression that somehow it is simultaneously in all these individuals’ (reporters, editors, producers, publishers, experts, government officials, military officers, etc.) self-interest to deceive the world while behaving badly.

What’s missing is a novelist’s eye and ear for individual moral dilemmas that have aggregated onto a grand scale, because what Chomsky has gotten ahold of, perhaps without realizing it, is the question of evil. Individually, the people Chomsky criticizes, or many of them, are not only acting out of self-interest but also know that they are doing something wrong. Lying to the public is wrong, their small, insistent voices of conscience tell them. Arbitrarily killing innocent people is wrong. Hatemongering in an attempt to vilify an entire people (the Serbs) is wrong. When reporters or analysts or government officials do these things, they also must work to suppress their voice of conscience. Evil, in other words, doesn’t need horns and a tail, just a bureaucratically structured environment that helps convince people of their false selves. Some notion of morality, or whatever you wish to call it, must enter the equation; otherwise Chomsky’s masterly descriptions of group psychology gone haywire don’t provide any exit. No morality, no choice, no redemption. No reform. We will all be stuck living in Animal Farm forever!

As an example of Chomsky’s reasoning, we might look at the issue of how many Albanians were killed by Serbs, taking advantage of reports that have appeared in the press since the book was published, as well as material available to Chomsky at his time of writing. This morbid issue of the death toll, by the way, is not one Chomsky tackles head on, but its reportage by government and media conforms perfectly to his thesis. As he says,

It is unusual for the resort to violence to be supported with argumentation so feeble. One might conjecture that advocates of the escalation of atrocities in Kosovo [e.g., bombing] recognized at some level that constructing a justification posed some non-trivial problems. That might account for the outburst of virulent race-hatred and jingoism, a phenomenon I have not seen in my lifetime since the hysteria whipped up about ‘the Japs’ during World War II, vermin who must be crushed–unlike the Germans, fellow humans who had strayed.

On March 18, the day the Rambouillet talks broke down, David Scheffer, the State Department’s ambassador at large for war crimes issues, proclaimed that “we have upwards to about 100,000 men that we cannot account for” in Kosovo. Depending upon the sophistication of the press organ involved, this statement was variously construed as a warning or, as the New York Daily News put it in a headline the next day, 100,000 Kosovar Men Feared Dead. The specter of mass murder critically supported public acceptance of NATO airstrikes, which began less than a week later, on March 24. After two months of bombing, the Yugoslav regime was still, to the Administration’s deepening chagrin, in the fight. By this time there were increasing murmurs of discontent in the press regarding the effect of NATO airstrikes on unmistakably civilian targets. Ambassador Scheffer stepped to the plate again in mid-May, calling for “speedy investigations” of war crimes (by Serbs) while now noting that “as many as 225,000 ethnic Albanian men aged between 14 and 59 remain unaccounted for.” Several wire services quoted him on different days as saying that “with the exception of Rwanda in 1994 and Cambodia in 1975, you would be hard-pressed to find a crime scene anywhere in the world since World War II where a defenseless civilian population has been assaulted with such ferocity and criminal intent, and suffered so many multiple violations of humanitarian law in such a short period of time as in Kosovo since mid-March 1999.” It was a profoundly ignorant remark, of course, but what’s important is that the Administration’s laserlike focus on allegations and innuendoes of genocidal acts securely established the legitimacy of continued bombing for an at-that-time unknown, perhaps lengthy period.

Helpfully sensing that Washington–Scheffer and a battalion of like-minded flacks–had gone too far out on a limb, in June and July the British started publicizing their reduced estimate that 10,000 Albanian Kosovars had been killed. For whatever reason that number stuck in establishment circles. In fact, however, it appears to be still too many. The actual number is probably somewhere in the low thousands.

In mid-July sources from the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo, known as KFOR, were telling the press that of 2,150 bodies found by peacekeepers only 850 were victims of massacres. Nevertheless, still eager to bolster the Serb=devil argument, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, in an address to the Council on Foreign Relations on July 26, poignantly mentioned “the village of Ljubenic, the largest mass-grave site discovered so far from this conflict, with as many as 350 bodies.” Berger may not have been aware that the Italian in charge of the site, Brig. Gen. Mauro Del Vecchio, had told the press several days earlier that the exhumation had been completed at the site and that seven bodies had been found. All press mention of Ljubenic ceases after that point.

On September 23 El País, a mainstream Madrid paper, reported that Spanish forensic investigators sent to Kosovo had found no proof of genocide. The team, which had experience in Rwanda, had been told to expect to perform more than 2,000 autopsies in one of the areas worst hit by fighting, but it found only 187 bodies to examine. No mass graves and, for the most part, no signs of torture. And when on October 10 other investigators announced that no bodies had been found in the Trepca mine complex, long rumored to contain as many as 700 corpses, skepticism burst into the open. First out of the gate was a Web site called, a sort of wannabe Jane’s Intelligence Review, which in a long article concluded that “bodies numbering only in the hundreds have been found,” while taking care not to judge the final outcome prematurely. Though it raised the right questions, Stratfor’s estimate was too low because of sloppy research, something symptomatic of much of its work. It was, nevertheless, widely cited. The debate raced around the Internet, popped up in Alexander Cockburn’s November 8 Nation column (which was recycled as an Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times), found space in another author’s opinion column in the Amsterdam De Volkskrant and then emerged as a very lengthy news story in the Sunday Times of London. The Sunday Times added an interview with the head of the Spanish team, Emilio Perez Pujol, who was “disillusioned” by the “war propaganda machine.” Pujol says the death toll may never exceed 2,500.

Until recently the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia kept out of the debate, except indirectly in late August when it was quick to deny the figure of 11,000 dead that Kosovo’s UN civilian administrator, Bernard Kouchner, was then touting. But on November 10 Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor for the ICTY, reported to the UN Security Council that its investigators had found 2,108 bodies at 195 sites, out of 529 reported locales. Del Ponte cautioned that it was an interim figure and that evidence of grave tampering did exist; Ljubenic and Trepca sites made notorious in press reports were found not to contain masses of bodies. A State Department draft report still set the number of likely Kosovar Albanian deaths at “over 8,000.”

Investigators have probably cherry-picked the most likely large mass graves. Serbian forces probably did truck some bodies to Serbia for disposal in, for example, smelters. But could that have been more than a couple of thousand, without leaving a trail of evidence that has so far not appeared? The press has reported on most of the larger graves that KFOR has found. And we know that several thousand Albanian Kosovars were taken to Serbian prisons during the war, are still being held and are gradually being accounted for. Given the number of ICTY-identified sites and the tribunal’s findings so far, a reasonable guess of the Albanian dead lies somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000.

By the standards of its own humanitarian argument, Chomsky points out, NATO accomplished nothing or less than nothing. Largely in response to NATO bombing, Serbs killed a few thousand Albanian civilians; to even the score NATO killed a few thousand Serb civilians while, incidentally, clocking Yugoslavia’s economic infrastructure. Chomsky ridicules the notion that bombing was meant to stop the Serbs’ forcible expulsion of Albanians or that it did anything but accelerate the process–although these expulsions, which were televised around the world, did generate support for NATO’s bombing campaign. Chomsky lambastes Administration claims that without bombing, the Serbs would have committed more and worse atrocities. He provides important corrections to conventional wisdom regarding the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s monitoring mission in place before the bombing, underappreciated by Washington, and he documents Serbia’s eagerness to seek a negotiated settlement that would have included a substantial international armed presence. He also notes, as have several others, that Rambouillet set up a pretext for bombing, but then he goes on to describe, as only a handful have, how it may well not have been the bombing that led to a settlement but rather a significant change in US demands, a more than face-saving compromise that shifted ultimate responsibility for deciding Kosovo’s political future from NATO to the UN. Most thoughtful critics of the war–Michael Mandelbaum’s article this fall in Foreign Affairs comes to mind–unfortunately missed this point, which is essential to understanding not only recent history but also the ongoing dynamics of Serb-NATO exchanges.

Chomsky speculates that Washington initiated the NATO war in order to boost NATO’s credibility, not in a positive sense but as an arch-demonstration of power. Serbia, Chomsky writes, “was an annoyance, an unwelcome impediment to Washington’s efforts to complete its substantial takeover of Europe.” Furthermore, “as long as Serbia is not incorporated within U.S.-dominated domains, it makes sense to punish it for failure to conform–very visibly, in a way that will serve as a warning to others that might be similarly inclined.” The theme of a rogue superpower serves as the basis for many illuminating comparisons regarding US abuse of power, directly or by way of clients, in Vietnam, Laos, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, Cuba, Guatemala, Haiti, Palestine, East Timor, Iraq and Turkey, to name a few. Given, for example, that US actions have steadily encouraged the Turks to persecute the Kurds, it would be inconsistent, Chomsky argues, indeed irrational, to give any credence at all to a general claim that US policy is guided by benevolent humanitarian impulses, and the same holds for any such claim about Kosovo. One by one his examples could be debated separately according to the exigencies of circumstance; taken together, they form a damning indictment.

In today’s world the flip side of high-tech bullying is a mad scramble among small states to acquire weapons of mass destruction for their own protection. Proliferation, Chomsky points out in an extended aside, will be one of many unpleasant aftereffects of NATO’s war. With some embarrassment, one wonders whether, after the North Koreans sell their missiles and the Russians their bombs, Washington will reconsider the gusto with which it launches military operations.

A less tangible but no less important logical consequence of NATO’s unprovoked assault on Yugoslavia is the dangerous precedent this sets for international law. Chomsky says that

in the real world, there are two options: (1) Some kind of framework of world order, perhaps the U.N. Charter, the International Court of Justice, and other existing institutions, or perhaps something better if it can be devised and broadly accepted. (2) The powerful do as they wish, expecting to receive the accolades that are the prerogative of power.

This is quite right. More specifically, what the world has now is, on the one hand, the Westphalian system as it evolved after 1648, with its core insight that sovereign states must mind their own business when it comes to each other’s internal affairs, and, on the other, the notion that some doctrine of moral imperatives (or the illusion of such) may justify intervention. The two views are mutually exclusive, notwithstanding recent efforts by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and others to meld them. Even the systems of discourse these paradigms employ to justify themselves operate on entirely different levels. The Westphalian view is pragmatic, rational, concerned with avoiding war; humanitarian interventionism is quasi-religious, unapproachable except through belief. Choosing between them depends upon how one feels getting out of bed. Except now the world learns that it doesn’t have much of a choice–we’re taking a giant leap backward, some 350 years.

One can, perhaps, define modernity as the evolution of the awareness and appreciation of individuality. In this matter, “humanitarian intervention” represents a significant leap backward. Arguing, in extreme form, not only a right but a duty to intervene, it rejects the gray area of international humanitarian law that applies to individuals, as practiced, say, by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Neutrality is out, while co-belligerency is in. The first to suffer will be individuals who otherwise may have had recourse to some limited, painstakingly created international protections. It’s worth recalling that the humanitarian interventionist argument has its modern roots in the Biafra crisis of the late sixties. Francophone groups in particular, and those who would form Doctors Without Borders, argued that aid agencies had to take sides. France, of course, wanted to take sides, in part to secure lucrative oil-lifting rights. For its own reasons the United States decided to take sides in Yugoslavia. The trend is clear enough: We are moving from somewhat successful efforts to moderate or defuse violence, efforts based on enlightened notions of individual rights, toward approving and channeling violence for group ends.

But let’s face it, most people who observed the Kosovo conflict didn’t suspect they might themselves be victims of a massive government and media disinformation campaign. Moreover, a theoretical or comparative argument wouldn’t have seemed particularly persuasive coming from the initiated, who themselves rightly remain puzzled about whether or how to vest abominable government misbehavior with a collective conscious volition. No, the thing that got people’s attention was that those articulating the policy seemed to enjoy just a little too much the misery they were causing. The twitchy rantings of US Gen. Wesley Clark, the NATO supreme commander. The snide egoism of Madeleine Albright’s amanuensis, Jamie Rubin, and his puckish NATO counterpart, Jamie Shea. What a cast of characters! What an extravaganza! A small group at the pinnacle of power set out capriciously to destroy a small country, succeeded and relished every minute of it. The public recognized the smell of evil. How many kids, indeed, did NATO kill?

In fact, there was quite a lot of dissent brewing about the war. Even the mainstream media voiced doubts. Chomsky barely mentions this, doesn’t make anything of it and maybe wasn’t aware of it except unconsciously in a feeling of reproach: the public coming to the right conclusions for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, there were hopeful signs of a nascent antiwar movement, one that could have taken to the streets in large numbers if the war had continued. This suggests that establishment power has real limits, that the public has a moral sense of fair play–you could have read that into news from Seattle lately, too. People knew that Kosovo was not an immaculate mistake: The war sprang from a series of bad decisions, and different decisions could have cut it off. There was a way out, after all.

Chomsky’s splendid critique demands attention for many reasons, but above all for the questions in it he already thinks answered. How could this happen? Can’t we devise laws to regulate properly the conduct of foreign policy? Why do intelligent people in the press tell one another lies? How do we know, really, when we’re doing something wrong? Chomsky, described by the science writer Martin Gardner as a “mysterian”–that is, one who believes we never will have answers to explain human consciousness or the creative powers of the human mind–may think not all these questions are worth asking; that only macro-policy and global effects deserve investigation. True, by their nature, questions of practical ethics have no definitive answers. Human beings will continue asking them, though, because we know from experience that in different historical times and places asking about the right moral procedure leads to better and better approximations of the truth, and because it is in our genes to be very afraid of what may happen if we don’t.