Although war is a great evil, it does have a great virtue: it can resolve political conflicts and lead to peace." There are not many full-fledged warmongers left in the United States and it is bracing to follow Edward Luttwak’s claims for the clarifying and settling effects of full-throttle warfare. "Give War a Chance" is the perverse headline the editors of Foreign Affairs (July/August 1999) have given his article, and that is the perverse argument Luttwak makes in lamenting the West’s current propensity to intervene in local wars before the belligerents exhaust themselves or one side emerges victorious.

By turns outrageous and fascinating, this line of thinking is also instructive. Commonweal supported the NATO intervention in Kosovo. And as difficult as peacemaking may prove to be now that American and European troops are on the ground, we still believe that the United States and its European allies chose the right course. For there were alternatives in Kosovo, and Luttwak’s position is one of them: "Give war a chance." In this view, the West should have allowed the Serb forces-the Yugoslav army, the paramilitaries, and the police-and the Albanians-civilians and the KLA-to fight to the death. It doesn’t take much to imagine what would have happened. Bosnia all over again.

Even Bill Clinton, who temporized over the Balkans in his first term, now recognizes his mistake. At a June 26 press conference, the president asked rhetorically, "Why did President Clinton do this [in Kosovo], why did Tony Blair do this, why did Jacques Chirac go along, why did the Germans get in there with both feet so early, given their history?" Answering his own question, he admitted: "You have to see this through the lens of Bosnia."

There was another apparent alternative in Kosovo to Luttwak’s "give war a chance." It was "give peace a chance," that is, don’t use force or the threat of force. But was there any real difference between them? "Peace" and war alike would have produced in Kosovo death, rape, torture, and destruction beyond anything seen in Bosnia. It is against that spectacle that the deaths and destruction caused by NATO bombing in Yugoslavia and Kosovo must be measured.

The strategy of bombing only, and only from 15,000 feet, will be long contested. Could a ground war have been justified? In retrospect it may appear to have been the essential ingredient for an incontestable and final Serbian defeat, but at a terrible cost in lives. Should the West have done nothing? Again, at a terrible cost in lives on both sides. The course NATO chose hardly seems out of proportion to the death and destruction that the Serbs would have caused had they been given a totally free hand in Kosovo by our inaction. If just-war theorists finally find NATO wanting in some particulars, their analysis, nonetheless, must account for the consequences if we had done nothing. That hardly seems to have been a "just" option.

Nor are we done with the matter. The first weeks of "peacekeeping" in Kosovo do not promise an easy resumption of "normal" life. The return of refugees to homes, schools, farms, factories, and businesses that have been destroyed will be a continuing source of anger, discouragement, and despair. Nor will the work of NATO troops be short-term, not as long as the desire for revenge animates Albanians and Serbs alike. Insofar as it is the United Nations that takes charge of the civil government in Kosovo, we should expect a degree of temporizing with all factions-the KLA, Albanian political forces, the Serbs, and Belgrade-that will make the return of civil society more difficult and more tenuous. But for all of that, there is reason to hope: The bombing has stopped, the refugees are on their way home, and European governments are ready to provide reconstruction funds. Repairing a wounded society can begin.

The dark cloud on the horizon is Yugoslavia-Slobodan Milosevic, intact military and paramilitary forces, and a civil society united by a history that revels in defeat and the preachments of radical nationalists. The dark conclusion seems to be, the greater the defeat the greater the Serbian people and the greater their justification for revenge. Who would now be surprised to see Belgrade turn on the Montenegrins, who refused to support the war in Kosovo: or on the Hungarians long settled in northern Serbia; or, given enough time, on the Albanian Kosovars, once again.

Early in the bombing campaign, many arguments were advanced for a NATO ground invasion of Serbia. One of the most provocative was the proposal that an invasion and occupation be followed by a program in which NATO would do "in Serbia what the Allies did in Germany and Japan after World War II," namely, "make the effort necessary to cure a national psychosis" (Blaine Harden, New York Times Week in Review, May 9, 1999). This proposal was further developed by Daniel Goldhagen, who argued in the New Republic, "As with Germany and Japan, the defeat and occupation of Serbia-and the reshaping of its political institutions and prevailing mentality, are morally and, in the long run, practically necessary" (May 17, 1999). There having been no ground war and no NATO occupation of Yugoslavia, the "reeducation" of Serbia has been unfortunately postponed.

As Milosevic continues his round of "victory" appearances to be followed, at minimum, by serious economic troubles, NATO and the UN must stick to a firm policy of containment. For if the Serbian "national psychosis" is a diagnosis that no one in the West wants to contend with, we must at least recognize that a nation that has started four wars in ten years and lost all of them is not in touch with reality.

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Published in the 1999-07-16 issue: View Contents
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