Susan Sontag - "Why Are We In Kosovo?" (1999)
Susan Sontag wrote this powerful piece in May 1999, during the Kosovo war and against the backdrop of the Bosnian catastrophe. However, the issues she addressed then remain very timely now--especially since many people who were once upset by the mass murder and ethnic cleansing of civilians are increasingly embracing a "realist" disdain for the very idea of humanitarian intervention.
And even though neither Darfur nor Iraq offers a precise analogy to Bosnia or Kosovo (Darfur is far worse, and Iraq is more complicated, as Sontag's own response demonstrated), any serious discussion of either should try to confront the basic issues that Sontag raised here. Read this and draw your own conclusions. --Jeff Weintraub ]
New York Times Magazine
May 2, 1999
Why Are We In Kosovo?
It's complicated, but not that complicated. There is such a thing as a just war.
By Susan Sontag
Susan Sontag is the author, most recently, of "The Volcano Lover: A Romance." She is completing a new novel.
The other day a friend from home, New York, called me in Bari -- where I am living for a couple of months -- to ask whether I am all right and inquired in passing whether I can hear sounds of the bombing. I reassured her that not only could I not hear the bombs dropping on Belgrade and Novi Sad and Pristina from downtown Bari, but even the planes taking off from the nearby NATO base of Gioia del Colle are quite inaudible. Though it is easy to mock my geographyless American friend's vision of European countries being only slightly larger than postage stamps, her Tiny Europe seems a nice complement to the widely held vision of Helpless Europe being dragged into a bellicose folly by Big Bad America.
Perhaps I exaggerate. I am writing this from Italy -- weakest link in the NATO chain. Italy (unlike France and Germany) continues to maintain an embassy in Belgrade. Milosevic has received the Italian Communists' party leader, Armando Cossutta. The estimable mayor of Venice has sent an envoy to Belgrade with letters addressed to Milosevic and to the ethnic Albanian leader with whom he has met, Ibrahim Rugova, proposing Venice as a site for peace negotiations. (The letters were accepted, thank you very much, by the Orthodox primate following the Easter Sunday service.) But then it is understandable that Italy has panicked: Italians see not just scenes of excruciating misery on their TV news but images of masses on the move. In Italy, Albanians are first of all future immigrants.
But opposition to the war is hardly confined to Italy, and to one strand of the political spectrum. On the contrary: mobilized against this war are remnants of the left and the likes of Le Pen and Bossi and Heider on the right. The right is against immigrants. The left is against America. (Against the idea of America, that is. The hegemony of American popular culture in Europe could hardly be more total.)
On both the so-called left and the so-called right, identity-talk is on the rise. The anti-Americanism that is fueling the protest against the war has been growing in recent years in many of the nations of the New Europe, and is perhaps best understood as a displacement of the anxiety about this New Europe, which everyone has been told is a Good Thing and few dare question. Nations are communities that are always being imagined, reconceived, reasserted, against the pressure of a defining Other. The specter of a nation without borders, an infinitely porous nation, is bound to create anxiety. Europe needs its overbearing America.
Weak Europe? Impotent Europe? The words are everywhere. The truth is that the made-for-business Europe being brought into existence with the enthusiastic assent of the "responsible" business and professional elites is a Europe precisely designed to be incapable of responding to the threat posed by a dictator like Milosevic. This is not a question of "weakness," though that is how it is being experienced. It is a question of ideology.
It is not that Europe is weak. Far from it. It is that Europe, the Europe under construction since the Final Victory of Capitalism in 1989, is up to something else. Something which indeed renders obsolete most of the questions of justice -- indeed, all the moral questions. (What prevails, in their place, are questions of health, which may be conjoined with ecological concerns; but that is another matter.)
A Europe designed for spectacle, consumerism and hand wringing ... but haunted by the fear of national identities being swamped either by faceless multinational commercialism or by tides of alien immigrants from poor countries.
In one part of the continent, former Communists play the nationalist card and foment lethal nationalisms -- Milosevic being the most egregious example. In the other part, nationalism, and with it war, are presumed to be superseded, outmoded.
How helpless "our" Europe feels in the face of all this irrational slaughter and suffering taking place in the other Europe.
And meanwhile the war goes on. A war that started in 1991. Not in 1999. And not, as the Serbs would have it, six centuries ago, either. Theirs is a country whose nationalist myth has as its founding event a defeat -- the Battle of Kosovo, lost to the Turks in 1389. We are fighting the Turks, Serb officers commanding the mortar emplacements on the heights of Sarajevo would assure visiting journalists.
Would we not think it odd if France still rallied around the memory of the Battle of Agincourt -- 1415 -- in its eternal enmity with Great Britain? But who could imagine such a thing? For France is Europe. And "they" are not. Yes, this is Europe. The Europe that did not respond to the Serb shelling of Dubrovnik. Or the three-year siege of Sarajevo. The Europe that let Bosnia die.
A new definition of Europe: the place where tragedies don't take place. Wars, genocides -- that happened here once, but no longer. It's something that happens in Africa. (Or places in Europe that are not "really" Europe. That is, the Balkans.) Again, perhaps I exaggerate. But having spent a good part of three years, from 1993 to 1996, in Sarajevo, it does not seem to me like an exaggeration at all.
Living on the edge of NATO Europe, only a few hundred kilometers from the refugee camps in Durres and Kukes and Blace, from the greatest mass of suffering in Europe since the Second World War, it is true that I can't hear the NATO planes leaving the base here in Puglia. But I can walk to Bari's waterfront and watch Albanian and Kosovar families pouring off the daily ferries from Durres -- legal immigrants, presumably -- or drive south a hundred kilometers at night and see the Italian coast guard searching for the rubber dinghies crammed with refugees that leave Vlore nightly for the perilous Adriatic crossing. But if I leave my apartment in Bari only to visit friends and have a pizza and see a movie and hang out in a bar, I am no closer to the war than the television news or the newspapers that arrive every morning at my doorstep. I could as well be back in New York.
Of course, it is easy to turn your eyes from what is happening if it is not happening to you. Or if you have not put yourself where it is happening. I remember in Sarajevo in the summer of 1993 a Bosnian friend telling me ruefully that in 1991, when she saw on her TV set the footage of Vukovar utterly leveled by the Serbs, she thought to herself, How terrible, but that's in Croatia, that can never happen here in Bosnia ... and switched the channel. The following year, when the war started in Bosnia, she learned differently. Then she became part of a story on television that other people saw and said, How terrible ... and switched the channel.
How helpless "our" pacified, comfortable Europe feels in the face of all this irrational slaughter and suffering taking place in the other Europe. But the images cannot be conjured away -- of refugees, people who have been pushed out of their homes, their torched villages, by the hundreds of thousands and who look like us.
Generations of Europeans fearful of any idealism, incapable of indignation except in the old anti-imperialist cold-war grooves. (Yet, of course, the key point about this war is that it is the direct result of the end of the cold war and the breakup of old empires and imperial rivalries.) Stop the War and Stop the Genocide, read the banners being waved in the demonstrations in Rome and here in Bari. For Peace. Against War. Who is not? But how can you stop those bent on genocide without making war?
We have been here before. The horrors, the horrors. Our attempt to forge a "humanitarian" response. Our inability (yes, after Auschwitz!) to comprehend how such horrors can take place. And as the horrors multiply, it becomes even more incomprehensible why we should respond to any one of them (since we have not responded to the others). Why this horror and not another? Why Bosnia or Kosovo and not Kurdistan or Rwanda or Tibet?
Are we not saying that European lives, European suffering are more valuable, more worth acting on to protect, than the lives of people in the Middle East, Africa and Asia?
One answer to this commonly voiced objection to NATO's war is to say boldly, Yes, to care about the fate of the people in Kosovo is Eurocentric, and what's wrong with that? But is not the accusation of Eurocentrism itself just one more vestige of European presumption, the presumption of Europe's universalist mission: that every part of the globe has a claim on Europe's attention?
If several African states had cared enough about the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda (nearly a million people!) to intervene militarily, say, under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, would we have criticized this initiative as being Afrocentric? Would we have asked what right these states have to intervene in Rwanda when they have done nothing on behalf of the Kurds or the Tibetans?
Another argument against intervening in Kosovo is that the war is -- wonderful word -- illegal," because NATO is violating the borders of a sovereign state. Kosovo is, after all, part of the new Greater Serbia called Yugoslavia. Tough luck for the Kosovars that Milosevic revoked their autonomous status in 1989. Inconvenient that 90 percent of Kosovars are Albanians -- ethnic Albanians" as they are called, to distinguish them from the citizens of Albania. Empires reconfigure. But are national borders, which have been altered so many times in the last hundred years, really to be the ultimate criterion? You can murder your wife in your own house, but not outdoors on the street.
Imagine that Nazi Germany had had no expansionist ambitions but had simply made it a policy in the late 1930's and early 1940's to slaughter all the German Jews. Do we think a government has the right to do whatever it wants on its own territory? Maybe the governments of Europe would have said that 60 years ago. But would we approve now of their decision?
Push the supposition into the present. What if the French Government began slaughtering large numbers of Corsicans and driving the rest out of Corsica ... or the Italian Government began emptying out Sicily or Sardinia, creating a million refugees ... or Spain decided to apply a final solution to its rebellious Basque population. Wouldn't we agree that a consortium of powers on the continent had the right to use military force to make the French (or Italian, or Spanish) Government reverse its actions, which would probably mean overthrowing that Government?
But of course this couldn't happen, could it? Not in Europe. My friends in Sarajevo used to say during the siege: How can "the West" be letting this happen to us? This is Europe, too. We're Europeans. Surely "they" won't allow it to go on.
But they -- Europe -- did.
For something truly terrible happened in Bosnia. From the Serb death camps in the north of Bosnia in 1992, the first death camps on European soil since the 1940's, to the mass executions of many thousands of civilians at Srebrenica and elsewhere in the summer of 1995 -- Europe tolerated that.
So, obviously, Bosnia wasn't Europe.
Those of us who spent time in Sarajevo used to say that, as the 20th century began at Sarajevo, so will the 21st century begin at Sarajevo. If the options before NATO all seem either improbable or unpalatable, it is because NATO's actions come eight years too late. Milosevic should have been stopped when he was shelling Dubrovnik in 1991.
Back in 1993 and 1994, American policy makers were saying that even if there were no United States intervention in Bosnia, rest assured, this would be the last thing that Milosevic would be allowed to get away with. A line in the sand had been drawn: he would never be allowed to make war on Kosovo. But who believed the Americans then? Not the Bosnians. Not Milosevic. Not the Europeans. Not even the Americans themselves. After Dayton, after the destruction of independent Bosnia, it was time to go back to sleep, as if the series of events set in motion in 1989 with the accession to power of Milosevic and the revocation of autonomous status for the province of Kosovo, would not play out to its obvious logical end.
If Europe is having a hard time thinking that it matters what happens in the southeastern corner of Europe, imagine how hard it is for Americans to think it is in their interest. It is not in America's interest to push this war on Europe. It is very much not in Europe's interest to reward Milosevic for the destruction of Yugoslavia and the creation of so much human suffering.
Why not just let the brush fire burn out? is the argument of some. And the expulsion of a million or more refugees into the neighboring countries of Albania and Macedonia? This will certainly bring on the destruction of the fragile new state of Macedonia and the redrawing of the map of the Balkans -- certain to be disputed by, at the very least, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece. Do we imagine this will happen peacefully?
Not surprisingly, the Serbs are presenting themselves as the victims. (Clinton equals Hitler, etc.) But it is grotesque to equate the casualties inflicted by the NATO bombing with the mayhem inflicted on hundreds of thousands of people in the last eight years by the Serb programs of ethnic cleansing.
Not all violence is equally reprehensible; not all wars are equally unjust.
No forceful response to the violence of a state against peoples who are nominally its own citizens? (Which is what most "wars" are today. Not wars between states.) The principal instances of mass violence in the world today are those committed by governments within their own legally recognized borders. Can we really say there is no response to this? Is it acceptable that such slaughters be dismissed as civil wars, also known as "age-old ethnic hatreds." (After all, anti-Semitism was an old tradition in Europe; indeed, a good deal older than ancient Balkan hatreds. Would this have justified letting Hitler kill all the Jews on German territory?) Is it true that war never solved anything? (Ask a black American if he or she thinks our Civil War didn't solve anything.)
War is not simply a mistake, a failure to communicate. There is radical evil in the world, which is why there are just wars. And this is a just war. Even if it has been bungled.
Stop the genocide. Return all refugees to their homes. Worthy goals. But how is any of this conceivably going to happen unless the Milosevic regime is overthrown? (And the truth is, it's not going to happen.)
Impossible to see how this war will play out. All the options seem improbable, as well as undesirable. Unthinkable to keep bombing indefinitely, if Milosevic is indeed willing to accept the destruction of the Serbian economy; unthinkable for NATO to stop bombing, if Milosevic remains intransigent.
The Milosevic Government has finally brought on Serbia a small portion of the suffering it has inflicted on neighboring peoples.
War is a culture, bellicosity is addictive, defeat for a community that imagines itself to be history's eternal victim can be as intoxicating as victory. How long will it take for the Serbs to realize that the Milosevic years have been an unmitigated disaster for Serbia, the net result of Milosevic's policies being the economic and cultural ruin of the entire region, including Serbia, for several generations? Alas, one thing we can be sure of, that will not happen soon.