Their Atrocities-and Ours
by Howard Zinn
The Progressive magazine, July 1999
There was a headline recently in my hometown newspaper, The
Boston Globe: PENTAGON DEFENDS AIRSTRIKE ON VILLAGE. U.S. SAYS
KOSOVARS WERE HUMAN SHIELDS. That brought back the ugliest of
memories. It recalled My Lai and other Vietnam massacres, justified
by such comments as "the Vietnamese babies are concealing
Here's the logic: Milosevic has committed atrocities, therefore,
it is OK for us to commit atrocities. He is terrorizing the Albanians
in Kosovo; therefore, we can terrorize the Serbs in Yugoslavia.
I get e-mail messages from Yugoslav opponents of Milosevic,
who demonstrated against him in the streets of Belgrade before
the air strikes began. They now tell me their children cannot
sleep at night, terrified by the incessant bombing. They tell
of the loss of light, of water, of the destruction of the basic
sources of life for ordinary people.
To Thomas Friedman, columnist for The New York Times, all
Serbs must be punished, without mercy, because they have "tacitly
sanctioned" the deeds of their leaders. That is a novel definition
of war guilt. Can we now expect an Iraqi journalist to call for
bombs placed in every American supermarket on the grounds that
all of us have "tacitly sanctioned" the hundreds of
thousands of deaths in Iraq caused by our eight-year embargo?
Official terrorism, whether used abroad or at home, by jet
bombers or by the police, always receives an opportunity to explain
itself in the press, as ordinary terrorism does not. The thirty-one
prisoners and nine guards massacred on orders of New York Governor
Nelson Rockefeller in the Attica uprising, the eleven MOVE members,
five of whom were children, killed in a fire after their homes
were bombed by Philadelphia police; the eighty-six Branch Davidians,
including twenty-four children, who died at the Waco compound
in an attack ordered by the Clinton Administration; the African
immigrant murdered by a gang of policemen in New York-all of these
events had explanations that, however absurd, are dutifully given
time and space in the media.
One of these explanations seeks comfort in relative numbers.
We have heard NATO spokesperson Jamie Shea, as well as Clinton,
pass off the bombing of Yugoslav civilians by telling us the Serb
forces have killed more Albanians than we have killed Serbs-although
as the air strikes multiply, the numbers are getting closer. No
matter: This math work justifies NATO's killing not just Serbs
but Albanian refugees, not just adults but children.
There were those who defended the 1945 firestorm bombing of
Dresden 100,000 dead?-we can't be sure) by pointing to the Holocaust.
As if one atrocity deserves another! I have heard the deaths of
more than 150,000 Japanese citizens in the atomic strikes on Hiroshima
and Nagasaki justified by the terrible acts of the Japanese military
in that war.
I suppose if we consider the millions of casualties of all
the wars started by national leaders these past sixty years as
"tacitly supported" by their populations, some righteous
God who made the mistake of reading Thomas Friedman might well
annihilate the human race.
Steven Erlanger reported, also in The New York Times, that
NATO missiles killed at least eleven people in a residential area
of Surdulica, a town in southern Serbia. He described "the
mounded rubble across narrow Zmaj Jovina Street, where Aleksandar
Milic, thirty-seven, died on Tuesday. Mr. Milic's wife, Vesna,
thirty-five, also died. So did his mother and his two children,
Miljana, fifteen, and Vladimir, eleven-all of them killed about
noon when an errant NATO bomb obliterated their new house and
the cellar in which they were sheltering."
Are these "accidents," as NATO and U.S. officials
solemnly assure us?
One day in 1945 I dropped canisters of napalm on a village
in France. I have no idea how many villagers died, but I did not
mean to kill them. Can I absolve what I did by calling it "an
Aerial bombings have as inevitable consequences the killing
of civilians, and this is foreseeable, even if the details about
who will be the victims cannot be predicted.
The deaths and mutilations caused by the bombing campaign
in Yugoslavia are not accidents but the inevitable result of a
deliberate and cruel campaign against the people of that country.
There was an extraordinary report by Tim Weiner in The New
York Times contrasting the scene in Belgrade with that in Washington
where the NATO summit was taking place. "In Belgrade . .
. Gordana Ristic, thirty-three, was preparing to spend another
night in the basement-cum-bomb shelter of her apartment building.
'It was a really horrible night last night. There were explosions
every few minutes after 2 A.M. . . . I'm sorry that your leaders
are not willing to read history.'
"A reporter read to her from Clinton's speeches at the
summit meeting. She sounded torn between anger and tears. 'This
is the bottom to which civilization, in which I believed, has
gone. Clinton is playing a role, singing a song in an opera. It
kills me.' As she slept, NATO's leaders dined on soft-shell crabs
and spring lamb in the East Room of the White House. Dessert was
a little chocolate globe. Jessye Norman sang arias. And as the
last limousine left, near midnight, Saturday morning's all-clear
sounded in Belgrade."
The television networks, filling our screen with heartrending
photos of the Albanian refugees-and those stories must not be
ignored-have not given us a full picture of the human suffering
in Yugoslavia. An e-mail came to me, a message from Djordje Vidanovic,
a professor of linguistics and semantics at the University of
Nis: "The little town of Aleksinac, twenty miles away from
my hometown, was hit last night with full force. The local hospital
was hit, and a whole street was simply wiped off. What I know
for certain is six dead civilians and more than fifty badly hurt.
There was no military target around whatsoever."
That was an "accident." As was the bombing of the
Chinese Embassy. As was the bombing of a civilian train on a bridge
over the Juzna Morava River. As was the bombing of Albanian refugees
on a road in southern Kosovo. As was the destruction of a civilian
bus with twenty-four dead, including four children.
Some stories come through despite the inordinate attention
to NATO propaganda, omnipresent on CNN and other networks (and
the shameless Shea announced we bombed a television station in
Belgrade because it gives out propaganda).
There was a rare description of the gruesome scene at the
bus bombing by Paul Watson of The Los Angeles Times.
The New York Times reported the demolition of four houses
in the town of Merdare by anti-personnel bombs, "killing
five people including Bozina Tosovic, thirty, and his eleven-month-old
daughter, Bojana. His wife, six months pregnant, is in the hospital."
When I read a few weeks ago that cluster bombs are being used
against Yugoslavia and have caused unprecedented amputations in
Kosovo hospitals, I felt a special horror. These bombs have hundreds
Now if NATO were just a club for white people of non-Slavic
origin, a place for them to gather over sherry and reminisce about
the fun times at Normandy and Ypres, what would it matter how
big it got? But it is, of course, a military alliance, meaning
a kind of armed gang, and the first thing new members have to
do is take a sacred oath to increase their military budgets. This
is called "modernizing" and is justified by the need
to have all members, including the paupers among them, achieve
"NATO-compatible" levels of armaments. As noted by many
in the press, the biggest U.S. supporters of NATO expansion were
not the Polish-derived citizens of Chicago, they were the manufacturers
of missiles and fighter jets.
But what is a military alliance without something militaristic
to do? Serb atrocities in Kosovo seemed to present the ideal mission.
No one, except perhaps the occupants of Belgrade's bomb shelters,
can reasonably deny that Serbia excels in the atrocity-production
business (although the Croats and even the Kosovar Albanians can
claim some success in this department, too). So Madeleine Albright,
consummate hostess that she is, launched her war according to
a timetable designed-her aides have since revealed-to get the
whole business over with in time for NATO's fiftieth anniversary
bash in April. This was to be the beefed-up NATO's inaugural war
and proof of its lasting relevance. So what if Serbia's longstanding
ally, Russia, had started growling about re-aiming its nuclear
warheads at Albright's Washington office?
No victory in sight, NATO held its birthday party in April
anyway, with the diplomats all feigning the gravitas appropriate
to people engaged in acts of random vandalism from the air. But
there were no long faces among some of the partygoers, no indeed.
U.S. weapons manufacturers' stocks were booming, thanks to the
"excitement in Kosovo," as one market analyst put it,
and the arms dealers not only showed up at NATO's party, they
actually sponsored it. Well, to be fair, some communications firms
like Ameritech pitched in for the hors d'oeuvres, too, but the
bulk of the sponsors were defense companies like Boeing, which
contributed $250,000, and Raytheon, which has seen its stock soar
by 17 percent since NATO's war began. As a reward for their generosity,
the executives of sponsoring companies were allowed to mingle
with the assembled diplomats, no doubt using the occasion to whisper
little pleasantries like, "Boy, do I have a cluster bomb
But you can't have a meaningful Cold War against just poor
old basket-case Russia, whose soldiers can usually be found roaming
the streets, panhandling for vodka and turnip money. Hence the
bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade-and this "hence"
does not derive
from any privileged insider information. It would just be
too painful to admit that NATO's great moral undertaking includes
bombing a crowded city without an up-to-date map. Never mind that
China today is no more communist than Connecticut: At least its
military is in good enough shape to have funded an American Presidential
Maybe it's not 1958, though. Maybe it's really 1914. Then,
too, a bit of nastiness perpetrated by Serbs-a minor bit, by present-day
standards, involving the murder of just two people, who happened
the Hapsburg crown prince and his wife- provoked a mighty
urge to punish. Nations all over the world suddenly realigned
themselves into two opposing camps. Huge war machines, polished
to perfection during the preceding decades of relative peace,
rolled onto the field. Nothing at all was accomplished in the
four years of fighting that followed-nothing, that is, beyond
a major expansion of cemetery acreage. So Cold War II is looking
a lot like World War I, except that if the nuclear warheads start
flying, this could turn into a war that not even Boeing will win.
Zinn On War