Leadership: August 19, 1999

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Who Dealt This Mess? It's convenient to blame the politicians for military disasters. In the past this was a reasonable accusation, for until the spread of democratic governments and mass media, politicians could generally do what they wanted to do. It's different today, as politicians now tend to see which direction the voters are going, then jump in front and offer to lead them where they were going anyway. Who directs the voters? The media is a catalyst, but the media draws its leads by sniffing around and trying to sort out how world events are bouncing off the popular imagination. TV news directors try and figure out where the popular perception lies and how they can pounce on it and run with a trendy headline before the competition does. This sort of thing can drive a historian nuts, because the historian takes a longer, and more accurate, view, that is often going in a different direction than the short term, popular and sensationalist headlines. A good example is the recent bombing campaign in Kosovo. At the start, I told the TV producers, and the audience when I was on the air, that the Serbs were well prepared for such a bombing campaign. I pointed out that the Yugoslav armed forces had been practicing for just this kind war for over half a century. No one was able to contradict me, although spouting historical fact does not always prevent impassioned, if unfounded, rebuttal. But my assessment of the situation didn't catch on. Not just at the network I was working for, but anywhere else. The political leadership, and the media, bought into the idea that bombs would destroy those Serb butchers. The majority of the voters went along with this as well. No surprise, because it was just the kind of low risk, feel good angle that so often catches on. I knew there were people at the Pentagon and NATO who knew what I knew. But, well, we were out voted.

Once the official good guys and bad guys are anointed, history and reality play second fiddle to the need to feed the official picture of the situation. It got to the point where history was rewritten. The Serbs were the designated villains, and certainly deserved a lot of media abuse for all the atrocities they had committed in the 1990s. But some networks felt the need to revise the history of World War II, and denigrate the role of Serbs in the war against the Axis. One could see why this was so, for the Serbs were the first to take up arms against Nazi occupation. And it was the Serbs who refused to let the king of Yugoslavia cut a deal with the Germans, like everyone else in Eastern Europe did. Most Albanians, on the other hand, were enthusiastic allies of the fascists. Dragging up the World War II chapter of Balkan history raised too many embarrassing questions.

When NATO entered Kosovo in June of 1999, they quickly discovered two things; the Serb troops had been able to avoid getting hurt by the well publicized NATO bombing campaign, and the Albanians could be just as nasty as the Serbs. The media, and the politicians, pitched these developments as "unexpected." Panels were appointed to investigate, and all concerned hoped that the resulting reports would come out far enough in the future for the public to have lost interest.

Meanwhile, the NATO occupation of Kosovo is turning into a quagmire. Few have noticed that this is the sixth time Kosovo has been ethnically cleansed this century (Serbs run out before 1912, Albanians between 1919-1941, Serbs again in 1941-45, Serbs in the 1970s and 80s, the Albanians in early 1999, and now the Serbs again.) This just adds to the refugee problem, and the irritating fact that most of the refugees in the Balkans are Serbs ethically cleansed from Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. But, hey, it's their fault. They're the bad guys, aren't they?

Europeans pay more attention to history, and have long admitted that military occupation of Bosnia and Kosovo will last decades, not years. And even that might not be enough. The communists that ran Yugoslavia for nearly fifty years after World War II managed to keep a lid on things with a police state. Once the communists lost control in the early 1990s, the old hatreds came back.

It will happen again, and again. Both the events and the optimistic policy making. --Jim Dunnigan

 


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