Features

Kosovo's real lesson

International | Technology hasn't changed the realities of war

Issue: "Top 40 Books," July 3, 1999

Moral posturing, faith in technology, and not a little arrogance underwrote Operation Allied Force, NATO's rain of fire on Yugoslavia. After Slobodan Milosevic's henchmen refused to sign the Ramboulet Accords, NATO was sure that precision guided weapons could compel Mr. Milosevic to set aside an ancient hatred and put an end to ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. The cause was justifiable, the means available; the expectation was for a quick resolution with little risk. Seventy-eight days later, with much of Yugoslavia in ruins, the Serb-dominated parliament in Belgrade agreed to NATO's conditions. After fits and starts, the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo got underway. So we won. And as they say in football, "a win is a win." On the other hand, Notre Dame fans would not cheer loudly if the Fighting Irish beat Slippery Rock 24 to 21 in double overtime. That's the kind of win Kosovo was. When Mr. Milosevic last week proudly told Serb supporters that Yugoslavia had held its own against the West, he wasn't too far off the mark. Some American air-power advocates have trumpeted the results of Operation Allied Force, claiming that bombing achieved something never before accomplished: victory without a ground engagement and with no allied casualties. British military historian and defense analyst John Keegan, for example, claimed that Operation Allied Force was "a victory for air power and air power alone." The reality is a bit less sanguine. True, there was "victory" in that the Serbs acceded to NATO's demands-but not before ethnic cleansing had taken its toll. Hundreds of thousands of Albanian Kosovars were ejected, their homes destroyed, their property confiscated. What will we learn from Operation Allied Force? If we come away convinced that the world can be formed in our image and desired ends can be achieved with minimal risk by the precise application of force, we will have fooled ourselves on two counts. First, we will have convinced ourselves that America remains a "City on a Hill" and that the rest of the world, having cast its eyes on us, wants to emulate us. Second, we will think our technological capabilities allow us to use surgically applied force to affect global attitude adjustments, entailing little risk while promising big results. In the early 19th century, the Prussian general and military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz penned his classic treatise On War, which was based on his experience in the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleonic era. Fostered by nationalistic fervor and driven by revolutionary vigor, these were wars made bloody by the participation of large armies of citizen soldiers. Clausewitz observed that war is a quintessentially human proposition with cultural dimensions, and that these factors make it both unpredictable and bloody. Technology, on the other hand, is precise. It is predictable in delivering specified results: a sortie flown, a weapon launched, a bridge destroyed. The immediate effects are apparent and quantifiable. What is unclear is the human reaction, particularly if the targeted bridge is filled with people on the way to market, or if the bomb arrives at the same time as a passenger train. This human element of war is amenable neither to cold computer calculations nor the deadly certainty of digitized guidance systems. But it is evident in the words of a wounded Yugoslav national who last week, with CNN cameras rolling, gasped his last words from the front seat of a sedan riddled by the bullets of German peacekeepers: "I am a Serb and I must die for my country." Digitization and the advent of the Information Age have changed the way we think about war. Instead of thinking of wars as conflicts between peoples and cultures, we now conceive of them as targeting problems where precise applications of weapons against "critical nodes" cause specific effects. Turn off the electricity and their army can't communicate; drop their bridges and fuel doesn't reach their tanks. But most of the world doesn't make war that way. Serbs kill Albanian Kosovars (and vice versa) because they hate each other. We can degrade communications by destroying television stations, but no Kosovar ever had his throat slit by a TV program. And no Albanian woman was ever raped by a computer. The gun, the knife, and sheer terror are the weapons of choice in the "hands-on war." Killing driven by hatred will be the essence of hands-on war in the 21st century. In most places throughout the world, where cultures clash, those seeking moral certitude will not look to an American "City on a Hill," especially if that City's lights are fueled by a faith in technology that has displaced a faith in God.
Earl Tilford is a military historian at the U.S. Army War College

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