Daily Archives: 20 June 2005

Two Dilemmas: Kosovo in 1999, Vietnam in 1965

When bombing initially failed to change the enemy’s policy, the pressures on the president to commit ground troops increased. The president, a politician more interested in the mechanics of domestic reform than in foreign policy, pondered his options. To back off at this point would result in devastating humiliation for the United States, with consequences around the world that could not be foreseen but which might well be severe. To escalate the war by introducing ground troops would be to risk a bloody debacle and a political backlash. Every choice presented the possibility of disaster.

THIS IS A description of the situation that confronted President Bill Clinton in the spring of 1999, after the United States and its NATO allies began bombing Serbia with the goal of forcing Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic to agree to autonomy for the Albanian ethnic majority in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo. It is also a description of the dilemma of President Lyndon Johnson in the spring and summer of 1965, when the failure of U.S. bombing raids against North Vietnam to dissuade Ho Chi Minh’s communist dictatorship from its low-level war against South Vietnam had become apparent. In each case, what was at stake for the United States was its credibility as the dominant global military power and the survival of a regional alliance–NATO in the case of the Balkan war, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in the case of the conflict in Indochina. (In fact, SEATO did dissolve, when the United States abandoned Indochina to communist conquest between 1973 and 1975.)

Both Slobodan Milosevic and Ho Chi Minh were communist dictators who manipulated the nationalism of their subjects–Milosevic in the service of his dream of a Greater Serbia dominating the former Yugoslav federation, Ho in the service of the dream of a united Vietnam dominating all of Indochina. Both Milosevic and Ho promoted their goals by supporting guerrilla terror campaigns in other countries. Milosevic armed, supplied, and directed Serb paramilitary units engaged in mass murder and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Kosovo, and other parts of the former Yugoslavia; Ho armed, supplied, and directed Viet Cong guerrillas in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia who waged war against South Vietnamese military and police forces and murdered tens of thousands of South Vietnamese officials and civilians. In both cases, the low-intensity wars launched by the communist-nationalist dictators produced tidal waves of refugees. Hundreds of thousands of non-Serbs were forced from their homes in different parts of the former Yugoslavia by Serbian ethnic cleansing. Nearly a million residents of North Vietnam fled Ho Chi Minh’s rule in the 1950s, and following the communist conquest of South Vietnam in the 1970s more than two million others risked their lives in fleeing the country. Of the two communist-nationalist leaders, Milosevic was the less tyrannical; his Serbian regime was far less repressive than the government of Ho Chi Minh. The latter was a strict Stalinist dictatorship that tolerated no political or intellectual dissent and executed more than ten thousand North Vietnamese villagers in cold blood in a few months because they were landlords or prosperous peasants and thus “class enemies,” according to Marxist-Leninist dogma.

Despite these similarities, the U.S. wars in the Balkan and Indochinese peninsulas differed in one fundamental respect. The Yugoslav War was not a proxy war among great powers. Although Russia protested the NATO war against the Serbs and supplied some limited assistance to the Milosevic regime, postcommunist Russia, truncated, impoverished, and weak in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, did not commit itself to defeating American policy in the Balkans. The situation was radically different in the 1960s. The Vietnam War was a proxy war between the United States, the Soviet Union–then growing rapidly in military power, confidence, and prestige–and communist China. Despite their rivalry for leadership of the communist bloc of nations, the Soviets and the Chinese collaborated to support North Vietnam’s effort to destroy South Vietnam, to promote communist revolutions in Indochina and, if possible, Thailand, and to humiliate the United States. In the 1990s, Serbia was a third-rate military power lacking great-power patrons. In the 1960s, North Vietnam was protected from an American invasion, and equipped with state-of-the-art weapons and air defenses, by the Soviet Union and China, the latter of which sent hundreds of thousands of troops to support Ho Chi Minh’s war effort between 1965 and 1968. By the late 1970s, the Vietnamese communists, after annexing South Vietnam, occupying Cambodia, and breaking with and defeating China in a border war, possessed the third largest army in the world and ruled the most important satellite region of the Soviet empire outside Eastern Europe. At the time of the Vietnam War, the United States was engaged in a desperate worldwide struggle with two of the three most powerful and murderous totalitarian states in history; in 1999, the United States faced no significant challenge to its global primacy by another great power or coalition.

The American wars in defense of Kosovo and South Vietnam, then, differed chiefly in this respect: More–far more–was at stake in Vietnam.

SOURCE: Vietnam, the Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America’s Most Disastrous Military Conflict, by Michael Lind (Simon & Schuster, 1999), pp. x-xii

“[This] is a necessary book.” –Dan Rather, CBS News

I’m going to excerpt more from this book. It challenges almost every aspect of my received wisdom about the War in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s, during which time I spent 996 days in the U.S. Army–all safely Stateside. A degree of survivor guilt impels me to explore another viewpoint about why so many Americans of my generation–and far, far more Vietnamese of all ages–ended up either killed or disabled by that godforsaken conflict.

Leave a comment

Filed under Vietnam

Reporting on the Kosovo War

Why did the [Kosovo] war end when it did? If you believe Nato or any of the alliance governments it ended because the bombing campaign had succeeded. The high-tech weapons performed largely as advertised and Milosevic and the Serb people no longer had the stomach to see their country being destroyed around them. If you believe some of the correspondents, the war ended because during peace talks on June 3 the Russians urged Milosevic to do a deal, threatening to cut gas supplies to Serbia.

It took the BBC’s documentary division to reveal why Russia, which had steadfastly supported their fellow Slavs throughout the war, brought this pressure to bear on Serbia. The second BBC programme on Kosovo called “An Audit of War” broadcast on October 18 said, “Shortly after Serbia accepted the peace deal the International Monetary Fund provided Russia with nearly three billion pounds to payoff the interest on its foreign debts.”

This leaves us with the most intriguing question of all–what was the war really all about? The Spectator doubted if it was actually about the ethnic cleansing of the Kosovars. “In the three years leading up to 25 March 1999, between two and three thousand people had died in Yugoslavia’s latest ethnic conflict,” wrote Mark Steyn, the magazine’s American correspondent. “Not a pretty sight. But let’s say it was the upper number, 3,000. That still gives it a lower murder rate per capita than New Orleans or New York … Washington, Oakland, Houston, Las Vegas, Dallas.

“Sitting in Belgrade browsing through the homicide statistics Slobo must have thought that the Americans of all people would appreciate how some societies can tolerate a level of slaughter others might find excessive.” But, said Steyn, Milosevic failed to understand a crucial distinction–if you kill people in drive-by shootings, liquor store hold-ups and child custody disputes, that was the sign of healthy mature democracy. But if you killed people because of an ongoing blood feud rooted in centuries of history, that was barbaric.

Perhaps President Clinton gave the game away when early into the bombing campaign he tried to ease America’s doubts. “Had we not acted,” he said, “the Serb offensive would have been carried out with impunity.” The bombing, therefore, was to punish the Serbs. Punishment is an established part of U.S. foreign policy [and not that of every country outside of late 20th-century Europe?]. Gary Sick, who was then in charge of Gulf policy at the National Security Council, said after Iran took American hostages in Teheran in 1979, “There was a strong view … that Iran should be punished from all sides.”

But what was Serbia being punished for? “For the humiliation we suffered at their hands in Bosnia,” according to Robert Fisk. “For daring to resist the project of establishing the West’s hegemony” said the celebrated Russian dissident Alexander Zinoviev in Le Monde.

SOURCE: The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-maker from the Crimea to Kosovo, by Phillip Knightley, with an introduction by John Pilger (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2000; first published in 1975), pp. 517-518

Interesting that, when it comes to the Kosovo War, the Telegraph/Spectator’s Mark Steyn appears to have kept company with the Guardian/Observer’s John Pilger and the Independent’s Robert Fisk.

Leave a comment

Filed under Eastern Europe, publishing, war