In 1649, long before the phrase “ethnic cleansing” was introduced to the vocabulary of horror and atrocity, an English commander named Oliver Cromwell gathered his army of militant Puritans outside the walled town of Drogheda in Ireland, home to savage followers of the evil Pope. “Being in the heat of the action,” Cromwell wrote, “I forbade [my soldiers] to spare any that were in arms in the town.” The troops interpreted their commander’s orders broadly: They slaughtered 3,500 people, including every unarmed man, woman or child they came across. Cromwell was delighted to sweep the town clear of heathens and heretics, but would accept none of the laurels of victory. “It is right that God alone should have all the glory,” he wrote. Awfully sporting of the old chap.
There’s a statue of Oliver Cromwell, religious fanatic and genocidal maniac, outside the Palace of Westminster in London, where great English statesmen are celebrated. One nation’s ethnic cleanser is another nation’s patriotic hero. Ask the Sioux and Cheyenne about George Armstrong Custer.
We, of course, live in more civilized times. Today’s homicidal leaders can expect a storm of cruise missiles, or a trade boycott, or stern condemnations at the United Nations, or a very public finger-pointing. It all depends on the offending party’s ability to strike back, the size of its market and the proximity of the offensive acts to the capitals of Western democracy. Kill civilians in faraway East Timor or Rwanda and you’ll probably get away with it. Murder millions while presiding over the well-armed Soviet Union and you could expect the West to confine its protests to a few good speeches. Crush dissenters while introducing market reforms in the world’s most populous nation and you can count on the global capitalists to harrumph a bit before getting back to business.
If, however, you are the leader of a relatively small nation whose capital is on the banks of the Danube, you’d better watch your step. America and Western Europe clearly do not calibrate their responses to atrocity on the basis of body count alone, otherwise Rwanda would be a parking lot, China would have to find some other market for its cheap toys and Stalin’s Russia would have found itself fending off American tanks. Genocide in Europe, conducted by a third-rate power (even one fighting on first-rate terrain), positively invites the violent outrage of civilized Western society.
Is a bombing campaign the sign of a so-called civilized society? Perhaps not, but the carefully targeted assault on Belgrade is a good deal more civilized, if that is the right description, than the fire-bombing of Dresden and Tokyo during World War II, when there was no question about who was enforcing the rules of civilization and who was breaking them.
Bill Clinton is not a man you’d want next to you in a foxhole, nor is he the ideal President to dispatch your son or daughter to a foxhole. But aside from Commander-in-Chief designate John McCain, the imperfect Mr. Clinton is the only President we have. His flaws are beside the larger point of whether or not we ought to be in the Balkans. And even if Mr. Clinton is to be barred forever from the moral high ground, what of the outrage expended in Germany, France and Britain? Dismiss Tony Blair, unfairly, as a Clinton toady, and you’re still left with the formidable opinions of our allies in Berlin and Paris. They believe that something must be done, and they are acting accordingly.
History argues against engagement in that part of the world, but humanity’s cries are louder, more poignant and ultimately decisive. By now it is clear that when we recollect the horrors of the Holocaust and say, “Never again!” we really don’t mean it. We’ve been content to simply condemn genocide elsewhere, and even to do business with genocidal regimes. But genocide in Europe is different, for our NATO allies and indeed for us. It is close to home, never mind the argument that most Americans couldn’t find Kosovo on a map a month ago. Given the state of American education today, it would be something if most Americans could find Kansas on a map.
American military might has been put to many dubious uses in this casualty-filled century. But when it is deployed on behalf of suffering or threatened people, whether in Haiti or in the old West Germany, it is upholding the best of American ideals. The pictures of American G.I.’s distributing food to starving Albanian refugees is reminiscent of the scenes we thought were part of another era, when American liberators handed out chocolate bars to the children of France and Italy in 1944.
No, we can’t stop every madman’s assaults on innocent civilians. Perhaps we were powerless to stop the mass murders of Stalin and Pol Pot and Mao. But surely we can and ought to punish Slobodan Milosevic. He is, after all, a walking crime against humanity.