ANCIENT HATREDS AND MODERN DEMONS: The Double Bind on Popular Dissent

Matthew C. Ally



Karsten Struhl



Ecological Devastation Crushes Yugoslavia

Report From the Belgrade Zoo

Who Are the Real Terrorists?

Images and Holocausts

Germany’s Secret Documents

Beating Plows Into Evacs

Television Station Bombed

Just How Did the US Flag Acquire All Those Stars?

Mitchel Cohen


VOICES FROM BELOW: Collateral Damage, Incoming!

Biljana Marjanovic



Omar Dahbour



Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis


BOMBING THE BRIDGE TO THE 21ST CENTURY: Behind NATO’s Bombardment of Yugoslavia

Mitchel Cohen


IS NATO A KILLER COP? A View from the Russian Democratic Left

Alexander V. Buzgalin


ANOTHER INVENTED ENEMY? A Call for a New Peace Movement

Betsy Bowman and Bob Stone


Carl Lesnor









Karsten Struhl


I am writing this just as the headlines announce that the active bombing of Yugoslavia is over. Whether the war is really over is still unclear as are the consequences of the NATO occupation. What is clear is that, whatever the outcome, the war itself was immoral.

During the height of the NATO bombing, Susan Sontag, who was an opponent of the Vietnam War, defended the war in Yugoslavia in an article in the New York Times Magazine (May 2, 1999). In it, she declared, "there is such a thing as a just war." Perhaps there is, although just war theory certainly has a number of worthy intellectual opponents. The question, however, is whether the concept of a just war can justify NATO’s intervention in Yugoslavia.

Let me begin with a general historical observation. Just war theory, implicit in the writings of Augustine and Ambrose, was more explicitly developed by Thomas Aquinas and other thinkers within the Catholic philosophical tradition of the Middle Ages. Its main historical function was not to promote moral crusades but precisely to limit war. Within the just war tradition, there were two kinds of concerns: the justice of the war itself (jus ad bellum) and the way in which the war is conducted (jus in bello). As regards the first, just war theory insists that war is justified only if it is in opposition to an act of aggression by one country against another. Some contemporary just war theorists have attempted to extend the theory to include humanitarian interventions and interventions in support of secessionist movements within a country (see M. Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, N.Y., Harper Collins). There are a number of significant dangers with this extension of the theory, one of them being that nations often attempt to legitimate their aggression with humanitarian appeals. Nonetheless, I think there may be some cases where humanitarian interventions may be justified. My candidate for such a case would be the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia against the Khmer Rouge, which ironically the United States condemned. I do not think that the situation in Kosovo was quite so clear cut, which is not to deny that horrible atrocities have occurred. What I do want to argue is that however one assesses the issues of humanitarian intervention and self-determination for Kosovar Albanians, the conduct of the NATO war cannot be justified. If I am right in this, then on the basis of even an extended version of just war theory, the war in Yugoslavia was an unjust war.

Consider the following analogy. You are witness to some vicious action that takes place at a distance a rape or some murderous assault. You have a cannon at your disposal and you fire that cannon in the direction of the assault, killing in the process the rapist, the individual being raped and 300 people in the nearest building. This is not simply poor judgment. Such an action is itself immoral. There are two reasons for this. The first is that you have created more harm than the harm you were trying to prevent. In just war theory, this is the criteria of proportionality. The second is that we have killed a great number of innocent people. In just war theory, a distinction is made between combatants and non-combatants. If the war itself is just, it is legitimate to kill those with weapons in their hands and perhaps those who are directly involved in the making of weapons. But it is not legitimate to kill prisoners or to target civilians engaged in the ordinary activities of daily life. It follows from this that it is not legitimate to destroy the urban infrastructure on which the life and health of the civilian population depends. It is not legitimate to destroy the facilities that support human life, because to do so is just as surely targeting civilians. To do this is simply terrorism.

The NATO war was a form of terrorism. Schools, hospitals, water purification plants, electric generators, railways, automobile factories, bridges, and marketplaces were hit and hit with deliberate intention. Every major city and many villages were attacked not just once but many times. Bombs were dropped on the downtown centers of cities (how else did NATO bombs destroy the Chinese Embassy). Cluster bombs, which were explicitly designed to kill human beings, were dropped in heavily populated civilian areas. Within 20 minutes of the first bombing attack, there was often a second round of bombing whose function was, in part, to kill rescue workers. The main purpose of all this was to terrorize the civilian population of Yugoslavia. Anyone was fair game in this "humanitarian" war. And what were the results of the bombing in Kosovo itself? There were many more deaths of Albanian as well as Serbian civilians, many more refugees than there were before the bombing began. Kosovo itself has become a wasteland. NATO, it seems, has destroyed Kosovo in order to save it. All these facts are well known. The implication should now be clear. A war whose consequences were so out of proportion to its stated goal and which made no distinction between combatants and non-combatants, a war which deliberately targeted both civilians and the facilities necessary to sustain their lives, is an unjust war.

It is easy to support bombing when the victims are faceless. Belgrade is a city like New York or Chicago or San Francisco. What would we think if it were our cities that were being bombed for the misdeeds of the United States government and its leaders?

However one judges Milosevic and the actions of the Yugoslavian army in Kosovo, what they have done is certainly not as bad as what the United States has done in some of the wars in which it has been engaged. To take one example, consider the United States intervention in Vietnam. The U.S. Army in Vietnam, in what was called "Operation Phoenix," assassinated 15,000 civilians who were merely suspected of having sympathies for the National Liberation Front. Many villages were destroyed and large numbers of people were put in "relocation" camps. There were some acknowledged massacres. In the end, over one million Vietnamese were killed and many more wounded. And the United States did all this to a people who were clearly not part of its internationally recognized borders. Kosovo, on the other hand, is a part of Yugoslavia. Before the NATO bombing, about 2,000 people, soldiers and civilians, were killed in Kosovo (and some of these were killed by the KLA). If bombing Belgrade and other cities in Yugoslavia was a legitimate form of "humanitarian intervention," then bombing New York and other cities in the United State during the Vietnam war would have been legitimate as well. Conversely, if it would not have been justified for some third nation to bomb the major cities of the United States during the Vietnam War, then the NATO bombing of Yugoslavian cities was equally unjustified. We are no more entitled to destroy the cities of Yugoslavia for the crimes of Milosevic, than a third power would have been entitled to destroy the cities of the United States for the crimes of Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon.


© 1999 Humanities Press


Karsten J. Struhl teaches philosophy and political theory in several universities in the New York City area (including Adelphi University, the New School for Social Research, and John Jay College for Criminal Justice). He is a co-editor of "The Philosophical Quest: A Cross-Cultural reader".