Saving Them to Death
NATO's War against Yugoslavia

By John LaForge, Nukewatch Staff

In a government of laws the existence of the government will be imperiled if it fails to observe the law scrupulously. Our government is the potent, the omnipotent teacher. For good or ill it teaches the whole people by its example: If government becomes a lawbreaker it breeds contempt for law.

-Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis

Bombs hit ethnic Albanians, killing the very people that NATO is trying to save.

-St. Paul Pioneer Press, April 16, 1999.

Military attacks on civilians or civilian things are crimes. Bombing towns and villages, hospitals, schools, rail lines, electric transformers and prisons is illegal under domestic and international "laws of war" (the Geneva Conventions, the U. N. Charter, the Hague Regulations and the U.S. Air Force's own bombing manual) to which the United States is a party. As the disarmament community knows well, the Nuremberg Charter and Principles outlaw the mere "planning and preparation" of a war of indiscriminate destruction, to say nothing of waging one.

These laws describe prohibited targets and tactics, and were adopted to prevent crimes against noncombatants everywhere. As the Air Force's bombing law manual says of itself, "Its purpose [is] to protect civilian populations."

The U.S. makes adherence to international law a sticking point when criticizing other countries, and the government regularly boasts of its respect for the law. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, speaking to the UN Jan. 25, said, "We strongly support the UN Charter and the organization's purpose. We respect its rules, which we helped to write."

Violation of international norms is nowadays the cause of criminal prosecution by the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. Most recently the Tribunal has come under fire for giving serious consideration to allegations of war crimes made against NATO in its bombing of Yugoslavia.

When the U.S. and NATO began bombing the cities and towns of Yugoslavia last March 24 - from altitudes of 15,000 feet - it was inevitable that pilots would commit acts that are called war crimes by the State Department if committed by other nations.

Author Noam Chomsky skewers this subjectivism in the June '99 issue of Harpers. He reminds us that Japan's attack on Manchuria, Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia, and Hitler's occupation of Czechoslovakia were "accompanied by factual justifications and highly uplifting rhetoric." Japan said it was defending Manchurians from "Chinese bandits." Mussolini claimed to be liberating slaves with the Western "civilizing mission," and Hitler promised to end ethnic tensions and to "safeguard the national individuality of the German and Czech peoples."

Likewise, a former Nuremberg war crimes prosecutor, Walter Rockler, wrote in the May 10 Chicago Tribune, "The attack on Yugoslavia constitutes the most brazen international aggression since the Nazis attacked Poland to prevent 'Polish atrocities against Germans."

Mr. Clinton and NATO officials justified the bombing with similar sloganeering. "We must act to end ethnic cleansing," the President said. NATO representatives claimed that, "The most fundamental goal of NATO's campaign is protecting the Albanian population of Kosovo from murder, rape and expulsion by the Serbian authorities." This is in sharp contrast to the position of Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon, who said April 25, "The second goal is we want to hold civilian casualties as low as possible."

Charges of atrocities leveled against Serbians accompanied every NATO press conference, as when Mr. Clinton presumed President Milosevic guilty prior to indictment or trial, charging April 16 that the Serbian leader, "displaces over a million Kosovars, kills and rapes thousands upon thousands of them."

But war makes madmen out of combatants on all sides. U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Frank Rohghi faces charges for the Jan. 13 sexual assault and murder of an 11-year-old Albanian girl. A second soldier has testified in the case that Rohghi said to him, "It's easy to get away with this in a third world country," and that the accused "had done it in the desert."

-New York Times, May 31, 1999.

On May 25 the Pentagon defended its bombing of Yugoslavia's civil electric system in spite of the harm to noncombatants. NATO spokesman Peter Daniel claimed, "We have not targeted the water system." But bombing the power complex cut electricity to water pumping stations. And after NATO's destruction of their principle bridge, 600,000 people in Novi Sad and Petrovaradin were without water because the pipeline was built into the bridge. An unnamed Pentagon official told the New York Times, "We are aware this will have an impact on civilians."

Asked April 18 about NATO's bombing of civilians in a refugee convoy, Pentagon chief William Cohen said of such actions, "They will occur in the future; they have occurred in the past. We will do our best to see that they're at a minimum." President Clinton said of the same incident, "That is regrettable. It is also inevitable." Air Force historian Wayne Thompson said of the bombardment, "In Kosovo, these people are so intermingled, there's no way to know exactly what you're hitting. In this case, the fight is going more toward the civilian population."

Following the May 21 bombing of the Dragisa Misovic hospital in Belgrade, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said, "We continue to take every conceivable measure to avoid harm to civilians." Dejan Sumrak, chief of the hospital's neurology department, replied that "aiming at targets 500 yards from a hospital was not taking every conceivable measure to avoid damage."

That the United States Congress did not declare war on or even endorse the bombing of Yugoslavia does not matter. As the U.S. Air Force's International Law: The conduct of Armed Conflict and Air Operations says, "The law of armed conflict applies to an international armed conflict regardless of whether a declared 'war' exists."

In the case of an undeclared war, there is the problem of the Neutrality Act. This U.S. law forbids anyone in the U.S. from military acts against "any foreign prince or state, or of any colony, district or people with whom the United States is at peace."

Even the pro-bombing New York Times reported April 20, that "Americans who involve themselves in the Balkan wars...are in a no man's land, legally speaking. The prospect of Americans fighting on foreign soil under a foreign flag, raises...the possibility of prosecutions under neutrality laws."