“We cannot and must not forget the chilling images of…mass graves unearthed by UN investigators,” said President George W. Bush, on the occasion of Slobodan Milosevic’s arrest over the weekend.
And as Milosevic was beginning his first day in a Belgrade jail, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook reminded us that he had visited some of the mass graves himself.
One newspaper remarked, “[T]his is only the beginning of what could be a long procedure leading to Mr. Milosevic’s being tried for war crimes committed two years ago in Kosovo, where an estimated 10,000 ethnic Albanian civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands driven from their homes.”
Images of mass graves are indeed chilling. But has anyone ever seen the mass graves in Kosovo? Did Robin Cook really visit them? And were there 10,000 Albanian civilians killed in Kosovo?
If you want to be spectacularly misinformed, said author Henry Miller, buy a newspaper.
George Orwell, in his famous essay, Politics and the English Language, complained that a lot of political writing consisted of gumming together phrases like the sections of a prefabricated hen house, an easy way of writing, he said, once you had the habit. Reach into a handy grab-bag of weathered phrases, and you don’t have to think critically about what you’re writing. To journalists spoon fed copy by government sources, tacking together ready made, prefabricated phrases and ideas is an easy way to meet deadlines without a lot of effort.
Dutifully reporting the words of political figures, without questioning even the most conspicuous deviations from the truth, goes along way too toward effortlessly filing copy.
Press coverage of Milosevic’s arrest has been very much like the building of prefabricated hen houses. The words of Bush, Cook and former US Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, are reported uncritically, while Milosevic, just as uncritically, is denounced as a “tyrant,” “cold-blooded autocrat,” “war-lord,” “strongman,” and “iron-fisted dictator.”
He’s also “terrifying,” “ruthless,” “brutal,” “the mastermind of the worst European wars since the Nazis.”
Altogether a bad egg. Certainly, someone who could exterminate 10,000 Albanians and have their corpses dumped into mass graves, say, at the bottom of the infamous Trepca mines, the repository it, is said, of the remains of tens of thousands of brutally murdered ethnic Albanian Kosovars. Certainly someone who could be responsible for the mass graves Bush is chilled by and Cook remembers visiting.
But take apart the cairn of ready made phrases to see what lies below and you’ll find little more than what Orwell said you’d find behind prefabricated phrases — pure wind. And little more than what was found at the bottom of the Trepca mines, once pathologists were dispatched to excavate the site — some rubble and a few scattered animal bones. Nothing more.
But that’s not the only bit of nothingness that has been found.
Operation Horseshoe, the alleged Milosevic plan to ethnically cleanse Kosovo, turned out to be a hoax.
The Racak massacre, the slaughter of some forty ethnic Albanian civilians by Serb security forces — said to have provided the impetus for Nato to bomb Yugoslavia — looks, now, after the release of a Finnish forensic pathology report, to have been faked by the KLA.
One hundred thousand Kosovars were said to have been killed by Milosevic’s forces, a number later revised downward to 10,000, and then, after pathologists rushed to Kosovo at the end of Nato’s 78-day air war ready to inspect dozens of alleged mass graves, was revised downward further still, when pathologists failed to uncover what Nato darkly warned the world they’d find. Fewer than 2,000 autopsies were performed. Bodies were found buried alone or in pairs — not in the mass graves Cook says he visited or Bush remembers chilling images of. Whether the corpses were Serb or Albanian, indeed whether they met their deaths at the hands of Serb security forces or KLA guerillas, was never certain.
What then are we to make of this? Most of the atrocities Milosevic stood initially accused of turn out never to have happened, which may be why the first press reports of Milosevic’s arrest steered clear of the specifics of the reasons for his apprehension, preferring instead Orwell’s prefabricated phrases. Being a strongman, ruthless and iron-fisted, seemed reason enough for his arrest. About as concrete as anyone got was in attributing “the worst European wars since the Nazis” to Milosevic, an accusation that could only be made by turning a blind eye to what was truly one of the worst post World War II European wars — the Nato air strikes on Yugoslavia. And it was hardly Milosevic who initiated that war, although I suppose, in some perverted twist of logic it could be said that Milosevic was responsible, in the same way that a kid who refuses to relinquish his lunch money to the school yard bully is responsible for his own bloodied nose.
Largely unreported is that Nato’s bombing of Yugoslavia was precipitated by Milosevic’s refusal to allow Nato to occupy the entire country — one of the ultimata Nato issued at Rambouilett. Milosevic was ready to agree to a UN force in Kosovo, something, it will be recalled, Nato finally agreed to, but only after turning the country into a polluted desert.
Nato’s pummelling of Yugoslavia, with its toll of hundreds, if not thousands of civilians killed, and many more thousands injured, apparently doesn’t count as one of the worst European wars since the Nazis, though it might be recalled that before Nato it was the Nazis who last bombed Yugoslavia.
The flexing of Nato’s military muscle was called a humanitarian intervention, not a war, and therefore doesn’t count. Goebbels would have admired the audacity. The euphemistic evasion “humanitarian intervention” calls to mind the Fuggs’ 1966 underground hit, Kill for Peace.
Kill, it will give you the mental ease
Kill it will give you a big release
Kill, kill, kill for peace.
It also calls to mind Orwell’s charge that political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.
Human Rights Watch says that Nato bombs killed 500 civilians.
The total body count for which Milosevic stands indicted on war crimes is 391, not 100,000 and not 10,000. Less than the number of Yugoslav civilians killed by a humanitarian Nato. That’s never mentioned by the media.
And all of the incidents cited in the indictment against Milosevic but one — the phoney Racak incident — happened after Nato’s bombs started their ugly exercise of ushering Serb civilians to an early grave or to a life of permanent disability. Which is curious, because Nato said it needed to bomb Yugoslavia to stop Serb atrocities.
So what exactly is George W. Bush talking about when he mentions the chilling images of mass graves? And exactly what graves did Robin Cook visit anyway?
Chilling images of mass killing, indeed, are something we should never forget. The near genocide of the East Timorese by Indonesia, which went on for decades under the eyes of successive US administrations; the burning of Kurd villages by Turkish security forces, both in Turkey, and across its border, in Northern Iraq, where American and British patrols supposedly fly to protect the Kurd minority — except when Turkish jet fighters loaded with bombs, generously paid for by US military aid, are razing Kurd villages; Colombian peasants driven from their homes and murdered by death squads linked to the Colombian military the US has given $1.3 billion to; the hundreds of Palestinians killed by the Israeli Defence Forces, and the thousands injured and permanently disabled, in the latest intifada; these are chilling images we should begin to notice, much less never forget.
And what of the chilling images of thousands of Iraqi children dying every month because of the US-led sanctions regime, or Serb hospitals, schools, bridges, factories, destroyed by Nato bombs — can they be forgotten?
Nor should we overlook — or forget — the complicity of the press in lending the appearance of solidity to the emptiness of the words of the likes of Bush and Cook, a press which boasts of being free and independent, yet allows itself to be spoon-fed mendacious drivel which it neither questions nor parses.
And we shouldn’t forget the troubling lies that roll so easily off the tongues of Nato leaders — about massacres that didn’t happen, and master plans for ethnic cleansing that never existed, and death tolls that are wildly exaggerated.
Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.