NATO bombing:
The morality of "collateral damage"



The fact that NATO bombing killed an estimated 2,000 people and did untold damage to the local environment (damage that can be expected to bring about additional deaths), while barely scratching Serbian forces in Kosovo, leads one to question the purpose and morality of the NATO aerial assault on Serbia.

Many commentators, including the excellent intelligence Website, Stratfor, have portrayed those deaths as "collateral damage" — the unintended consequence of an effort to bomb military targets. However, that NATO did not directly target civilians (much to the chagrin of numerous media Serbophobes) does not mean that their "accidental" deaths were not desired. In fact, it would be reasonable to assume that such civilian deaths were the key element in NATO's war strategy.

In order for NATO to win the war, the killing of Serbian civilians was the only alternative to allowing for deaths among the NATO forces, which were deemed politically unacceptable by the NATO leadership. To avoid being hit, NATO warplanes bombed from stratospheric heights, making their chance of damaging the mobile Serbian military forces in Kosovo slender at best. To effectively "degrade" the mobile Serbian forces required sight contact, which would have necessitated lower bombing altitudes and, thus, the risk of pilots' being killed. Fear of casualties obviously made a ground attack absolutely verboten.

Therefore, NATO's only chance of winning was to turn the Serbian people against the war. An optimal way of achieving that goal was to instill in the Serbs the fear of death. If NATO had simply hit TV stations, bridges, government buildings, and the like, without (magically) ever taking lives, it is doubtful whether the Serbs would have been severely upset. With targets chosen that were in close proximity to the civilian population (and over half the bombs were aimed at targets in Belgrade and other cities), civilian deaths were inevitable, since, no matter how "smart," some bombs were bound to go astray. The goal of the NATO bombing of Serbia was analogous to the German bombing of London in 1940-41. To quote from an article I wrote on the latter subject:

In the Blitz, Hitler only ordered the bombing of military targets — docks, factories — within London, not residential areas. In daylight bombing, the Luftwaffe was able to bomb with some degree of precision, but the Luftwaffe mainly conducted night raids when it was virtually impossible to pick out military targets in a densely populated city. Though Hitler refrained from explicitly ordering the bombing of civilians, heavy civilian fatalities were the inevitable result of the German city bombing program. Moreover, Hitler viewed this collateral damage, the terrorization of the British population, as an important goal of his bombing.

Hitler believed that the terrorized British population would force the British government to accept peace with Germany. Similarly, NATO believed that a terrorized Serbian population would pressure their government to accept NATO peace terms. NATO was successful in its civilian-bombing policy, while Hitler was not. NATO offered peace terms that did not seem humiliating, and most Serbs opted for peace, to forestall endless bombing. (Of course, NATO never carried out key parts of the peace agreement, such as disarming the KLA.) Winston Churchill successfully prevented the British from learning of Hitler's rather lenient peace terms and thus kept most of his population behind the war.

Moreover, the British in 1940-41 still had hope that resistance could lead to victory — something that was not apparent to the Serbs in the late spring of 1999. For the British had the realistic hope that the United States would enter the war; in contrast, it had become apparent to the Serbs that no international support would be forthcoming.

It should be added that in World War II, the Allies introduced the policy of deliberately targeting civilians. Incendiary bombs were especially valuable in destroying civilian "soft" targets, although ineffective in destroying militarily important harder targets, such as industrial machinery. Incendiary bombing was most destructive when many fires joined together to form a single huge firestorm, sometimes a couple of square miles in area, as in Dresden. There was no protection for people in that area. Although the firestorm in Dresden was very effective in taking human life, it did not destroy the rail lines in the city, which remained in use amid the charred embers. The atom bombs used in World War II were, of course, the nonpareil weapons of indiscriminate destruction. And as an analogy to the NATO bombing of Serbia, they were used as an alternative to a United States invasion that would have cost American lives. (In all likelihood, an American offer of a conditional, as opposed to unconditional, surrender, would have achieved Japanese capitulation without the need for either an atomic attack or an invasion.)

Since the intentional targeting of civilians is widely regarded as immoral and contrary to international standards of war, logic would dictate that the reliance on significant numbers of "accidental" deaths to achieve policy aims would also be classified as illicit. The great irony here is that the ostensible raison d'etre for NATO's attack on Serbia was that the Serbs had killed civilians in their effort to put down the KLA separatists. The questionable morality of NATO's bombing endeavor adds yet another nail to the coffin of the Establishment's "humanitarian" war thesis.

A major refutation of the "humanitarian" war argument, in any event, is that the war greatly worsened the situation in Kosovo, and that instead of achieving the envisioned multiethnic state, a nearly ethnically pure Albanian Kosovo has emerged, cleansed of its Serbian, and other non-Albanian, population.

September 13, 1999

This version © 1999 by WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

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"World War II, Nuclear Arms, and the Just War," World & I, March 1987, pp. 665-77. (Back)