The NATO-Media Lie Machine

"Genocide" in Kosovo?

by Edward S. Herman & David Peterson

Z magazine, May 2000


NATO's "humanitarian" enterprise in Kosovo was built on a structure of lies, many of them flowing from NATO headquarters and officials of the NATO powers, and uncritically passed along by the mainstream media of the NATO countries. One of the great ironies of Operation Allied Force, NATO's brief 1999 war against Serbia, was that Yugoslavia's broadcasting facilities were bombed by NATO on the claim that they were a "lie machine" serving the Yugoslav apparatus of war. This was contrasted with the NATO media, which in the view of NATO officials, and in that of media personnel as well, were "objective" and provided what Richard Holbrooke described as "exemplary" coverage. It never occurred to media leaders and journalists that Holbrooke's accolade should embarrass them-although were Slobodan Milosevic to have lauded the Serb media's performance as "exemplary" we suspect their NATO-bloc counterparts would have interpreted this as proof of the "lie machine" accusation. The double standard runs deep.

An important reason for the congruity between Holbrooke's and the media's views was the sense of self-righteousness that accompanied Operation Allied Force. The belief that NATO was fighting a "just war" against an evil enemy had been so well cultivated over the prior decade that for the media, "getting on the team" and thereby promoting the war effort seemed perfectly consistent with "objective" news reporting. This perspective, which was not shared by most governments and media outside NATO, or by a vigorous but marginalized media within the NATO countries, was ideal from the viewpoint of the NATO war managers, as it made their mainstream media into de facto propaganda arms of NATO. Ultimately, this gave NATO and its dominant governments a freedom to ignore both international opinion and international law-and to destroy and kill-that would have been far more difficult to achieve if their media's performance had been less "exemplary. "

Genocide Politicized

One of the many successes of the NATO-media lie machine was effectively pinning the label of "genocide" on the Serbs for their operations in Kosovo. "Genocide," like "terrorism," is an invidious but fuzzy word, that has long been used in propaganda to describe the conduct of official enemies. It conjures up images of Nazi death camps and is frequently used along with the word "holocaust" to describe killings that are being condemned. On the Nazi-Jewish Holocaust model, genocide implies the attempt to wipe out an entire people. But in the Genocide Convention of 1948 the word was defined more loosely as any act "committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group as such." The Convention even included in genocide acts that were causing serious "mental harm" or inflicting "conditions of life" aimed at such destruction. This vagueness has contributed to its politicization, and Peter Novick notes how in the 1950s its users "focused almost exclusively on the crimes-sometimes real, sometimes imagined-of the Soviet bloc" (The Holocaust in American Life).

It is a notorious fact that the Clinton administration carefully refrained from using the word genocide to apply to the huge 1994 Rwanda massacres of Tutsis by the Hutus. To have allowed the word to be used there would have suggested a need to act, and having decided not to act, the decision to avoid using an emotive word that might have mobilized public opinion on the need to act followed accordingly. By contrast, in the case of Kosovo, the decision to act demanded the mobilization of opinion to support violent intervention, so the aggressive use of the word genocide followed.

In the context of the wars over the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and in its opportunistic use elsewhere, the word genocide has been applied loosely wherever people are killed who are deemed "worthy" victims. In our view this is not only opportunism but also a corruption of meaning of a word whose unique sense implies not just killing or massacre but an attempted extermination of a people, in whole or substantial part.

Genocide Pinned on Serbia

The word genocide was applied to the Serbs in the early l990s by some Western analysts and journalists who had aligned themselves with other Yugoslav factions (notably the Bosnian Muslims), but it came into intense use during the NATO 78-day bombing campaign and briefly thereafter. In good part this escalated usage was a result of the virtual hysteria of NATO leaders at the Serb reaction to their bombing, which had been put forward as necessary to stop Serb brutalities against the Kosovo Albanians but which caused their exponential increase. With the help of the media, and cries of genocide, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Gerhard Schroeder, and other NATO spokespersons were able to transform the consequences of their bombing strategy-the refugee crisis-into its retrospective justification.

To make their case the NATO leaders needed generous numbers of victims, stories of Serb terror, and images of women and children in flight or being put on expulsion trains, allowing recollections of trains to Auschwitz. The number allegedly "missing" and suggested to represent massacre victims by William Cohen on May 16 was 100,000, a figure which peaked at 500,000 in a State Department estimate. Both during and after the bombing campaign the main interest of the cooperative NATO media was in finding victims; a scramble to unearth and report on "mass graves" was launched. There were many victims, but the media's appetite for them was insatiable and their gullibility led them to make numerous errors, exaggerations, and misrepresentations (see Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman, eds., Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis, forthcoming from Pluto press, for many illustrations). Numerous published images of departing Albanian woman and children were linked to the "Holocaust," although as one British commentator noted "the Nazis did not put Jews on the train to Israel, as the Serbs are now putting ethnic Albanian Kosovars on the train to Albania" (Julie Burchill, Guardian, April 10, 1999).

The word genocide was applied to Serb operations in Kosovo even before the NATO bombing, although the number killed in the prior 15 months was perhaps 2,000 on all sides and despite the fact that there was no evidence of an intent to exterminate or expel all Albanians. The Kosovo conflict was a civil war with defining ethnic overtones and brutal but not unfamiliar repression (less ferocious than that carried out by the Croatian army against the Krajina Serbs in August 1995, in which some 2,500 civilians were slaughtered in the course of a few days). Even for the period of the bombing the term genocide is ludicrously inapplicable. The Serb reaction to bombing, while frequently savage, was based on their correct understanding that the KLA was linked to NATO and that NATO was giving it air support (Tom Walker and Aidan Laverty, "CIA Aided Kosovo Guerrilla Army," Sunday Times [London], March 13, 2000). Their brutalities and expulsions were concentrated in KLA stronghold areas, and those expelled were sent not to death camps but to safe havens outside Kosovo. The intensive postwar search for killings and mass graves has produced under 3,000 dead bodies from all causes-killings of the same order of magnitude as the 1995 Krajina massacres of Serbs, carried out with U.S. support.

In short, the use of the word genocide for Serb actions in Kosovo was gross propaganda rhetoric designed to mislead as to the facts and to provide the moral basis for aggressive intervention. It paralleled the use of the War Crimes Tribunal to indict Milosevic in the midst of the NATO bombing campaign-an indictment that was also designed to justify NATO's increasingly civilian-oriented (and illegal) bombing of Serbia by demonizing the head of the state under NATO attack.

Media & Left NATO Propaganda

Having encouraged the disintegration of Yugoslavia from 1991, and actually obstructed peaceful solutions to the problem of protecting minorities in breakaway states, the policies of Germany and the United States in particular assured ethnic violence. Their chosen villain was Serbia, and an intense official and media focus on Serb crimes followed. This involved not only selectivity of outrage and a misreading of causes and locus of responsibility, but also a demonization process helped along by the one-sided, ahistorical portrayal of events frequently infused with disinformation (as in the British news station ITN's fabrication of a "death" or "concentration" camp at the Trnopolje refugee center in 1992; see Thomas Deichmann, "The Picture That Fooled the World," Living Marxism, Feb. 1997).

Demonization and the continuous purveying of atrocity news created a moral environment receptive to charges of genocide. This reached deeply into the liberal and left communities and media, with many liberals or leftists passionate supporters of "doing something," including the NATO bombing war. This was to be expected of the New Republic, where the notion of collective Serb guilt a la Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, conveniently justifying attacking Serbian civil society and committing war crimes, found a happy home. (Stacy Sullivan, "Milosevic's Willing Executioners," New Republic, May 10, 1999). But it also affected the Nation, whose UN Correspondent Ian Williams was pleased to see the UN bypassed in the interest of humanitarian bombing (April 2, 1999), and where Kai Bird (June 14, 1999) and Christopher Hitchens (November 29, 1999, among others) both found Serb behavior "genocidal" in the course of their quasi-defenses of NATO policy. Only Hitchens seemed to suggest that the Serbs were trying to exterminate a people.

In the mainstream media, genocide was used even more lavishly and uncritically. Often it was presented in the form of assertions by officials, with numbers like Cohen's 100,000, but reporters or commentators rarely if ever challenged the figures or questioned whether the actions designated as genocidal were intended to exterminate a people. It was rare indeed to mention the difference between trains to Auschwitz and to the Albanian border, as the Guardian.

Genocide was used as a symbol of aversion and disapproval, justifying extreme measures against the "dictator" and his people-the media felt impelled to call Milosevic a "dictator" even though this put a crimp in condemning "ordinary Serbs" as responsible for his actions, but they managed to do both at the same time (Anthony Lewis, "The Question of Evil," NYT, June 22, 1999). Some commentators were carried away by their own passion, David Rieff, a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Chistopher Hitchens favorite, asserting that "the Milosevic regime was trying to eradicate an entire people" ("Wars Without End?," NYT, September 23, 1999). But most commentators were satisfied with using the word without getting specific as to meaning or providing facts. They never acknowledged any military rationale to the post-bombing expulsions and killings: it was evil people doing evil things for evil reasons.

In a masterpiece of the NATO anti-genocide apologetics genre, the New York Times provided Sebastian Junger's "A Different Kind of Killing" (NYT Magazine, February 27, 2000), where it is explained that even if the number of bodies found in Kosovo were not of genocidal scope and some stories turned out to be untrue, nevertheless "A single murder can be considered an act of genocide if it can be shown that there was an intent to kill everyone else in that person's group." Junger then recounts his visit to the site of an unclaimed body of a teenage woman, allegedly kidnapped, raped, and killed by Serbian "irregular forces." Junger then says that, "it was not until this century that a mechanized army carried out such crimes in the service of its government. That is genocide; the rest is just violence." Junger makes not the slightest effort to show that the "irregular forces" had done this as part of a government plan and "in the service of its government" rather than on their own, or that the KLA or U.S. army didn't carry out similar acts. In short, this is completely worthless nonsense-but it pins the word genocide on the official enemy, and therefore the New York Times allows this travesty to appear in its Sunday magazine.

Some Comparative Data

We can also measure the spectacular politicization of the word genocide by comparing its lavish use in describing Serb conduct in Kosovo with its minimal use for Turkey's treatment of its Kurds in the l990s (indeed, for decades) and Indonesia's treatment of East Timorese in 1999 as well as in earlier years. The force of this comparison is strengthened by the facts that Turkey killed far more Kurds in the l990s than the Serbs killed Albanians in Kosovo, not only before the bombing (whose number presumably elicited the "humanitarian" intervention) but even including those killed during the 78-day bombing and war (see Chomsky's New Military Humanism). Indonesia's invasion-occupation led to the death of almost a third of the East Timor population (1975-1980), and Indonesia was subsequently responsible for the 1998-1999 slaughter and expulsion of a still untold number of East Timorese associated with a UN-sponsored election. The number of East Timorese killed in this latest round of Indonesian terror far exceeded the pre-bombing total of Kosovo Albanian victims-estimates run from 3,000-6,000 killed even before the August 30, 1999 referendum unleashed unrestrained Indonesian destruction and murder-and the grand total for 1999 is surely far larger than the overall total of Kosovo Albanians killed by the Serbs in 1998 and 1999.

But as Turkey and Indonesia are clients of the United States and the recipients of aid, military supplies, and diplomatic support from the United States, Britain, and the Western powers generally, their human rights crimes are never referred to by Western officials as genocide. In fact, in a droll feature of the NATO campaign against Serb genocide in Kosovo, Turkey, a member of NATO, took part in the war against Yugoslavia with direct bombing missions and the provision of bases for flights of other NATO powers, perhaps generously reallocating its own forces from the ethnic cleansing of Kurds to "humanitarian" NATO service.

Given this warm relationship between the NATO powers and Turkey and Indonesia, we would expect the NATO media to follow in the footsteps of their leaders and treat Turkey and Indonesia kindly, refraining from serious investigative effort and the enthusiastic searches for "mass graves" they pursued in Kosovo, and avoiding the use of an invidious word like genocide in reference to these client states, no matter how applicable and inconsistent with their usage of the word as regards Serbia. This expectation is fully realized.

We will limit ourselves here to usage in the New York Times, although we believe the findings applicable to the general run of mainstream media. In the Times the bias is startling, and has some unexpected sidelights. The accompanying table shows that in the year 1999, the word genocide was ascribed to the Serbs in Kosovo in 85 different articles, including 15 that began on the front page, and in 16 editorials and op-ed columns. In some of these articles the word was used repeatedly. (In one remarkable example, during the current year and outside our sample proper, Michael Ignatieff repeated the word genocide 11 times in a single op-ed [February 13, 2000]).

By contrast, the word showed up in the Times in only 9 items referring to East Timor in 1999, only once in an editorial or opinion piece, and only 15 times for East Timor in the entire decade of the l990s. The word was never used in a front-page article during the l990s. Furthermore, no Times reporter or editorial writer ever used the word genocide in application to East Timor over the entire period, 1975-1999. (That is to say, in all instances where the word did appear, it did not express the opinion of the Times writer, but was attributed to another source.) Anthony Lewis, who repeatedly referred to Serb action as genocidal and called for Western intervention there, spoke of "human rights abuses in East Timor" (July 12, 1993), but he never called it genocide or urged intervention. Barbara Crossette repeatedly complimented Suharto for bringing "stability" to the region. In a notable mention of the word genocide, veteran Times reporter Henry Kamm explicitly denied its application to East Timor, calling such usage "hyperbole," and allocating the mass deaths to "cruel warfare and the starvation that accompanied it on this historically food-short island" (February 15, 1981).

Equally remarkable, the table also shows that the word genocide was never once used in application to Turkey and its treatment of its Kurds in 1999, and was used only five times for such a relationship in the decade of the l990s, never in a front-page article. However, in a wonderful illustration of how the Times follows the line of U.S. foreign policy, the table shows that Iraq's mistreatment of its Kurds in the years 1990-1999 was described as genocidal 22 times, in five cases in front-page articles.

In short, only "worthy victims"-that is, the victims of officially designated enemies like Yugoslavia and Iraq-suffer from genocide; those that are unworthy, like East Timorese and the Turkish Kurds, are merely subject to "cruel warfare" and adverse natural forces, as Henry Kamm explained in regard to East Timor. So the Western media and "international community" will be mobilized on behalf of the former, and the latter will be compelled to suffer in silence. But as we have stressed, there never was genocide in Kosovo, so that the NATO war there was based on a lie. And that lie, like the May 27 indictment of Milosevic by the War Crimes Tribunal, served mainly to provide a moral cover that allowed NATO to bomb the hostage population of Serbia into submission. That population now joins Iraq's in being subject to further "sanctions of mass destruction" whose effects offer a much closer fit to "genocide" than the Serb actions which, allegedly, precipitated NATO's war.

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