Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman, editors, Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis, London: Pluto, 2000.
Contents: 'The West's destruction of Yugoslavia'/ The origins of denial /Denying Serbian slaughter in Kosovo /Denying genocide /Denigrating the Tribunal /Indicting the media
In twenty-first century war, media are battlefields. Truth is ever more the first casualty, as the editors of this book affirm. And yet their collection bears witness to this in a sense they do not intend. For those who would expose a simple 'truth' in complex situations often perpetrate a distortion quite as fundamental as the media they criticize. So it is with this volume, with contributors extravagantly lauded by Robert McChesney as 'the world's leading authorities' on the subject of media in Nato's Kosovo war, and who turn out to be far from disinterested participants in the world struggles they analyse.
'To a remarkable degree', conclude the editors, 'the media of the leading Nato countries helped build the agenda for war by oversimplifying and distorting history.' (201) To a degree that this reviewer finds disturbing, the history and media studies of this book oversimplify and distort in their turns. The intellectual capabilities of 'critical' academic social science can be degraded, as much as military and media capabilities, when they are turned to the service of a narrow political doctrine. Just as media studies guard the truth neglected in media, so we - the readers of media studies - must make our own critique and guard the more complex truths neglected in their criticisms.
Degraded Capability presents accounts of the war over Kosovo, and critiques of its mediation by press and television, the latter subdivided between thematic and country chapters. Let us examine its main arguments (it will be necessary to ignore the detail of the comparative media coverage). Of course, we must we aware that we are dealing here with a collective work. Just as there were great differences among the range of international mass media over Kosovo - differences barely acknowledged in this book, where that hoary composite 'the media' is too often conjured up - so there are differences among the authors who contribute to this volume. Since, however, unlike 'the media', this book has a single editorial centre, and since it evinces a conscious unity of political purpose, we may be justified in seeking first what typifies the book as a whole, and only secondly what differentiates its contributors. The question is, which agenda are they trying to build?
'The West's destruction of Yugoslavia'
This heading to Part I might be presumed ironic. By 1999 when Nato bombed Serbia, Yugoslavia as it was known historically had ceased to exist. Only one small republic, Montenegro, remained in a rump federation with Serbia. Four wars - in Slovenia (1991), Croatia (1991-92), Bosnia-Herzeogvina (1991-95) and now Kosovo (1998-99) - had torn Yugoslavia apart. Nato planes could not destroy Yugoslavia because that had already been done; and with it, hundreds of thousands were already dead, millions uprooted, and large areas devastated. However Nato planes and missiles did destroy large numbers of urban sites in Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo, as well as military sites. They did kill at least several hundred innocent civilians (I have not seen claims even from Yugoslav authorities for the much larger figures implied here) and caused suffering to many more.
Let us first be clear, then, about the rational moral core of the argument, expressed more clearly in Harold Pinter's polemical forward than in the analytical chapters that follow. Pinter is right that the killing of innocent civilians was not purely accidental. Certainly, unlike Serbian forces in Kosovo, Nato did not aim to kill civilians as such and did try to minimise civilian casualties. But we cannot avoid the fact that it adopted a strategy of aerial bombardment that it knew would kill some civilians: 'accidents' were known to be unavoidable. Thus while Nato leaders might sincerely regret particular deaths, they embarked on a strategy that knowingly entailed killing innocents, and indeed was more likely to kill them than other possible strategies, apparently so as to save American and other Western soldiers' lives. It may also be partly true, as Pinter claims, that there was 'a deliberate attempt to terrorise the population' into submission.
The justification for this course of action, especially in a 'humanitarian' cause, is as doubtful as Pinter suggests. However this is hardly the end of the matter, since this book goes far beyond these moral claims, to attempt a comprehensive political and ideological demolition of Western involvement in the Balkans in general and in Kosovo in particular. Indeed the book unintentionally undermines this moral argument, because it (1) links it to a denial of the atrocious suffering of the Kosovo Albanians, which Nato claimed to be addressing; and (2) denigrates all the alternative means of Western intervention, from legal and political action to ground forces, through which Nato might addressed the Albanians' plight without aerial bombardment.
The origins of denial
The argument begins fairly unexceptionally in some respects. Diana Johnstone contends: 'The Yugoslav crisis was in reality dauntingly complex, morally ambiguous, factually hard to follow, ridden with historical complexities, genuine fears and deception on all sides.' Clearly this is largely true, and equally it is true that media, especially television, often grossly simplified these realities in presenting them to their audiences. This part of Johnstone's text might have been read as a caution, however, by some of her fellow-contributors, starting with Pinter, who finds it quite absurd that Milosevic should be blamed for what has happened in Yugoslavia when, of course, it is the United States that is to blame, and 'US foreign policy has always been remarkably consistent and entirely logical. It's also extremely simple."The free market must prevail, big business must be free to do business and nobody, but nobody can get in the way of that."' (ix) With simple 'truths' like this the historian - and for that matter the media analyst - are redundant.
Precisely because of the complexity, we do need to analyse the patterns at work. Indeed most of the contributors go beyond the knockabout into which Pinter's moral case degenerates. Do they, however, get the main story more or less right? Or do they elaborate, in more sophisticated and pernicious ways, Pinter's distortions? The problem with this volume is that it takes the valid insight that the West has always been part of the Yugoslav problem, and must therefore take part of the responsibility for what has happened, to the illegitimate conclusion that what David Chandler calls 'the search for domestic or internal explanations' should be largely bypassed in the examination of Western policy.In the end this turns reality on its head. Local power dynamics remain unexplored; local actions are presented only in the context of Western interventions. Above all, and most shockingly in a volume that claims to present a progressive critique:
This denial is then compounded because
Let us examine how this is done. The authors of this critique seem to have faced a dilemma. They wished to attack Western policy towards Serbia, but they knew that Serbian policies and leaders, especially Milosevic, had few redeeming features and their defence would hardly be plausible. They have therefore adopted an approach that has systematically minimised both the extent of the slaughter and the responsibility of local, especially Serbian leaders, rather than justified the latter.
Thus David Chandler provides us with an account of the break-up of Yugoslavia that utterly neglects the key local power dynamics. He fails to mention such central facts as that
It is absolutely true, of course, that other nationalist elites throughout former Yugoslavia were were hardly innocent. In particular, Croatian president Franjo Tudjman conspired with Milosevic to carve up Bosnia; Croatian discrimination against Serbs helped provoke the 1991 war; Croatian forces also carried out murderous 'cleansing' in Bosnia, especially against Muslims in 1993; the 1995 Croatian reconquest of the so-called 'Krajina' region (after three years of Serbian expulsions and killings of Croats in that region) involved large-scale expulsions and considerable killings of Serb civilians. Similarly, Bosnian forces and the KLA both carried out 'cleansing' and atrocities against Serbs and others.
However no serious observer doubts that
In this context, it is not surprising that, contrary to Chandler's complaint, Serbians and Milosevic were 'deemed to be the aggressors' . This assumption cannot be equated with 'demonisation' (21). An elementary proceeding for serious political or media analysis would be to distinguish the facts of Serbian aggression from the tendency of some politicians and media to present the responsibility of Milosevic, Serbian forces and - particularly seriously - Serbs as an ethnic group in an over-simplified way. No such distinction is made here. Therefore the criticism of 'demonisation' actually serves to hide the real responsibilities of Serbian power in general and Milosevic in particular.
This concealment of responsibility is continued in the treatment of postwar Bosnia. Thus the editors indict 'the elitist and anti-democratic character of Western policy, whereby the people of the region are assumed to be incapable of self-government.' (2) Chandler complains that the UN High Representative dismissed the president of Republika Srpska. No reflection is made that this Serbian entity was created through the cleansing, spurred by terror, murder and rape, of three-quarters of a million non-Serbs who lived there in 1992. No examination is made of the circumstances in which the UN representative eventually took his action.
Given that virtually the entire Serbian (and Croatian) state apparatus in Bosnia - police, local government, etc. - and a large part of Serb (and Croat) society - had been involved in the cleansing, it is indeed difficult to argue that local Serbian (or Croatian) elites should have been allowed free rein to control the territories they grabbed through violence. It is disturbingly ironic to find their murderous elitism equated with 'democracy' - just because they could intimidate their ethnically homogenised electorates - and interference with this accused in its place. The real indictment of Nato is that it allowed a Serbian entity to be created through 'cleansing', and then ratified it at Dayton, not that it subsequently interfered in its affairs.
Denying Serbian slaughter in Kosovo
The denial of slaughter and terror, and the suffering they caused, in Bosnia and Croatia is thus the shaky basis from which the authors of this book turn to Kosovo. Their general problem in explaining away Serbian misdeeds is particularly acute here, since we have very recent memories of the exodus and suffering of the Albanian population. Nuances in the contributors' approaches expose the central flaws of the project in this area.
Johnstone begins with a statement of such euphemism that it deserves to be set as an exam question: 'The Kosovo problem was essentially merely one of many disputes over the status of a territory inhabited and claimed by different peoples. It was far from being the most violent or intractible conflict of that type. Fair, impartial and patient outside mediation would have been appropriate. Instead, military intervention on behalf of an armed rebel group turned a problem into a catastrophe.' (8) Let us examine this statement in parts:
Peter Gowan presents the most serious political analysis in the book, and admits first that after Nato's bombing 'Serbian security forces launched a full-scale offensive against the KLA and forcibly expelled hundreds of thousands of Albanians from Kosovo' (40), later expanding the latter to 'the expulsion of some 850,000 Albanians from Kosovo as well as some killings and atrocities against sections of the Albanian population and some destruction of Albanian property by Yugoslav forces and paramilitaries.' (42) One would have thought that the expulsion of such a huge number of people was an event of such enormity as to have prompted a stronger qualification than 'some' in respect of the extensive killings and destruction that accompanied it. However, it is to the KLA, not Serbian power, that Gowan attributes 'a murderous agenda of ethnic cleansing' (52).
Gowan compounds this all too neutral description with two astounding excuses for Serbian terror. First: 'Like the Nato authorities, the Yugoslav authorities could also claim that the killing of civilians in many cases could have the status of "collateral damage"...' (43) It is certainly likely that in some cases (to give that adjective back its meaning) Serbian troops killed civilians during their attacks on the KLA. But this is not, as Gowan is clever enough to know, what is at stake here. There is extensive evidence that after Nato began bombing, Serbian troops, police and paramilitaries (in various combinations) began killing sprees against civilians across large areas of Kosovo. In no way can what occurred be represented under the rubric of 'collateral damage', even in the dubious sense in which this is claimed by Nato.
Second: 'Nato attempts to present the Milosevic leadership as having "genocidal" goals in Kosovo ... had no basis in the record of the Serbian Socialist Party on the issue (although it did have some basis in the record of some other actors in Serbian politics ...)' (48) This enigmatic statement seems to imply that 'the record of the Serbian Socialist Party' can be examined in the formal statements of its leaders, and because they, unlike its fascist coalition partners and some oppositionists, may have abjured openly genocidal statements, we cannot ascribe such goals to them. The naivety of this is apparent to anyone who has studied genocides, which are shot through with euphemism, bureaucratic concealment and the like. Usually we can conclusively identify genocidal goals only through correlating a range of ideas with patterns of terror and killing. So the absence of an overt 'record' is hardly conclusive.
Gowan's is actually the most explicit acknowledgement of the scale of Serbian terror and Kosovar suffering in this book, and he is the only one to admit that 'security forces' were involved. Philip Hammond startlingly claims that 'there was no humanitarian disaster until the bombing started' (128): an estimated two thousand killed and one quarter of a million homeless, with villages burnt across the province, apparently constituted no problem. The Racak killings, it is strongly suggested, were of KLA fighters, presented to a gullible Western media as civilian dead. The pattern of massacres over the previous twelve months is ignored. Hammond says only that 'it seems reasonable to conclude that ... people died in clashes between the KLA and Yugoslav forces, and paramilitaries committed crimes and atrocities' (129). Note the careful restriction of 'crimes and atrocities' to the 'paramilitaries'.
John Pilger goes further in exonerating Milosevic and Serbian state forces. In his much-challenged 'revisionist' analysis of the body counts produced by war crimes investigators after their first months' work, he uses the fact that 'only' just over 2,000 bodies had been found to challenge Nato claims of a probable 10,000 Kosovar deaths. 'The number of confirmed dead', he argues, 'suggests that the Nato bombing provoked a wave of random brutality, murders and expulsions'. (140) Although I challenged his phrase 'random brutality' when he first used it in the New Statesman, Pilger is still happy to ignore the evidence of a coordinated campaign by Serbian army, policy and paramilitary forces, and the extent to which Serbian policy in Kosovo was centrally controlled. He is also happy to assume that those whose bodies have not been found were not killed: a deeply compromised stance for an investigative reporter of his pedigree.
The denial of the extent and seriousness of, and Milosevic's culpability for, Serbian terror against Kosovo Albanians culminates in the denial of genocide. It is important to underline the connections here. Since the meaning of the term 'genocide' is problematic it would be possible for someone to agree that there were extensive, deeply troublesome mass expulsions and slaughter in Kosovo, but to argue that it did not reach the stage of full 'genocide'. This is not, however, the stance of the contributors to this book. Without exception, those who deal at all with the substance of the Serbian terror (and some do not) seek, as we have shown, to minimise its extent and seriousness. In this sense, their denial of the term 'genocide' is part of a denial of the awfulness of Serbian actions, a denial that they can be laid at Milosevic's door, and a denial that they constituted an acute human problem which cried out for remedy.
Thus Pilger concludes that limited numbers of bodies show that Serbian actions were 'a far cry from Robertson's claim that Nato's aim was to "prevent a humanitarian catastrophe" and from the echoing media's charge of systematic extermination: genocide.' (140) Hammond argues, 'the picture painted by Nato - of a systematic campaign of Nazi-style "genocide" carried out by Serbs - was pure invention.' (129) Perhaps appropriately, the key attack on the charge of 'genocide' is led by Mick Hume, former editor of LM (Living Marxism) magazine, which lost a court action over its claims that images in ITN's 1992 reports of Serbian 'concentration camps' were fabricated. Clearly the editors of this book are not put off by this judgement, euphemistically describing the German reporter Thomas Deichmann (another contributor) as having 'provoked an international discussion about war reporting with his article "The picture that fooled the world"' (209) (With friends like these, do the editors need enemies?)
So Hume returns to the fray. The Serbs have been 'demonised' by being linked to Nazis 'through accusations that they have committed genocide, first in Bosnia and then in Kosovo.' (71) Genocide, he claims, 'is not just another word for brutality, making people homeless, putting people on trains, or even murder. It means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary and in popular parlance, "annihilation of a race". The word was first used in the 1940s, specifically to describe the Nazi campaign to wipe out European Jewry ... . Similarly, for half a century, "concentration camp" has not meant a place where large numbers of people are concentrated, even if it is against their will. Everybody who uses such language should know that it will be taken to mean a death camp, on the Nazi model, designed for the industrial implementation of a policy of genocide.' (72-73)
This is quite clever but highly misleading, as well as deeply insensitive in its references to homelessness and deportation by rail (common experiences of victims from Armenia to the Holocaust). Genocide has been defined, not by the OED but by the 1948 international convention, used by international tribunals in careful judgements against Serbian, Croatian and Rwandan practitioners. In this sense, it does not mean simply annihilation and it applies to groups defined by religion and nationality as well as race. It includes the deliberate destruction of a group 'in whole or in part', clearly implying that actions short of total 'extermination' can be genocidal. Some scholars have seen it as a process, so that smaller-scale killings of the same kind can be seen as 'genocidal massacres'. Others argue that it should include the destruction of other kinds of social group, an extension legitimated by 'popular parlance' in cases like Cambodia, where social classes as well as ethnic minorities were targeted.
In any case, it is quite clear that genocide is not to be equated with the maximum case of the industrial extermination of the Jews, and also that there is still a difference between 'concentration camp' and 'extermination camp'. 'Those who have tried to compare Hitler's Germany with Milosevic's Serbia in this way risk losing all sense of perspective and proportion', Hume claims: 'there can be no serious comparison between the crimes of the Nazis and what the Serbs have done.' (73) 'In terms of sheer casualty numbers alone, it is akin to equating a motorway accident with a major earthquake.' (74) The gross insensitivity of this last remark betrays Hume's intentions, as does his minimal acknowledgement that 'Serbs did commit atrocities in both Bosnia and Kosovo (as did others), and there were many tragic deaths.' (74) The use of 'tragedy' in this kind of context is usually a signal that no one was really to blame.
No one has claimed that either the numbers of the Serbians' victims, or their methods, or the totality of their destructive aims were comparable to the Nazis'. What has been claimed is that there is a similarity in kind: Serbian (and also Croatian) nationalists aimed to destroy their 'enemy' social groups' existence within the territories that they claimed and conquered, and to destroy multi-ethnic communities like Sarajevo, and they were prepared to kill as many of the target groups as was necessary to achieve these ends. In this sense, what altered in Kosovo in March 1999 is that Serbian power changed gear from progressively destroying a section of Albanian society, to the wholesale expulsion of the majority of the community. Milosevic (it seems certain that this momentous development was a strategic response to the Nato bombing) moved from sporadic 'genocidal massacres' to a direct attack on the Albanian population as a whole. In the sense of general expulsion reinforced by widespread terror and mass killings, not of total extermination, Serbian policy became genocidal.
It is symptomatic of this book's lack of serious attention to the disaster of Kosovan society that Hume can claim that the 'diminishing of the Final Solution is what ultimately concerns me most about the Nazification of the Serbs.' (74) How touching the historical concern - how striking the contemporary indifference.
Denigrating the Tribunal
The denial of victimization and genocide is completed by the systematic denigration of the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). Although Nato's bypassing of the UN in launching its bombing campaign is a major charge levelled by several contributors, where UN institutions have been involved in former Yugoslavia (in the administrations in Bosnia and Kosovo as well as the Tribunal) they are generally dismissed. However, the editors' repeated claim that 'the Hague tribunal ... has consistently served as a political tool of the dominant Nato powers' (2) is perhaps the most ill-informed in this book, since the Tribunal has operated far more independently from the West than other UN bodies.
The distortion of the Tribunal's record is reinforced by a chapter by Mirjana Skoco and William Woodger, a lightly referenced piece that attempts no serious analysis of the range of cases heard by the court. They dispute the ICTY's claim to jurisdiction over Kosovo as based on the 'accident' that the tribunal was established during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia for the 'territory of the former Yugoslavia', 'and five years later amother conflict flared up there.' (34) This comment reveals a level of stupidity that it would be difficult to beat. The potential for war in Kosovo was present from the beginning of the Yugoslav break-up, and the war when it came was perpetrated by the same leaders and with similar aims and methods as Serbian campaigns in the other wars. It is hardly surprising then that the Tribunal's remit should have been applied to the events of 1998-99.
Skoco and Woodger also claim that 'equality of treatment is an element of fairness that the ICTY does not meet' (32) Anyone who has read detailed reports of the range of cases heard, and judgements made, by the Tribunal, will realise that it has scrupulously upheld judicial impartiality in pursuing Serbians, Croatians and Bosnian-Muslims suspected of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Its officers pressed their case for a role in Kosovo before it was inconvenient to the Western powers. The growing coincidence of interests between the Tribunal and Nato since 1999 does little to warrant its general dismissal as a tool of Nato. In building international legal institutions with minimal international support - Russia has recently entertained an indicted Serbian war criminal at the highest level - the Tribunal's officials naturally have to take whatever support is consistent with their mission.
Indicting the media
The indictment of the media in the second half of this book rests on minimal research. Few chapters offer more than selective quotes: none of them are based on extensive analysis of particular media. They rest, however, on the deeply erroneous foundations established in assessing 'the destruction of Yugoslavia'. Thus the editors complain that 'the occupation of part of a sovereign state by NATO troops and United Nations administrators is referred to as "liberation".' (2) That media should use such terms becomes a little more understandable when we remember that, for the majority of Kosovo's people, the 'sovereign' power of Serbia-Yugoslavia was an occupation force, which during 1998-99 degenerated into an instrument of terror, mass murder and the destruction of society. Nato's arrival was indeed greeted as liberating.
Likewise the complaint is made that journalists have been enthusiastic supporters of the International Tribunal. When we consider that, far more consistently than Western governments themselves, the Tribunal has pursued justice for the victims of the Yugoslav wars, it is hardly surprising that many journalists who have reported them closely, and observed at first hand the appalling suffering inflicted, should become partisans for impartial international justice.
In the light of the flawed perspective of this volume, even legitimate criticisms of media appear as distortions.Thus the editors complain that 'the selective reporting of Western journalists ensured that the phrase "ethnic cleansing" became overwhelmingly associated with actions by Serbs.' (202) This is true, but too simple. The idea of 'cleansing' was developed by Serbian thinkers, and as we have seen Serbians have been its most extensive and virulent practitioners. Nevertheless it is troubling that, in search of simplicities, journalists have often failed to report the more complex patterns of ethnic expulsion, practised by Croatians, Bosnians and Albanians as well as Serbians.
This sort of critique should not lead us, however, to a dogmatic idea of the subordination of journalists to power. The underestimation of independent journalism is one of the most insidious aspects of this book. Thus Hammond claims that 'most of the killings, kidnappings, beatings and torture of Kosovo Serbs after the war were not deemed newsworthy' (127) He has not been reading the same papers as me: Western journalists have repeatedly and increasingly exposed Albanian atrocities against and 'cleansing' of Serbs, and this has probably been the main Kosovo story in 2000.
This example shows dynamics in the relations of international media and power in Kosovo which, like the local power dynamics, are hardly touched by the crude formulaic contributions here. It could well be argued that in 1998, journalistic coverage of the Kosovo Albanians' plight created much of the pressure on Nato countries to intervene. Once the US did so, with its agreement with Serbia in October 1998, it was media pressure, aided by the presence of international monitors, that exposed Milosevic's growing terror campaign, in direct violation of what he had agreed, and helped force the new intervention leading to Rambouillet and beyond. Once Nato began to bomb, provoking Milosevic to drive the Albanians from Kosovo, it was saturation media coverage of the refugees' plight that locked Nato into securing the conditions for their return. Likewise, now it is media coverage that helps maintain pressure on Nato and the UN administration to protect the Serb and Roma minorities and curb both Albanian and Serbian violence.
Degraded Capability fails, therefore, in its aim of critiquing the media and the Kosovo crisis. Instead it provides an account of the crisis itself, and of media's roles within it, which are quite as distorted as anything it criticises. It loses its moral edge in a welter of political misrepresentation. It gives us little with which to grasp the dynamic relationships between local and international state organizations, states and society, media and power. It is difficult to understand why someone with the reputation of Peter Golding should endorse this tendentious collection as a 'critical and illuminating volume', although we can see why he says it offers 'provocative insights'. It offers a parody of critical political and media analysis. The real provocation of this book, however, is the insult that it offers to the victims of the Yugoslav wars and those in the media as well as in the International Tribunal who have tried to address their claims for justice.