The Damage We Do

BELGRADE – Everyone here’s been very nice to me, but my first lecture happened to fall on the 11th anniversary of the onset of the NATO (mostly American) aerial bombardment of Belgrade, which a few people mentioned. 3.24 is their 9.11 – except that the bombardment lasted 78 days. The city runs sirens at noon every year to commemorate the day. Professional people – authors, musicians, scholars – have told me stories of huddling in their basements, their knees giving way from fear, making their way to the grocery store through the rubble of buildings, having to forego cancer treatments because the hospitals could only handle emergencies. I don’t know much about the politics behind the engagement, and almost don’t want to – though Noam Chomsky considered the NATO attack unconscionable, and I tend to trust him more than anyone. But there’s got to be some way to resolve international disagreements besides dropping bombs in crowded downtown areas, terrorizing civilian populations, and leaving wrecks like these behind, which I photographed down the street from the music school I’m lecturing at:

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(Can’t get the second image vertical, for some reason.) My theoretical complicity in this as a citizen (and Clinton-voter!) is painful to contemplate.


  1. kraig grady says

    One of the problems with nuclear power is in the end this is the way they get rid of the depleted uranium.
    A just cause is the WORST reason to kill anyone.

  2. MW says

    “Professional people – authors, musicians, scholars – have told me stories of huddling in their basements, their knees giving way from fear, making their way to the grocery store through the rubble of buildings, having to forego cancer treatments because the hospitals could only handle emergencies.”
    Kyle, I don’t know that, for instance, the professional (or other) people of Sarajevo would have a whole lot of sympathy for their Belgrade counterparts over those conditions.
    After all, Sarajevans had to cope with worse – making their way to the grocery store not only through the rubble of buildings, but having to dodge sniper fire the whole way, plus all the other horrors you describe. Only Sarajevans had to cope with it for four years (1992-96), during a siege by Bosnian Serbs who were armed and funded by the government in Belgrade.
    It was the longest siege in modern military history, and more than 10,000 Sarajevans were killed, with god-knows-how-many injured or maimed.
    It was to put a stop to such nastiness – including subsequent, similarly harsh aggression in Kosovo – that NATO bombed Belgrade. And it was only after the bombing and the resulting ouster of then-president Slobodan Milosevic that the nastiness stopped.
    One can certainly object to the particular actions NATO took, as Noam Chomsky does. I definitely see his point.
    Personally, I just can’t summon up the same outrage over the damage in Belgrade that I can over, for instance, Iraq.
    (PS: I’ve been a huge fan of your writing – including your occasional comments at – since your earliest days at the Village Voice.)
    KG replies: They admit all that, feel terrible about what happened, aren’t really sure what happened, didn’t get the truth at the time and think they’ll never really know the truth. I told them I followed the war in the papers and couldn’t figure out what it was about, and they said don’t try, they didn’t know either. I suppose if Iraqis bombed my neighborhood in retaliation against Dick Cheney’s torture regime some people would think there was some rough justice in that, that the tortured innocent Iraqis suffered more than I did, and would have trouble feeling sorry for me, but it’s a terrible thought. If I had to pay for the crimes of Dick Cheney, I might as well commit suicide now. I can feel outrage on behalf of people I meet who suffered in war even though other people suffered worse, and they’re aware that, for no reason they can understand, the Sarajevans suffered worse. One can’t have dinner with these nice musicians and connect them with the demonization of Serbians one sometimes sees in the American press.
    UPDATE: Also, I have to add after further conversation with them, that they believe themselves victims of a tremendous double standard in the Western press. The Bosnian victims, they feel, get far more and more sympathetic attention than the Serbs ever did for the Croatian genocide of Serbs (apparently in the hundreds of thousands) during World War II. As one said to me, “World War II never really ended here because the atrocities were never admitted to.” Some I talked to were descended from people who had been killed or their immediate family killed, their possessions seized, their houses destroyed. They can’t forget, and they can’t recognize the world they’ve experienced and inherited in the common Western account of Serbs as aggressive war-starters. As one thoroughly professional young arts administrator sighed to me in resignation, “We lost the media war.”
    And again, one of the most knowledgeable-seeming people I spoke to said that what happened in the 1990s was that opportunistic politicians whipped up the country’s more “primitive” elements (I’m thinking tea-party types here) to support a civil war whose true purpose was to enrich politicians and arms manufacturers, that it was a deliberate financial rape of the entire country – much as I think the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been for the US – disguised as an eruption of ethnic tensions. So I do feel sorry for my friends there: not only have they suffered greatly from the same political/military crap that happens many places all over the world, they’ve had to put up with widespread imputations that they somehow deserved it. They bear as much guilt for what happened as I do for the Bush administration, and no more. At least they finally ousted their bastard.