Crimes against truth
The Independent, 4-4-99

The relentless propaganda war is
trivialising epic suffering, says
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

In war, the victims die and the victors
die to decency. The campaigns in Kosovo
and Serbia wreck lives. The propaganda
war, meanwhile, rots brains and
engorges hatreds. As always, when
"British boys" go into battle, the
sight and sound of the popular media in
this country become sickening. "Bomb!
Bomb! Bomb!" screams the Sun. The
Mirror fuses holocaust with Hollywood
in a tacky front-page flashback to
Schindler's List. Sanity and humanity
are flattened by lies. A war proclaimed
to spare suffering gets hijacked by
bloodlust. Critical intelligence is
sacrificed to the government line. The
lies are airborne and are pounding the
truth into silence.

Some of the lies are Serb: Nato motives
misrepresented, Western leaders
demonised, massacres in Kosovo covered
up, incredible figures claimed for
casualties and victories. The Serb lies
are mirrored and matched by Nato lies.
The British government - always more
interested in spin than substance - is
one of the big twisters of the truth.

The media war is being fought with
blunt instruments: language battered
into meaninglessness by abuse. Bill
Clinton is truly a repellent man -
selfish, mendacious, meretricious and
immoral - but he cannot fairly be
called by the tag he now bears in
Serbia: "Adolf Clinton, the biggest
criminal in the history of the world".
Milosevic makes Clinton look saintly by
comparison but he is not the Hitler or
Stalin that Western propaganda claims:
he has neither their limitless
Weltpolitik nor their ideological
consistency. In Yugoslavia, the Nato
aggressors are called "fascists", which
by over-exploitation has become a
dustbowl of a word, empty of meaning
except as a vague insult. This is mild
by the standards of some of the
counter-catcalls howled by the Western
press, where Serbs are "Nazi
aggressors" - even though their forces
have not attacked anyone outside the
sovereign territory of Yugoslavia.
Their behaviour in Kosovo is jacked to
the level of Stalin's Great Terror, Pol
Pot's killing fields and Hitler's
holocaust, whereas part of its horror
is that it belongs in a peculiarly
Balkan tradition of ruthless
inter-communal warfare. The iniquity of
repression and massacre in Kosovo is
best described by the truth: that is
horrible enough; Nato's lies only make
it ludicrous.

On the Nato side, the war of abuse is
designed to justify the war of bombs.
If you want to bomb, you first erect a
target, create a Hitler, invoke a
holocaust. In the present case, the
lies are counter-productive. They make
Serb motives unintelligible by fusing
them with other instances of
undifferentiated evil. This is
potentially disastrous since, in order
to end a conflict you must first
understand the belligerents and every
misrepresentation erodes understanding.
Second, the language-gerrymandering
subverts Nato by bringing the alliance
into disrepute. Thirdly, the lies draw
attention to the weakness of Nato's
position in international law. The
Serbs can put up an entirely factual
defence against Nato's disregard of
long-standing international agreements
and conventions. The alliance, on the
other hand, seems able to justify the
war only by demonising the enemy.

It is worth scrutinising Nato's
newspeak and the seven leading lies of
the Western propagandists:

1. "The Serbs are like the Nazis." The
notion that Nazism is the only
political evil was a lie started by
Stalinists to mask their own crimes.
The horror of Serb atrocities is
effectively camouflaged by comparisons
that no reasonable person credits.
Their reality is masked by

2. "There is no alternative to war."
Coming from Tony Blair - heir to
Margaret Thatcher in so many ways
surprising to those who voted for him -
this claim has a tragicomic timbre. It
is a particularly nasty lie, since it
shuts the door on peace. The war is the
result not of invincible wickedness but
of manipulable fear: the mutual
insecurity of neighbours who hate each
other. Throughout the present decade,
Western policy in the Balkans has
aggravated insecurity, especially among
the Serbs. The bombing, of course,
makes it even worse. The results of
insecurity are brutality in
self-defence and pre-emptive acts of
aggression. Under Tito, Yugoslavia's
peoples stayed at peace with each
other. They could enjoy the same
security in democracy, if they were
given genuine international guarantees
and support.

3. "This is a war waged for people's
right to their culture and sense of the
past and historic community" - a
propaganda line now heavily plugged in
Jamie Shea's output. The trouble with
it is that it exactly describes the
Serb position. If valid, it would
commit Nato to supporting Serb claims
as much as those of Albanians in

4. "This is a humanitarian war." It is
a funny sort of humanitarianism which
goes to war in Kosovo but leaves people
massacred and cultures exterminated in
East Timor, Burma, Rwanda, Kurdistan
and Tibet. Only a chillingly selective
humanitarianism rates white lives more
highly than those clad in skins of
other colours. Exposure of the
inconsistency invites a
counter-presumption fatal to Western
credibility: this war was inaugurated
not to save lives but to save face.
Milosevic called Nato's bluff and the
Nato leaders were left with no choice
but to enforce their threats or
withdraw them.

5. "This war was started to stop
'genocide' or 'holocaust'." The
wickedness of this language is that it
warps the facts about the real
holocaust; yet it is one of the
Government's most hackneyed phrases.
Last week, Robin Cook used the word
"genocide" six times in a five-minute
BBC interview, following the principle
from the Scam-man's Handbook: if you
repeat nonsense often enough, people
will believe it. Serb policy in Kosovo
is repulsively vicious and we should do
everything possible, short of war, to
stop it. But it is not genocide. The
sufferings of the Jews in the Second
World War were special: effectively
without precedent, almost without
parallel. Serb war objectives are
depressingly commonplace: at first
Yugoslav forces sought to crush the KLA
by a policy of terror so thorough that
the guerrillas' natural consituency
would be cowed into submission.
Gradually, and with increasing
intensity under the Nato bombardment,
the policy has hardened into an even
more lethal form of extremism, which is
unhappily traditional in south-east
Europe. Most Serbs probably now think -
even if they do not declare it
explicitly - that the only way to
ensure Yugoslavia's hold on Kosovo is
to drive out or kill as many Albanians
as necessary and replace them with Serb

6. "Nato did not foresee that the bombs
would encourage the death squads." No
one believes this. In reality, Nato
knew what would happen but was willing
to accelerate slaughter rather than
back down. Last week, the spin-doctors
realised their claims were preposterous
and hurriedly primed Jamie Shea and
Robin Cook to say instead that Nato was
"shocked" by the scale of the slaughter
that the bombing unleashed. It was now
clear that Nato sent in the bombers
without making preparations for the
refugee problem which was bound to

7. "The ranks of the Serbs are riddled
with war criminals." This is true, but
it masks a Nato deception. In a strict,
technical sense, all the Nato leaders
who authorised the bombing are liable
to arraignment as war criminals,
because they have no right to inflict
death and destruction in Yugoslavia,
either in international law or in
traditional just-war theory. The KLA
and the Serbs have some theoretical
justification for making war on each
other. The KLA fights in defence of
Kosovo's autonomy and in pursuit of
self-determination. The Serbs fight in
defence of Yugoslavia's sovereignty.
Bill Clinton's allies have no such
cause. Their plea is noble-sounding:
they acted in the interests of
humanity. There are three things wrong
with it. First, it may be untrue.
Secondly, it is contradicted by the
consequences. Thirdly, no war can be
just unless the belligerents have the
right to wage it. It is fine to fight
to save the weak from oppression or
extermination but, in the world we now
live in, only the United Nations has
that right. This is not just a pious
bleat: it is an essential condition of
world security.

The deep evil of the lies is that they
will prevent peace. It is hard to re-
perceive a demonised enemy as a
potential partner. Men transmuted into
monsters become unwanted at the
negotiating table. The magic of
comparisons with Hitler, Stalin and Pol
Pot resembles werewolf-magic: it
changes men into beasts who can only be
dealt with by a stake through the
heart. Serbs branded as "Nazis" become
fit only for unconditional surrender.
By steeping Serbs in imputed guilt, we
deny the reality of why they are at
war. Like all communities, they contain
individuals whose bloodlust is
breathtaking. In general, however, they
are driven, not by collective depravity
or congenital evil but by typical human
flaws. We should stop the demonisation,
re-humanise the "enemy" and start the
long, arduous, honest, bloodless job of
dealing with them in peace.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is the author
of 'Truth: A History', published by
Black Swan Paperback.

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