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Jewish World Review April 27, 1999 /11 Iyar 5759

Sam Schulman

Sam Schulman
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A Sahibs' War

(JWR) ---- (
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO TRAGEDY? The tragedy craze of the mid-twentieth century had many causes: Freud and his Oedipus complex; the Bomb-easily seen as punishment for forbidden knowledge; individual anxiety about facing the unprecedented power of the State.

I don't miss the bomb shelters or the Gulag, but it's too bad that Tragedy and its vocabulary has gone out of style. What has replaced it is the language our leaders use to describe this dreadful war, derived from the Christian theology first developed by Origen in De principiis (220 C.E.).

There the opposition of Good and Evil replaces Greek philosophy's antagonism between knowledge and ignorance. In Greek tragedy the hero suffers not because he is evil but because of hamartia --- he is ignorant about something crucial. Our leaders have plenty of hamartia --- in Parliament last week NATO's air campaign was called the "most incompetent operation that Britain has been involved since the Crimea". But we're not to mind because we fight a war of Good against Evil.

NATO is waging what Kipling would call a Sahibs' war, the title of one of his greatest stories, narrated by Umr Singh, a Punjabi-speaking trooper from the Indian army marooned in South Africa during the Boer war. At stake is not a matter of right and wrong but of knowledge ---- the hero understands that had the Indian troops of the Indian Army been permitted to fight, the Boers would have been defeated in months. "Why have they not sent for the men of the Tochi? Folly, a thousand times. We could have done it all so gently-so gently." The British army is a disaster: "They will foolishly show mercy to these Boer-log because it is believed that they are white. There is but one fault in this war, and that is that the Government have not employed us, but have made it altogether a Sahibs' war. Very many men will thus be killed."

Exactly a century later the Sahibs of NATO are attacking Serbia in a way that does not hamper Serbia's war aims in the slightest-and in fact may ensure their success. According to John Keegan, the military historian, NATO's bombing plan has been ready for years. And while we're working through its target list, the real enemy-small, lightly-armed bands of irregulars in Kosovo-do their work unhindered by any NATO opposition at all. And those victims whom we humanitarians fight to protect? As the English journalist Bill Deedes writes, it's an odd strategy, "if that is the right word, [which] requires those whom we strenuously seek to protect to suffer more than anyone else… a war in which those whom the armed forces seek to defend suffer all the casualties."

Serbia wages a war based on its knowledge of our ignorance, and we fight a humanitarian war because we are good and they are evil. And the Kosovars and the Serbian civilian population-until March 22 opposed to Milosevic-are the only ones who pay the price.

So if we were to be wise? The choices are tragic. We can wage the war that our war aims would require: assemble an army to invade and conquer Kosovo and sufficient in strength to take Belgrade as well. Or we can admit the failure of the air war strategy, and face the destruction of NATO and the utter collapse of any faith in our ability to protect South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, or the Arabian peninsula.

To choose the former involves the destruction of an entire country to whom we have been allied, and the death of thousands of civilians and soldiers. Its primary purpose would be to save the faces of politicians responsible for the whole mess - politicians whose habitual mendacity make the case for genocide a difficult one to accept at face value. But to choose the latter-simply to abandon the fight because we have lost-would probably sacrifice the basic security we've won after half a century of struggle and sacrifice. Either choice is sickening.

Perhaps the way out is to turn back to Tragedy-the Greek version - and away from Origen's way of thought - give up on Clinton's good versus Milosevic's evil. In tragedy it is occasionally necessary to sacrifice a single person for the good of the community; after which the world is put back together. Could the resignation in disgrace of an individual-Madeleine Albright would be an excellent and just choice-cover a retreat? We would "internationalize" the conflict, suddenly decide that the UN, Russia, Israel, everyone could join in an arrangement by which the Serbs might be rewarded for outwitting us, the refugees compensated and protected, and our own honor restored by the sacrifice?

Euripides would understand --- so would Kipling.

JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.


04/21/99: The Two Bills
04/13/99: The Imp and the Ingenue
04/05/99: Col. Blimp is Alive ... and in Washington

©1999, Sam Schulman