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Jewish World Review May 28, 1999 /13 Sivan 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Kosovo's Chicken Hawks and Cluster Bombs

(JWR) ---- (
ONE OF THE SYMPTOMS of concussions is short-term memory loss.

People who get their brains rattled around often suffer from a temporary inability to remember recent events. I wonder whether the same is true for a country. Perhaps. Even though it is the Kosovars and the Serbs and pointedly not Americans who are getting knocked around in the war that has entered its third month, most of those reporting and commenting on the war are acting as if they've forgotten a great deal of recent history.

Am I the only one to notice that the war in Kosovo has created some interesting paradoxes that have gone largely unnoticed?

The most obvious irony of America's military action in the Balkans and the debate brewing over its escalation is the identity of some of the most ardent hawks. Though it seems to be considered impolite to mention it, among them are many people who avoided service in the military during the Vietnam War.

Of course, questioning the backgrounds of hawks is nothing new. During the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan's anti-Communist policy in Afghanistan and Central America was the subject and again during the Persian Gulf War, a number of conservatives who supported those conflicts - such as essayist George Will, radio personality Rush Limbaugh, former Vice President Dan Quayle and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich - were skewered as "chicken hawks" by the left for their own lack of a military record.

The charge originated in the pages of the leftist press, but it was soon taken up by the mainstream press and then the entertainment world. Liberal comedian and author Al Franken devoted a chapter to conservative chicken hawks in his best-selling book "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot." It was mean-spirited and distorted but a fair comment. Wars are fomented by the old and middle-aged, and fought by youngsters.

This is not to say the chicken hawks were wrong about aiding the contras or smashing Saddam Hussein just because they sat out the Vietnam War. It is just that those of us who have not heard shots fired in anger (this also applies to those - like myself - who came of age after the draft and Vietnam were over) need to develop a little humility about our "military expertise," and should think carefully before we advocate policies that put young men and women in harm's way.

This was also brought to mind by a recent letter to the editor in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent by a Jewish military chaplain who said that so long as Jews were staying away from military service, they should not be so forward about supporting a war in which their own children would not die.

The writer was wrong to single out Jews, since there are few volunteers for the service these days and Jews are hardly unique in that respect. But it should remind the hawks among us that somebody will have to pay for their rhetoric in blood.

The fact is, as was the case with Bosnia, the Jewish community is out in front on this issue. The cause of a new land war in the Balkans for the sake of the rights of the Kosovar Albanians has united some strange bedfellows as was illustrated by a much talked about advertisement in the New York Times on May 13. The ad was signed by a wide array of Jewish pundits, wonks and organizational types. When reliable conservative Jews like former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz and Weekly Standard publisher William Kristol join forces with certified liberals like Rabbi David Saperstein and Henry Siegman on behalf of a war, you know something is afoot. But when you throw in writers like Saul Bellow and left-wingers such as Tikkun's Michael Lerner, something very strange is happening.

In that group, I'm afraid the admirable Kristol can be given the chicken hawk label along with the unctious Wieseltier. But it would probably be somewhat unfair to pin the label on Lerner. Though he evaded the draft in the sixties along with everyone else, it wasn't because he was opposed to violence and war. It was just that at that time, the leftist radical was in favor of violence against the U.S. government, not by it!

As the moment grows closer when American men and women may be sent into the Balkans to fight the Serbs and liberate the Kosovo Albanians (if indeed that is really our goal, since so far the war has done nothing to help the Kosovars except increase their suffering), it is time to think about who is pushing for a ground war.

At the top of the list is, of course, President Clinton, whose own selective service record is well known. Other than his habitual lying about it, there's little to criticize. If the president thinks he can actually use American power to save lives, he has a duty to do so, although his selective intervention in the Kosovo case while still indifferent to other human rights causes undermines his case.

The irony for Clinton is that without each passing day he is starting to sound more and more like Lyndon Johnson as he picks and chooses bombing targets and tries to put a positive spin on this disastrous war (the phrase "credibility gap" may have been invented to describe LBJ's dilemma but it is surely Clinton who has epitomized it).

Looking further down the political food chain, I was struck by a recent article in The Philadelphia Inquirer about one of the leaders of the pro-war movement in the House of Representatives, Freshman Democrat, Rep. Joseph M. Hoeffel III of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.

In the piece titled "Vietnam War Dove Turns Into a Hawk" (May 9), Hoeffel, 48, spoke about his own active opposition to the Vietnam War. He also said it was wrong for Clinton to rule out a ground war in the Balkans. I heard him say the same thing when he addressed a recent Philadelphia meeting of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Yet, instead of getting roasted for being the 1999 model of the chicken hawk, Hoeffel has received raves. I find that curious. But more than that, I was disturbed by the capsule history of the Vietnam War that Hoeffel gave the Inquirer and his comparison of it to Kosovo, which he sees as a human-rights war.

"In my view, Vietnam was essentially a civil war driven by nationalistic forces," Hoeffel told the Inquirer.

"We perceived a Communist threat to our national security. I don't think that threat ever existed." He went on to compare NATO's war in Kosovo to "our fight against fascism in World War II."

Hoeffel's distorted view of both Kosovo and communism is breathtaking. If the battle between ethnic Albanians and Serbs over Kosovo isn't "essentially a civil war driven by nationalistic forces," then how would he describe it? Does he really think the Kosovo Liberation Army (which many of his fellow hawks want to arm) is any more attractive an ally than the government of South Vietnam? And was communism really never a threat?

And if human rights and the plight of refugees are what drives him to push for war in Kosovo, how does he view the millions of refugees that were created by America's defeat in Vietnam? Have the "boat people" who desperately sought to escape life in a communist Vietnam with its "re-education camps" been totally forgotten?

Though there were compelling arguments against American involvement in Vietnam, most Americans lost interest in that conflict as soon as Americans were no longer in danger. Hoeffel is right to worry about the costs of an American defeat in Kosovo and the imperative to act against persecutors, but he has apparently never thought about the human costs of our Vietnam defeat. This makes me wonder whether we have gotten over Vietnam so much as forgotten it completely.

Though the media has rightly concentrated on the plight of the Albanian refugees from Serb barbarism, I also find it interesting how little interest there is in the human costs of America's bombing campaign. A lot of innocent people are getting killed in this war by our bombs, in addition to those who have fallen to Serbian atrocities.

If our cause is just, then these casualties are an unavoidable cost of war. But few Americans seem concerned about our forces' deliberate attack on civilian targets in Belgrade.

I was particularly struck by the mention of the dropping of American cluster bombs on a village where dozens of Albanian civilians were killed. Doesn't anyone remember the furor that was caused by Israel's use of cluster bombs in the 1982 Lebanon war? At the time, it was treated by the press and international opinion as further proof of Israeli "war crimes," without taking into account the context of the attacks on Israel or the use of civilian shields by the Palestinians.

And does anyone remember how outraged the world was by the Israeli Air Force's attempt to turn out the lights in Beirut and cut off its water supply? Isn't that exactly what NATO is doing to Belgrade? Which means that either NATO's tactics in this bizarre war deserve closer scrutiny or Israel deserves an apology for the abuse it took.

Come to think of it, maybe the answer ought to be yes on both counts.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.


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©1999, Jonathan Tobin