IOWA CITY, Iowa (U-WIRE) — And so the war in the Balkans churns on. It’s a curiously postmodern sort of war: a battle of sound bites and video clips. Not so curiously, actually — this is the manner in which the United States fights its wars today.
The murky green video of a “smart” bomb or missile arcing through the night toward an indistinct gray-green rectangle on the ground. Flash of fire, plume of smoke.
A Pentagon media-coddler points with his stick at a freeze-frame and somberly intones that a bridge or a munitions bunker or an ammunition factory has been “removed.” Loss of human life is “collateral damage,” as if we were discussing taking out a home loan on an aging domicile.
It’s as if the U.S. military had learned one major lesson from the Vietnam War — that conflict was lost on the television screens of America. What happens on the ground is secondary compared with what the public sees on the evening news.
And so the first thing the Pentagon does is seize the air waves. Making war becomes a technological wizardry and virtuosity display, which has the effect of reducing war to the level of a video game. Americans understand video games, much like they understand sport utility vehicles. (Not that they much understand the disastrous effects of SUVs on the environment or their contribution to the carnage on the roads.)
Americans like to keep things simple, easily understandable. The concept of the 1912 Serbian invasion and annexation of Kosovo or the myth behind the battle of Kosovo Polje 100 years before Columbus sailed is murkier than the green-gray Pentagon video clips.
This is, after all, the culture that cares more about Pamela Anderson’s breasts (and her now-vanished implants) than it does about breast cancer, judging from the media coverage — though coverage is not the first word that leaps to mind when considering Pamela Anderson.
And it is this American obsession with the simple, this cultural desire to reduce everything to the level of a video game, that means Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbs are involved in a war they can’t possibly win.
It has nothing to do with high-tech wizardry or military superiority. America invented, if not the video game itself, the raising of video culture to a state religion. America, not surprisingly, invented public relations, too.
On this battlefield, the Serbs are hopelessly outgunned. It has nothing to do with their early-’80s-era jets or their Ozzie-and-Harriet-era tanks. The Serbs are fighting with 19th-century concepts of boundaries and nationalism; the United States is fighting a 21st-century war of computers and videos.
The Serbs might as well be using horse-mounted cavalry. America is using MTV. Welcome to the new globalism, Serbia.
It’s as great a mismatch as the Ethiopian spears against the Italian tanks in the 1930s. And you have to feel sorry for the Serbian people, whose society is being blasted away under the rain of NATO bombs and missiles.
But it’s impossible to feel any sympathy for Milosevic and his crony-fed government. They started this war in 1991. From Dubrovnik to Vukovar to the siege of Sarajevo to Srbenica, they have proven themselves to be a particularly vicious gang of ultra-nationalist thugs. They must be stopped. They should have been stopped long ago, but Bill Clinton kept blinking.
But also, as the bombs burst and the rockets glare red over the Serbian sky, it is impossible not to remember this bit from Vietnam: We had to destroy this village to save it.
Beau Elliot’s column originally appeared in Tuesday’s University of Iowa Daily Iowan.