Faith & Reason: The virus of war eats away our memory

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The Independent Culture
A FEW years ago I was in a new Indian restaurant in central London. It was early evening, and the waiters were still at their peak of attentiveness. As a consequence, the succession of dishes flowed unceasingly before us, so that we didn't so much taste as remember them. The only thing that stayed on the table for a decent length of time was the carnation in the vase. The food was fast: too many items, too little time to digest.

The news at present reminds me of that restaurant. It's an odd feeling for a journalist to have, but it seems to me that there's too much news around at the moment. The Denver school massacre, the Dando shooting, the bombs in Brixton, Brick Lane and Soho, the killer tornado in Oklahoma, the Scottish and Welsh elections . . . In each case, there hasn't been enough time to absorb one news item and allow it to shade our world-view, before the next catastrophe is upon us, demanding yet another emotional response. No time, even, to admire Julia Roberts's armpit, despite the countless opportunities to do so afforded us by our national newspapers. This particular sequence of news, too, has been peculiarly unsettling - unsolved or inexplicable events, suggesting anarchy and things falling apart. (Perhaps one should exclude the Scottish and Welsh elections from this, or perhaps not.)

Disasters and crimes, though, are not rare, and so I look elsewhere for the source of this feeling of being sated with bad news. It is, of course, the war: in the centre of our vision, filling the restaurant, if you like, and, so far, staying put. I was arguing the other day that the most extraordinary thing about the war in Kosovo was how remote it seemed. That might still be true to a degree, but I now see how the war has got under our skin. Like a pre-Millennium virus, it has entered our systems software and is eating up all our memory. When we attempt a relatively simply task like contemplating another news story, we find that we just can't concentrate as we used to.

What eats up the brain cells is not so much the fact of being at war, though that's a hard enough concept to grasp, but the need to rejig our attitude to towards it every day or so, as new perspectives open up. For we have the impression, at least, of this being a democratic war. We feel that our opinions have been sought throughout; and in truth, the military leaders are beholden to the statesmen, who are beholden to the opinion polls.

But, as the war progresses, it is beginning to sink in that we weren't really asked, just reassured: "Don't worry, we're taking this action in your name; we shan't do anything that you wouldn't like." We gave our consent, but only on incomplete information: "We'll only target military sites; Milosevic will cave in after a few days." Now, of course, the Mastermind dynamic has come into play: "I've started, so I'll finish." But would we have started the action had we factored in the children bombed in a cellar, the studio staff bombed at the television centre, the refugees bombed in the convoy, the bus bombed on the bridge, and so on?

It might be thought disloyal to question the war at this stage, or at least unfair, using the benefit of hindsight, but the just-war theory, though it looks a little tarnished, does encourage scrutiny throughout any conflict. Besides requiring a just cause, a war should involve just conduct, ius in bello, if it is to stay within the boundaries of the just- war definition. Another week has gone by without Nato's asking my opinion, but, had they done so, I should have said that, no, I don't think that they are fighting the war justly any longer.

Setting aside the morality of using weapons and tactics with the potential for mistakes of the type we've seen, the targets that Nato is now choosing seem to have become more irresponsible and desperate. Destroying Serbian factories, oil refineries and power stations has united the Serbs more firmly behind Milosevic, and will make the eventual return to peace much more difficult.

I still remember with incredulity the wistful hunt for an opposition leader in Iraq after the West had bombed the Iraqis into a corner. The experience is soon to be repeated. I received a copy of an e-mail on Thursday from the Serbian Orthodox Bishop of Ras-Prizren, who had been at the centre of the anti-Milosevic movement. "We promoted a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious Kosovo. . . Not a trace of those beautiful possibilities survived Nato's bombs." We might wish to add, "or Milosevic's ethnic-cleansing machine", but citing the reason for Nato's bombing campaign doesn't, sadly, cancel out the damage it has done. There is talk of the bombing being "justified", but this argument only works if the Nato violence stops the Serb violence. At the time of writing, we simply have two groups of victims instead of one.

The phrase "at the time of writing" is where I pin my hopes. For the first time since the conflict began there is a possibility that something positive might happen in the few hours between writing and publication. If, please God, it does, then the real work will start. Our government has ensured that we have had an easy war. The peace will be longer, harder and more costly - but wasn't that why Nato opted for war in the first place?