The reality is that war, tragedy and incompetence go together

There is nothing to choose between the deaths of innocent diplomats and those of Serb civilians
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IN WARS, even necessary ones, Chinese embassies get hit. On a moral level, there is nothing to choose between the deaths of innocent Chinese diplomats and those of innocent Serb civilians hit by stray ordnance, sent on behalf of you and me. But the bombing of the embassy is obviously more damaging to the chances of an eventual political solution involving the United Nations. And it does weaken support for Nato at home, by opening its tactics to ridicule.

It shouldn't. Incompetence, tragedy and war go together. The destruction of the abbey of Monte Cassino during the Second World War was a terrible thing, as was the botched rehearsal for D-Day, held on Slapton Sands in Devon, in which hundreds of American troops lost their lives. In 1944 the latter was subject to the most intense military censorship, so as to avoid weakening of morale. Today it would be headline news. We don't judge the rectitude of armed intervention by reference to our superior military intelligence; we merely do our best. The ground invasion of Kosovo, which I favour, would be no less bloodily terrible and full of wrongly shelled targets than the current air war. Perhaps it would be even worse.

The trouble is that "incompetence" provides a handy stick for those opposed to Nato intervention to beat the alliance with, and a coalescing point for those who only favour action providing it is over quickly and presents no moral dilemmas. And this notion of incompetence, or naivete, can become alarmingly elastic. Last week, one commentator even complained that we are holding the war in the same year that there are important elections in Russia - the implication being that sensible folk would have organised the war a year earlier, or waited until 2000. This illustrates that - nowadays - for some in the anti-war lobby, any argument will do. To date I have only heard the term "collateral damage" mentioned once by a supporter of intervention (and then in quotation marks), yet opponents resolutely insist that this, and other euphemisms for civilian death, are the common argot of politicians and generals. They are not.

Then there is the objectionable "demonisation" of the Serbs as a people (which I have never heard), followed by the "demonisation" of Mr Milosevic. A very decent and upright journalist of my acquaintance told me that there was a distinction to be drawn between cunning, but essentially civilised Slobodan on the one hand, and some of the more mad, murderous ethnic cleansers on the other. Nato, he said, had blurred the distinction, and left the loonies to run riot. On Saturday the TV critic of a respected broadsheet wrote in a similar vein, and advised the Prime Minister to watch BBC2's repeat showing of the brilliant series, The Death Of Yugoslavia.

I hope Mr Blair did as he was told. First, he would have been reminded of the fact that Milosevic has always had a direct relationship with paranoid, thuggish Serb elements. In 1988 he used them to agitate for the end of Kosavar autonomy, and even sent them to Vojvodina (an area with a large Hungarian population). However, Kosovo 1999 should be seen in the context of events in early 1992, in the Bosnian town of Zvornik. There, before the war had begun, paramilitaries led by Vojslav Seselj, the racial Fascist who is Milosevic's vice-president, entered the largely Muslim town, killed several thousand and expelled tens of thousands more. As Seselj put it, in a remarkable interview for the programme, "Milosevic didn't give us orders. Just `requests' - `We need your fighters in such and such a place'." And Seselj complied.

At first, Bosnian Muslims and foreign governments simply could not believe that such an unprecedented atrocity had happened. Maybe they didn't want to "demonise" anybody. Then, shockingly apprised of the truth, the Bosnians appealed for foreign intervention to help save them. "We are not, and we cannot be the world's policeman," said George Bush's Secretary of State, James Baker. We now know how well that approach worked.

Today, the big problem faced by those who are against the war is how to explain the unanimous views of the Kosovar Albanians that they want the action to be continued, and how to reconcile their tales of massacre with the view that the Serbs do not deserve bombing. So it is instructive to examine the recent letter sent to many publications by 674 "academics and writers", including Tariq Ali and Noam Chomsky, to see how they deal with this difficulty.

These are the sole mentions of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. "Nato air strikes," proclaim the 674, "encourage retaliation against the Kosovar population by the worst Serb ultra-nationalists." Encourage "retaliation"! And presumably it was the imminence of Nato action that caused these maverick elements to get some of their retaliation in before any bombings had actually happened.

Then, later on in the letter, mention is made of Serb "paramilitary forces who are killing the fighters of the Kosovo Liberation Army." So that's who they're killing. Not all those civilians we've been hearing about, but fighters of the KLA. And then only in "retaliation".

Given what we know, these formulations are bizarre. So why this evasion? It is, I think, because the formulae are constructed to suit the conclusions of the gallant 674, that there is indeed an alternative to the war. The sole alternative, which these writers and academics have signed up to, is this: "The organisation of a Balkan conference in which the representatives of all the states and of all the national communities within these states take place." The signatories demand "the defence of the rights of peoples to self-determination, on the sole condition that this right is not fulfilled on the back of another people and by the ethnic cleansing of territory."

Clearly, if you thought that Milosevic was a ruthless, lying manipulator who had already connived at the deaths of thousands of civilians, it would be hard to see everyone wanting to have a conference with him. Indeed, such a conference would appear to be worse than completely pointless; an invitation to him and his gangs to keep right on doing that little ethnic thing they do. So, instead we have "retaliation" by ultra-nationalists, and the killing of KLA "fighters", which - regrettably - is what happens when you don't have conferences.

I could weep for these poor academics, if the plight of the Kosovars weren't already occupying all available tear-ducts. There you are, a book in the offing, a seminar to prepare, flying off to an international conference at the weekend, and suddenly you're faced with a fax, a text, a list of names and an invitation to append your signature at the bottom. And you end up being an apologist for the worst crime against humanity committed in Europe since the Second World War.

I prefer my conscience to theirs.