Vivid, dark, powerful and magnificent - but wrong

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The Independent Culture
HAROLD PINTER in full flow is a great sight, a sort of giant verbal geyser. On Tuesday night, dressed all in black before a BBC 2 set with the Nato logo and the bombing target symbol adopted by people in Belgrade, the playwright launched a furious attack on the Kosovo war. It was "an act of deplorable machismo", he said, designed to divert attention from Bill Clinton's sexual antics and restore Nato's credibility "on its forlorn 50th birthday".

Over footage of Tony Blair clambering out of the cockpit of a fighter plane, he sarcastically evoked the Prime Minister's "real character" as supposedly revealed by the bombing: "There's nothing like a missile, there's nothing like power, it was really worth waiting for." We must, he concluded, stop this war.

Powerful stuff. It's good that one of our leading writers should speak out on the war. It's right that the BBC should give him prominent airtime. And he scored a few hits. Yet, in sum, he produced a distortion of reality far more extreme than any of those he attacked. But then Nato spokesman Jamie Shea is not a playwright. It takes the magnificent, dark, obsessive imagination of a Pinter to get things so grandiosely wrong.

As a writer, he concentrated particularly on the abuse of language. Decrying the comparison between events in Kosovo and the Holocaust, he invited us, in the spirit of Orwell, "to look more closely at everything that is being said or not said". Quite right. So let's do the same to him, starting with the hits.

He's correct, for example, that the US condoned the largest single ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia until now: the expulsion of the Serbs from the Krajina part of Croatia in 1995. I was there shortly afterwards. I saw the systematically plundered villages, heard the survivors' tales. It was terrible. But that is all the more reason not to condone it now, when it happens in Kosovo. It's also true, as Pinter insisted, that the West has done far too little to stop repression of the Kurds by our Nato ally, Turkey. But if we are wrong to allow Turks to kill Kurds, then surely we are right to try to stop Serbs killing Kosovars.

It's true that the comparison with the Holocaust is wrong, and the applicability of the term "genocide" questionable, especially if you compare this with Rwanda. But look how Pinter made the case: "The trains on to which ethnic Albanian refugees were forced did not leave to gas chambers, but to Macedonia."

So that's all right. Nice place, Macedonia.

"I cannot see," he went on, "how you can compare ethnic cleansing, essentially the expulsion of a people from a given area, with the extermination of a race."

Question to the alert reader: why is this supremely accomplished coiner of vivid language suddenly using such a neutral, sanitised phrase as "expulsion ... from a given area"? He made no mention of the separation and killing of younger men, the rape of young women, the systematic burning and plundering of homes, the misery and deaths on the refugee treks and in the camps.

Later he said: "Once the war started, the flood of refugees was inevitable. When bombs fall, people tend to run away."

This statement echoes the claim of Serbian propaganda that the Kosovar Albanians fled because of the Nato bombing. In fact, we have overwhelming evidence - from thousands of cross-checked refugee stories - that they fled because Serb forces drove them out. Although Pinter did go on to say, in a passing phrase, "whether they were fleeing Nato bombs or Serb guns", he had planted an impression which is simply false.

Turning to what he called "the hardline KLA" (would he describe the Kurds' guerrilla army as "the hardline PKK"?) he suggested that there was "tension but little bloodshed" in Kosovo until they came along. To describe the repression of the Kosovar Albanians since 1989 - innumerable arrests, police beatings, killings and a population deprived of state education and health care - as simply "tension" is the kind of tell-tale euphemism that Orwell would have seized on. He went on to tell us that "once the KLA began their uprising ... 2,000 died". What he didn't say is that most of those were killed by the Serbs, not the KLA.

Then came the most chilling passage of all. The KLA "began a standard guerrilla struggle. Milosevic responded with standard counter-insurgency, though less vehemently than Turkey did with its Kurds as America turned a blind eye."

"Standard counter-insurgency"? A quarter of a million Albanians were driven out of their homes last year, dying in the hills from cold, malnutrition and disease. I have seen them, heard their stories, sat in the ruins of their homes. "Standard counter-insurgency"? Forty-five Albanian civilians shot in the neck or the back at Racak this January, on direct orders from Belgrade. Imagine the field-day Harold Pinter would have with that weasel phrase if it were used by a US official about Turkish army action against Kurds.

So what the hell is our leading left-wing playwright up to talking like an American colonel in Vietnam? How can this brilliant, big-hearted writer, who responds so generously to the horrible plight of the Kurds, who is so alert to every nuance of violence and victimhood (look at his marvellous play Mountain Language), be so stunningly blind to the true story of the Kosovars? Why has he descended to the very kind of sanitising euphemism and semantic air-brushing that he rightly scorns when it is done by Nato spokesmen?

The answer, I fear, is that he has been blinded in one eye by his longstanding, vehement hatred of what he sees as America's hypocritical, militaristic, imperialist policies and Britain's poodle-like support of them. Remember that this is the man who, shortly before the end of the Cold War, said that Britain was more a colony of America than Czechoslovakia was of the USSR.

And so, conspiracy theory at the ready, he suggests - without a shred of evidence - that: "The Clinton administration was determined to provoke a crisis, to play out an endgame." Well, I followed the administration's diplomacy closely and I can assure him that there was no such skilful planning. As usual, it was cock-up, not conspiracy.

There is a serious case against this war. There is a special job to be done by writers in exposing the lies that accompany it. But the last thing writers should do is to add half-truths of their own. For, as the rabbi said, a half-truth is a whole lie.

The author's `History of the Present: Essay, Sketches and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s' will be published by Penguin in June