The questionable legitimacy of our generals' claims

'Not many of us believed the jolly generals at the Ministry of Defence when they insisted on Britain's unblemished role in the bombing of Serbia'
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The Independent Online

So who is surprised? Not many of us believed the jolly generals at the Ministry of Defence when they insisted on Britain's unblemished role in the bombing of Serbia. It was an RAF aircraft that scattered cluster bombs across the city of Nis and - according to the Yugoslavs - an RAF jet which spread its bomb-load through a housing estate in Aleksinac. I watched an old woman there as her husband's body was dug out of the rubble.

So who is surprised? Not many of us believed the jolly generals at the Ministry of Defence when they insisted on Britain's unblemished role in the bombing of Serbia. It was an RAF aircraft that scattered cluster bombs across the city of Nis and - according to the Yugoslavs - an RAF jet which spread its bomb-load through a housing estate in Aleksinac. I watched an old woman there as her husband's body was dug out of the rubble.

No one expected the Commons Select Committee on Defence to go any further on cluster bombs than the phrase "questionable legitimacy"; in the real world, we might have discussed another term - war crimes - for such promiscuous use of weaponry. But Nato was the good guy and the Serbs had to be taught a lesson and it was our failure to teach them with maximum efficiency which preoccupied the committee. It was the failure rate - not the success rate - of unguided bombs which upset our MPs.

I wonder if the Commons committee members read the private comment of a British Harrier pilot in April of last year (quoted in The Officer magazine for which the MoD allows the editor to act as a security clearance) that "after a while you've got to ignore the collateral damage and start smashing those targets. But the politicians aren't ready for that yet".

As for all that Serbian armour supposedly "degraded" by General Wesley Clark's boys - in June of last year, Nato claimed 150 tanks destroyed - it turned out to be a paltry 14 battle-tanks. So was it any surprise that "strikes against fielded forces [ie, Yugoslav armour] failed in their declared objective of limiting the humanitarian disaster"?

The statistics - which are not included in the committee's report - show that fewer than 3,000 people had died in Kosovo before the bombing began; up to 10,000 Kosovo Albanians were murdered by the Serbs afterwards (or so claimed Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary). As General Clark conceded later "you cannot stop paramilitary murder with aeroplanes". Given that General Nobojsa Pavkovic - now another good guy because he does not oppose the newly elected President Vojislav Kostunica - warned that the Albanians would "pay the price" of a Nato bombing campaign, it does raise again the hoary old question that bothered us throughout the blitz: what on earth was it for?

Since General Clark, in a different interview, also claimed that the scale of Serb brutality did not surprise him, one wonders why the defence committee claims that the extent of Serb beastliness "took Nato by surprise". It clearly did not. And even when the enormity of what was happening was finally grasped - and publicised by Shea and the other hacks in Brussels - Nato was too craven to risk a single Allied life by ordering pilots to fly lower to hit the right targets.

As for the "serious error of judgement" in Nato's public admission that it had no plans for a land campaign, why not just blame President Bill Clinton? I recall the delight on the face of Yugoslav army officers in Belgrade when they watched Mr Clinton declare on CNN there would be no ground invasion of Kosovo. From that moment on, the ethnic cleansers were safe and the refugees we were supposed to save were doomed. Along, of course, with hundreds of innocent Serb civilians. Failure of imagination indeed.

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