Does America understand? Bosnia is highlighting the gulf between Europe and the United States, says Geof frey Wheatcroft

It's not that they are wimps who have stayed out of wars: it is merely that they have been lucky
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The Independent Online
ONE OF the odder statistics this century is that more than four times as many Americans have died in road accidents than have been killed in battle. But this is more than a curiosity. In a roundabout way it explains the great gulf that has opened betweenthe Americans and the Europeans over Bosnia.

That gulf is not some difference of opinion or shade of interpretation. It is caused by two quite different outlooks on the world, on war and peace, which have been blurred during the 45 years of Nato, and which are caused by profoundly different historical experiences.

A consensus has emerged in Washington, expressed by politicians such as Senator Robert Dole and, with astonishing vehemence, by the American press and especially the New York Times. It starts from the idea that the Bosnian conflict is a morality play in which the Serbs are the villains waging an international war of aggression. In reality it is a civil war, though not the less terrible for that. It can be presented as an international war only because of the ill-judged decision by outside powers to recognise the break-up of Yugoslavia and the independence of Slovakia, Croatia and then Bosnia.

A simple comparison shows why this perception is wrong. The 1861-65 war between the American states was known, then and now, as the American Civil War. If the British government had recognised the sovereignty of the Confederate South, as might very easily have happened, then it could have appeared as an international war, and what's more, one in which the Union was the aggressor.

Those who want to intervene against Serbia claim that the Bosnian war is a threat to the stability of Europe. This is absurd. The idea that Bosnia is "at the heart of Europe" can be entertained only if you look at small-scale maps. Those who actually live in Europe know differently, and it is tempting, even if it would be cynical, to quote Metternich: "Asia begins at the Landstrasse" (the district of Vienna just to the east of the inner city).

Communal slaughter in Bosnia affects our common humanity, as do massacres in Rwanda or Afghanistan. That doesn't mean that it threatens the peace of Europe. What European politicians recognise in their hearts, but find it difficult to spell out to Americans, is that the real threat is not a Bosnian war, however dreadful, but the danger of that war spilling over to neighbouring countries. To compare Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose with Neville Chamberlain, as William Safire of the New York Times does, or to write about a "new Holocaust" in the Balkans, as many American commentators do, is to use the language of madness. Tribal massacres and expulsions of a kind with which the Balkans have long been familiar cannot be compared with systematic genocide.

When intervention is discussed in Washington or New York, it always comes down to the same thing: the United States would provide the air cover while the Europeans provide the ground troops. Understandably, this is not a division of labour that greatly appeals to the British or the French. (The Germans, having encouraged the break-up of Yugoslavia in the first place, now say that "for historical reasons" they cannot send any forces to sort out its consequences.)

And that brings us back to history and statistics. The first half of this century was a frightful period in European history. The figures speak for themselves. In the 1914-18 war, 750,000 men from the British Isles were killed, and almost a million and ahalf from France. The German casualties are obscure, but at least 3 million soldiers were killed.

In the 1939-45 war, Western Europe suffered fewer casualties: 300,000 British servicemen killed, as well as 60,000 civilians and 35,000 merchant seamen, and 260,000 French. On the eastern front, however, the scale of slaughter was altogether different: 13.6 million Russians were killed, and 3.25 million Germans. Those are military figures. Many millions more Russian civilians died, and more than 3 million Germans.

Those included the 600,000 civilians the Allies killed by bombing, ten for every one in this country killed by the Luftwaffe. Half the cities of Europe were devastated. It affected us all more than we perhaps realise, even those of us born after the war.I remember watching television at home in the mid-1950s when I would have been 10 or 11. The programme must have been about the war, and an air-raid warning was sounding just as my mother came into the room. She shuddered involuntarily, as anyon e mightwho had spent the winter of 1940-41 in London.

Now compare and contrast the American experience. The Americans joined the First World War in 1917. They lost 53,000 men, fewer than the British had lost in a few weeks of fighting in 1916. They joined the Second World War in 1941. Between then and 1945,they lost 292,000 people, fewer than Great Britain lost in the same war with a quarter of the population. We were often told that American casualties in Vietnam made it politically impossible for the US to continue fighting there. Yet the total number of Americans killed came to 47,000. Contrast that not only with more than 1 million Vietnamese killed, but with the 19,000 British soldiers killed on just the first day of the Somme.

The point is not that the Americans are wimps who have stayed out of wars which they should have fought in. It is merely that they have been lucky, protected by geography and history from the full horror of war which has been so inescapable for Europe this century. How many bombs have ever fallen on any American city? How do the body bags of which American politicians sometimes gravely speak compare with those vast acres of war graves left at Verdun or Passchendaele?

Since the internal combustion engine was invented, more than 2 million Americans (not far short of the population of Chicago) have been killed in motor vehicle accidents. In all the wars of this century - the two world wars, Korea, Vietnam - the total ofAmericans killed is less than 430,000.

Behind the political conflict over Bosnia, then, is the kind of mutual but unspoken resentment found in an unhappy marriage. The Americans think that the Europeans are ungrateful for the vast outpouring of resources which the United States has put into the defence of Europe over so many years. The Europeans, though they are too polite to say so, cannot help thinking that the Americans only took part in those great wars rather than fought in them in the full sense. The American contribution to the defeatof Hitler was no doubt enormous, but as Stalin said, "England provided the time, America provided the money, Russia provided the blood". And as A J P Taylor added, of the great leaders of the wartime alliance, "Roosevelt was the only one who knew what he was doing: he made the United States the greatest power in the world at virtually no cost".

I am not anti-American. I recognise that the US is still the country that more people would like to live in than any other. But what makes it a great free society also ill-equips it to be a world power, something that the events of the last 50 years haveobscured.

The Founding Fathers of the American republic never envisaged it as an imperial power. To the contrary, Washington told his countrymen "to steer clear of permanent alliances", Jefferson wanted "peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations - entangling alliances with none". Both would have said, now as then, that Europe should look after itself and its own problems - and the European Union is, after all, larger than the United States in population and economic product. Neither woul d have seen any reason why Americans should give their lives on European or Asian battlefields. All the same, they might have been taken aback by those road deaths.