We polished our weapons while the Albanians died

Bob Marshall-Andrews on what the atrocities tell us about Nato's war for `civilisation'
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Kosovo is the size of Yorkshire. Pristina, its capital, is as far from the border of Albania as Bradford is from Birmingham. Since the beginning of Nato's bombing campaign, 10,000 Albanian citizens have been killed in this tiny space. Now a torture chamber, in an educational building, reveals the crude paraphernalia of pain, apparatus familiar to junta students. The iron bed and the battery terminals bear familiar and silent testimony to dreadful suffering.

At the moment this agony occurred, when men were shot at random and the rubber truncheon broke bones and tore flesh, the most powerful army on earth, assembled from 19 nation states in the name of humanity, polished its weapons, oiled its machines and otherwise did precisely nothing.

As the pitiful poor fled across the mountains of Macedonia, the smoke from their burning villages drifted into the atmosphere. There it joined the vapour trails of a thousand missiles travelling in the serene ether towards the reservoirs, bridges, oil refineries, hospitals, state buildings and embassies of Serbia. Nothing could have been more calculated to unleash the fury of a Serbian army locked in battle with terrorist forces and steeped in the prejudice of centuries. And yet not one single Nato soldier, tank or gun was deployed to protect the civilian population sacrificed in the interest of a painless war.

Nato's professed purpose in Kosovo was to "degrade the Milosevic war machine", a bellicose vernacular that became the hallmark of political life. Now after 80 days, amid the wreckage of civilian lives, where do we find the burnt-out tanks, and broken columns, the shattered remains of this military host? No such carnage exists, as we discovered last week. For the armies and the Ton Ton Macoute of Serbia, there has been no Armageddon. Pristine Serbian tanks carry truculent, unweary warriors chanting the promise of return and retribution. This is scarcely surprising. Destroying armoured tanks requires low-flying aircraft and the assumption of risk. Better the safe destruction of television stations and their technicians on whom we can, without risk, load the vicarious guilt of torture, massacre and rape.

And what of Slobodan Milosevic? Halfway through the war Mr Blair assured us that Milosevic "is really hurting", a banal vulgarism borrowed from the lexicon of the Nato spokesman, Jamie Shea. Close inspection of this dapper dictator suggests no pain at all. Like his fellow despot in Baghdad, this deranged leader remains reinforced in an impoverished country for whose suffering he now possesses the permanent excuse provided by the carnage and sanctions of the West.

Why did this happen? Why did we pursue this disastrous apocalyptic policy which has conspired to create or increase every single evil that we avowedly sought to destroy?

One answer may be swiftly dismissed. We were not suddenly left without choice. The war between the Serbian army and the KLA existed two years before the bombing began. The doomed Treaty of Rambouillet was part of a process, not its conclusion. The tidal wave of ethnic cleansing and refugees did not begin until the bombing in March, and no evidence exists to suggest it did. On 12 January the German Foreign Office reported: "Even in Kosovo an explicit political persecution linked to Albanian ethnicity is not very visible. The east of Kosovo is still not involved in armed conflict. Public life in cities like Pristina... has, in the entire conflict period, continued on a relatively normal basis. The actions of the security forces were not directed against the Kosovo Albanians as an ethnically defined group but against the military opponent and its actual, or alleged, supporters."

To discover cause, it is necessary to look at the words of war themselves and in particular the hyperbole that has accompanied the noise of conflict. Few opportunities have been lost for purple, vainglorious prose. This has been "a war for the future of civilisation and democracy". The enemy is elevated from regional warlord to Lucifer himself. Into this strutting nonsense the vernacular of the Second World War ceaselessly intrudes, to the despair of rational minds. The tragic diaspora of refugees from ethnic expulsion bears no resemblance to the genocide of Auschwitz and Treblinka. To suggest that it does debases not only history but the language upon which reason itself is based. The torture chamber in Pristina, the graves from the Glogovac valley are awful but they are not Belsen or Ravensbruck. Direct comparisons diminish not only the Holocaust but also the integrity of thought.

Associated with this political posture is an alarming conspiracy with the popular press inducing mutual excess of word and action. The greater the evil and the more perilous the path, the greater the glories of the leader that confronts them. Battles for civilisation itself require Churchillian stature. This has been provided for the Prime Minister by the bellicose instinct of the tabloid press which requires its heroes, its princes and its Agincourts. In a war that has conspicuously failed to produce them in battle political leaders must be pressed into service. "Resolute," "iron-willed", "determined" or even "great" have provided an adjectival symphony to accompany the transparently messianic process through the huddled masses of refugees. Such journalism elevates itself to gospel while avoiding the painful analysis of fault. In a doodlebug war from 15,000 feet that targets missiles upon helpless cities, there emerges a distinct lack of military saints to worship. Meanwhile in the House of Commons, ritual ministerial incantations on the bravery of our troops assume a hollow self-vaunting ring. Even the self-appointed Catos of the backbenches (Delenda est Serbia) absorb the uncomfortable truth that the sacrifice for this triumph was made by the villagers of Kosovo and the civilians of Belgrade. The Secretary of State for Defence standing upon an idle and unused tank provides an uncomfortable and embarrassing echo of Michael Portillo's attempted enlistment of the SAS to his own political cause.

In the final analysis, if war is to be judged by its objectives, we have lost this war. But the true danger lies in the seminal change in the nature of warfare and the power it has created. At the height of the bombing General Wesley Clark observed "Milosevic must feel he is fighting God". No more appropriate metaphor could be employed. Relentlessly to destroy cities without risk or siege is the ultimate, divine right which Machiavelli must have dreamed of, and the world is a more dangerous place than it has ever been, with capricious power firmly in the grasp of the personal, moral preference of princes.

As these new gods gather on a new Olympus of G8, they might well ponder the words of the sage: "When Alexander saw the extent of his dominions, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer."

Bob Marshall-Andrews QC is Labour MP for Medway.