We should send in the foot soldiers

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The Independent Online
As regular readers of this column are aware, I am a member of what the Sun calls "the whinge and cringe brigade". I am not excited by pictures of Harrier jump jets swooping across the Balkans. Rampant technophilia, which breaks out in the tabloids every time a British war plane tags along on some mission dreamt up by the Americans, leaves me cold. This is not to say I am opposed to international intervention to protect the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo; I think we should have gone in months ago, but with ground troops as well as air strikes.

What worries me is that Western governments, including Britain, seem to be in danger of believing their own propaganda about the efficacy of an air war. We have already been told by the Pentagon that the damage inflicted on Yugoslavia is "substantive and severe". The Sun, which faithfully follows the Nato line, declared on Thursday: "Our boys batter Serb butcher in Nato bomb blitz." It was a great story, des-cribing how "Britain's brave Harrier pilots blitzed the Serbs last night as Nato launch-ed a devastating air bombardment".

Sadly, not a word was true. British commanders later admitted that the Harriers had dropped only one bomb on Wednesday night before aborting their mission because of dense smoke. Did the Sun apologise for its grossly inaccurate front page? Of course not. "Nowhere to hide" was its headline on Friday, superimposed on a colour photograph of a "fireball" on the outskirts of Pristina, capital of Kosovo. It said the Harriers had led "a second enormous wave of air attacks on Serb bases", neglecting to explain why Nato aircraft seemed to have bombed the very people we launched the war to protect. Meanwhile the Daily Mail, vying to produce the most tasteless coverage, came up with the headline "Firestorm!". Ignoring Tony Blair's declaration that we have no quarrel with the Yugoslav people, it crowed that "the sky over Belgrade was lit by flames" on Thursday night. Like Dresden, perhaps?

Now for another whinge, this time about what can be achieved by air attacks. On the first full day of the Gulf War, the Allies reported a success rate for air strikes on military targets of 80 per cent. There was much talk of "smart" missiles, weapons so sophisticated that they could virtually bomb by postcode. Two weeks later, the Pentagon admitted it hadn't, as first clai-med, neutralised Saddam Hussein's lumbering Scud missiles. "Moreover," said the American magazine Business Week, "clouds and fog hampered the hunt for Iraq's mobile missile launchers."

Iraq is a flat country, whose terrain consists mostly of desert. Yugoslavia is mountainous and has 60 per cent cloud cover. In 1992 the Pentagon admitted that only 6,520 of the 88,500 tons of bombs dropped on Iraq and occupied Kuwait were precision-guided. I am prepared to accept that technology has improved since then. But even if Nato planes achieve a higher success rate in Yugoslavia, bombing alone is unlikely to protect the Kosovo Albanians from Slobodan Milosevic.

On the contrary, it is clear that the immediate effect of the air war has been to make their position worse. There are reports of thousands of ethnic Albanians being rounded up, while Serb forces have shelled villages in Kosovo and Albania. In the tabloids' fantasy world, Nato aircraft can simply pound Serb targets until Milosevic gives in. "We'll bomb until Slobba surrenders," the Sun said last week, add-ing that the Yugoslav leader is a "bigger tyrant than Saddam".

Alarmingly, the Sun now has its own "military adviser", which suggests its journalists might soon take a more direct role in the conflict. "Sun takes Belgrade": now there's a headline. On Friday, though, Major-General Ken Perkins had clearly been poorly briefed, warning Sun readers that Kosovo could become a "new Vietnam". This is not the kind of defeatist talk we expect from the paper that supports Our Boys, and I assume the Major-General will soon go the way of other whingers and cringers.

FINALLY, SOME news to gladden the heart. On Friday, an elderly lady paid a visit to Surrey to cheer up an old friend who has suffered several setbacks of late. "I'm glad that you are comfortable here," she said, glancing approvingly round "Duntorturin", his home for several months. The old folks chatted cheerily for a few minutes, recalling what they did in the war. It was such a touching sight that I'm hoping Mr Straw, our nice Home Secretary, will allow them to carry on meeting, instead of cruelly dispatching the old gent to Santiago as some unfeeling commentators have suggested.