Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 9 1999 9:30 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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Wag the Dog was on television again last night, for at least the fourth time. It made for more powerful viewing than I expected. Watching the scene in which Dustin Hoffman directs the pseudo-Albanian girl in pseudodramatic footage, punching in destruction and fire effects on the computer, S. said, "It's not that simple at all."

"Do you mean war or computers?"

"Computers," he laughed. "It takes a lot more work to create those effects."

War, on the other hand, is pretty simple. You make people feel physically unsafe--and in a few days, peaceful civilians are rearing to pick up guns and defend what is left of their land, their dignity, and their sense of purpose. Gradually, we are all becoming military experts here. Yesterday, someone brought in a 6-year-old issue of the Serbian journal Military Affairs, dedicated to the New World Order. This is, after all, what Milosevic would have his people fighting--and all indications are that more and more Serbs are eager to do that. Sitting around waiting to get bombed night after night will do that to you. We have been following the Slate "Dialogue" on ground troops, as well as the Stratford intelligence site, and we all agree that NATO will bring in ground troops and that they don't understand what they will be in for: fighting not the Serbian military but a desperate, armed nation. Drawing on the distinct sense of superior perspective that being in the line of explosions grants us, we have concluded that Americans lack the experience of seeing what a war that violates their own land does to people.

"What do you think is going to happen?" Andrei, an occasional visitor here, asked me while we watched the film. Everyone asks me that these days. I told him. He seemed to like my view of Serbians as getting ready to stand to the death. He wears a fanny pack over his shoulder, like a holster.

"What are you going to do?" I asked.

"What choice do I have?"

"You could try to leave the country." He laughed. "You could try to avoid military service." He sneered. "You could go into the military."

"So you see--I have no choice! We have nothing to lose. We already lost when the bombing started."

"How old are you?"

"Twenty-six."

"Have you been in the service?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"That's a personal question." Any Serbian male who has not served in the military is a one-time draft dodger. Now many are starting to feel ashamed of it. "You see this film? That's what's going on. What do you think?"

"I think it's a film. I think what's going on is more complicated."

"You don't understand. You know when all this started?"

"I'd say about eight years ago."

"You don't know history. It started 400 years ago."

I do know history, but I have become too well versed in the arguments: that "it" started 400 years ago and not 55, when Allies bombed Belgrade; or 59 (to the day--this surely could not be coincidental!), when the Nazis bombed Belgrade; or 85, when the Austrians across the Sava River in Zemun shelled Belgrade; or 500, when Columbus discovered America; or 610, when the Serbs lost the Battle of Kosovo Polje; or 845, when the church split. "I do know history. I just have a different view of it," I say.

"No, you don't know history. What newspaper do you work for?"

"That's a personal question." I was hoping he'd leave me alone to watch the film now.

We have had a steady diet of excellent American films, all of which happen to prove that Americans are corrupt, war-mongering, brainwashed, sex-crazed and gender-confused: Apocalypse Now, JFK, The Godfather, Network, Mrs. Doubtfire and Tootsie. Good thing Imbacil's wish that NATO would destroy television has not come true. Before we found the Wall Street Journal's explanation--that NATO needed Belgrade TV to show it the wreckage--Imbacil wondered why they hadn't got around to it. I suggested it might be difficult to justify bombing civilians who work for television.

"And bombing people who were coerced into going into the military is easy to justify?" she asked.

There are a lot of people in this country who are in a position to get killed now because they chose it over a situation where they might have been killed even faster. Last year I made an unlikely friend in the Serbian information secretariat in Kosovo--the journalists working there quickly dubbed it "The Ministry of Truth." This guy, as it turned out, had been a independent-television journalist, had got into trouble for something, and had employed family connections to keep him out of prison. Now his job was to create obstacles for working journalists. On my first day here this time, I stumbled into a police raid at B2, the independent radio station. I managed to interview one of the station's editors, but he asked me not to use his name: He will probably be going into the army soon, if that's all he can do to stay out of prison. So from Milosevic's target, he would turn into a NATO one.

About a year ago, I spoke with an International Red Cross worker whose job it was to "disseminate the Geneva convention" in conflict zones. I asked whether it made much sense to say, "You can kill people with this sort of bomb, if you like, but please don't use that other nasty sort."

She responded, "You see, war is perfectly legal."

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