The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo

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The New Military Humanism is the latest in a series of tracts in which he exposes the deadly hypocrisies of the United States and other "enlightened" democracies.

Noam Chomsky

Reviewed by Charlie Bertsch

Wednesday, March 22 2000, 10:23 PM


It's a wonder Noam Chomsky ever finds time to sleep, with all the writing he does. The New Military Humanism is the latest in a series of tracts in which he exposes the deadly hypocrisies of the United States and other "enlightened" democracies.The New Military Humanism is an important book. But I fear that it may not be as widely read as Chomsky would hope, precisely because it follows on the heels of so many similar works. To borrow a metaphor used frequently in the music business, Chomsky's political writing is reaching the point of market-saturation.

I have to admit that, when I first picked up a copy of this book, my response was "Not another one!" I'm sure this is exactly the sort of reaction that the powers-that-be wanted me to have. The culture industry has so carefully cultivated our intellectual sweet tooth that we find it difficult to swallow the bran flakes of a Noam Chomsky. Still, I bought The New Military Humanism anyway. But if I hadn't spent several hours waiting around in an airport with nothing better to do, I may well have consigned it to the I-should-read-this-but-probably-never-will stack in my flat.

And that would have been a shame, because The New Military Humanism has an important message. I'm not going to tell you that it represents a departure from Chomsky's previous tracts. If you've read as many of his political exposes as I have, you will have a very good idea of his overall argument. And he's not going to win any style points. As the gravelly drone of his voice implies, this is not the sort of man who dresses either himself or his prose in paisley underwear! But unless you actually undertake the laborious task of reading the book cover to cover, you will not feel its full impact.

The premise behind The New Military Humanism is that self-proclaimed "humanitarian" interventions like the NATO action in Kosovo still constitute warfare. In other words, no matter how well-intentioned they may appear, they are still an excuse for killing. As Chomsky makes abundantly clear, this fundamental truth has been hidden behind a remarkably dense media smokescreen in the United States and, to a lesser extent, Western Europe. If you take the mainstream press at its word, the NATO action is a rescue mission largely free of danger, except for the unfortunate half-dozen soldiers who meet an untimely end at the hands of an automobile accident or stray bullet. As was also the case in the Gulf War, the carnage inflicted by U.S. troops and their allies is disappeared in what Chomsky calls the "denial syndrome."

If you were taken in by this deception -- as a great many respectable people were -- you are probably wondering how Chomsky responds to the charge that NATO had no alternative but to intervene in the Kosovo conflict. This is the strongest part of The New Military Humanism. Chomsky freely acknowledges the "Serb atrocities in Kosovo, which are quite real, and often ghastly." But he repeatedly makes the point that the NATO action did nothing to prevent these atrocities. On the contrary, it actually seems to have furthered them. Not only did the bombing of Serbia cause the deaths of untold innocent people, it also exacerbated the conditions which occasioned those atrocities in the first place. He makes the case that "with full awareness of the likely consequences, Clinton and [British Prime Minister] Blair decided in favor of a war that led to a radical escalation of ethnic cleansing along with other deleterious effects."

In the conclusion of The New Military Humanism, Chomsky makes the full extent of NATO's misdeeds in Kosovo painfully clear. "Suppose you see a crime in the streets, and feel that you can't just stand by silently, so you pick up an assault rifle and kill everyone involved: criminal, victim, bystanders. Are we to understand that to be the rational and moral response?" The alternative he proposes to this sort of deadly humanitarianism is borrowed from the world of medicine, the Hippocratic principle to "do no harm." He states that, where all possible remedies have been tested, "it may sometimes be true that the search for peaceful means is at an end, and that there is 'no alternative' to doing nothing or causing vast harm." As the details in his book make clear, the Kosovo crisis met this criteria. Yet NATO persisted with its saturation bombing, for reasons that make a mockery of true humanitarianism. They are details worth taking to heart, even if it takes more dedication than your average overworked progressive is likely to muster.

The New Military Humanism is a Common Courage Press publication 

Copyright © 2000 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.
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