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From AJR,   July/August 1999  issue

The War And How Not To Call It   

It was better to be contrarian than certain.


By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     

Certainty can be the biggest trap.

The war could not be won without ground troops. The Serbs had a powerful air defense system; hidden in the early days of the bombing, it would roar after that. We would run out of cruise missiles after the first weeks. The Apaches would go in within hours after their arrival; their fearsome firepower would chase the Serbs out of hiding.

In the absence of reporters on the ground where the Serb army was, and with propaganda machines on both sides rolling, too much was left to commentators trying to fill the open maw of the media.

Were people paying attention anyway?

They were when they saw the streams of miserable refugees, when three Americans were captured, when a stealth fighter crashed and its pilot was rescued, when Serb civilians were interviewed after bombings.

These were personal moments, times when we could easily identify with what was happening because we could identify with human beings we could see. This was mostly television, but sometimes print. These were the things that could be made visual.

It was harder, perhaps, to pay attention to abstract considerations. The chattering class on television gave us too much opinion, with too little information. But we had our choices: one military expert's certainty against another's, one candidate's views against another's. It just didn't add up to much we could be sure of.

In the land of instant chatter about everything, and instant opinions by everyone, being counterintuitive (or is it just counter-instant?) may be our best way to read and to watch.

Most are sure that an air war alone can't win it? Then maybe it can. After all, every war turns the previous one on its ear, if there is enough time between them.

Now what? If we can break another country, bringing an enemy to its knees without suffering casualties, can it be done again? We may think so, and that changes everything. It seemed easy, for us. Of course, there is more to come, and none of the aftermath will be easy.

NATO held together even after it seemed it might come apart, or might wimp out. The left-of-center governments of Britain and France showed tough determination to prevail in this war, ready to back that up. Not so predictable, this. Germany's government might have fallen if German troops had gone into battle, but they were close to that and it didn't.

The American president, he who was said to have lost all moral authority and perhaps all real power as well, led a big alliance in what Vaclav Havel called the first war fought for human rights rather than national interests.

Who got all this right?

Maybe, in our first rough draft of history these days, it's impossible to be sure of anything except the obvious in 10 or so weeks. We know too much and too little too fast.

Of course, there is a distinction to be made. There was a lot of excellent reporting of events, despite the difficulties. Mostly the problem was our eternal confusion about the last war and the compulsive certainty of the commentariat.