What's Happening in Bosnia is Terrible, But It's Not Genocide


Each day, the United States moves closer to military participation in the bloody civil war in the Balkans.

Several specious arguments have been offered by proponents of U.S. intervention in the Balkans. They sometimes claim that the national security of the United States is threatened by this faraway civil war. They occasionally assert that the United States has a duty, as the world's sole superpower, to enforce global peace.

The real argument, however -- the one that appears to be driving Clinton administration policy and gathering public support -- is about genocide. The United States, it is said, has a duty to prevent genocide. This strikes a resonant chord in the American conscience. It is, nevertheless, based on a fallacy. There is no evidence that genocide is occurring in the former Yugoslavia.

Genocide has a very specific meaning: the systematic annihilation of a racial, political or cultural group. A war crime, on the other hand, can be any violation of the Geneva Convention. The use of poison gas or the mistreatment of prisoners, for example, are considered war crimes. Make no mistake about it; horrific war crimes are being committed every day in the former Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, war crimes and genocide are two different things.

Since proponents of U.S. intervention in the Balkans often allude to the Holocaust, the comparison between German genocide and Serbian war crimes merits closer scrutiny. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, they sent special killing units, Einsatzgruppen, deep into Soviet territory to prevent the victims of Germany's murderous policies from escaping. Conquering territory was only one of Germany's objectives; another was the systematic annihilation of groups that the Germans hated.

In the former Yugoslavia, we see a very different, though still terrible, pattern. Terror is used as a weapon to send entire communities fleeing from their land. Women are raped en masse, villages are burned to the ground and prisoners are tortured. Although individual soldiers might be motivated by racist hatred, the goal of the combatants in the former Yugoslavia is to drive the enemy from the land, not to capture and kill every man, woman and child.

This is certainly no apology for Serbian, Muslim or Croatian war crimes; those atrocities merit the disgust and outrage of the world. Nevertheless, the war in Yugoslavia is about the control of territory, not genocide.

How has this misperception distorted the American debate on intervention in Bosnia? The word genocide evokes a powerful emotional response from many Americans. Our political leaders know this -- it is why they use it. But if the administration wants American soldiers to fight and die in a distant civil war, it should explain, very clearly, why.

If we are told that the fighting threatens U.S. security, we must refuse to be deceived. If we are told that it is the duty of the United States to enforce peace and order everywhere, we should insist that our efforts begin at home. If we are told that Americans must die because the Serbs are committing genocide -- the systematic annihilation of a racial, political or cultural group -- we must demand the evidence.

And if we are told that America must take a stand against war crimes in general, we must ask why we act in Serbia and not in the Caucasus, not in Southeast Asia and not in West Africa.

Daryl Press is a doctoral student in the Defense and Arms Control Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

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