Kosovo strains limits of thought

May 14, 1999

While the villages burn and the bombs drop in Kosovo, another war has been waged in the virtual world of the internet. At stake is the all-important "moral high ground", and the "rationale" for intervention.

On one side there is the Serbian Ministry of Information (www.serbia-info.com) putting forward its own version of "Nato genocide"; while on the other (or the same, depending on one's point of view) is the BBC's website on the Kosovo crisis (http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/ English/special_report/1998/Kosovo).

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe site (www.osce.org) includes a report from its Kosovo Verification Mission, www.osce.org/e/docs/presrel/kpr35-99.htm that lends weighty support to refugees' claims about the murders, rapes and robberies being carried out by Serb forces.

On the Institute for War and Peace Reporting site (www.iwpr.net/balkans/news/ bcr220499_2_eng.htm) is a document written by the director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, about the "Balkans Endgame", which concludes: "The West may debate ground troops in Kosovo. But the reality is that, in the long term, an international force will be required in Serbia too."

But spearheading the debate have been the philosophers, which is only fitting, as it was Serbian philosophers, such as the late Vaso Cubrilovic of Belgrade University, whose detailed strategies of "brute force" and deniable atrocity lie behind the current plan for reclaiming the lands of "Greater Serbia".

Lofty, cool, analytical, this has been a battle between utilitarians and the rest. Or so they would have us believe. Last week, a participant in the increasingly acrimonious debate on one of the internet's more popular academic mailing lists, (Philos_L, archived at Liverpool University) suffered the extreme electronic sanction. A bumptious "thought experimenter" was ceremoniously "deleted" after he had accused the editor of the Journal of Applied Philosophy of proposing "to send gun-boats to suppress fuzzy-wuzzies".

Many philosophers are critical of Nato or actively on Belgrade's side. Noam Chomsky has led a petition of peace campaigners to stop the B52s. At Belgrade University, where Mrs Milosevic is a sociology lecturer, the rector and assorted Serbian government-appointed colleagues are rallying "fellow philosophers" to defend human rights from "that monster of the cold war" - Nato.

In the newspaper Liberation Jean Baudrillard claimed that Nato's bombing was a deliberate ruse to ensure that Kosovo's Muslims are wiped out.

Most contributors to the theoretical debate agree to conduct matters philosophically, avoiding recourse to vulgar factual issues, outside "experts" or personal abuse. Instead, they swap increasingly ludicrous comparisons. At the end of the day, they agree, Milosevic is not Hitler. Even if he was, blowing up innocents is a bad thing. So even those who oppose Milosevic have been unable to support intervention. Unfortunately, the Kosovan refugees seem to be unable to appreciate all these conflicting ethical complexities. The philosophers quote Churchill's aphorism that "Jaw, jaw is better than war, war" approvingly, forgetting that he at least knew when "jaw, jaw" was no longer enough. For many of the Kosovans, that point has already been passed.

Martin Cohen is a research fellow, Centre for IT in Education, College of St Mark & St John, Plymouth, and author of 101 Philosophy Problems (Routledge).

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