The Road To Hell

...was paved with good intentions--but muddled planning. Now what?

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War, we are shocked to discover, is not a video game. Seduced by the antiseptic green glimmers of smart bombs and high-altitude jet jockeys flickering across TV screens, we'd come to consider international conflict little more than the quick thrill of bloodless lightning victories. This war is not like that. This war is the ruthless reduction of Kosovo: mass expulsion, killing, burned villages, the obliteration of a people's identity. This war is American soldiers--Staff Sergeant Andrew Ramirez, Staff Sergeant Christopher Stone, Specialist 4 Steven Gonzales--captured, humiliated, perhaps tried, perhaps killed. This war is sophisticated supertech airplanes dropping tons of ordnance night after night that fail to stop the enemy's rifle-toting soldiers. This war is Slobodan Milosevic, cleverer and crueler than planners expected, so far getting the better of NATO.

Disagreements would not erupt in war, Winston Churchill said, unless the other side also believed it could win. The strongman of Serbia has once again confounded the best-laid plans of the West by fighting back when he was supposed to fold. He ceded the skies to NATO, letting the bombs and missiles rain down while barely activating his air defenses. Meanwhile, on the ground, his army pursued two-pronged tactics: pushing tens of thousands of Albanian Kosovars out of the country and engaging in a murderous offensive against the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army.

And Milosevic seemed to be winning, at least by his peculiar calculus. He has foisted a barbarous humanitarian crisis upon his neighbors and the European continent. The sight of thousands upon thousands of dazed, weeping refugees fleeing for their lives into the region's poorest, least stable states set off shock waves in the West. The states themselves--particularly Macedonia and Montenegro--trembled at the very real possibility that Kosovo's instability was contagious.

The wonder weapons of air power looked futile against primitive "ethnic cleansers" with guns. The long-threatened bombing campaign failed to deter the rape of Kosovo and even appeared to be speeding it. Publicly, NATO insisted that the blame for the refugee flight lay solely with Milosevic, not Western bombs. But privately, officials offered a line that made more sense alongside the awful images. Military planners lamented that bad weather, clever Serb tactics, White House worries about collateral damage--and a reluctance to risk pilots' lives--kept them from hitting at Milosevic as hard as they wished. And diplomats complained that the limp military effort wasn't bringing the Serbs to heel fast enough. "You want to know the truth?" asked a senior State Department official who had urged a tougher assault against Milosevic. "We don't think we've accomplished anything." That frustration, in part, led NATO to speed up the pace of its bombing, to launch a precision cruise-missile attack that set key ministries in the heart of Belgrade aflame Saturday morning, to plan a massive pounding over the Easter weekend and to prepare for a much broader campaign--one that will look less like a video game and an awful lot like conventional declared war.

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