July/August 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 4
National Memory’s Role in the Balkans
In nations, increasing power seems to bring with it an expanded sense of moral obligation. Until the nineteenth century, for example, famines were considered natural disasters, catastrophes that regimes could palliate but not wholly avert. The Irish potato blight changed that moral calculus. For the first time in history, people had suffered what seemed to be an avoidable famine. While the potato crop would have failed no matter what the British government did, by the 184Os the richest and most sophisticated state in the world had the technical ability to quickly move massive amounts of food across oceans and distribute it to the starving Irish. In the eyes of subsequent generations, the British state, having failed to use this new power, was guilty of an atrocity, and this judgment does not seem obviously wrong; our moral imagination necessarily expands with the increase in our powers.
The degree to which the Western Allies could have averted or significantly limited the Holocaust is a matter of continuing historical debate, but the very possibility that we could have has shaped our moral imagination in the wake of the Second World War. This is in part a result of the sense that the Holocaust was so great and unprecedented an evil that it ought to have broken through political conventions and even “common sense,” but it was also a spillover from the debate over appeasement, which implied that the worst horrors of the Second World War were an avoidable catastrophe. As the Holocaust became the overwhelming symbol of the radical evil that appeasement had permitted, the obligation to forestall future Holocausts by prompt intervention became a thread in debates over political morality and international politics.
As this is written, American pilots are waging a de facto war with Yugoslavia. It seems obvious that the United States has no overwhelming strategic interest in Kosovo. The immediate spur to American intervention here is the memory of our recent inaction during the genocide in Rwanda and the long passivity in the face of atrocities in Bosnia; but the most potent force in play is the memory of the Holocaust. And it is worth noting that despite the increasing European willingness to use military power to rescue the Kosovars, anguish over inaction in the face of genocide seems to be a particularly AngloAmerican phenomenon. When Europeans are confronted with atrocities, their instinct is to respond as humanitarians, not as crusaders. We are different, and the explanation for this difference may lie in the correlation of power and responsibility, and also in divergences of national historical memory. American military power is supreme in the post-Cold War world, and the British abilities at what specialists call “force projection”—the capacity to send one’s military someplace far from home and do a lot of damage when it gets there— while trivial in comparison to America’s, dwarf those of any other power. Whether FDR and Churchill had the knowledge and the power to significantly affect Hitler’s Final Solution sooner will be debated for a very long time, but no one can doubt that if we are willing to pay the price, we have the power to crush gross evil in Rwanda, or Bosnia, or Kosovo. And because we are haunted by the possibility that some sixty years ago we had such power and declined to use it, the knowledge that a little Holocaust is brewing now makes us deeply uneasy at the prospect of inaction. Americans and Britons remember themselves not among World War II’s victims but among its heroes. Our conviction of continuing historical agency—a belief strongly rooted in our memory of that war—predisposes us to see its history as a set of lessons for future action, as a role that may need to be reprised—and, once reprised, perhaps perfected.
Objections to intervention in Kosovo, like those to intervention in Kuwait, descend from political traditions that argued against intervention in World War II, depicting it as either a war “for the Jews” or an “imperialist” war. For the majority of Americans, these remain discredited traditions, and they were most thoroughly discredited by the newsreel footage from Hitler’s extermination camps. The Anglo-American consensus seems to be that whatever we may or may not have known then, we know enough now; and whatever may have been possible then is manifestly possible now—and thus is obligatory. Nowadays all modern states ship food to the famine-stricken, because they know that they can. The Anglo-American population knows that it can stop some genocides—and thus feels compelled to do so. The encouraging news out of Kosovo is that the European response to atrocity seems to be taking that Anglo-American tone; military force is no longer seen only as the sword of the wicked but also as the instrument of justice.