A Matter of Honor

It drives the Serbs. It eludes the U.S.

Today America is at war. It is at war on two fronts: the Middle East and Middle Europe—in Iraq and Yugoslavia. Yet America is failing on both fronts. Instead of fearing the greatness of U.S. firepower, Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic taunt an America which has not demonstrated a will to commit to victory in either theater. Instead of the world honoring U.S. involvement in these skirmishes, international disdain of the U.S. is increased. Why?

Greek historian Thucydidies isolated three prime causes for war: fear, honor and interest. Historian Donald Kagan notes, “That fear and interest move states to war will not surprise the modern reader, but that concern for honor should do so may seem strange” (On the Origins of War, p. 8). Yet that is the very motive which currently unites Serbia in its gritty resistance to nato bombardment in Yugoslavia—honor! At stake is the national honor of the Serbian people who withstood the Ottoman yoke for 500 years, resisted the Nazis for five years and Russian incursion for over 30 years under Yugoslav leader Marshall Tito and now vow to fight to the death rather than have their soil invaded by nato forces. And it is the very characteristic of honor which is lacking in the U.S. and British-led nato initiative in the Balkans.

The extreme naïveté and arrogance of American and British foreign policy gurus is evidenced by their failure to even begin to grasp and adjust to this fundamental of Serbian historical character, rooted in multiple “glorious defeats” in battle, the greatest of which was the Serbian defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Empire at Kosovo in 1389. Kosovo is simply sacred soil to the Serbs. Of the stoicism and bitter, endemic resistance of the Serbs, military historian John Keegan observes, “War is central to the Serb national myth—and war of a certain sort.” Calling to mind the fact that the Yugoslav capital, Belgrade, is dominated by the Serbian military museum, built within an ancient Ottoman Turk Fort, Keegan declares, “The museum is not a hall of victories but of almost endlessly repeated defeats, out of which the Serbs plucked, inch by inch, some shreds of independence” (Newsweek, April 12, 1999).

It seems impossible, particularly for nato’s dominant partner, America, to comprehend that most nations on this earth don’t think like Americans. Yet, the U.S. Administration persists in the folly of a foreign policy that is rooted in the false assumption that other nationalities can be persuaded to, either by the U.S. example of “democracy” or by force. It is this naïve approach to foreign policy that has led the U.S. into the blind abyss in the Balkans.

What could possibly have influenced the U.S. Administration to have contemplated involvement in the Balkan powderkeg? Analyst George Friedman’s reply is that the U.S. Administration did so based on “three assumptions: first, there are no major world conflicts; second, everybody will always support any American intervention anywhere; third, therefore, no one will attempt to resist an American intervention.

“But, we have serious enemies…. There are many people who oppose our interventions, and neither Saddam Hussein or Milosevic are particularly impressed by the threat of an air campaign. [The U.S. Administration] had no Plan B. And now they’re improvising one while their allies, the Italians and the Germans in particular, are trying to find the exit.”

This all sounds like a recipe for American disaster, and many disasters have befallen nations who have enmeshed themselves in the Balkans.

The sad fact is that while nato leaders and the U.S. Administration in particular espouse their belief that, in terms of the Balkan crisis, theirs is an involvement justified by their possessing the moral high ground in the conflict, it is their lack of true honor and real moral fiber which is causing their demise. Unless those who hold public office—unless those who formulate and promulgate government policy, in particular foreign policy, reflect upright, moral character in their dealings—unless their daily interactions with other human beings are truly honorable, no amount of their crusading for a just cause will garner the full support of their own nation or their fellow nations in this volatile global village within which we all live.

Dr. Friedman made the point, “I strongly suspect that if we either pose our conflicts as a moral crusade or have a leader who can be a moral exemplar whom we could follow…we would carry out the mission. But if we have leaders that no one in their right mind can trust, how can we then follow them?”