Although I cannot claim to have predicted the apparent victory in Kosovo, and although I deplore its muddled strategy and the government’s failure to put its case before the public, I do feel some sympathy for the foreign policy behind it. This way of waging war lacks the “dignity” of the old methods, but what is newer and less violent will always be less dignified than older, more sacrificial procedures, just as Athenian tragedy is more dignified than the entertainments of our era. Even the lack of strategic planning is not a simple negative.

To forestall objections, let us stipulate that NATO did indeed achieve victory, that concessions to Milosevic, such as not permitting NATO troops into Yugoslavia proper, are not signs of a sell-out, and that, whatever their sufferings, the Albanian Kosovars will eventually enjoy greater autonomy and a more productive economy than if the war had not taken place. Even if these assertions turn out to be utopian, it is still worthwhile formulating a model of what victory would have been like, if only to help us understand what prevented the model from being realized.

Watching a film like Saving Private Ryan (see Chronicle 147) gives one an appreciation of the heroism of war in its final incarnation. The American soldier as typified by John Miller doesn’t want to be there, gives no thought to why he is there,  knows only that he must remain there until the job is done. This is not, as certain superficial critics have suggested, a failing either of Miller, of the Allied cause in WW II, or of the film. The point is that Miller’s acceptance perinde ac cadaver of his country’s aims in the war is a condition that, as an educated man (Miller is a history teacher), he has examined and accepted, but that has no relevance to the day-to-day fighting in which he is engaged. The last “real” war, fought to the finish with the maximal weapons at hand, was also arguably the most just and necessary of all wars as well as the most violent and wantonly destructive. Perhaps Dresden was unnecessary; it is difficult to argue that Hiroshima was unnecessary. It is as though these horrors of WW II offer as their excuse that they make explicit the meaning of what WW I had claimed to be–and it is not only ignorant undergraduates who confound the two–“the war to end all wars.”

The point of postwar military action, rather than to be heroic, is to drain war of its heroism by eliminating risk to one’s own troops while minimizing casualties to the adversary. Killing is no longer the aim but an accident of war, which has become, more truly than von Clausewitz ever imagined, an extension of diplomacy. That the bombing of Kosovo was begun without a long-term strategy for ground invasion reflects the uncertainties inherent in redefining an age-old institution. This minimalization of violence has nothing in common with a return to a “ritual” conception of war. Indeed, the most effective aspect of the military action in Yugoslavia was, as in WW II, its effect on civilian life, except that instead of carpet-bombing Belgrade, NATO contented itself with disturbing the electric grid and other necessities of civilized life. Such tactics would not work so well in Afghanistan, Rwanda, or North Korea; they are a tribute to Yugoslavia’s place in “Western civilization.” But the fact that they worked, in contravention of the expected analogy with the Londoners’ in WW II whose resolve was only strengthened by the bombs and V-2 rockets, reflects not merely the sophistication of the Yugoslav economy but the lack of stomach for sacrifice in a generation that, quite reasonably, no longer sees why such sacrifice should be necessary.

The familiar story of the Fall of the Roman Empire leads us to fear that the civilized world’s lack of stomach for fighting and dying will incite “barbarian” forces to conquest. But in recent history, the armies of the “barbarians” Saddam and Milosevic are far from having displayed the implacable bloodthirstiness that made Attila’s and Genghis Khan’s hosts so terrifying. The reason is that the “barbarians” too are part of global civilization; even if they do not read history books, their leaders watch CNN. Thus they know that the brutal physical courage which (allied with sophisticated equestrian technique) once assembled pyramids of skulls is no longer of “world-historical” significance. The Nazis were the last major power to cultivate such traits, albeit in a new guise adapted to the industrial means at their disposal–Kristallnacht was an embarrassment to the architects of the Endlosung.

The “barbarians” are still with us, but their acts are limited to the creation of malaise through random violence, and there is no certainty that even terrorism will continue indefinitely. (Nor is there any certainty that it will cease; terrorism is far from having exhausted all its possibilities.) But if, along the lines of this general argument, terrorism itself comes to an end, this would not be a sign that humanity has been cured of violence, merely that the model of heroism constituted by the sacrifice of individual life for the sake of the collectivity is rapidly losing its viability even in the less democratic areas of the globe.


At the recent Atlanta COV&R meeting (see Chronicle 170) I attended a talk on “The Sacrificial Meaning of the Holocaust” by Richard Koenigsberg, an autodidacte who has devoted many years to the subject. Koenigsberg’s central point was that, Hitler’s notion of national belonging having been shaped by the “sacrificial” experience of WW I, his idea of annihilating the Jews was, in a perverse way–the speaker did not seem to realize just how perverse–ultimately indistinguishable from his conception of the sacrificial destiny of German youth.

In linking these two destinies that clearly had opposite valences for Hitler and his followers, Koenigsberg recalled Hannah Arendt’s not altogether dissimilar view of “totalitarian” societies as functioning through a universal terrorism ultimately indifferent to national differences. Arendt comes close to making Jews and Germans just two subgroups of terrorized humanity. Although Koenigsberg’s notion of sacrifice suggests the paradox in this union of contraries more openly, I think his categorization can be further sharpened.

The Nazis saw the destruction of the Jews as analogous not to human sacrifice but to the elimination of disease-causing bacteria. Yet Koenigsberg’s talk revealed that this decisive step toward dehumanization had already been taken within the vocabulary of sacrifice applied to the soldier-victims of WW I. Here is one of his citations, from P. H. Pearse, founder of the Irish Revolutionary movement, writing in 1916:

The last sixteen months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe. Heroism has come back to the earth. It is good for the world to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefield. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country.Koenigsberg equates war with human sacrifice, on the model of “[t]he Aztecs [who] believed that the sun arose each morning because it was fed with the heart and blood of sacrificial victims.” But just as the Holocaust was a unique historical experience, so too was WW I. European civilization in 1914, whatever its flaws, was hardly comparable to the society of the Aztecs. The latter, we recall, failed to invent the wheel, presumably for the same reason that they fed on sacrificed human flesh: they lacked large edible and otherwise exploitable mammals. In contrast, prewar Europe lacked neither protein nor horsepower. The horror of WW I was the irrational consequence of the European economic rationalization that had generated  mechanized weaponry, universal conscription, and colonialism–and with it, the model of colonial war, to which the victory in Kosovo owes not a little.

Bloody phrases like that quoted above, in other words, are not expressions of an untroubled and uninterrupted tradition of bloody sacrifice; they are more or less hysterical attempts to justify a posteriori the unexpected bloodletting over trifling objectives as an expression of the individual’s duty to subordinate his own survival to that of his community. This is not to say that all wars previous to WW I had deserved such justification. But after the excesses of the Napoleonic era, war in the nineteenth century had steadily become less expensive of European manpower; the ratio of political accomplishment to casualties seemed to rise steadily. It is the brutal termination of this trend in the unproductive sacrifices of WW I that inspired in Hitler the apparently final paroxysm of the sacrificial vision of war. This time, sacrifice would be meaningful: there would be no symmetry of friend and foe, no fraternization across the barbed wire. The similarity in the fates of Germans at the front and Jews in the camps–we should not overlook the horrible differences–was an irony Hitler would not have appreciated. And yet, the  sacrifice of millions of regrettably anonymous “heroes” is not all that far from the extermination of millions of deliberately anonymous “vermin.”


WW II was truly the war to end all wars because it was fought, by soldiers like Spielberg’s John Miller, to put an end to the sacrificial vision of war (a vision enthusiastically shared by Germany’s Japanese ally, if not by the Italians). There is a horrible symmetry between combatants in any battle, but mimetic rivalry between communities does not as a rule generate pacifying difference out of symmetry by arbitrary sacrificial means; war puts to the test the ethical strength of competing systems. In the case of WW II, the good guys won. The moral ambiguity injected into the Allied victory by the participation of the “totalitarian” USSR can now be seen, on the scale of world history, as an irrelevancy.

No doubt the NATO soldiers in Kosovo are taking advantage of weaker adversaries caught taking advantage of still weaker adversaries; their lack of heroism is precisely the model that the war to end all wars inspires us to follow. If it is indeed true that the “barbarians” themselves have become too civilized to pose a challenge to civilization, there may be reason for optimism concerning the progress of peace in the coming millennium.