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Saturday, April 10, 1999 Published at 15:17 GMT 16:17 UK

Analysis: A war that dare not speak its name

Issue of ground troops in the spotlight

By Defence Correspondent Jonathan Marcus

This is the war that dare not speak its name. In briefing after briefing, Nato politicians, spokesmen and commanders refuse even to acknowledge the W-word. Nato, they insist, is not at war - and certainly not at war with the Yugoslav people.

Kosovo: Special Report
That may come as some surprise to the citizens of Serbia, a surprise to the refugees driven from their homes in Kosovo, and a surprise to the pilots of the Nato aircraft cramped into their cockpits struggling to complete their missions while evading both Yugoslav air defences and avoiding civilian casualties. If this isn't war, then I am not sure what is.

Long-distance conflict

Air campaigns are inevitably fought at a distance. But Nato headquarters in Brussels is a very long way away indeed from the conflict.

[ image: At Nato headquarters, the war seems far away]
At Nato headquarters, the war seems far away
As catastrophe unfolded in the Balkans, the only real sign of the war at headquarters was the barricades of razor wire across the entrance. That and the hall full of journalists gathering each day for the ritualistic briefings about sorties flown; targets hit or more often not engaged; and quite staggering statistics trying to put a number on the columns of human misery flowing out of Kosovo to uncertain sanctuary.


So is this war or pseudo-war? Or is it a very particular sort of war - a new type of conflict for the 21st Century; a war fought according to the lowest common denominator by an alliance of 19 democracies seeking minimum risk.

Avoiding so-called collateral damage to civilians - though evidently impossible - is one of Nato's aims.

But the alliance is also intent on avoiding collateral damage to itself, prosecuting this campaign at arm's length, fearful of any turn in public opinion that might breach the fragile consensus within its own ranks.

Throughout history, countries and alliances have gone to war - sometimes for noble aims, sometimes for base reasons of territorial expansion or political self-aggrandisement.

[ image: Nato is reluctant to commit ground troops to the war]
Nato is reluctant to commit ground troops to the war
The Cold War seemed to banish armed conflict from the European mainland - albeit exporting the violence to a series of hot wars in Africa, the Middle East and Vietnam. But with the Cold War's corset removed, armed conflict once again broke out in Europe, perhaps not surprisingly in that self-same crucible that began an earlier European catastrophe - World War I.

But war - real war that is - has one common defining characteristic. Whatever its aims, it involves real risk to the protagonists. When nations venture into combat, the stakes are inevitably high.

Risk concentrates the mind - it is in one sense the adrenaline in the decision-making process. And without risk - real risk, political as much as practical - an important element is removed from the policy process.

That is precisely why the cruise missile has become the United States' weapon of choice in managing post-Cold War confrontations - the 21st Century equivalent of gunboat diplomacy. The land attack cruise missile - to give it its proper name - is a marvel of technological wizardry.

Generally accurate, it is independent of the weather; and it has no pilot, hence no risk to the firer.

Real issues

But armed conflict cannot be fought at a distance. If real issues are at stake, greater risks need to be taken. For if the risks are not worthwhile, why enter the fray at all?

Such contradictions have hampered Nato's efforts to get its message over during the early stages of this conflict. It is of course almost impossible to fight a war of attrition according to the dictates of 24-hour rolling news schedules. But Nato's rhetoric has been out of step with its whole concept of operations.

If, looking back over our troubled century the halting of genocide or butchery - terms both used by Nato spokesmen - are not a cause for war, then it is hard to see what is.

Ground troops 'inevitable'

Many in Nato know the score. They know that, at some point, ground troops will have to go into Kosovo, and that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is hardly likely to send them an invitation.

More troops and more equipment are on their way to Albania. Humanitarian relief may be part of their mission.

But stealthy preparations are also under way for the ground phase of this campaign, even though the hope remains that they will simply advance into a vacuum and that the Yugoslav forces in Kosovo will have disappeared into the night.

No wonder, then, that even while Yugoslav petrol depots burn and ministry buildings tumble, Mr Milosevic still believes that Nato will break first.

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