"Ready to Kill but Not to Die": NATO Strategy in Kosovo

By Robinson, Paul | International Journal, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

"Ready to Kill but Not to Die": NATO Strategy in Kosovo


Robinson, Paul, International Journal


In a speech given recently in Canada, Vaclav Havel, the president of the Czech Republic, claimed that NATO's campaign in Kosovo was the first in history to be fought entirely for humanitarian purposes. NATO, he argued, had no economic, political, or strategic interest in Kosovo and was acting purely for altruistic reasons. This made the campaign a 'just war.' Even if Havel's argument about NATO's purpose is correct, his conclusion is not. The theory of 'just war' generally accepted in Western countries recognizes that to be just a war must not only be fought by a legitimate authority and for a just cause; it must also be fought as a last resort after all reasonable alternatives have been exhausted, and it must be fought by ethical means. A war fought for a righteous cause but pursued by immoral methods cannot be considered just.(f.1) If the methods used by NATO against Yugoslavia breached the moral conventions for the conduct of war, then NATO's justification for its campaign falls apart. This suggests that those who portray themselves as humanitarian crusaders may be blinded by the righteousness of their cause to the immorality of their methods.

The conduct of war is traditionally assumed to be ruled by two principles: discrimination and proportionality. Under the first principle, it is unethical to target non-combatants, although it is acknowledged that they may be killed as an unintentional result of attacks on military targets ('collateral damage' in modern parlance). But the acceptability of collateral damage is limited by the principle of proportionality. It is unethical to attack a military target when the likely damage to civilians is disproportionate to the value of the target. Along with these two principles, combatants are expected to follow certain rules of behaviour with regard to one another -- prisoners are to be well treated, flags of surrender and truce are to be respected, and so on. These rules are guided by an unwritten code of honour, which in the Western world is based on the mediaeval code of chivalry. The honourable warrior's desire for victory is tempered by a wish to avoid sullying his reputation and conscience. Means are as important as ends. Honourable soldiers defend the innocent, respect their enemies, and fight openly where their courage can be seen by all. In practice, this chivalric code is rarely; if ever, observed today; nonetheless it remains an ideal to which soldiers are meant to aspire. And for good reason because the soldier's sense of honour is the prime restraint on war. As John Keegan has said: 'There is no substitute for honour as a means of enforcing decency on the battlefield, never has been, never will be.'(f.2) Without codes of honour, Michael Ignatieff writes, 'war is not war -- it is no more than slaughter.'(f.3)

The main characteristic of NATO's conduct of the war in Kosovo was a desire to avoid friendly casualties. Thus NATO leaders refused to commit land forces to combat. Instead, they focused on a massive air campaign involving nearly 1,000 aircraft, as well as unmanned cruise missiles. Furthermore, in the initial stages of the campaign, NATO airplanes avoided the most dangerous targets by focusing on 'strategic' political and economic targets far from Kosovo rather than on 'fielded forces.' They also chose to fly at high altitudes to avoid enemy air defence systems. The plane that destroyed an Albanian refugee convoy, for instance, was reported to be flying at an altitude of 15,000 feet, which was apparently the standard operating height for most aircraft. At that height it was hardly surprising that the pilot could not identify his target properly. The weapons that were perhaps most suited to attacking military targets in Kosovo were the Apache helicopters that were sent to Albania, but they were never used. As one senior NATO diplomat noted half way through the campaign, they would not be put into combat until NATO was certain that they would not be shot down: 'We don't throw our treasures away. …

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