A Different Kind of Killing
Review of Sebastian Junger's essay in The New York Times Magazine of February 27, 2000

by Gilles d'Aymery

February 27, 2000


In this week's feature article on Swans, I have tried to show that our opinion makers were starting to have second thoughts regarding the situation in Kosovo. I took the articles published in The New York Times for the past ten days -- a newspaper that I scrupulously read every day -- to help me demonstrate my point. Furthermore, I said that we were still far from witnessing a complete change of the official ideological line which is, as we've been told for a long time, that the Serbs were at the root of the Balkan tragedy and that we, the Western Powers, were morally justified to launch a war against them to prevent the ethnic cleansing or, even worse, the genocide of the Kosovars of Albanian background.

In his short essay, Sebastian Junger -- the author of "The Perfect Storm", we are told -- goes a long way to reaffirm the official ideological line. What's so interesting, however, is the creative approach he takes to remind us of the subhuman nature of Serbs.

Like any good story-teller, Mr. Junger sets the stage for his story, which is really a testimony of his own emotional experience of events viewed through his prism. He first provides us with his credentials. He's been in the Balkan before, in Bosnia and Croatia, and in The Hague to write "about the F.B.I. pathologists who were sent over to gather evidence for war crimes trials." He "was sent by an American magazine to cover NATO's first great triumph, the military operation in Kosovo." He also acknowledges that while "the Serbian people had suffered as well...Kosovo in the spring of 1999 was as close to black and white as it gets with journalism." Yet, he adds, "Almost immediately, though, things got murky."

He relates the murkiness of the situation by telling how two Albanian boys were throwing stones at a pig that "had obviously been left behind by a Serbian farmer who fled in the wake of the cease-fire." "Muslims don't eat pork, Serbs do," says Mr. Junger. And the pig ended up dying in a ditch, "and the boys set upon it with clubs."

Mr. Junger has a sensitive soul. "It was disturbing to watch," he writes. More disturbing were the implications. "Within days of the Serbs' withdrawal, the Albanian Mafia moved into western Kosovo, .... KLA soldiers were killing Serbs and Gypsies and burning down their houses." Even more disturbing, the "Mass graves were not yielding the number of bodies that journalists feared (or, in some senses, hoped for, and certain anecdotal accounts of crimes, like the burning of bodies at the Trepca mines, proved untrue."

And so, Mr. Junger asks: "Were the Albanians just as bad as the Serbs? And if so, what was the point of all this? Why do anything?"

By now we know that the Serbs were bad and NATO was good. This is a given. The question is whether the Albanians were also bad, and whether NATO, that is us, the Western community, the free world, the good guys, should wash its hands of this muddy mess.

You see, Mr. Junger is confronting a moral dilemma, a personal crisis of sort. What if, indeed, the Albanians were as bad as the Serbs? Imagine this, if the boys could kill a pig, just because it was a Serbian pig, what else could they do? From a pig to a Gypsy and from a Gypsy to a Serb... What a frightening thought! Had we been blind, had we been wrong all along? If so, there was no "NATO's first great triumph." Mr. Junger does not feel the need to explain what was NATO's "second" great triumph, but the very thought of a possible Western blunder crosses his mind. That makes him uncomfortable, indeed.

Fortunately for him, he then recalls that he has an intellect, not just emotions. So he goes on to outlay legal considerations. In short, "all murders are not considered equal." In some instances, he submits, "A single murder can be considered an act of genocide if it can be shown that there was an intent to kill everyone else in that person's group." He carries on: "And the murder of hundreds of thousands of people -- as in the Allied bombing campaigns in World War II -- is not considered a war crime if the deaths were not a primary purpose of the bombing." And, in a parenthesis, somewhat circumspectly, he complements his intellectual foray thus: "(It helps, of course, to end up winning the war.)"

So now we've learned that not all dead bodies are equal. From a pig to a Gypsy, there is a margin that has long been debated by legal scholars. Since, I am not one, I'll leave the legality of moral killing to my friend Christopher Black and to Professor Michael Mandel. They certainly could illuminate us all on this matter.

So far, Serbs are bad, NATO is good, questions are asked about the nature of killing, and not all murders are equal. As Mr. Jungler states, "I found a salvation of sorts."

Thus has passed two-thirds of the essay.

We are lead back into the personal testimony: "It's not easy to rely on an abstraction like that in the midst of so much meaningless violence. But the definition of war crime became almost as essential to my work in Kosovo as my pen and notebook or my tape recorder." Pigs, Gypsies, Serbs, Albanians, death...equated in essence and importance to Mr. Junger's pen and notebook or tape recorder...

No doubt, this is a profound essay in the making! Though I am wondering. There are only two paragraphs left.

In the town where the pig died, Suva Reka, Mr. Junger interviewed a man who had survived a mass execution. Of course, certainly due to lack of space, we are not told whether a mass execution had actually occurred. But, that's fine. One can understand publishing limitations. Though it could have been useful, since from the author's own admission, "anecdotal accounts of crimes...proved to be untrue," to let us know. Was there a mass execution in Suva Reka?

Anyway, after the interview, Mr. Junger was lead by a friend of the interviewed man to a field where a body was laying, unclaimed. Let Mr. Junger tell the story in his own words: "Two weeks earlier, the man said, Serbian irregular forces kidnapped a girl from a nearby town and took her at night to the field. There they raped her and cut her throat and left her naked in the tall grass to die. When we saw her she had been dead two weeks and was barely recognizable as a teenage girl, except that she wore bright red fingernail polish. It stood out grotesquely on her mummified hands."

Wow, powerful stuff! How could that ever happen? How could that ever be done to a young girl? This is so sickening. How could one not get angry, enraged, in front of such a gut-wrenching story?

And so, Mr. Junger concludes: "Barbarities of this kind have been going on for thousands of years, but it was not until this century that a mechanized army carried out such crimes in the service of its government. That is genocide; the rest is just violence. And whenever I read stories of Albanian atrocities that confuse the two, I think about that girl in Suva Reka and all that it took to bring about her death."

Finally, finally, we now know that not all killings are indeed equal. Pigs, Gypsies, Serbs, Albanians, and this poor little girl are not the same, are they? We now know why we went to war. It's so much bigger than ourselves. We should never forget.

Finally, really?

Did Mr. Junger ask himself a few questions before taking the story that he's made his for granted?

Was the young girl an Albanian? If she were, why is it that her family had not claimed the body? Had her entire family been killed in the mass execution? Why hadn't her fellow Albanians given her a decent burial? To let her body be eaten by the crows? To be a testimony of Serb's atrocities? Did anyone else corroborate the story?

We are told that Serbian irregulars committed this abominable crime. Were they Serbs? Were they irregulars? Did they act in the service of their government? Did they actually rape her?

Could it be that she was a Serbian young girl? Could it be that she was left there for the benefit of our Western sensibilities? Could it be that Mr. Junger was taken for a good ride?

It is a sad story, a beautifully-related story. But, until proven to the contrary it's just that: a story. It does not allow Mr. Junger to reach his rather convoluted and extreme conclusion.

If I were to ever meet Mr. Junger, I would suggest to him that he limits himself to story-telling and leaves his moralistic kitchen assertions and conclusions where they should remain, in the garbage can.

I'm not a moralist and do not intend to compete with Mr. Junger and his New York Times editors in this realm. But I can see an argument for whatever it is. And when it is as flimsy and flaky an argumentation as this one is, I can safely conclude that the pundits are on the wrong side of the debate and are increasingly aware of it. Unsubstantiated drama may have a momentary impact, but facts live on to be substantiated by history.


This Week's Other Article

Letters to the editor
1) Iraq Sanctions/Bombing by Don Meyer
2) What is it with Barbara Crossette?? by Drew Hamre


Resources on the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath


Articles Published on Swans Regarding the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath

Published February 27, 2000
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