The Breakfast Table

War of Nerves

Dear James,

Here I was worrying about historians having nothing to do in the next millennium, and now you tell me that they will be drowning in staffer’s memos. Think of the potential thesis topics: “Sucking Up: An analysis of the patterns of career advancement in the late American Imperial Age, 1990-2020.” Or “Sex, Lies, and the Six O’Clock News: The history of political propaganda in the early Clinton administration.” The frightening thing is that sociology graduate students are probably writing them already.

But you are dead right about the resonance this conflict has for other conflicts. It seems to me that it doesn’t matter any more what you think about the war, whether it was right or wrong to start bombing, whether Clinton did or did not know what he was doing: The point now is that NATO has to win it. If this wasn’t a massive humanitarian crisis at the beginning, it is now. More to the point, if we don’t come out one way or another as “victors,” the credibility of NATO is shot for the next generation or so, with knock-on effects in all of the places you mention, from Tel Aviv to Pyongyang and back again.

Judging from the papers this morning, I also think that we may now be reaching a critical point in the real war, the war of nerves. We’re clearly a bit tired of all this: Stories about American politics, Bill Bradley, and welfare reform are beginning to push Kosovo to one side of the front page of the New York Times, and both the Los Angeles Times’ and the NY Times’ front pages actually have space for other foreign stories (reopening of the German Reichstag, merger of European telecom companies). Reporters’ interests have shifted from Serbian atrocities to “NATO admits it hit second convoy,” the persistent strength of the Yugoslav army, and the risings costs of the war. On Op-Ed pages, there is more grumbling about Pentagon propaganda.

Although I still don’t see any Stanford students protesting, a few more weeks of refugees on the news, and a few stories about “how much this will personally cost you in next year’s tax bill” (someone is no doubt calculating that already) and we might get more grumbling, even a lot of grumbling. I’m guessing that the Serbs, who are not as unsophisticated or isolated as they sometimes are made out to be, know this perfectly well–which is why they are willing to wait it out, even though their economy will be destroyed. Somehow, we have to outlast them, or find some way to end the war the way we want to end it.

Have you had a chance to see the new Reichstag, by the way? It’s a really spectacular building with its new glass dome, most unlike the rest of the new architecture in Berlin, which is as bourgeois and un-imperial as the rest of modern Germany.