I keep hearing intelligent, well-informed journalists and commentators referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as some version of “the first war in Europe since the end of WW II.” This is mindbogglingly false. Do we have collective amnesia? I hope not.
Here are some trigger words to jar our memories: rape camps, ethnic cleansing, Srebrenica, Milosevic, Karadzic, Slovenian War, Croatian War, genocide, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatian paramilitaries massacring Serbian Orthodox Christian civilians, Serbian paramilitaries massacring Croatian Catholic civilians, Yugoslav Muslims being hit hard by all of them, UNPROFOR, Kosovo War, Balkans Conflict.
It culminated in the US, under the auspices of NATO, bombing Belgrade, the first time a European capital had been bombed by another country since the end of WW II, and Russian tanks rolling into Kosovo with the blessing of the US and NATO. The circumstances at that time were very different than they are in the present conflict. During the entire period of the breakup of Yugoslavia, about 150,000 people died and the wars created millions of refugees.
I am not suggesting a question of whether we should or shouldn’t have bombed Yugoslavia. Opinions run wild on that and I’m not trying to spark a debate. I’ve had enough of those to last me a lifetime. I’m pointing out that to call Russia’s Ukraine invasion the first war in Europe since the end of WW II is to shamefully disregard the many thousands of civilians who suffered and died during what are now collectively called The Yugoslav Wars. Let’s not erase these victims from history.
I would have liked to see at least one news article these past five days that began with something like, “Not since the wars in Yugoslavia have we seen such a…” or “Not since the US-led NATO bombing of Serbia, albeit under markedly different circumstances, has there been a…” But not one. The Associated Press’ description of the present horrific invasion of Ukraine is the only accurate one I’ve stumbled upon so far: Putin’s invasion is “the largest land invasion in Europe since the end of WW II.” That is true, even though it seems crafted to circumvent any mention of the US and NATO as being the first to bomb Europe since the end of WW II. Right or wrong, for or against, the Yugoslav Wars need to be acknowledged instead of wiped from our collective memories.
I am very opposed to Russia’s Ukraine invasion and proud that the world is standing up to Putin, much to his surprise, but I’m seeing that often our messaging is not accurate and erases this tremendous loss of lives that only ended about 22 years ago.
Will we have forgotten about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 20 years from now? We might not think so right now but I fear we will forget. As an American, this saddens me.
I was in Serbia and Croatia just before the period of our 1999 bombing campaign, thanks to receiving an award from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and was inspired to write the anti-war play Tesla’s Letters. I later returned to Croatia to teach at a summer film and theatre workshop sponsored by the Soros Foundation and Zagreb University. Tesla’s Letters premiered in New York in April of 1999 during the NATO bombing campaign. Here is the New York Times review of it for further context.