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A Tale of Three Soldiers

by Jared Israel (4/5/99)

The government and the media have created quite an hysteria over Serbia putting three U.S. soldiers on trial. But it was all made up.

Even America Online (AOL) got involved. The AOL staff set up a special Talk Board to discuss the soldiers' trial last weekend. For the uninitiated, a Talk Board is an Internet site where you can post and reply to messages. Tens of thousands signed onto "Three Soldiers Put On Trial" and amazingly were welcomed with the following blurb from AOL:

  • "Although it is a violation of international law, the Serbs have begun court martial proceedings against three American soldiers they kidnapped." (From AOL, "Three Soldier's Put On Trial" Talk Board.)
  • I say "amazingly" because every assertion in the above sentence is a lie.

    Lie # 1. There was a trial.

    The trial story was repeated all weekend in various newspapers and TV broadcasts, and on the Internet.

    But in the real world, there was no trial. The men never left their cells. The Serbian government never planned to hold a trial.

    The trial and the fury that attended it was a fabrication. Of course, most newspapers and TV stations had no hand in the fabrication. Someone started it, some State Department official or CIA type or perhaps just a reporter and the rest chimed in and embellished with enthusiasm. "Embellished with enthusiasm" is the phrase of note. Our mass media is in the habit of repeating every anti-Serbian rumor spread by NATO or the State Department or KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) with never the slightest attempt at investigation, which in this case would have meant picking up the phone and dialing the Serbian government and saying: "Hello? Serbian government? Are you putting those soldiers on trial?"

    But nobody in the media made the call. It was an anti-Serbian story, and that was all that mattered.

    Side point: the Internet is held up as an example of democracy-in-action and to some extent it is; certainly by comparison to our newspapers and TV news shows which present the same view of international events, often in identical language. But what does it mean to debate freely on the AOL Talk Boards if you are basing your opinion on lies put forward in the mass media?

    Fabricated Serbian horror stories are commonplace. For instance, every day we read on page one that the Serbs have murdered some Albanian politician only to have said politician turn up later, quite alive. The "he's dead" story is top news but the "he's alive" story gets buried somewhere where nobody sees it. Therefore the impression stays with people: Serbs are killers. In the same way, I haven't heard of any newspaper or TV station admitting "We were wrong - there was no trial." They just stopped talking about the trial; I would wager most people have a lingering impression the men were in fact put on trial - in violation of international law...

    Which takes us to Lie # 2:

    Lie # 2. The trial was illegal.

    This assertion might startle you. You might say: "Illegal? How can a trial be illegal when there was no trial?" To which State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin might reply: "As we have pointed out time and again, the nonexistence of an event in no way mitigates Serbian guilt. The Serbs were wrong to put those men on trial whether they did it or not just as they are always wrong when they defy the International Community. If the tables were turned and the U.S. had *not* put three Serbian soldiers on trial, we would not have done so in a perfectly legal fashion."

    The State Department's charge of illegality derives from the Geneva Conventions of War. And indeed, that document does forbid putting captured soldiers on trial. You might say: "Who is the U.S. government to preach to anyone about international law? NATO's attack on Serbia violates every international law in the book, not to mention the usual constraints against mass murder."

    But you wouldn't have to say that, because the Geneva Conventions only apply when a country has declared war. The US, the Germans, the British and the French are bombing Yugoslavia, that is Serbia and Montenegro, including civilian factories, homes, markets, government buildings, bridges, refugee centers, military barracks used to house refugees, and monuments to the World War II fight against Hitler. But none of these countries, nor NATO itself, has declared war on Yugoslavia.

    So if the trial that did not happen had happened it would have been perfectly legal.

    LIE # 3. The soldiers were kidnapped while patrolling for the UN in Macedonia.

    Serbia says the three soldiers had infiltrated Serbian territory. The State Department says they were in Macedonia, patrolling the border as part of a UN mission in that country.

    Let's put the question of whether the men were in Macedonia or Serbia aside for a moment and consider this matter of the UN. Were the three soldiers part of a UN mission in Macedonia?

    You know, very often, when we say that some government statement is a lie, we get hit with: "They'd never tell such a stupid lie - it's too easy to check." But the truth is they don't worry about the quality of their lies. This UN story is a case in point.

    "The UN ? Who gave them permission to speak?"

    These days the UN is not in the habit of standing up to the US government. It was therefore a pleasant surprise when UN spokesman Fred Eckhard called a press conference to dispute the State Department claim:

    "They're not our soldiers," said Eckhard. Eckhard recalled that the UN mandate expired at midnight on February 28, after China vetoed proposals to extend the mission's mandate.

    "We've had no official business in the Federal Republic of Macedonia except to wind down our mission there. The three soldiers were under US command, not UN." (Agence France Presse, April 1, 1999)

    So our government lied again. The soldiers were under US command. The State Department says they were arrested on the Macedonian side of the border with Serbia. Since the U.S. has no military authority in Macedonia, would somebody please explain what three US soldiers were doing patrolling the Macedonian side of the Serbian border?

    Now We Infiltrate, Now We Don't…

    A day or so before the three soldiers were captured, Agence France Presse ran the following story:

    PARIS, March 30 (AFP) - American, British and French elite commandos are gathering intelligence in Kosovo and are ready to confront the Serb forces if necessary, the French daily La Croix reported Tuesday.

    "They are collecting information on the situation in Kosovo as was done during the Gulf war and, if necessary, can confront the enemy," said the Roman Catholic paper which gave no sources but is widely respected in France.

    It said the four or five-member commando units were infiltrating the Serb province through neighboring Macedonia and heading for various regions.

    The French soldiers are part of the Foreign Legion's Green Berets and special paratroops units, the British are part of the Special Air Services and the Americans belong to the US Marine's elite antiterrorist Seal units, La Croix said.

    Given that the State Department was a) lying about the soldiers working for the UN and has b) admitted they were near the Serbian border - isn't it reasonable to believe the Serbian statement that the three men had infiltrated into Serbia?

    A Remarkable Attitude

    The Serbian government has done nothing to humiliate the three soldiers.

    I point that out because it seems a striking fact. Indeed, the men were publicly praised by the Yugoslav officer who captured them. He said "they were brave soldiers, they tried to resist being arrested." He explained that that was how they suffered some abrasions.

    What kind of people are these Yugoslavs, that they can speak kindly of soldiers from a country that is dropping thousands of 2000 pound bombs on their property and people? If the tables were turned, if Serbia were the bully, if it were bombing hospitals and bridges in the USA, and if a US Army officer had a press conference to describe the capture of three Serbian soldiers who had tried to infiltrate US territory, does anyone, for one moment, believe that that officer would praise the captured men?

    Serbia has not attacked the U.S. The Serbian government has been fighting a nation-saving war, just as the North did during our Civil War, to prevent the secession of the Southern part of the country. That war has been bloody, though nowhere near as bloody as our Civil War. By what right do we interfere in Serbian affairs, support the secessionists, massively bomb the country and then spread lies, repeating "unconfirmed" or "reliable" reports of Serbian atrocities as page one news, none of it supported by unbiased evidence, and much of it sooner or later proven to be lies?

    Serbian Citizens Know the Three Soldiers Are Not the Enemy

    The Associated Press reported from Belgrade on April 1st:

    "The message from ordinary people interviewed on the streets of the Yugoslav capital was that the soldiers should be treated well -- surprising, given the high pitch of anti-American feeling since NATO airstrikes began March 24. (AP, 4-1-99)

    A Serbian-American we know explained Serbian citizens' attitude toward the soldiers in this way: "Look," he said, "these are poor guys; they didn't join the army to fight Serbia; they joined the army to get electronics training, to learn a trade. The recruiting ads say: 'Be all that you can be! Join the army!' The Serbs know these soldiers aren't the real enemy."

    Serb Minister Says Trial Was Never Planned

    Below is an excerpt from a Reuters interview with a Serbian official who explains that Serbia never planned to have a trial:

    WASHINGTON, April 4 (Reuters) - Three U.S. soldiers captured by Serbian forces will not be put on trial and will be freed when the NATO bombing ends, a Serbian government minister said on Sunday.

    "Of course they will not be tried and they will be back in their homes as soon as this stupidity stops," Milan Bozic, minister without portfolio in the Yugoslavian government and deputy mayor of Belgrade, said on the ABC program "This Week.''

    Bozic said the reports of a trial were false, attributing them to "malevolent communication from some media on the West.''

    Bozic said the three prisoners would be well-treated while being held captive. "I can assure (the) American public that there will be no problem with them,'' he said while being interviewed on ABC by satellite transmission from Belgrade.

    [Note: This report was written April 5th. A month later, the three soldiers were released by the Serbian government.]

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