As I watch with detached interest over the extended hand-wringing over what to do about Syria, I can’t help but think of Kosovo.
Just a little less than 11 years ago, I ended up in Kosovo through a string of rather odd events. Without going into boring detail, suffice it to say one day I was living in relative comfort in Germany, and the next I was scurrying out in sub-zero temperature in the wee hours the morning to … well, wee.
For those unfamiliar with the Kosovo War, here’s a little background information. This will give you a lot of the political background, but what’s important to remember that we, along with our NATO allies, went into Kosovo in 1999 to intervene in an ongoing civil war (sounding familiar yet?).
By the time I got to Camp Bondsteel in late 2002, although we were ramping down our activities there (with an eye toward moving on Iraq), it didn’t appear we had done much “delivering.” Camp Bondsteel, then referred to as the biggest city in Kosovo, was run completely on oil generators. That’s because – more than four years after victory had been declared – the Kosovars got no more than four hours of electricity a day. No one knew when those four hours would come, of if they would come in one big chunk or in smaller chunks of anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour or more. This made it extremely difficult to live anything resembling a normal life, or at least what we know as normal. Legend had it that some contractor had been paid several million dollars to stand back up the electrical grid but the money had long since vanished with no functioning grid to replace it and it appeared no one was making a great effort to locate either.
And so, the Kosovars went about their daily business, hurriedly cooking dinner and doing other electric-centric activities whenever the opportunity presented itself. Yes, some Kosovars, no doubt, had gas or oil generators as well, but as the U.S. Army was the largest employer in the area, the number of folks who could afford fuel were few in number. You see, the U.S. and U.N hired no Serbians (for obvious reasons), and at least KBR only hired one person per family/household. There were relatively few established businesses left; because of roads were in such bad repair and the weather so dismal, the largest cottage industry was the pressure washer car wash. It was nothing to see cars abandoned alongside the road; the locals would drive their cars until they ran out of gas, then return when they came up with enough money to refuel. I don’t recall seeing anything other than desolate hoop-ties there during my six-month tour, though I do recall pulling up beside a rather interesting homemade vehicle. Years of hardship had made these people nothing if not resourceful. I purchased three beautiful area rugs by flashlight that I still have and treasure to this day. I can only say luck was on my side.
I don’t necessarily get into the politics of these types of things, because I find the people far more interesting. However, even as not-much-of-a-student-of-history, even I can see the pattern Kosovo represents: with the exception of the Allied areas of Europe, pretty much every country we’ve gone in to “deliver” we’ve left them in the same or worse shape than we found them: Vietnam, the Philippines, Iraq, Somalia, Grenada, Afghanistan… you name it. So now we want to go into Syria to do … more of the same?
One could be encouraged that some members of Congress are pushing for a clear strategy, both in terms of engagement and exit. I am dubious of this, as I clearly remember the question being asked “How much will reconstruction in Iraq cost?” and the answer being “Nothing. They have significant oil reserves to fund their own reconstruction.” And how many billions of dollars later is it still a barren wasteland, with untold volumes of antiquities lost for the ages (in some looters’ basements and vaults, no doubt)?
There is a part of me that tells me something must be done to help these people. However, I’m not at all convinced we are the ones to do it. Staring down the barrel of a 25% Reduction in Force in the Department of Defense over the next four years, and seeing what a war-weary force we have after a decade of war that yielded – at best – a net of zero, I can’t help but think that we may need to sit this one out. Let someone else handle it. Maybe this time we need to think about saving ourselves first. This might well be the first time in history when we aren’t in a position to help, or simply the first time we realize it. Either way, I hope our leadership will take a look a long look at history before making a final decision, or they we will be destined to repeat it.
And here, for your viewing pleasure, is an unclassified aerial photo of Camp Bondsteel, the largest city in Kosovo. Think about it.
Next week: Memories of the People of Kosovo
- Kosovo: Where NATO Bombing Only Made the Killing Worse (counterpunch.org)
- “Kosovo and Syria: Two Convenient Lies” an essay by Norma Brown (conservativesonfire.wordpress.com)
- The Potential Relevance of OLC’s Kosovo-War Powers Resolution Opinion to the Syria Debate (lawfareblog.com)
- Syria and the Limits of Comparison (wallstreetpit.com)
- Why The Kosovo Model Won’t Work (dish.andrewsullivan.com)