Peace and justice are what the compassionate among us want - both for ourselves and for mankind. These are noble aims. But noble aims inspire all causes. 'Loyalty to God and King' once stirred many hearts. 'Vengeance' stirs many today. Moral imperatives cannot be ranked objectively. They are expressions of each person's nature. They motivate action, the execution of will. On the basis that moral imperatives are merely the conceptual structure whereby will is executed we examine the Bosnian-Serbian conflict of 1995.



The key event of the Bosnian-Serbian conflict and the United Nations role in it has been summarized succinctly as follows (1):

". . the promises of the UN Security Council to protect the civilians in Srebrenica if attacked by the Serbian Army (were abandonned) . . . the safe havens fell in July of 1995 to . . . mass killings, rapes and sadism (a grandfather was forced to eat his grandson's liver; a mother was forced to drink her dead son's blood). . " (2)

Our hearts are torn by the horror of it as was the author's. He is a compassionate man. Compassion for our fellow beings is surely the most precious element in the human condition. What I want to examine here are the potential benefits of a dispassionate assessment. It may cast light on the nature of compassion.

To begin we need this understanding: "the good" is a subjective notion. We don't know what 'the good' is. All we know is 'what we want'. We call that 'good'.

People of compassion say this. Good is harmony among the inhabitants of a community. Good is to be able to live in peace having days without fear of persecution because of ones ethnicity. In the Western Nations of the first world we have it. We do not fear for our lives on a daily basis. We have peace among us. The Bosnians among the Serbs don't have it. Currently the Kosovo Albanians are being victimized by the Serbs. They don't have it.

What people of good will want - what we want - is that they have it. That they have justice. What we don't want is that one group brutally overpowers another. That one group subjugates another; enslaves it or annihilates it. That is not just. People of compassion want justice to prevail. I count myself in this camp.

What troubles me is the assignment of the label, 'justice' to 'what-I-want'. Justice' is universally recognized as good. It is never evil. So this labelling is a vanity. In using it we eulogize ourselves. A distastefully sanctimonious activity. To decorate my advocacy with this honorific puts me in poor company. The company of all the other advocacies for the good: the Crusades, the Inquisition, conquests . . . usually heralded for justice, always heralded for good. It puts me in the company of missionaries who imposed their values on societies - Christian, communist, Islamic. . . In the company of those who claim to know what is right for others. Like Mr. Ali Akbar Nateq-Noori, the speaker of Iran's parliament, who recently said, ". . . the leader's legitimacy (does not) depend on his popularity . . . Our regime gets its legitimacy from God."(3) Thus do God's interpreters impose their values.

The enlightened Western World views the imposition of values on others as an evil. I concur. And so I cannot participate in the self-deception that 'the good' (justice) is more than a matter of what-I-want. It is not an objective concept. Everyone has his own version of what the good is.

In this view moral grounds are merely advocacy slogans. Words that generate a following, that motivate a constituency. I don't mean to imply that people who advocate justice are practicing a deception. They are completely sincere. Also sincere were the conquerers who destroyed cultures in bringing Christianity to the heathen. They thought they were doing good. I can never be sure that my good is not evil.

It appears to be a cold and cynical proposition. That events are governed by the raw calculus of willfulness. That what we pursue is our personal desire even though it is our moral values that motivate us. We would like to feel that some motivations come from beyond the self.

The two critical issues that arise from this proposition are these:

1. Is the proposition false? Are not some moral values universal? Doesn't everyone want peace?

2. Can the proposition be useful? Can it get us what-we-want?

The short answer to the first issue is no. Peace is what the privileged want. The indignant want war. But we need the indignant among us. They are a crucial strand in the social fabric. These complex matters need a future essay. We postpone that and accept the answer, no, in what follows.

The second issue is a Machiavellian (4) one. It is the issue addressed here. The short answer is that the proposition can be useful. It will not get us what we want but it can show us what we can get.

The proposition's utility depends upon evaluating what-we-want. Regarding any particular desire a rational analysis demands that we decide three things:

1. How much effort will it take to 'get what we want'?

2. In getting 'what we want' how much will we get with it of 'what we don't want'?

Together these first two issues assess the cost of getting 'what we want'.

3. Is it worth the trouble? Shall we pay the price?

This decision ladder is to be interpreted broadly. It is meant to include modifications to what-we-want. In reckoning the balance in step #3, we must examine whether we can live acceptably well with getting only part of what we want. Or whether it might be a blessing to get none of it!

Ultimately it is with actions that question #3 is answered. Actions reveal whether 'trouble is taken' to get what is wanted. Through actions the cost is paid.

And this process results in accomodation. And sometimes in confrontation. In peace and sometimes in war. In liberation and sometimes in oppression. How it plays out depends upon circumstances and upon the characters whose wants conflict.

The process plays a role on every level of daily human intercourse. Conflicting desires are resolved when the cost of achieving them are weighed against their worth. Balancing our wants is what governs normal behavior. We accept the foibles of our neighbors. We are not willing to escalate costs indefinitely - to pursue our desires to dire deprivation or death. The process occurs largely without awareness of it. It is the basis of the social contract.

Few people give each step attention. There are many who ignore all of them. They substitute rationalization for ratiocination. Merely on inspiration their answer to #3 is yes. They act on inner conviction. They are the heros among us - the rescuers, the firemen. And also the despots.

Within this framework let us examine the structure of despotism. How does a reign of terror take root and flourish? What are the dynamics of the process?

1. A leader is needed who is fanatic. Such a one does not evaluate the costs of what he wants. He is not analytical but rather fantasy-prone. His intense vision of his goal (what is wanted) blocks rational analysis. He will escalate confrontation even to his own death - a fearless leader.

Potential fearless leaders are always present but only occasionally does one of them find a significant following. The number of like minded fanatics is generally small and scattered. But sometimes their ranks swell sufficiently to institute their terror.

2. For this to happen there must be a critical fraction of disaffected people in the society. The indignant. Indignant people are in pain. They embrace radical solutions. Especially solutions that vent their anger; that allow pain to be inflicted, that involve vengeance and hatred. Solutions that designate an enemy. Great Satan, Jews, the bourgeosie, the communists, capitalists, corporations, the muslims. . .

3. From among the dissaffected must come forth the fearless leader. He senses what will inflame the inflamable and bring them to atrocity. The functions of atrocity are two: to weld a bond of complicity among warriors (5) and to discourage opposition. Atrocity announces terror. The terror cripples opposition.

4. If the society has known much despotism in the past, and has little tradition of western style freedom, it will more readily accept despotic power in its leaders.

We, who feel for the suffering cannot avoid anguish at the plight of those who live under oppression and terror. The condition can survive for years. Living under threat of physical violence has been the lot of humankind for the greater part of history.

That individuals have a right to humane treatment is an innovation in human society It is not a universally accepted value. History, so far, has shown that where individuals have felt secure in freedom they have produced technical and economic marvels that have won them preeminent wealth and power in the world. (6) Despotic societies collapse. Unfortunately free societies can also collapse.

We, of the rich and powerful free world who wish to impose our values (our justice) on warring communities can weigh our options. One option is the rescue of the oppressed. With respect to Serbia, an invasion and then occupation of territory. How much effort will it take to depose Milosevic from power? Milosevic has a constituency, despot though he is. He has many rabidly devoted supporters who do not want to be liberated by foreign forces. They would count that as injustice. An invasion would be largely opposed. With what-we-want we would get much of what-we-don't-want!

The West could arm Milosevic's enemies; the Bosnians, the Kosovo Albanians. Let them defend themselves against aggressors. But then the international community would be fomenting war. Something we don't want.

What the oppressed want is to escape. That the West open national boundaries to them. The West would never offer this ultimate act of humanity. But if it did, even that would be resisted as unjust! The soldiers of the oppressed would lose their constituency, their power base, their fighters. In the name of justice they would block the escape of their compatriots. (7)

The UN took the only action consonant with Western desires: interposed its presence announcing that it commits itself to safegaurd the beleagured Bosnians. The awesome wealth and military power commanded by the international community was expected to be enough to deter aggressors.

But there was a fatal flaw. The gaurentee was a bluff. The western world postured in the hope that the mere threat of might would deter aggression. The West acted to get what it wanted with minimum cost. At the presumed cost of mere presence with no military engagement, the safety gaurentee was issued. But the costs were not realistically estimated. How much do we get of what we don't want was not properly calculated. What the United Nations got was total eviction from the enclaves it had gaurenteed. And the inhabitants who were to be safegaurded, instead, were brutalized. Worse yet, Serbian sovereignty of the enclaves was accepted by the UN.

In time honored tradition spokesmen for officialdom covered failure by protraying defeat as victory. It is the task for which they are paid. Face saving accompanies retreat. That sociological phenomenon is ably analyzed in reference (1).

But among decision makers defeat is quite apparent. They recognize the error. The force to implement the policy was not enabled before the policy was announced. There was a faulty assessment of realities. Aggressors are quite prepared for blood. They are not fooled by posturing. Milosevic expected that he would not have to face a serious threat of ground troops. And even if he did, blood doesn't frighten him. Blood frightens the privileged. They are comfortable. The West is enjoying the fruits of prosperity and peace - the good life. They do not have the stomach to be disturbed. They will not sacrifice their sons unless directly threatened. It is the human condition.

"Peace trumped justice" cry the outraged among the compassionate. But viewed dispassionately the phrase unmasks a collision of desires. The West wanted three incompatible things: first to keep its soldiers unharmed (i.e. protect its own well being), second to bring peace and then to bring justice. What it really wanted was simply not to have news of misery; not to see it. War is visible. Injustice is not so visible. So the international community opted for peace with injustice.

Though it takes a toll of great suffering on the populace, peace is the enemy of tyrants. Peace can have long term debilitating effects on a totalitarian society. Consider the Cold War (1946-1989). Eventually people in the east succumbed to western values. No weapons were fired. Would the world be a better place had the West destroyed the Soviet government when it was vulnerable - in 1946, before it had an atom bomb? Although he didn't directly say it, that option was implied by Winston Churchill in his famous 'iron curtain' speech. (8) All one can say about the option is that it would have been a blessing for some, a curse to others.

The West will not bear too heavy a cost to rescue the oppressed. The matter is easy to comprehend. Cries for help are ubiquitous. There is indentured servitude - slavery - in Thailand. Genocide in large parts of Africa. Oppression in Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. Torture and police brutality in most countries of the world. Repression in Cambodia and Turkmenistan (9). And these are merely human rights abuses; a small sampling of them. Consider the other afflictions of humanity. Land mines left from war are maiming and killing the innocent. There are famine victims to be fed. And AIDS to be fought. And the poor and sick to be helped. Evidently the need is beyond the capacity of even the rich and powerful West to meet - even if it had the will to do so.

Casting off moral rectitude in favor of dispassionate analysis provides this amenity: It allows us perspective. The West is not ready to commit lives to human rights. But it does contribute money and resources. That is a new phenomenon in the world! That the popular will of people in free societies is voiced through world institutions is a novelty in history. That these institutions concern themselves with human rights, the needy, and the sick is a triumph of western values. Up to this century the voices controlling events were mostly those of royalty. The populace was voiceless. That human rights has come to have a powerful voice occured only during the last fifty years.

But with this triumph comes a revelation: To call our goals justice distorts our purpose. 'Just' is precisely what oppressors call their cause. We descend to their level if we do the same. The truth is this. What we want is that western values reign. Recognizing that our moral imperatives are merely matters of getting our way can have felicitous consequences. We might do less harm.

What words, in this exposition, touch our heart strings to bring forth action? There are none. What is being advocated? Nothing. The machinations of human behavior are instead viewed as one might observe ducks at the pond. They play out the rules of some game that the observer sees. For the ducks it is no game at all but rather the deadly serious business of community affairs. Affairs of duty, dignity, devotion. Whatever it is we see them do, they feel an inner drive to do it. What guides them is an emotional call, a passion, a moral imperative. These are the levers that inspire their actions. That drive them to go get what they want. Because we believe in moral imperatives doesn't exempt us from the rules of the game governing our behavior. It is the rules of the game that dispassionate analysis seeks.

What then of the atrocities committed? Shall we not cry out against them? Indeed, yes. Compassionate people must do so. Was the UN wrong in its behavior? In my opinion, yes. They didn't accomplish what I wanted. A more calculated assessment of risks might have avoided the tragedy. But the Bosnians and Serbs will never be relieved of their suffering by the UN.

Is this a recommendation to let evil flourish; to abandon advocacy of good causes? Certainly not. The analysis is founded precisely on the sure knowledge that people fight for the good. I count myself among them. Like everyone else, I advocate that all should rally to the causes I want. To have a constituency I must call my causes just. But to explore the human condition I must view justice as a label for willfulness.


1. Doubt, K. "We Had To Jump Over the Moral Bridge", Chapter 4 of The Conceit of Innocence, Losing the Conscience of the West in the War against Bosnia, Stjepan G. Mestrovic, editor, Texas A&M University Press, 1997

2. ibid p. 122

3.THE ECONOMIST, October 24, 1998 p. 42

4. Machiavelli, N., The Prince, English translation by T. Bergin, AHM Publishing, Illinois, 1947

5. Doubt, K.,"On the Latent Function of Ethnic Cleansing in Bosnia" 1997

6. Landes, David S. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, W.W. Norton, N.Y. 1998, p.xxi "the historical record shows, for the last thousand years, Europe (the West) has been the prime mover of development and modernity . ."

7. THE ECONOMIST, October 2, 1993 p. 54, "..the UN argued against helping imperilled people to move on the ground that it encouraged ethnic cleansing".

8. Churchill, Winston, "The Sinews of Peace", speech given at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri on March 5, 1946

9. World Press Review, October 1998, p.27, Report of article by P. Collignon in Jyllands-Posten, Arhus, Denmark.




June 2000
Marvin Chester


© m chester 2000 Occidental CA