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Congressman Bernie Sanders

by Jeremy Brecher

2202 Rayburn Building
Washington, DC, 20515

Dear Bernie,

This letter explains the matters of consciencethat have led me to resign from your staff.

I believe that every individual must have somelimit to what acts of military violence they are willing to participatein or support, regardless of either personal welfare or claimsthat it will lead to a greater good. Any individual who does notpossess such a limit is vulnerable to committing or condoningabhorrent acts without even stopping to think about it.

Those who accept the necessity for such a limitdo not necessarily agree regarding where it should be drawn. Forabsolute pacifists, war can never be justified. But even for non-pacifists,the criteria for supporting the use of military violence mustbe extremely stringent because the consequences are so great.Common sense dictates at least the following as minimal criteria:

The evil to be remedied must be serious.

The genuine purpose of the action must be toavert the evil, not to achieve some other purpose for which theevil serves as a pretext.

Less violent alternatives must be unavailable.

The violence used must have a high probabilityof in fact halting the evil.

The violence used must be minimized.

Let us evaluate current U.S. military actionin Yugoslavia against each of these tests. Evil to be remedied:

We can agree that the evil to be remedied inthis case — specifically, the uprooting and massacre of the KosovoAlbanians — is serious enough to justify military violence ifsuch violence can ever be justified. However, the U.S. air waragainst Yugoslavia fails an ethical test on each of the otherfour criteria.

Purpose vs. pretext: The facts are incompatiblewith the hypothesis that U.S. policy is motivated by humanitarianconcern for the people of Kosovo:

In the Dayton agreement, the U.S. gave Milosevica free hand in Kosovo in exchange for a settlement in Bosnia.

The U.S. has consistently opposed sending groundforces into Kosovo, even as the destruction of the Kosovar peopleescalated. (While I do not personally support such an action,it would, in sharp contrast to current U.S. policy, provide atleast some likelihood of halting the attacks on the Kosovo Albanians.)

According to The New York Times (4/18/99),the U.S. began bombing Yugoslavia with no consideration for thepossible impact on the Albanian people of Kosovo. This was notfor want of warning. On March 5, 1999, Italian Prime MinisterMassimo D’Alema met with President Clinton in the Oval Officeand warned him that an air attack which failed to subdue Milosevicwould result in 300,000 to 400,000 refugees passing into Albaniaand then to Italy. Nonetheless, “No one planned for the tacticof population expulsion that has been the currency of Balkan warsfor more than a century.” (The New York Times, 4/18/99).If the goal of U.S. policy was humanitarian, surely planning forthe welfare of these refugees would have been at least a modestconcern.

Even now the attention paid to humanitarianaid to the Kosovo refugees is totally inadequate, and is trivialcompared to the billions being spent to bomb Yugoslavia. Accordingto the Washington Post (4/30/99), the spokeswoman for the U.N.refugee agency in Macedonia says, “We are on the brink ofcatastrophe.” Surely a genuine humanitarian concern for theKosovars would be evidenced in massive emergency airlifts anda few billion dollars right now devoted to aiding the refugees.

While it has refused to send ground forcesinto Kosovo, the U.S. has also opposed and continues to opposeall alternatives that would provide immediate protection for thepeople of Kosovo by putting non-or partially-NATO forces intoKosovo. Such proposals have been made by Russia, by Milosevichimself, and by the delegations of the U.S. Congress and the RussianDuma who met recently with yourself as a participant. The refusalof the U.S. to endorse such proposals strongly supports the hypothesisthat the goal of U.S. policy is not to save the Kosovars fromongoing destruction.

Less violent alternatives: On 4/27/99 I presentedyou with a memo laying out an alternative approach to currentAdministration policy. It stated, “The overriding objectiveof U.S. policy in Kosovo — and of people of good will — mustbe to halt the destruction of the Albanian people of Kosovo. .. The immediate goal of U.S. policy should be a ceasefire whichhalts Serb attacks on Kosovo Albanians in exchange for a haltin NATO bombing.” It stated that to achieve this objective,the United States should “propose an immediate ceasefire,to continue as long as Serb attacks on Kosovo Albanians cease.. . Initiate an immediate bombing pause. . . Convene the U.N.Security Council to propose action under U.N. auspices to extendand maintain the ceasefire. . . Assemble a peacekeeping forceunder U.N. authority to protect safe havens for those threatenedwith ethnic cleansing.” On 5/3/99 you endorsed a very similarpeace plan proposed by delegations from the US Congress and theRussian Duma. You stated that “The goal now is to move asquickly as possible toward a ceasefire and toward negotiations.”In short, there is a less violent alternative to the present U.S.air war against Yugoslavia.

High probability of halting the evil: CurrentU.S. policy has virtually no probability of halting the displacementand killing of the Kosovo Albanians. As William Safire put it,”The war to make Kosovo safe for Kosovars is a war withoutan entrance strategy. By its unwillingness to enter Serbian territoryto stop the killing at the start, NATO conceded defeat. The bombingis simply intended to coerce the Serbian leader to give up atthe negotiating table all he has won on the killing field. Hewon’t.” (The New York Times, 5/3/99) The massive bombingof Yugoslavia is not a means of protecting the Kosovars but analternative to doing so.

Minimizing the consequences of violence. “Collateraldamage” is inevitable in bombing attacks on military targets.It must be weighed in any moral evaluation of bombing. But inthis case we are seeing not just collateral damage but the deliberateselection of civilian targets, including residential neighborhoods,auto factories, broadcasting stations, and hydro-electric powerplants. The New York Times characterized the latter as “Theattack on what clearly appeared to be a civilian target.”(5/3/99) If these are acceptable targets, are there any targetsthat are unacceptable?

The House Resolution (S Con Res 21) of 4/29/99which “authorizes the president of the United States to conductmilitary air operations and missile strikes in cooperation withthe United States’ NATO allies against the Federal Republic ofYugoslavia” supports not only the current air war but alsoits unlimited escalation. It thereby authorizes the commissionof war crimes, even of genocide. Indeed, the very day after thatvote, the Pentagon announced that it would begin “area bombing,”which the Washington Post (4/30/99) characterized as “droppingunguided weapons from B-52 bombers in an imprecise technique thatresulted in large-scale civilian casualties in World War II andthe Vietnam War.”

It was your vote in support of this resolutionthat precipitated my decision that my conscience required me toresign from your staff. I have tried to ask myself questions thatI believe each of us must ask ourselves:

Is there a moral limit to the military violenceyou are willing to participate in or support? Where does thatlimit lie? And when that limit has been reached, what action willyou take?

My answers led to my resignation.

Sincerely yours,

Jeremy Brecher

More articles by:

Jeremy Brecher is an historian and co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability. A new, post-Paris edition of his Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival was published by Routledge.

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