The second front of the war in Yugoslavia, the one among the intellectuals, has been slow bubbling to the surface in Europe, but now it has, releasing pungent gases of ire and derision. By turns pro-Serb and anti-American, pro-peace and anti-media, the argument against the NATO air campaign more than anything else is packed to shock.
"U.S. foreign policy can be defined as follows: 'Kiss my arse or I'll kick your head in,' " declared British playwright Harold Pinter in one article. "Nato's action is ill-thought-out, ill-considered, misjudged, miscalculated, disastrous. It is also totally illegal and probably represents the last nail in the coffin of the U.N."
Peter Handke, the Austrian novelist who has been leading a pro-Serb crusade for much of the 1990s, quit the Catholic Church over what he saw as its bland acquiescence to NATO's campaign in Kosovo. He is staging a play in Vienna next month to dramatize his point. A couple of weeks ago he told an interviewer that "anti-Serbs are as evil and unconscionable to me as the antisemites were at their worst."
Angry critics such as these remain a tiny if noisy minority in Europe. What is most striking about this nascent intellectual opposition to NATO's bombing campaign is that it dwells not so much on the rights and wrongs of military or political strategy as on the public's very understanding of the conflict itself.
What's at issue, for these outspoken intellectuals, is the truth. Their strategy is not counter-argument, but counter-reality. These are their taunting questions: Is Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic really a bad guy? Isn't the Kosovo Liberation Army just a bunch of hoods and cutthroats? Haven't ordinary Serbs suffered, too? And is ethnic cleansing actually going on?
The intellectual who has articulated these questions most explosively here is a man named Regis Debray. Debray has solid credentials among the international left set, as a follower of Ernesto "Che" Guevara in the 1960s--he was jailed for it--and as an influential adviser, many years later, to France's Socialist president Francois Mitterrand. Debray quit Mitterrand's entourage over French participation in the "imperialist" Persian Gulf War of 1991.
Long before this war began, Debray was portraying the United States as a factory of evil dreams, a perpetrator of "ethnic cleansing" against American Indians, an inheritor of Orwellian Big Brotherism. He is now a journalist--in France and elsewhere in Europe, journalists are counted without irony among intellectuals--and self-styled "mediologue," or media critic. His now-notorious J'accuse against the war effort was launched two weeks ago.
In the footsteps of those other French literary itinerants, Andre Gide and Andre Malraux, Debray traveled to Yugoslavia earlier this month to see for himself what was going on. He returned to report what he had previously suspected and asserted: That the European public, already lobotomized by pervasive U.S. culture, is being "intoxicated" by a news media fully implicated in NATO boosterism and anti-Serb propaganda.
It's important to make plain that the French, one of many European polities now governed by Socialists, have been second to no NATO country in backing the NATO effort, and their intellectual classes--legendary in their attacks on American hegemonism from Vietnam to Central America--have been a remarkable pillar of consensus.
If most of them have rallied to the war effort, it's not difficult to explain why. Whatever misgivings a French leftist thinker, or even an independent-minded Gaullist, might have about signing on to an American military adventure against a historic French ally, the sheer tragic weight of the humanitarian outrages being committed against Albanian Kosovars has riveted the intelligentsia (and a majority of the public) to the cause--or at a minimum buttoned many a lip.
That support has been driven by the still-strong memory of national passivity in the face of proximate barbarism--as recently as the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia earlier in this decade, and as unforgettably as France's tacit collaboration with Nazi occupiers a half-century ago. The building of a new Europe today on explicitly economic grounds has sharpened the hunger in intellectual quarters for a political and moral dimension to unification, for a principle to champion beyond common prosperity. The depredations suffered by Albanian Kosovars offer that test.
Into the midst of this solidarity behind the U.S.-led war effort--and in large measure because it is a U.S.-led war effort--Debray has tossed the loudest grenade of contrarian outrage yet heard in Europe.
Days after his return from the front, Debray unleashed a front-page comment in the daily Le Monde--evidence in itself that ideas, however upsetting or far-fetched, do not frighten serious people in France. His screed laid out his impressions of seven days on the ground in Yugoslavia, four of them in Kosovo.
Debray said he had demanded freedom of movement from Yugoslav authorities and an interpreter of his choosing, and claimed he had had a clearer look than his journalistic colleagues, most of whom were in Albania and Macedonia and subject to rumor-mongering engineered by KLA sympathizers or to the "lies" of NATO briefers.
He painted a picture of a sad, suffering people, "approximately half" of them now unemployed, and of schoolchildren driven in fear of bombing from their classrooms to play with unexploded U.S. ordnance disguised as "toys." Debray saw a democratic nation where debate is abundant and criticism of Milosevic ("elected three times . . . respects the Yugoslav constitution") is openly vented.
Buying into official Yugoslav estimates, Debray reported that the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo was much smaller than Western media reflexively reported, and its Serb population much larger. The flow of Albanian refugees, he suggested, had been exaggerated.
Debray's reports from Yugoslavia in Le Monde and later in Marianne, the maverick weekly that dispatched him, are larded with substantiation for his sympathies: descriptions of eating pizza in Pristina with Albanian Kosovars as though nothing were amiss, of "intact" mosques, of Serb soldiers protecting an Albanian bakery from looters, of Serb families "massacred without military objective" by NATO bombers, of Serbs victimized by Croats during the Bosnia conflict, of Serb honor during World War II.
Taking the tendered bait, much of the rest of the intellectual class here has lit into Debray, calling him everything from naive, to evil, to off his rocker. His reporting was not only in conflict with mainstream intellectual opinion. It was an implicit and occasionally explicit attack on the work of nearly every war correspondent.
But Debray, like the other contrarians, also has flushed sympathizers from the woodwork. "Thank you," gushed French historian Lilly Marcou, "for shaking us with your testimony which, like all human testimony, is fragile, based on bits of unpublished realities, sincere in its quest for another truth."
Max Clos, who rules the opinion pages at the conservative (and pro-war) Le Figaro daily, wrote an obliquely supportive column, explaining sarcastically that "Regis Debray has committed an unpardonable error: He has violated the sacrosanct rules of political correctness in contesting the truth imparted by the (media) gurus. . . . Whoever transgresses these taboos reveals his complicity with fascism and is serving as Milosevic's errand boy."
Clos's barb is well-taken: Contrariness is good; groupthink is bad. But what is most insidious about this intellectual insurgency is that it plants seeds of doubt about what is truly knowable in the fog, as Debray and others cast it, of half-truths and half-baked sentiments generated by NATO and disseminated by European (among other) media.
When Debray's editor, Jean-Francois Kahn, refers to "the two propagandas" (NATO's and Yugoslavia's), he is peddling moral equivalence, as many have pointed out. "Your 'logic of impartiality' doesn't consist of telling the factual truth, but of restoring balance between the parties"--and the result is a resort to "fiction," wrote scholar Patrice Canivez, also in Le Monde.
The subjectivity of facts, the plausibility of "another truth," the suspect motives of news barons--these are seductive ideas in a cynical, media-saturated age. They flow naturally from the postmodern intellectual habit of unpacking received wisdom and promoting alternatives to long-accepted meanings.
In war, this strategy has a name, born in Europe a half-century ago: the Big Lie. But, the contrarians would reply, whose?
Charles Trueheart is a Paris correspondent for The Washington Post.