Rescuing Ourselves

Behind Enemy Lines portrays an American heroism in Yugoslavia that was mostly conspicuous by its absence.

Los Angeles Times, 12/10/01

In the recent movie Behind Enemy Lines, an American pilot and navigator are shot down over the former Yugoslavia, only to have the pilot summarily executed by Serbian soldiers. That one combat death is one more than all the combat deaths suffered by all U.S. forces in the Balkans, according to the latest Pentagon tabulations. Why? Because since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. government has never been willing to risk American lives for a cause that didn’t directly engage American vital interests. Behind Enemy Lines portrays American heroism in Yugoslavia. The real story there was American abandonment.

Not a single U.S. soldier showed up on the ground in the former Yugoslavia until December 1995, nearly a half decade after the war began in the summer of 1991. Even then, U.S. deployment only commenced after the Dayton peace accords guaranteed a “permissive environment” for our forces. Indeed, the spring 1995 downing of U.S. flier Scott O’Grady, on which Behind Enemy Lines is loosely based, is the closest we ever came to incurring an actual casualty.

So what’s wrong with that? Zero casualties sounds like the best possible outcome, a perfect game. But unwillingness to risk casualties means unwillingness to go into “non-permissive environments” – and do jobs that need to be done. Do the movie’s brave American soldiers show up to save the screaming victims of the brutal massacre at Srebrenica, to intercept a schoolbus filled with terrified teenage girls bound for a rape hotel, or to liberate the caged inmates of the notorious Serb concentration camp at Omarska? Of course not. The American military action in Behind Enemy Lines is all directed at rescuing an American – the surviving navigator (played by Owen Wilson).

Director John Moore tells The Times: “I had studied the wars in Bosnia. … I felt obsessed about researching it. … It was so enticing and appalling.” Then why not make a movie about it? Why not open with a young Bosnian woman testifying behind a screen at the Hague Tribunal – then flash back to her last days as a quiet chess-playing teen before being kidnapped, gang raped, and forced into sexual slavery? Or Drazen Erdemovic, the young Croat press-ganged into a Serb unit, who told the Hague Tribunal that he had shot “no more than 70” Bosnians point blank at Srebrenica – and that his platoon leader said if he refused he could “line up” with them? Or Dusko Tadic, the first man convicted by the Hague Tribunal, accused of forcing one prisoner to bite off the testicles of another?

American soldiers themselves are not to blame. Wilson’s hero in Behind Enemy Lines itches for action, yearns to “punch Nazis in the face.” Many real-life U.S. troops were no doubt eager to kick open the doors of basement dungeons, rescue trembling victims, and apprehend their cowardly tormentors. But the dominant U.S. ethic of avoiding casualties at any cost gave them no opportunity to do so.

What could give them that opportunity is a provocative emerging idea – an all-volunteer UN Rapid Deployment Force (UNRDF). National military forces are only dispatched into harm’s way when there’s something at stake for that nation. The prevention of crimes against humanity requires armed forces whose mission is to protect the interests of humanity. The soldiers in a UNRDF would be volunteering to protect not any national vital interest, but the “global vital interest” in a world free of abominations like Yugoslavia. It would be rapidly dispatched to put a stop to such crimes. Its very existence might even deter them from erupting in the first place.

The UNRDF idea has been endorsed by former legislators Lee Hamilton, George McGovern, Barber Conable, John Anderson, and the late Alan Cranston, current legislators Barbara Lee, Henry Waxman, Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi, Dennis Kucinich, and Tom Lantos, and foreign leaders like Vaclav Havel, Oscar Arias, and Jacques Delors. And current U.S. House Resolution 938 calls to employ the American “voice, vote and influence” to move the UN to establish a UNRDF.

“You wouldn’t know the first thing about serving your country,” says Gene Hackman’s admiral to Wilson’s irreverent hero in Behind Enemy Lines. But citizens ought to be able to volunteer to do more than serve their countries. Citizens ought to be able to volunteer to serve humanity.

So who knows? Maybe a few years down the road, John Moore and Owen Wilson will make a movie about heroic UNRDF commandos – they could even be American volunteers – parachuting into treacherous “non-permissive” environments, kicking the butts of some really, really bad guys, and saving innocent people from really, really horrible fates. Only this time they’ll be rescuing the real victims of real crimes against humanity. Rather than just rescuing ourselves.

Posted in Ending Genocide