What's Left

September 24, 2003

Michael Moore digs himself a deeper hole

By Stephen Gowans

I was wondering how filmmaker Michael Moore would react to the avalanche of criticism, outrage, and shock set off by his paean to retired General Wesley Clark, the ex-Supreme Commander of NATO forces in Europe, who's thrown his hat into the ring for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

Moore had written friends and fans, urging them to pressure Clark a man the filmmaker says is antiwar, pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, and opposed to Bush's tax cuts -- to bid for the nomination.

What Moore left out of his missive was that Clark  -- a career soldier who had fought in Vietnam -- led NATO's 78-day air war on Yugoslavia, an illegal affair from start to finish, that saw the NATO commander order his bombers to destroy roads, bridges, factories, petrochemical plants, electrical power stations, telephone switching equipment, a radio-TV building and an embassy, in defiance of articles of war prohibiting the targeting of civilian infrastructure.

Hundreds, if not thousands of civilians were killed by Clark's bombs, missiles and cluster bombs, and many more were permanently disabled, in a campaign that Human Rights Watch (not known for going hard on Americans) condemned for grave breaches of humanitarian law.

Clark the man Moore says is against war -- is a war criminal.

That, and other deplorable episodes from Clark's pro-war past (including British General Michael Jackson's revelation that Clark almost touched off world war three by pressing Jackson to order British paratroops to clash with Russian soldiers at Pristina) didn't, however, escape the attention of many of Moore's fans. Some were left dumbfounded by the filmmaker's warm words for a principal figure in one of the most egregious recent instances of US imperialism run amuck.

When FAIR, the media watchdog, dug up Clark's pro-war newspaper columns, Moore looked stupid. When Clark said he wouldn't cancel Bush's tax-cuts, Moore looked dumber still. And when Clark said he probably would have voted for the war on Iraq, Moore looked like a man who had been bamboozled, or was in the bamboozling business himself.

There was no question the filmmaker had dug himself a deep hole. The only question was, how was he going to get out of it? Would he say nothing, and pretend the whole thing hadn't happened, hoping that, after a time, everyone would forget? Would he say, I've learned when you make a bone-headed move, the best thing to do is fess-up? Or would he simply dig himself a bigger hole?

Turns out he's reached for the shovel.

In a letter dated September 23rd, Moore dances around the issue of his supporting a war criminal, taking 13 paragraphs to finally get around to addressing what's on everyone's minds. What's up with the Clark love-in?

It then takes Moore 11 paragraphs to tie himself into knots of illogic, as he flings dirt pile after dirt pile from a hole that gets deeper and deeper.

Here's what he has to say:

It's true that as commander of NATO forces, Clark led a bombing campaign that killed civilians, and it bothers Moore to this day that civilians were bombed. But it wasn't Clark's fault. If President Clinton and Defense Secretary Cohen had let Clark use ground troops (as Clark recommended), there would have been fewer civilian casualties, Moore argues.

Problem is, they didn't. And still Clark ordered his bombers to target civilian infrastructure. It doesn't matter what Clark wanted to do. What matters is what Clark did do. (And did Clark want to deploy ground troops to minimize civilian casualties, or to achieve the war's objective -- to drive Milosevic's forces out of Kosovo? I'd say Clark was more concerned about military objectives than minimizing civilian casualties.)

Even so, if Clark had his way on ground troops, would that have made the war any less illegal or any less a war of aggression? And would Clark have been any less a principal figure in the exercise of American imperialism on steroids?

And what of Moore -- did the Kosovo war itself, apart from the civilian casualties, bother him? It doesn't look like it. Moore defends Clark as a man who recommended the right that is, civilian casualty limiting tactics, without uttering a word of disgust for the whole sordid exercise, or Clark's role in it. In this, he's like Clark: Not opposed to war so much as opposed to wars that aren't carried out the way he would carry them out.

And Moore says Clark needed to "stop Milosevic's genocide of the people in Kosovo." Moore should know there never was a genocide, and at the time, he challenged the claim. I recall him ridiculing a NATO propaganda exercise involving before and after satellite photographs. Look, in this photo the ground is undisturbed, NATO spin doctors said. But in this photo, taken hours later, there are signs of a disturbance. Could mass graves have been dug here? We were supposed to answer the question with a resounding yes.

But Moore, exercising a skepticism that seems to have melted away with the first kind words he received from Clark, asked pointedly: If they can take pictures before the graves are dug, and pictures after, why can't they take pictures during?

Perhaps Moore has a short memory. The original charges against Milosevic in connection with Kosovo, brought by the NATO controlled tribunal at The Hague, concern incidents, with one exception, that happened after the bombing began. And the number of deaths in those incidents is in the hundreds, not hundreds of thousands and not even tens of thousands. The one pre-bombing incident, the Racak massacre, involved fewer than 50 deaths, most, if not all of which, it now seems, were KLA guerillas. So how could there have been a genocide in progress if the bulk of the charges against Milosevic involving only hundreds of deaths happened after Clark ordered his bombers to take out bridges, roads, factories, power plants and other civilian targets?

In the months following Clark's destruction of a country, forensic pathologists roved widely over Kosovo, to document the genocide NATO assured them had happened. They left in disgust, complaining they had been deceived by NATO's war propaganda. Rather than finding mass graves containing tens of thousands of bodies, they found a few thousand bodies, most buried individually, the kind of low-level carnage that attends a civil war, but hardly amounts to genocide. Before there were weapons of mass destruction that couldn't be found, there was a genocide that couldn't be found.

Still, Moore seems to have decided that reviving tall tales about genocide that even NATO won't back up any more, will help his case. And the motivation seems to be to polish up the reputation of a war criminal and hit man for American imperialism, so that he Moore doesn't seem like such a dumb ass or fraud (take your pick) for taking a shine to him.

The next step Moore takes as Clark's unofficial spin doctor is to brush Kosovo aside as water under the bridge. "The war we are in NOW is not called Kosovo," he thunders, "but Iraq."

"If we have a former general, who may have done some things that some of us don't like but he is now offering to be an advocate for peace why would any of us want to reject this?"

"May" have done some things, that "some" of us don't like? There's no question about what Clark may or may not have done. The facts are plain. And Moore's point about Clark doing things "some" of us don't like," raises the tantalizing question: Is Moore among those who don't like what Clark did? These days, one would be inclined to say he's not. And what makes a general a better advocate for peace than anyone else?

Moreover, it's doubtful Clark has turned into an advocate for peace. Even Moore points out that Clark's problem with the Iraq war is that it doesn't follow the Powell doctrine, that is, it doesn't have an exit strategy. Clark's expressing reservations about the war isn't advocating for peace; it's advocating for the Powell doctrine. Moore seems to have mistaken a difference of opinion over military strategy, with advocacy for peace.

The filmmaker's last shot at defending a war criminal is to invoke the biblical, "Let he who is free from sin, cast the first stone." They all have blood on their hands, Moore says, referring to Clark's rivals for the Democratic nomination. Kerry does ("he killed people in Vietnam.") Kucinich does (he once voted "for laws restricting a women's right to an abortion, potentially forcing women back to the alley and, for many of them, to certain death.") And Dean does, too (he was in favor of war on Afghanistan and would execute people on death row.)

Incidentally, we learn earlier in the letter that Moore isn't opposed to capital punishment either. In the filmmaker's view, the state's taking of life is all right if "the problem of potentially executing the innocent can be solved." Well let's see. Since there's no doubt Clark is a war criminal, and that the blood of hundreds, if not thousands of Serb civilians is on his hands, shouldn't Clark, if we follow Moore's reasoning, be headed for the execution chamber, not the White House? After all, in Clark's case, there's no risk of executing the innocent. Oh, but I forgot -- that Kosovo thing is all behind us. And all the candidates have blood on their hands. It's quite a sign of Moore's desperation and it's  grotesque to boot that he should put Clark's ordering bombers to target civilian infrastructure on the same moral plane as Kucinich once voting against abortion rights.

What's most troubling about Moore apart from his ignorance, his silly arguments, and his unrequited love for the Democratic Party is his failure to grasp the enormity of who Clark is, what he has done, and what he has participated in. There seems to be an unshakable belief, residing deep in the filmmaker's soul, that Americans have the right -- no, the obligation -- to meddle in the affairs of others, that unspeakable crimes are beyond the capability of Americans, (especially Democrats), and that monsters, thugs and brutes live half way around the world, in countries the US must takeover and control, but not at home, and certainly not in the Democratic Party.

What's more, Moore's distaste for Republicans, and his "any Democrat but Bush" attitude is dumbfounding, not so much because it clashes violently with his belief, loudly trumpeted in the last election, that the Democrats and Republicans are the same, but because the Democrats and Republicans, on matters of foreign policy, are the same. Exactly what is Moore's trouble with Bush's wars, that doesn't, in the end, boil down to a difference over tactics?

He seems completely untroubled by Washington having waged a war of aggression on Yugoslavia (apart from the civilian casualties that bother him to this day.) So how is he any less pro-war, pro-imperial and anti-international law, than Bush? Neither Bush, nor it seems, Moore, is especially bothered by the US waging wars of aggression and neither regard UN sanction for war as essential. (Compare Kosovo and Iraq. On these grounds, they're no different.) Trampling international law is also all right. (Again, no difference between Kosovo and Iraq.) And neither is particularly troubled by the deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure. (War crimes were carried out as unreservedly by Clark as by Bush's commanders.) What's more, neither have any qualms about telling tall tales (in Moore's case, about mass graves that never existed, and in Bush's case, about weapons of mass destruction that don't exist) to justify war to advance the United States imperialist goals.

Except for mostly non-economic differences on domestic policy affirmative action, a moratorium on capital punishment, abortion rights Moore, the die-hard Democrat, affirms what he argued so vigorously four years ago. Democrats aren't really all that different from Republicans, after all.

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