To Bomb, or Not to Bomb

Daily coverage of the tragic war in Bosnia prompts much soul-searching among Britons

THE Anglican clergyman on the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral did not apologize for hedging on whether it would be right to launch airstrikes in Bosnia.

"I find myself in a true dilemma," he said. "One can argue the moral case for doing everything possible to relieve the appalling agony of Sarajevo and its people, but one must also ask whether it is ethically proper to risk the lives of British servicemen in what may turn out to be a hopeless cause."

The pastor's quandary is shared by millions of Britons who are struggling to get their thinking straight on one of the great tragedies of our age. It is not easy to find people firmly committed on either side of the argument.

Enoch Powell, the former Conservative Cabinet minister, is one of the few who are willing to take an unequivocal stand. "Bosnia does not concern us," he says, "so there is no justification for committing our forces."

On the other side of the argument, biographer Lady Antonia Fraser insists, just as bluntly: "We have a moral duty to intervene."

But most Britons continue to watch the Bosnian horrors on their television screens and hover, like the clergyman, between a feeling that something must be done and the concern that that "something" might worsen an already horrendous crisis.

Even battle-hardened soldiers find themselves shuffling uncomfortably on the horns of the Bosnian dilemma. Gen. John Hackett, who has written widely on past wars and possible future conflicts, told an interviewer: "The danger is that we would be sucked into commitments we can't afford."

A problem the British face as they try to square up to the issue is that their own troops are in Bosnia already, with a humanitarian mission to fulfill. Prime Minister John Major has resisted United States pressure for airstrikes for so long because he worries that efforts to lessen the Bosnian peoples' suffering would likely be jeopardized by direct intervention from the air.

In this he has found himself at one with Lord David Owen, the European Community envoy, who argues that air strikes would destroy all hope of a negotiated peace. In addition, a good deal of the reluctance to support air attacks arises from a belief that it is easier for President Clinton to advocate them than for European leaders to approve them. There are no US ground troops in Bosnia.

But compelling pictorial images of Sarajevo's suffering may be forcing a change in the British public mood and, with it, the calculations of politicians.

Among those images, none has been more powerful in the last few days than that of Irma Hadzimuratovic, the five-year-old Muslim victim of a Serb mortar attack that killed her mother. Pictures of a gravely injured Irma, her life hanging by a thread, found their way onto the front pages of most British national newspapers and into a host of TV bulletins.

The difficulty, a United Nations spokesman said, was that the committee that could decide to send Irma abroad for treatment only meets once every six weeks, and it might meet too late. This was too much for Mr. Major. Much-criticized over the past year for vacillating on Bosnia, he ordered Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd to cut through UN red tape and arrange for Irma to be flown immediately from Sarajevo to London.

Within hours of Major's call, Irma was on her way. At least one young victim of Bosnia's torment had been given an opportunity to survive.

Yet, as the clergyman at St. Paul's put it: "Irma's plight makes the need for action seem more imperative. But I have to remember that decisions born of anger and frustration can be wrong."

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